On the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day, I attended “Remembrance in the Living Room” (Zicaron B’Salon), an event planned in a few different homes throughout my village. Each of these homes had a survivor of the Holocaust tell about their experiences during the War in an intimate and comfortable setting.
In the home that we chose to visit, along with about 20 residents of all ages, there were 3 Holocaust survivors who told their stories of survival, as well as children and grandchildren who gave their perspective.
The first person who spoke told of his life in a rural village, where family always came first. He was but a young child of 9 when the German soldiers overtook the shtetl where his family had lived for hundreds of years, and spoke of the feelings of powerlessness and vulnerability. After the War, despite his many personal losses, he married and had children of his own and made a new life in New York. His son eventually made Aliyah and married a sabra. When his sixth grandson, following the example of his five brothers before him, was inducted into the IDF (Israel Defense Forces), he flew in specially from the US to attend the swearing-in ceremony at the Kotel (Western Wall).
“That was the most emotional moment of my entire life,” he told us. “I was a little boy in Poland, treated like a subhuman, utterly helpless and at the mercy of Nazi soldiers. And now here I was so many years later, watching my grandson in his Israeli army uniform at the Kotel!”
Another man was a child survivor. “I was only four years old. I had a younger brother, one year old, and a 14 year old sister. My father was taken away by the Germans for forced labor when my mother was pregnant with my youngest brother. We never saw my father again. Even though I was only four, certain images remained burned in my memory. We were rounded up from our small shtetl and forced to march to a larger town. People didn’t have suitcases; they wrapped everything in cloth bundles. The walk was long, and people tired quickly, dropping the bundles, which were the only remainder of all their earthly possessions, along the side of the road so they’d have the strength to continue. I remember the road, lined with those bundles. . .”
When they reached the point of deportation, they were herded onto overcrowded cattle cars. Destination: Auschwitz.
“Shortly before arriving at Auschwitz – – we were very close and could see the lights from the camp in the distance through a small opening in the cattle car – the trained suddenly stopped. The tracks had just been bombed by the Allied Forces, and it wasn’t possible for the train to reach the camp. The Germans debated what to do with us, but they decided that we could be used as slave laborers in other parts of the Reich. We sat on that train for a few days, and then suddenly it moved in reverse. We ended up going to Vienna, and although my mother and sister worked very hard under terrible conditions, it wasn’t a death camp. That’s what ultimately saved us from being gassed in Auschwitz. My mother was able to continue nursing my baby brother, and a kind gentile named Maria surreptitiously passed my sister an occasional sandwich which my sister shared with all of us.”
The son of a survivor also spoke about his father’s experiences. “My father always said, his children are the Living Revenge.” But for another woman, the daughter of a survivor, there was a difficult childhood. “My mother remained a broken person the rest of her life. She never discussed her experiences but we knew that something terrible had happened to her. We children spent our lives tiptoeing around the house, always walking on eggs so as not to do anything to upset her.”
As the evening came to a close, a young woman who is the granddaughter of a survivor addressed the gathering. “My grandmother told us never to refer to ourselves as 2nd or 3rd generation survivors… rather, we should say we are the First Generation of the Geula!” (Final redemption)