#16: Yom HaShoah 2020: The What and The So What

Introduction

Thank you for joining us tonight. This is actually my first time speaking publicly on Yom HaShoah, and I dedicate my remarks in loving memory of my parents.

Let me share with you a story about resilience and finding meaning. My talk has two parts: first, the “What”—but also the “So What”.

What

In Eastern Europe’s Carpathian Mountains lies the town of Munkács (Mukachevo), with a population between the Wars of 50,000, about half of them Jews. It was a vibrant intellectual center—Zionists, Communists, secular, but mostly Hasidim. The Munkácser Rebbe was famous for his fanatic anti-Zionism.

My father, Meir Yisrael, was born in 1919. The Rosenscheins were a poorer family: four brothers and a sister. My grandfather, Yehoshua, did the best that he could, but his sons never finished school and worked from an early age. He was a hard man, and there were arguments when my Dad joined the Zionist Bnei Akiva.

My mother, Yenti Gitl, was born in 1921, the youngest daughter of seven girls and two boys. My grandfather, Shmuel Zeev Bleier, was a well-to-do grain merchant. The Bleiers were respected enough in town to supply the community flour for matzahs on Passover. Her own grandfather even had a telephone in his store, and Mom always remembered his phone number: “2-5”.

World War II almost passed them by, because it was the Hungarian Fascists, not the Germans, who occupied their town, and they were not deporting Jews yet.

Mom once told me how she would visit their local hospital on Shabbat afternoons with her girlfriends. They brought candies to the sick children, one of whom was a boy named Shonyi (more on him later).

Sadly, the end did come, in well-planned stages. In March 1944, the Germans seized Munkács. Five weeks later, on the Eighth Day of Passover, they decreed that all Jews relocate immediately to a small ghetto in town, scrounging for a spot to live.

One month later, the Jews were ordered out of their houses, to march—past their jeering former neighbors—to the brick factory on the outskirts of town, where they sat on the ground… waiting.

Three days later, the deportation trains arrived. Not passenger cars. These were livestock cars, into which you could shove 80 humans, give or take. No food, no water, no sanitary facilities. There were 40-50 cars per transport. It took 5 days to deport all the Jews from town.

Mom’s extended family was packed in like sardines. Then she saw her young friend from the hospital. “Hey, Shonyi, come with us!” Unfortunately, the German commandant overheard her and shouted, “You want the cripple? You can have all the cripples.” And, sure enough, they squeezed another 20 sick people into that cattle car.

Later in life, Mom told me two things about this incident. (1) To their credit, her family did not complain. (2) She believed in her heart that whatever good fortune may have smiled later on her family—was God’s reward for this simple act of loving-kindness.

By May 23, 1944, the Nazis reported to headquarters that Munkács was Judenrein— “free” of its 28,587 Jews.

Upon arrival at Auschwitz/Birkenau three days later, the men and the women were separated into two long lines for “processing”. My grandfather Shmuel crossed lines to say goodbye to his wife. “Tate,” his daughters screamed, “go back… they’ll shoot you!” But he crossed lines anyway, recited the Shema Yisrael and told our grandmother in Yiddish, “,מיר וועלן זיין צוזאַמען אין דער עולם הבא. May we meet again in the next world.”

Almost all of her extended family were sent to the left: death by asphyxiation in the lonely darkness of the gas chamber. Parents, uncles, aunts, dozens of cousins, her oldest sister Margit’s 8 children (aged 16 to 2): Yenti, Chavi, Esther, Pearl, Mordechai David, Charni, Miriam & Malka. Mom was sent to the right, to the labor camp—stripped naked, shaven, issued striped prisoner pajamas, one size fits all. Upon emerging, she saw hundreds of crazy-looking women. Then she realized that she was one of them.

In the work camp, she saw one familiar face: Freda Rosenschein. “Meir’s sister?” she asked. The two of them became “Lager-schwestern” (camp-sisters) and would stick together for the next 70 years.

The two were “selected” for work in another camp called Weißwasser. By the winter of 1945, the women weighed a skeletal 32kg (70 pounds). Besides the whips and the clubs, the worst part was waking up in sub-zero nights to stand outside, sometimes for hours, in the snow and winds, waiting for roll call.

My father, in a different group, was also sent to slave labor, not immediate death. His second day in Auschwitz, the guards handed out postcards that the inmates were commanded to fill in, praising camp conditions. Someone asked him whom he was writing to. He said, “my mother”, at which point the man smacked him on the side of the head and said, “Idiot– don’t you know, that’s your mother coming out of that chimney over there?” He was there, in Auschwitz, and he still couldn’t grasp the horrible truth.

Dad was sent to Buchenwald, where the men performed pointless backbreaking labor on a starvation diet. One group of men would carry a heavy metal girder across a field, and the next group would carry it back. The guard once said, “Do you know that if I shoot any of you, they’ll give me a prize.” The cruelest humiliation was the guards throwing a little food into a circle, just to watch the men claw at each other like animals.

He was still together with his brothers—and his father. Their father was so emaciated that his sons got him into the infirmary (if you can call it that) and convinced him to stay there an extra day. Tragically, that was a day the Nazis disposed of the “patients” of the infirmary by transferring them to Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp, where he succumbed.

Meir later escaped from a transport train with his younger brother in the final days of the war. They were rounded up by police in a small German town, whose captain said to a row of men, “Jews! Step forward!” In a split-second glance between the brothers, they did not… Fortunately, because those men who did step forward were taken outside and shot.

Back to my mother. By the spring of 1945, the inmates still breathing were all sent to Bergen-Belsen, where there was almost no food but plenty of epidemic. It was there that she witnessed the single most horrifying sight of her lifetime—a mountain of unburied bodies. (Maybe one of them was her future father-in-law.)

The British Army liberated Bergen-Belsen on Sunday morning, April 15, 1945, almost exactly three-quarters of a century ago. Even in the final moments, with English soldiers walking up to the barracks, the German women guards took out pistols to rid the world of a few more Jewish girls.

Mom was deathly ill with typhus, powerless to move or swallow food. Her new sister Freda was sent to Sweden for convalescence.

Now, for most nations who fought in World War II, the end of the war brought some joy and relief, as they counted their dead. Jewish survivors had no such celebration — they only counted how few were left living—shattered, traumatized for life, and guilt-racked for even surviving. The Nazis had successfully executed a mind-boggling six million Jews, two-thirds of Europe’s Jewish population — to the “shock” of the civilized world.

Postwar Europe was in pandemonium, masses of refugees passing through train stations, desperately looking for anyone who knew someone in their families, living or dead. They asked a simple coded question: “עמך?”

In the Budapest train station, Mom saw Meir Rosenschein from her hometown again. “Your sister Freda is alive; she’s in Sweden!” And the two of them stuck together from then on. Meir knew her family and proposed marriage soon after. She was too overwhelmed to grasp it, with zero idea what would be.

They crossed over borders and through forests in the dead of winter. When you’re hungry enough, you’ll eat the grass. Dad would later smile when someone would remark, “I’m really starving!”

Yenti and Meir reached a “displaced persons” refugee camp outside Nurnberg in West Germany, where they were married in March 1946. They got one wedding gift from their neighbors: a cup and a saucer. They lived in that DP camp for three years.

In 1949 the Truman administration accepted some European Jewish survivors to the US. Many stayed in New York, but others went to Jewish communities across the country who accepted a few families each. Yenti and Meir, now Yolanda and Martin, went to… Harrisburg PA, where they started a dry-cleaners with family and my brothers Stan and Jeff and I were born and grew up, while our parents worked to overcome the nightmares of their past and reboot their lives.

So what?

Ok, none of this is news. How many Holocaust movies have you seen, sad stories have you heard or read? Can recalling evil make people better? I prefer to shift the narrative to lessons for us, the living.

To me, the Holocaust is not only about murder, anger and blind hatred. The unbelievable degree to which we, the victims, suffered. It’s about denial and disbelief — believing what we want to be true instead of what is true. We’re astounded and shocked when tomorrow does not resemble yesterday.

Jan Karski was a non-Jewish Polish resistance fighter who escaped to the West and reported about the mass murders of Jews in Europe. In July 1943, he met with Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden in the UK and in the White House with President Franklin Roosevelt himself, who asked him not one follow-up question about the Jewish massacres. He met with Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, who said, “Mr. Karski, it is not that I do not believe you — it’s that I can not believe you.”

I’ve been lucky to live indirectly through my parents’ strength. There have been many times when I went through a hard time, personally or professionally, with a little voice whispering to me, “This is nothing, you have shoes, a shirt on your back.”

I learned different things from my father and mother.

Dad was a pragmatic man. He was not naïve and didn’t complain much. He believed in the ancient proverb “Respect and suspect.” He once said to me, “If I could teach you just one lesson from all my experience, it’s if someone threatens your life, just believe him.”

Mom was more outgoing and open. Life goes on — we do the best what we can. Happiness, it turns out, is a life choice! When she grieved for her murdered family, it was privately and quietly. She stopped going to synagogue on holidays to say Yizkor: not enough time to go over, one by one, all the dozens of family names.

They both taught me about optimism and hope. Life may not seem fair, but you can achieve freedom from self-pity,

Six months ago, we discovered a remarkable archive of prisoner cards incarcerated in Buchenwald. The Nazis were amazingly organized. And there it was, my father’s inmate card. And my grandfather’s, whose picture I had never seen. If only I could have shown these to my parents.

My grandparents’ descendants, at last count, number about 260.

Yehuda Avner, author of “The Prime Ministers”, said in an interview, “Where is all this going to lead to? What’s the future? Ma Yehihe? In all honesty, I don’t know. And you know what? We’ve never known. In a sense, the essence of all of Judaism is the capacity of a people to live with the unknown. People with certainty about their future will find this rather hard to understand. But when you think about it, the entire venture of Israel has been achieved only by jumping into the unknown.”

In this Coronavirus age, we must face the future with bravery and meaning, with wide-open eyes. Does anyone know who will live and who will die? The lessons of the Holocaust are adaptability, appreciation, and resourcefulness — and hope. If we are honest with ourselves, maybe we are all a little spoiled. Maybe we should stop complaining so much. Really, what on Earth would we do without hot showers, takeaway, Internet, Netflix, Zoom!

We should all just appreciate what we do have. To me, it’s simple. In every generation, everyone should see him or herself as having been liberated from Auschwitz (from the Haggadah).

I’ll finish with a quick story. Felix Zandman was a boy who survived the liquidation of the Grodno Ghetto by hiding in a pit under the floorboards of Polish Righteous Gentiles. Dimensions: 5½ ft x 5 ft x 4 ft — for 17 months; that’s a quarantine! He wrote a wonderful book, “Never the Last Journey”, where he tells the following story. One day his grandmother asked him when he was a little boy, “Felix, what is yours that nobody can ever take away?” “I don’t know, grandmother, my house?” “Oh, Felix, that is easy to take away.” “I know, grandmother, my mind.” “Sorry to say, but they can take that away, too.” “Then I don’t know, grandmother, is there anything really mine?” “Yes, Felix, the only thing that’s truly yours is what you give others.”

Thank you for listening. May their memories be a blessing.


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