Yom haShoah 5772 – « A Survivor’s Story »
My dear friends,
I have spoken here before on Yom haShoah. I told you then of my childhood, how I grew up in Lodz, Poland. I told you then how my childhood was ripped from me, as the ghetto was closed around us. I told you then that later I was deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau and that on the day we arrived, I not only lost my childhood, but I lost my baby brother and dear mother. May their memory be for a bracha.
I told you then of the work-camp, Aideran, that I was sent to and of the death-march I endured at the end of the war. Finally, I told you of my eventual liberation by the terrifying Russians at the concentration camp of Theresienstadt, just outside of Prague. It was there that I met my late husband, Benny, and the others who were to become my family. And this brings me on to what I would like to talk to you about today; not the horrors that I endured, but rather the reality of survival, of living life as a « survivor ». It is something that I carry with me every hour of every day. We survivors are a dying breed; I am more often present at a levoyah than a simchah these days. So let me tell you how being a survivor of the Shoah has affected me.
A group of us, all youths, were sponsored to be brought over from Theresienstadt to England after liberation. We affectionately called our group, « The Boys ». The historian Martin Gilbert has written a book about our group. It was these individuals who were to become my brothers and sisters, in turn they were the uncles and aunties for my three girls. Like Benny and I, members of our group often married each other. At our wedding we had no family present, but in truth they were all family.
We didn’t talk about our experiences in those days. If we did, we would only talk about them late at night, in hushed voices, once the children had gone to sleep. We only wanted to forget. But, it was those experiences that bound us together. We found comfort in the fact that we had all been through hell; there was no need to talk much about it.
I didn’t talk to my girls about what had happened to us. They grew up knowing that we were survivors, but not much more than that. Living life was my sole concern, to do as much as I could for my family. I worked many years as a nurse, giving to others as I had never been given to.
Benny was always trying to make it in business (at least once he realised that acting didn’t put bread on the table). I can’t remember how many times he pawned and then later bought back my engagement ring to fund one of his ventures. Eventually, thank G-d, he found his business and his success.
Many of us survivors have little quirks that we keep with us throughout our lives. For Benny, it was extravagance and over-generosity. Once he had money, nothing was too much for his girls or his wife. But, even before money came his way, Benny was always laughing, always cracking a joke, despite there being a hardness beneath. Laughter and gaiety was our escape from the pain of the past.
One of my friends from « the Boys » has a different quirk. He had to produce mushrooms for the Germans. For many years he used to throw up when presented with a dish that contained mushrooms.’
I also have my own little quirk; I always keep the fridge overstocked. I know that a significant proportion of the food will go to waste, but it doesn’t matter. After one experiences true hunger, you too would always want the fridge to be full to bursting.
Time passed and Benny wanted to return to Poland to set up a memorial in his home-town and to visit the camps. He took me with him. But, I was not ready to return. I came back and fell ill for many weeks as the memories and sorrow threatened to overwhelm me.
But I am a survivor. It is a mentality that I live by, that I have given to my children and grandchildren. We must survive; we must live life and do as best we can. It’s all we can do, but we must do it.
Twenty years ago Benny died from cancer. He had a sincere wish to live and die in Israel. To be honest, this is not a dream that I shared. I was very happy in London. But, having come here, I appreciate what it means to live in Israel.
A number of years later I married Yosef, whom you all know. It should be of little surprise that Yosef is also a survivor.
More recently I have been able to recount my experiences. I was interviewed by Steven Spielberg’s foundation. In truth, the story that I tell of my time during the war is not rich in detail. I have buried most of my memories of that time. What remains is the bare framework of what happened to me. You see, I never wanted to remember. I was never interested in remembering.
Some of my friends have reached their old age and as a result woken up to their mortality. This, their mortality, is something they had felt very keenly before -in their broken childhood. Reliving their past has made them depressed and withdrawn. They cannot sleep without nightmares of men in dark uniforms and death all around.
That is not a problem that I face though. I am a survivor. I only look and strive for the good that can be found.
I would like to conclude by sharing with you an experience that gave me a sense of closure, that laid my ghosts to rest.
You see, my father died six months before the war started and there was no time or resources to put up a head-stone for him. But, a few years ago, my grandson went with his yeshiva to Poland, and, using the tour guide’s contacts, managed to determine which grave in the Lodz cemetery was my father’s. This was the motivation that I needed.
Two years later, I went back to Poland. This time it was not as a broken girl nor as a scarred adult, but as a survivor, leading a group of people from my daughter’s shul. Two of my daughters, a son-in-law and two grandchildren accompanied me. I was well armed and prepared this time with my family and legacy with me.
We visited my old family home in Lodz, even went up to the flat that had been my family’s. It was so strange seeing Polish gentiles living in my parents’ home. There was even the old anti-Semitic graffiti sprayed on the stairway walls.
I walked around my old home town, recalling my childhood experiences to the group and at the same time, laying my ghosts to rest.
Finally, we arrived at the Lodz cemetery where we arranged for a matzeivoh to be put up for my father. We performed the hakomos matzeivoh ceremomy, my son-in-law said kaddish and my grandson gave a dvar Torah. This was my closure. This was my revenge. This is my legacy.
I stood in a bunkhouse in Birkenau, crying for the last time over the memories of smoky skies and endless selections. When I had finished, the group and my family danced with me. With them they had brought a little sefer Torah. And we sung, « Am Yisroel Chai ».
We must never forget the horrors that man can do. But we must also never forget that we are still here, that « Am Yisroel Chai ». We have survived. I think that we all need to live with that name, « survivor ».