Telling and Retelling the Story of Resistance, Survival, and Resistance

Last night I received an email from my friend Viola in Germany.  I met Viola ten years ago when she was sent by Project Reconciliation for Peace.  Under this program young Germans were sent to areas that were formerly under German occupation, introducing themselves as a new generation who in many instances were the grandchildren of SS members.  Viola came to Pittsburgh to work in the Holocaust Center with survivors, participating in presentations to high schools and colleges to raise awareness and understanding of the Holocaust beyond the edges of the Jewish community.

Recently Viola was in Italy and met some of the local people who told her what had happened during the German occupation.  With the help of Italian fascists, the Germans would punish an entire village for any anti-German activity that happened nearby. That draconian policy forced many of the villagers, especially the young, to join the resistance to fight against the Germans.  This is similar to what happened in towns and villages in Belarus where I am from. Jews were herded into ghettos and starved and exterminated, but even non-Jews were subject to punishment if an anti-German incident occurred near their villages.

Viola wrote:
“Do you still identify with being a partisan today or does it feel like a far-away-piece of your [biography], and you rather identify as a Holocaust-survivor in a more general term…?” I would answer her “It is both.”  I survived the Holocaust because I was a resistance fighter.  Had I not joined the resistance, I would have been liquidated like the rest of my family and friends.

Before I was a resistance fighter I too was a prisoner in my hometown and then in a forced labor camp along with my whole family. I knew that if I did not escape I would be killed, so staying was not an option. In the camp we knew that there was the beginning of the resistance movement in the area, but I also knew that even if I escaped the resistance would not accept me unless I had weapons.  Two of my friends worked in a warehouse where the Germans stored captured Russian weapons.  They stole parts of weapons, wrapped them up and stored them in a junkyard outside the warehouse. There was one guard, Lieutenant Miller, who was assigned to guard us as we went to and from work and who showed some humanity towards us.  As we passed the junkyard he allowed me to take one item with us back to the barracks.  I picked up the weapon parts and we hid them inside the barracks until the day when we could escape.

A woman in the ghetto knew where local Jews who had escaped from the villages had set up a camp in the forest.  It was decided that she would lead my friends and I to the place.  One moonless night the woman and her two children and I crawled under the fence and walked sixteen miles until we reached the camp, but we were without weapons.  A few days later two Jewish Russian officers came to the camp, and I told them I would like to join the resistance, that I had access to weapons.  Eventually they sent me to a local farmer who was going back and forth on business to the town.  He found my family, brought out my brother and sister on his first trip, the weapons on the second trip, and my mother on the third trip.  Two days later on March 19, 1943 the ghetto was destroyed by the Germans.  There is a monument there now, and a few years ago I stood there with my daughter and grandchildren, right in front of the rail line that I helped to build as a slave laborer more than 65 years ago.

I have great admiration for the young Germans who have volunteered over the years for this project of reconciliation.  In some cases they have to share with us that their grandparents were members of the Nazi Party, or even the SS.  In appearances at the schools they have shared with students what they knew about their grandparents involvement in Nazi actions.  The impact on the students of hearing this from a young German is profound, and more so because I am also standing there and telling my story of being on the receiving end.  This perspective is hardly known to the wider public, and that is why I am still out there helping to tell my story to young people.  This is particularly important in this moment of our presidential elections where it seems that a demagogue can attract people with populist rhetoric and vague promises that he has no possibility of delivering. I know from letters I have received that the lessons that I try to convey change the outlook on life of the students, and one day pass it on to their children and grandchildren. Some have written to thank me and tell me that they will be telling my story for the rest of their lives.  These statements by students give me hope that my message is not lost, and that the lessons learned will be carried on for another generation.

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Not Forgotten

The death of Shimon Peres takes me back to my youth. He was born in a little town Vishnyeva, not far from Minsk, very near my mother’s home town. His family’s name was Persky. Some of his family lived in my mother’s home town, and one of his relatives married one of my cousins. I used to visit my mother’s home town of Volozhin during vacations. The town was famous for the yeshiva there where Hayim Nahman Bialik studied, and also Meir Berlin, who changed his name when he immigrated to Israel and became the namesake of Bar-Ilan University. I re-visited the town in 2010 with my daughter and two grandchildren. The yeshiva building is still standing and in good shape, but it is now a historic site. Even so, in my memory I could hear the sounds of yeshiva students studying floating on the air as I walked by.

And I remember that around the age of 15, dating began in my community. It was evenings on the front porches of the homes. It was hugging, kissing, hand holding…but no sex! My father had a sense of humor, and when I would come home late he would say in a jovial way “You’re already identified with a girl!”

In spite of the fact that the the town was not wealthy, there were only a few people of means, we had a private Hebrew day school up to the seventh grade, supported by our own people. This is where I learned the Hebrew language, and I am grateful that after the war I was able to retain and revive it which allowed me to communicate with others and read in Hebrew.

Tragically all of those people I remember did not survive. Only some of the younger men who managed to escape as I did and join the partisans were still alive after the war. And some of my young friends showed such bravery in defense of Russia that they were cited by the Soviet government for their courage.

The passing of Shimon Peres closes a chapter in my life which is very informative and which shaped my future. There is a Hebrew expression “It’s regrettable, those who are departed, but they they are not forgotten.” Many will remember the one who became famous, Shimon Peres. But I remember the many others who dared to resist the tyranny of the Germans. It is my duty to remember them. One aspect of my daily attendance at the minyan is to represent those who would have been there had they not been murdered. When I stand for Kaddish, I stand for them even though I do not say the words.

On Words and Bullets

“You’ve got to be taught to hate and and fear. You’ve got to be taught from year to year.  It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear. You’ve got to be carefully taught.”  (From the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical “South Pacific”)

I recently had the experience of being invited  to a meeting at Oakland Catholic High School.  A group of girls attending a party had worn t-shirts displaying swastikas and shared photos of themselves on social media.  Rabbi James Gibson of Temple Sinai who has been teaching Judaism at the school for the last eleven years asked me to meet with the girls involved and with faculty members.

The school was in an uproar because of this incident.  The girls were suspended for three days.  They explained that when they wore those shirts, they had been under the influence of alcohol.  Each one of them wrote a statement expressing their remorse for such unthinking behavior. Rabbi Gibson asked me to share with the girls what it meant to me, as a Holocaust survivor, to see the swastika.  I gave them a short and vivid review of my experience since I first encountered the swastika in my hometown at the age of twenty-one when the Germans invaded the Soviet Union. One of the first things they did was decree that Jews must wear the Star of David.  We could not walk on the sidewalks.  The local rabbi and some of his associates were made to drag a cart with flour from the local mill as if they were horses.  On a rainy day the Germans ordered all of the men to assemble in the marketplace, sit on the ground, and pull weeds from between the cobblestones. All of these acts were intended to deprive us of our identity as a person and instill the idea that any resistance would be futile. Jews were forcefully isolated in a ghetto, and eventually the entire community was annihilated.

When the girls realized what the swastika really meant for someone who had experienced it, they expressed verbally how sorry they were.  Each of them turned to me and apologized individually and personally for their behavior.  My final words to them were “Now that you have learned this lesson, you have a mission.  The mission is to share your experience with others.”

What is important about this is that the girls were probably pre-disposed to use this symbol.  They didn’t just invent it, and the alcohol didn’t just bring it into their minds.  It had to be there already as a powerful symbol that they had been taught.

Two years ago when I started this blog, I did not realize that eventually words would become bullets.  Atrocities in San Bernardino, Charleston, and more recently the massacre in Orlando prove that I was not pessimistic enough. Messages of hate permeate our media.  The internet has enabled instantaneous and world-wide delivery of the words that become bullets.  Our young people are absorbing these messages, and some of them are moved to translate the words into violent acts.

The voices of hate amplified online and delivered directly to young people have the potential to override the messages and influences of parents and teachers.  The teachers at Oakland Catholic are saying “This is the opposite of what we teach!” Yet these children, in an unguarded moment, exposed what had implanted itself in the deepest recesses of their souls.

I often go out speak with students and tell my story under less stressful circumstances.  And these children and young adults respond by writing to me.  Here are some of their letters. Reading them gives me hope that words can heal as well as kill.

“Your story inspired me to reflect upon my life and reconsider things I take for granted. Never in my life have I experienced anything emotionally traumatizing. I really respect and admire your courage to speak publicly about dark times. You have taught me valuable lessons and have given me a new perspective on the most despicable acts in modern human history. Thank you for sharing your time with us.” – J. W.

“Thank you for coming to speak for our high school. I really appreciate that you can speak about your experiences in such detail for us. I find it very admirable that you speak about it, even though you’ve been through such hard times. Your presentation has changed my outlook on the world. I will stop taking life for granted so much. Something like the Holocaust really opens your eyes and makes you appreciate life. Thank you once again.” – E. S.

“You taught me very good life choices toward living and what to do in life. I learned to treat life with care because you only get one. I think its amazing that we got to meet you and I think God blessed you so you could escape that hellish place. I am sorry to hear about your wife and your family. You are a teacher and your lesson is your life and I appreciate that. Thank you for teaching me.” – J. D.

From May 8, 1945 to May 8, 2016

I am in Germany with the Russian Army since January. We are advancing westward along the Balkan Sea towards Hamburg. After crossing Germany from Danzig to Rostok all we find is women and children and abandoned villas. As we walk into one of those mansions I am accompanied by a young Russian soldier. The place was so beautiful, something I had never seen in my life, and I’m sure my friend had never seen it. I look around and say to him “How do you like it?” Being a dedicated Communist, he could not say he liked it, so he says “It’s no good!” “Why not?” I ask. “Because there’s no place to spit,” he replies.
After a year of service in Germany we were relocated to Asian Russia, in the Urals, and demobilized. We went back home by train through Moscow. According to an agreement between the Polish government and the Russian government, all Polish citizens were allowed to be repatriated to Poland. I arrived home in 1946, but by the time I returned the deadline for this repatriation had lapsed because my family did not want to leave without me. But the woman who was with us hiding in the forest had returned to her hometown and surprisingly enough the house she had left was returned to her. So we settled with her. And the neighbor to whom she had given all of her belongings before leaving returned them to her.
We had no intention of staying in Russia, so this woman found some way to allow us to join the next wave of refugees moving from east to west. We crossed the Polish border, and when we opened the doors of the freight cars in which we travelled, we saw some people with instruments going to the front of the consist. Ten minutes later we heard screaming and shouting coming from that direction and moving towards us. People were jumping into the freight cars and throwing the belongings of the refugees out. When they got to our car, my mother moved us to the back. But they threw all the belongings of our friend, everything that her neighbor had saved for her and returned, outside. We didn’t know at the time that when Jews returned to their homes in Cheltz were attacked by the local population and the local police and Communist authorities looked on and did not try to prevent it. Forty Jews in Cheltz were killed.
We finally arrived in Lodz, the second largest city in Poland. There we were contacted by the Brichah, the organization that the Jewish Agency gave the mission to move refugees from the east to the west. We were supposed to pretend that we are Greek Jews going home and did not understand the language spoken to us. That was the official explanation for us staying on the train: we had no intention of remaining in Poland where the land was soaked with our blood. We arrived in Breslau and from there we were escorted at night to the Czech boarder. The border guards made sure that any valuables that the refugees carried were removed, and we wound up in the town of Bratislava for a day or two. And then we were legally moved to Austria, arriving at Rothschild Hospital which was then the center of Jewish operations, facilitating the movement of Jews from the east. We were sent to the American Zone in Austria, a former Army base called Wegscheid. 
I soon discovered that someone I knew from before the war was in the same camp, and I went to visit him in Barrack 13. There I met, accidentally, Malka, who was visiting someone else. Many years later, one of the holocaust survivors in Pittsburgh, Harry Schneider, when telling me his story, said to me that he was in Wegscheid too. He was ten years younger, and I didn’t know him there. He brought me a photo of his class from the spring of 1945, and when I looked at it I realized that Malka was the young teacher.  
Meeting Malka was the most fortunate thing that happened to me after the war. We eventually married and stayed together fifty-two years until she passed away in 2007. We had two daughters and six grandchildren. Malka’s love for children was boundless. Right after the war she became a teacher or, as she would say if asked what her vocation was, “It’s helping children grow.” In time she earned a reputation as a very gifted educator from whom parents were getting advice and children were getting a warm relationship. Malka worked for about 25 years as the principal of a preschool in Queens, NY. After we retired we settled near our daughter in Pittsburgh, in Squirrel Hill, which was a place made for us where we felt at home from the first day we arrived. I got involved with the Jewish Community Center teaching Russian immigrants English so they could pass the citizen test, and Malka leading book reviews. After three years we were honored by the JCC for our contributions, introduced by Sheldon Ziontz who said “It is surprising that these people who came here only three years ago have made such deep roots in our community.” In reply I commented “You can only make deep roots where the ground is fertile.” 
Malka’s yartzeit on the Jewish calendar is the 19th of Iyar which this year falls out on the 27th of May. But the secular date is May 7, the day before the May 8 anniversary of the end of the Second World War. This year we mark that anniversary for the seventy-first time, and it is still surprising to me that this date is not marked on most calendars. But my family and I celebrated by lighting a candle in memory of those who fought and died so that we could be free. 

Civility in Politics

As I read the letter to the editor from Norman Sherman, former press secretary to Hubert Humphrey, in the NYT on Feb 15 entitled “Civility in Politics” I could not but reluctantly reflect on the lack of civility in the current presidential campaign. With the exception of several candidates who have now dropped out of the race, the lack of civility is overwhelming.  These are the people who pretend to represent the US to the world and, no less important, to our youth.

In his letter, Norman Sherman recalls a time in the recent past when politicians disagreed on issues, but were personal friends. This is no longer true. If there is civility in politics, it is not reflected in the mass media.  On the other hand, uncivil acts and statements tend to dominate the news.  Bad news sells, and scandal sells even better.

Fortunately there are still a few politicians who understand that civility and even more, empathy, is in our best interests.  In his new book “United: Thoughts on Finding Common Ground and Advancing the Common Good” U.S. Senator Cory Booker writes “I’ve learned that we must be more courageous in the empathy we extend to one another; we must shoulder a deeper responsibility for one another, and we must act in greater concert with one another…It is a refrain I have heard, time and again, and come to revere: the lines that divide us are nowhere near as strong as the ties that bind us; despite our very real differences, we share common interests, a common cause, and, incontrovertibly, a common destiny.” To this, all I can say is “Amen!”

In the current presidential campaign, candidates are in the habit of “tweeting” unkind and often untrue snippets about those whom they see as their enemies. Their goal is to have an impact, to influence others to their own way of thinking.  In contrast, my wife Malke survived the Holocaust and emerged as one who was very sensitive to the potential violence of language.  In her life she strove never to speak a harsh word about another person, and she did not tolerate anyone else speaking in this way either.  A few weeks after her death, the director of the hospice service that cared for her called me to share the enormous impact that she had on their entire staff. “What did she do?” I asked.  “Nothing,” she replied.  “She was just herself.”

I recommend being oneself to all of you.  The impact could be enormous.

 

The Tyranny of the Idealogues

I recently read that in Venezuala people are standing in lines to obtain their basic needs, including even a bar of soap. This sounded very familiar to me, and took me back to review my “privilege” of having lived under a number of different economic systems.

I recall that in September 1939, after Hitler invaded the western part of Poland, the Soviets, by prior agreement with the Germans, invaded the eastern part of Poland, and my little town fell under Soviet control.  Before the Soviets arrived there were little stores that provided the basic needs of the population.  We had local farmers who came once a week to make a market and brought in their products for sale.  There were never any shortages.  There were no banks, no Wall Street investments — the economy just worked.  The day after the Soviet invasion, private initiative was banned, the stores were closed, the farmers could not make their open market, and a black market based on barter developed. Products were only available occasionally, and you had to stand in line to get them, perhaps to be told after a long wait that there was no more available that day.  This did not mean that there was none available:  often those who were selling a thing would hold some back from the regular distribution to sell at higher prices on the black market. Everyone was equal, but some were more equal than others: there were separate places where only administrators and members of the Communist Party could get food not available to the rest of the population.  This was after we were told that we had been liberated from an oppressive system and had been experiencing hunger.  But from the outset, it was clear to us that the new system was built on lies.

By 1941 the German invasion completely wiped out that system. The farmers were obligated to feed the German army, and Jews were denied access to any food or other supplies at all. There was no normal supply of food:  people bribed and bartered for whatever they could get. Jews were separated into ghettos and were starved or eventually put to death in the extermination camps.

In 1945 the war ended, and the Soviets took over complete control of Belarus and reintroduced the Communist economic system.  As former Polish citizens, we were repatriated in 1946 and we went through Poland closer to the border with Czechoslovakia then illegally through Czechoslovakia,  Austria, and we were eventually settled in former military camps of the Austrian army near Linz. During that time we existed on supplies from the United Nations.  This was not an economy at all, just the United Nations supplying the needs of refugees until they could settle.

In 1952 we arrived in the United States and were introduced to the American economic system.  We got jobs, we traveled freely without needing permission (very unlike the Soviet area where every trip needed a permit).  Here we benefitted from the freedom of the United States in every respect.  Everything we needed was available, there were no lines to stand on, no need to wait.  And we had freedom to speak as we pleased and to associate with whomever we chose.

Today people come to the US even though its economic system is imperfect, exploited by bankers and others for their own personal gains. I would like to quote Joe Klein who was was a guest speaker recently at the Commonwealth Club of California.  Speaking of his experience in 46 years of journalism, when asked what he would like to highlight, he noted that wherever he went, the longest line for visas was always at the United States embassy.

I would say this: the United States reflects what it’s citizens contribute to it. The best advice I know about this was given by President John F. Kennedy when he said “[A]sk not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

The Un-American Americans

Tibor Rubin died last week. He survived the Holocaust and came to the United States in 1948. When he tried to enlist in the Army he was refused because his English was not good enough. By 1950 he improved enough to meet Army standards, enlisted and volunteered to fight in Korea. He found himself ambushed in an exposed position, and as the only soldier with a weapon he fought until his ammunition was gone, saving many of his fellow soldiers, but himself wounded, captured, and sent to a POW camp. While there he made a habit of sneaking out of camp to forage for food which he shared with his comrades, enabling them to survive.

Corporal Rubin was recommended a number of times for the Medal of Honor. But his own sergeant was a virulent anti-Semite who repeatedly refused to submit the paperwork even when commanded to do so by superiors. In 2002, President George Bush ordered a review of the records of 137 Jewish veterans, and Colonel Rubin finally received the honor which his comrades agreed he so truly deserved.

In a documentary about his life, Colonel Rubin comment about his mother: “And she always teach us: ‘There is one God, and we are all brothers and sisters. You have to take care of your brothers and save them.’ To her, to save somebody’s life is the greatest honor. And I did that.”

So what I wonder is “Who taught the sergeant to hate?”

In Alabama, a judge came up with a plan to allow those with outstanding court debts who could not pay in cash to pay in blood. Debtors were told that if they could not pay, they could either donate blood in a van parked outside and bring back the receipt or go immediately to jail. There was no assement of their ability to pay, and many had been incorrectly billed for court costs that included the cost of their court-appointed counsel. If they chose to donate, they stayed out of jail for that day but their debts were not waived. And the blood could not be used since policies of the blood bank prohibited the use of coerced donations in order to ensure the safety of the blood supply.

Perry County Circuit Judge Marvin Wiggins is another un-American American. Law school would have taught him about law. But what lessons did he get from his mother that he could demand payment in blood for debts that were not only not properly assigned, but not waived when the blood payment was made?

The Consequences of Tolerating Anti-Semitism

An article titled “Syrian Dissident: ‘Europe’s Reaction to anti-Semitism Encouraged ISIS” originated in Jerusalem Online on November 18, 2015. Mr. Aboud Dandachi in his interview gives a deep and thorough analysis on the issues that lead to the rise of anti-semitism historically and the present time.

There is hardly anything that one can add to what he is saying. Those of you who are regular readers of my blog may recall previous discussions about the complicity of bystanders: when bystanders witness acts of hate and violence and do not react by condemning it, they are complicit as the violence spreads. Aboud Dandachi particularly emphasizes that when Europeans tolerate anti-Semitic acts, it prepares the atmosphere for violence that follows.

As always, failure to act is not an option. Forwarding this article to as many recipients as you can would be a good beginning.

Deeds That Heal and Deeds That Kill

A number of Syrian families have settled in Toledo, Ohio.  An NPR reporter went to visit one of them.  He found that when the family arrived, they discovered a furnished apartment and neighbors who volunteered to help them with their needs:  shopping, caring for the children and so on.  How ironic!  The family arrived from a refugee camp in Jordan facilitated by Hayas, a Jewish organization, and the apartment was furnished and the volunteering initiated by local Christians.  And the family is Muslim.

This is the nature of America.

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The Make A Wish Foundation has been granting the wishes of seriously ill children for 35 years.  They ask “If you could be anything, go anywhere, or meet anyone, what would you wish for?” Last year they granted over 14,000 of these wishes.

When I saw the “60 Minutes” article on this organization, I was impressed and elated to see so many people volunteering their time and money to meet the wishes of many sick children who would otherwise never have a chance to live their wish. This is the essence of a deed that heals.

This, too, is the nature of America.

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After the Second World War there were many trials of former members of the Nazi party and SS troops.  At one of the trials, three SS men were questioned about why they did what they did.  The first one said that he had orders and had to follow the orders.  The second said that if he didn’t follow the orders, his comrades would kill him.  The third one said that from his early childhood, he was taught that the Jews are the enemies of the German people, enemies of humanity, they are polluting German culture and exploiting Germany for their own purposes, that they were a lower race and they should be separated from the German population. And he said that this motivated him to do what he did without hesitation.

Something similar is happening in our generation.  Children in some parts of the Muslim world are taught that Israelis and the Jews who support them are threatening the rights of Palestinians by depriving them of their land.  A vivid example of this shows a preschool child with a knife in her hands saying that she would like to stab a Jew with a knife “because he stole our land.”  And the adult who is filming her praises her strength and says “God willing, my dear.”

This frightens me.  When the minds of children are poisoned like this, those who teach children to hate an entire people and to kill them in the name of their god should be charged with crimes against humanity. If we continue to allow this to happen, I fear for the future.  If hatred towards “the other” is the prevailing lesson taught to children, they are robbed of their childhoods, they are robbed of their futures, and then the entire future of humanity is uncertain.

Let us not be complacent. Let us keep ourselves informed and make everyone in our circles aware.  And let us all speak our wishes for peace at every opportunity.

This, too, is the nature of America.