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.

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.

Don’t Ask Why

If you did not read this article entitled “Here There Is No Why” by Roger Cohen of the New York TImes, please read it…and read it again. If you did read it…read it again.

As a Holocaust survivor I am deeply troubled by the latest atrocities against civilians. Unspeakable acts of barbaric cruelty are being perpetrated and the sick drama is playing out in front of our eyes on live television.

We are living in a world where beheadings are aired and hailed as directed by Allah. In his NYT article, Roger Cohen quotes Holocaust survivor Primo Levi as he recounts ​the cruelty of a Nazi guard​ who prevented him (Levi) from quenching his thirst with an icicle.​ ​Levi asked the guard one simple question: “Why?”

“‘Hier ist kein warum,’ (there is no why here)” ​was the guard’s response.​

I fear that these words are as applicable today as they were when Levi first heard them. There is no “why” in “bin Ladin-ism” and its offshoots. Their aim is world domination and asking “why” elicits a blank stare since ​they believe that their methods are ordained by Allah. Hitler, in his time, claimed that his acts were done in the name of Jesus.

Those of us who have experienced the insanity resulting from Hitler and his global ambitions know that it did not end when the war was declared over. The beheadings are only the most recent horrors deriving from the same root. If we do not recognize what is happening now and take action​, as the world powers are only now beginning to do​, it will be too late to stop it.

Memorial Day Every Morning

Since my mother passed away thirty years ago I have been attending morning services at my synagogue daily.  At first I came for the traditional eleven months of reciting the Kaddish*. At the end of that time I continued daily with rare exceptions so that there would be always be a minyan** for those who needed to say Kaddish long after I am gone. And I discovered that prayer is poetry, a few moments to find beauty and meaning in the world rather than immediately being swept up by prosaic, everyday routine. And it had dawned on me that there were thousands of Jews of my generation who might have discovered this for themselves and done the same but for the fact that they perished in the Shoah.  The three times per year holiday remembrances at Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Shavuos and the yearly yartzeit on the anniversary of a loved one’s death fill in the void, but the daily minyan is the place for those who would have been reciting Kaddish but for the fact that they have been silenced.  And there is no one left to say Kaddish for them, so I have chosen to do that.

On Memorial Day, I express my deepest gratitude for those in the armed forces and in the resistance movements during World War II who made it possible for us to enjoy relative peace during the last sixty years.  But in the last couple of years, a new plague has engulfed the world: deadly attacks aimed at civilians in mosques, marketplaces and other public areas.  Just in the last few days we have seen an attack in front of the Brussels Jewish Museum that killed three people and critically injured another, and the death of a Pakistani woman who refused to marry the man her family selected for her and was mutilated and murdered in front of the court building by members of her family while a crowd of bystanders and police chose not to intervene.

The recent election to the European Parliament has shown an increase in support for right-wing parties, some of them with openly anti-Semitic platforms.  The Spring 2014 issue of “Moment” magazine grabbed my attention with its focus on anti-Semitism.  The startling statistic that 44% of high school students in Warsaw, Poland said they would not like to have a Jewish neighbor devastates me. These are students who are several generations away from pre-war Poland, who live in a society where there are few Jews.  Where do they get this attitude?  Home? School? Church?  Since they say they would not like to have Jews as neighbors, I wonder if Professor Einstein moved in next to them, what would they do? Would they move out? Would they attempt to drive him away?  The tragedy is that without knowing any individuals, these young people assume that an entire class of people would not be “good neighbors.”

So I am adding this to my reasons for mourning every morning.  I stand during the recitation of the Kaddish and recite a silent prayer for all of those for whom there is no one to say a prayer. Every morning I mourn for the deaths of those innocent people who are daily killed for no reason, victims of fanatic acts of violence.  And I am praying for the young people who do not understand that their attitudes towards those whom they do not know can result in such violence or in indifference towards those who would commit it. This is my way of ensuring that I enter each day with an eye towards avoiding complacency when encountering unexplainable violence.

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* Kaddish: a prayer praising God that is traditionally recited by those who have lost a close family member.

** Minyan: a gathering of at least ten people to pray together.  Ten are required in order to say the Kaddish.

Familiar Words and Sounds

 It is 2014. I am in my 90’s. So why do I hear words and sounds that remind me of the words and sounds I heard in the 30’s in Europe? As an eyewitness to history, I feel compelled to share my memories with you, my readers.

It all started with words. Hitler declaring that German-speaking Austrians are thirsting to unite with Germany. After immense pressure on the Austrian government, Hitler got consent for the Anschluss (unification). Then followed Czechoslovakia, where allegedly the Sudetendeutschen expressed their desire to unite with Germany. Then followed the Munich agreement with Chamberlain, who accepted the breakup of Czechoslovakia, the most democratic country in Europe at that time. Said Chamberlain upon his return from Munich “I believe it is ‘peace for our time. Go home and get a nice quiet sleep.” I don’t know about the British, but I am sure that Hitler had a good night’s sleep after listening to this.  And he woke up with an appetite to incorporate eastern Prussia into Germany, and for that purpose had to attack Poland, which had a corridor leading to the Baltic Sea.

We all know the rest of the story.  Hitler’s pact with Stalin included a secret agreement to divide Poland. When Hitler attacked Poland in September, 1939, half of Polish Jewry fell under the control of the Nazis.  Eighteen months later, in June of 1941, the Germans attacked the Soviet Union, and within a few days the Germans arrived in my hometown in the vicinity of Minsk, the capital of Belarus.  This was the beginning of “hell on earth” for my family and for millions of other Jews, a time in which I witnessed acts of cruelty that are so inexplicable that when someone today says “I understand,” I can only respond that the experience of those who were witnesses is completely beyond human comprehension.

There are so many familiar words and sounds resonating in the present situation that I have become alarmed. I am in no way implying that the current Russian government can be compared to the Nazis. These are different times. But one would expect a member of the UN Security Council to avoid creating flashpoints such as the situation in the Ukraine. It seems to me that Russia is failing to live up to its leadership responsibilities and contribute to peace.

There is no substantive evidence that Russian-speakers are being harassed or discriminated against in Ukraine. Words of hate and fear lead to death and destruction. I hope and pray that sanity will prevail, that we will remember the lessons of history, and that there will be a truly peaceful resolution to this crisis.

Don’t Blame the Children

The three episodes I am introducing in this post happened in three different times, places and situations.  But they have one thing in common: they deal with the education of young people. Bear with me for a few moments as we walk through this important issue together

The first item is titled “Muslim Cleric Praises Tsarnaev Brothers As Models For Muslim Children.” It advises young Muslims to follow the example of the two brothers who executed the Boston Marathon tragedy, justifying their act by claiming that Muslims are under attack by America in their own homelands. For the record, there ARE Muslims who deplore the Boston Marathon bombing and fatwahs have been issued against it. But when a meeting was called in Canada by a group that is opposed to such violence, only 24 people showed up.

In the second item, Yair Lapid, currently the finance minister of Israel and the son of Tommy Lapid, a Holocaust survivor from Hungary, speaks before the Hungarian Parliament. He recounts his father’s life story, and the story of the demise of the Hungarian Jewish community with active cooperation of the population in the six months following the occupation of Hungary by the Nazis.

The third item is called “The Mandate Video” and makes the case for Holocaust education in Pennsylvania schools. Only two college students out of 31 asked about events that took place during World War II and the Holocaust were able to answer coherently, and those two both attended high school in states where Holocaust education was a mandatory element of the curriculum.

Hitler indoctrinated young people in Nazi Germany, conditioning them to believe in the superiority of the Aryan race, and the idea that all other races were subhuman. The result was the Holocaust. Some Muslims are educating their young to view all non-Muslims in a similar fashion, and even going so far as to hold up those who act violently as examples to be emulated. In Hungary even adults whose parents lived through the time of the demise of the Jewish community needed to be reminded of those tragic events in part because of the rise of anti-Semitic parties.

These three episodes chart for us a course of action: reach out to the young. How could they possibly know about the Holocaust if they know nothing even of the historical events of World War II? We must make our young people aware to beware of any attempt to instill hateful or even intolerant thoughts. This is the least we can do. And only by such education will we have any hope of preventing future atrocities.

In my frequent visits to schools I am confronted with the question “What can we do to prevent another Holocaust?” I regret to have to reply that we are powerless to prevent the current atrocities in foreign lands but we surely can influence events in this country starting from our own neighborhoods by being involved, aware, caring, speaking up against injustice, racism and violent behavior. Before we attempt to change the rest of the world let us change our immediate world for the better. The time to start is by educating our young people starting right now!

Memories Revisited

It is Monday, April 28, 2013 in Washington, DC, and we are approaching May 8, the 68th anniversary of the end of the war.  The Holocaust Museum is celebrating the 20th anniversary of its opening. I am attending a salute to the veterans of WWII and Holocaust survivors, a gathering of more than 4000 people, among them 900 survivors and 150 veterans. We are assembled to witness the presentation of the flags of the American divisions who entered concentration camps in Germany and Austria.  The Army orchestra plays as each unit enters with its flag and a voice announces the camps they liberated.  Those who are present rise and applaud, my face and those around me flooding with tears of sorrow and pain mixed with tears of joy and pride in those who finally destroyed the beast of the 20th century.  President Clinton, Elie Wiesel, teachers and students who are engaged in preserving the memory of the Holocaust are sharing their experiences.

As I stand there, my memory takes me back to January of 1945 when the Second Russian Army, of which I was part, moved west to seal the fate of Hitler’s thousand year Reich. We drove over recent battlefields where the remnants of vehicles were mixed with the remains of bodies.  It takes me back to the summer of 1944 when the Russian army, after several years of fighting German hordes, advanced to the west and liberated Belarus and entered Poland.  I was part of the resistance that was sabotaging the communications of the occupying forces.  I remember the day in 1942 when I stole weapons from a German warehouse, escaped from the forced labor camp where I had been imprisoned for six months, found a group of local Jews who had sought shelter in the surrounding forests and swamps and joined the resistance.  I recall the horrible time in the fall of 1941 when the Germans ordered us out of our ancestral homes and herded 300 families into 15 homes, separated by barbed wire from the rest of the town and guarded around the clock, deprived of access to food, water and basic necessities. There we waited knowing that we are doomed, trembling at the sound of mechanized vehicles that might signal the arrival of our fate.  From behind the barbed wire we watched as our former neighbors went about their lives assembling in the church across the street to pray after they had been preying on us, performing weddings accompanied by the sound of music.  My mind goes back to the good old days prior to 1939 when under Polish rule, in the midst of a Belarusian minority, we enjoyed a naively tranquil life in the shtetl, a village of 300 families, a rabbi, a Hebrew day school, a bank, a free loan association, and volunteers who cared for widows, orphans, and those just passing through.  That all came to an end when the Red Storm from the east and the Nazi hell that eventually engulfed all of Europe from the west converged in our place.

I move back towards the present, recalling a visit to an extermination camp in Poland in 2004 accompanied by my son-in-law Paul and grandsons Yossi and Boaz. After stepping out of the barracks where we saw compartments with childrens’ shoes, clothing, and luggage marked from various countries, Paul went outside, sat on the steps and burst into tears.  He cried and cried, lacking words, and expressing in the only way he could the despair that he felt.

What is the responsibility of those of us who survived, and those who witnessed the liberation of the concentration camps?  It is to share our memories with as wide an audience as possible.  We are the last of those who can tell the story in the first person, who can bear personal witness to the destruction of an entire culture.  It is painful for us to reach the point in life where the world is so unsettled, where killings and bombings are a daily occurrence.  We hoped that WWII would be the end of all wars, but today we live in a world where the institutions of peace are paralyzed and where war is an everyday event, an unremarkable item in the news over which we shake our heads.

In the great economic turmoil of the last few years, there is one bright spot.  Israel, the bright and beautiful  child of the tragedy of WWII, the dream of a people who were nearly destroyed, has emerged unscathed, one of only five countries that continued to grow and prosper during the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. We pray and hope that the example set by Israel will serve as a beacon to humankind.