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.

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Signals from History

Signals from History

An agonizing moment which you will not hear when you read the story about the six million who perished. Based on a report by American reporter Patrick Gordon at Allied liberation of Bergen-Belsen; April 1945: 

“One woman came up to a sodier who was guarding the milk store and doling the milk out to children, and begged for milk for her baby. The man took the baby and saw that it had been dead for days, black in the face and shriveled up. The woman went on begging for milk. So he poured some on the dead lips. The mother then started to croon with joy and carried the baby off in triumph. She stumbled and fell dead in a few yards.” 

Source: The Holocaust Chronicle

On the Eve of Yom Hashoa

Two years ago I wrote this about Yom Hashoa, an article that was also published in the Jewish Chronicle of Pittsburgh.  This is history: it does not change from year to year.  But I would like to add something this year that I did not say at that time.

I would like to say that the fate of women was worse.  But how does one say “worse” about something that is so unimaginably horrible? Let me tell you a few stories.

Under German occupation, young girls in Poland were forced to become companions of German officers. My friend Sonia was called to the local Kommandant and never returned.  She remained his concubine until she died in the final liquadation of the town of Krasny, not far from my home town of Hordok.  But in that position she was able to pass on information about the plans of the Germans, and to cover for Jews who left the holding pen that was the ghetto by marking them “present” in the nightly roll call.

When selections were made of able-bodied people, mothers were supposed to part from their children because the woman were able-bodied and the children were not. My neighbor Mrs. Zuckerman  refused to part from her children and went with them to their deaths.

Mothers were also forced to silence their infants when hiding out, and some of those children suffocated.  Many women were the subjects of medical experiments for various purposes.

My recent experiences speaking about the Holocaust have made me realize that the piece I wrote in 2013 would not be complete without mentioning the special suffering of women. There have been many atrocities in history. But the victims of the Holocaust were singled out in a massive, intentional, industrial process of extermination as government policy.  They were concentrated, isolated, humiliated, starved, exploited, tortured, and finally killed in a way that has no parallel in modern history.

When the war was over, I dared to dream that this would be the last war.  In my wildest dreams I never could have imagined the levels of viciousness and violence, the deliberate destruction and obscuration of history that we are witnessing today. This makes me hesitant and cautious to use the words “Never again.”

Signals From History

Aside

Signals from History

January 3, 1943: Polish President Vladistow Raczkiewiez requests that Pope Pius XII publicly denounce German atrocities against the Jews. Pius remains silent concerning both the German slaughter of the Polish Jews as well as the German attacks against Polish Catholics

January 4, 1943: Jewish fighting organizations are rounded up in Szestochowa, Poland [the home town of my late wife]. Its leader, Mandel Fiszlewicz, uses a hidden pistol to wound the German commander of the Aktion. Fiszlewicz and 25 other men are immediately shot and 300 women and children from the group are deported to the Treblinka death camp and gassed. [1]

Signals from History

Aside

December 7 1942 [1]

United States Department official G.Robert Borden Reams, an “expert” on the Jews in the Division of European Affairs, advises that the United States Government remain silent concerning details of the Holocaust.

British official John Cecil Sterndale Bennett is upset because Bulgarian Jewish children may be allowed into Palestine based on Jewish Agency appeals.

December 9 1942 [1]
Christian Century, an American Protestant journal, attacks Rabbi Stephen Wise,
claiming he had lied about the Holocaust in recent press conference. Christian Century further argues that even if what Wise has to say is true, to make the facts of the Holocaust public serves no purpose.

Signals from History

Aside

November 4, 1943: The Germans put down a revolt at the slave labor camp at Szebnie, Poland. The camp is liquidated; about 3000 Jews are deported to Auschwitz.

November 14, 1943: Jews from Ferrara, Italy are deported to Auschwitz.

November 23, 1943: 150 Jewish partisans escape occupied Kowno, Lithuania and head eastward towards the Rudninkai Forest. [1]

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.

A meaningful remembrance

It is Nov 5, 2013 at Seton Hill University.  I am at a service of rememberance for Kristallnacht, the Night of the Broken Glass and a night that shattered any illusions about the future of German Jews.  There is lighting of candles, readings, and songs of peace.  The atmosphere is solemn and dignified, the audience made up of people of all races, many young.  There is a meaningful presentation by Mr. Fritz Ottenheimer, a German Jew who escaped right before the war broke out and came to the US.  There are presentations of the Ethel LeFrak Outstanding Student Scholars of the Holocaust  awards.

I hear a reader say “You lay me in the dust of death” and I hear whispering voices coming from the depths of human cruelty. They are the voices of my father, my sister, my grandfather and extended family and the voices of millions like them who endured isolation, degradation, humiliation, starvation, week long trips in boxcars to unknown destinations, physical abuse for “medical experiments”, and the long scream of “Had we known what was coming we would have wished for death!”  I hear the voices of infants in hiding places, silenced by their mothers so as not to betray the rest.  I hear the voices of the prettiest woman in town, forced to the police station, raped, stripped naked, then forced to walk out into the marketplace where she was shot in the back. Wouldn’t she have wished to be dead before that?

Another reader leads us in reciting words found on the wall of a cellar in Cologne, Germany, where Jews hid from the Nazis:

I believe, I believe in the sun even when it is not shining,

I believe in love even when feeling it not.

I believe in God even when God is silent.

After note:  At this event, my fellow Holocaust survivors and I had the honor of meeting Sister Gemma del Duca, co-founder and co-director [Israel] of The National Catholic Center for Holocaust Education. We were also interviewed by Seton Hill University Students. The Event left an indelible impression on us.