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.

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. 

Harvest of Hate

At the present, there is a former S.S. “man” on trial in Germany. His name is Oscar Groening, a 93-year-old former guard and bookkeeper in Auschwitz. He is on trial for 300,000 counts of accessory to murder. He was witnessing the arrival of thousands to Auschwitz, and their selection process. Among them was a mother with an infant. In order to be included in the able-bodied people, she dropped her baby. And this “man” was there, as one of the S.S. trampled the baby until it died (“Holocaust crimes still matter,” Leonid Bershidsky, Pittsburgh Post Gazette 4/24/15). 

Don’t anybody tell me they “understand” how the mother felt. Just as you wouldn’t dare to say you understand when my neighbor, Mrs. Zukerman refused to part with her children during the selection at the liquidation of my hometown ghetto and joined them on the truck leading to their incineration, as did my teacher Mr. Lipschitz (as was witnessed by the able-bodied survivors, and told to me later). 

What leads a being – I hesitate to call it a man, or a person – to thrash an infant to death? All one needs to do is look at the history of hate education in Nazi Germany with the rise of Hitler, where the Jews were portrayed as the enemy of the people, as polluting the German culture, and as a lower race. The Jews were accused of dominating German business, banking, and art. The Jews were 1% of the German population, which was 60, 600, 000. 

Stop. Don’t look for a rationale in hate.

In a similar way, but not to the same degree, the Soviet Union’s young people were indoctrinated to hate the so-called capitalist world and internal enemies. Likewise, China under Mao brainwashed the youth in animosity toward the rest of the world. Currently, North Korean children are being taught hatred of the U.S. in school. 

At the present time, in some circles of the Muslim world, the same hate education is practiced with relation to Jews and the rest of the world. Ironically, some Muslim groups are considered enemies of Islam in these circles.  

Recently, there was a video aired by ISIS showing how a child is trained to behead a traitor. A recent interview on 60 Minutes described children in Gaza, who naturally are traumatized by the events of war, and how they express their feelings through drawings. Among other depictions was a drawing of a suicide bomber’s belt and the desire to be a martyr (). 

I consider the term suicide belt to be a faulted term – you use it to kill others; it is a homicide belt. 

In totality, this is what I call the harvest of hate. Unfortunately, there are some schools in the United States producing the same hateful mindsets, too. 

Hate is used as a vehicle for those who put themselves above the law to poison the minds and attract followers. Jewish law is based on the principle that law is above man, and so is the American judicial system. This stands in the way of those whose ambition is to rule the world. 

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

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]