Holocaust Remembrance Day: Remembering One and Multiplying by 6 Million
Today is Holocaust Memorial Day, but how do we remember the unfathomable? Six million people is beyond our mental grasp. So just imaging if there were graves for the six million victims of the Holocaust and they were set next to each other. The graveyard would stretch almost 6,200 miles, more than the distance from New York to Los Angeles.
As it may be easier to remember one and multiply by six million. I will share the story of one person, David, mother's brother. They lived in Sosnowiec, Poland.
David was the youngest of five children. Bright and street savvy, red-headed, blue-eyed David loved American westerns and entertained his family with his imitations of cowboy heroes. He got down the drawl and walk of these heroes who existed in a world where the good guys win.
David was only eight when the Nazis marched into Sosnowiec Poland and turned a clear autumn day into permanent night.
In 1938, he was just seven years old when there were rumbles of a war and rumors of catastrophes for German Jews, but only the most cynical believed the stories of atrocities. David didn't pay much attention to adult worries, an German Jew, who had fled after Kristallnacht (the night of German orchestrated destruction of Jewish property), came to their door and sought refuge in David's home. The stranger recounted tales of German horrors, and David's mother, a progressive thinking woman, reproved him for spreading unjust gossip against a people as cultured and civilized as the Germans.
On September 1, 1939, war was declared and the Jews knew dangerous times were ahead of them. In past wars, strong young people were most likely to be put into forced labor. So in the darkness of one night, David's older brother and oldest sister gathered with 6 older cousins, to escape. Wearing layers of clothing not to be detected with a suitcase, this band of cousins set out by foot to walk to Russia, where they thought they could stay out of the grasp of the German army.
The war came to David's home. It was a sunny September day, but everyone was agitated and whispering and frantically packing up their belongings. The Nazis were coming. David's parents threw together their most precious possessions on a cart and started walking east, away from Germany to Wolbrom, a neighboring town where an uncle and aunt lived. Hundreds of people joined their march east. When they arrived in Wolbrom, it was too late. The German army, with its motorcycles and fast cars had beaten them there.
David's father told the family to stay put for a day or two. He would return to their home and get things ready for them. It was not to be their home much longer. Nothing was ever to be the same again. They were not back for very long when his family was forced to move out of their apartment and into a dark dismal ghetto. In 2007 I visited that street, where it is so dark that not a single tree or blade of grass grew.
His father's business was taken away and his synagogue desecrated. David was Jewish, so that meant he was forbidden from going to school. For a while, David would hide a book under his sweater and sneak into a basement apartment where his cousin had a secret classroom.
Round ups & Deportations
Then the round up of Jews and deportations began.
On August 12, 1942, all the Jews of Sosnowiec were summoned to assembly to the town arena. There they Jews were divided into four groups and sent to different corners. In the first group there were "Judenrat" (Jewish government) members and employees and Jewish policemen, in the second - youths aged 16 to 24, in the third - work permit holders, and the fourth group - families with children and the elderly. The selection continued throughout a day of sweltering heat until 10 o'clock at night. In the crowds and chaos, David was separated from his parents and herded into the fourth group with the Jews who were awaiting deportation.
Late at night, when David's family returned home, he was not among the returnees. My mother recalls, "Behind every door, in every house, in every corner, everywhere you could see, everywhere you could not see, people were wailing. Fathers and husbands were beating their chests; women were tearing their hair; little children sat in stunned silence. Everyone had lost someone. Some lost children, some parents, some husbands, some wives." Every family had a loss.
The next morning, David, an aunt, and an uncle reappeared. The huge number of Jews awaiting deportation had necessitated that the Germans commandeer business establishments, most of which did not have fortified security. David was being held in a makeshift jail when he decided to take his chances and run away. The sun was not yet up when he made his break. He crawled out a window and just a few feet from him was a guard. It was Officer Steinitza, who had been a policeman in David's neighborhood. It was only a second. Steinitza caught sight of the boy, recognized him, and looked away.
David made it home. The stories of Auschwitz were no longer rumors but the terrible truth. There were no more comforts of denial or wishful thinking. That was August, 1942.
There were guards, cruel laws and lots of punishments, for no crimes. Danger was everywhere. David's two other sisters (one my mother) were taken to concentration camps.
David was left with his parents and a favorite aunt in a bitter winter of sickness, starvation, terror and cold. They were sharing their tiny apartment with another family. But David was still with his parents, and that gave him strength. Then one evening, his mother didn't return. She had been caught walking on the street and sent to Auschwitz. The ghetto was almost empty. It was the final liquidation. The Nazis were going house to house and rounding up every living Jew. David's father was caught and sent to Auschwitz. David and his aunt managed to find their way to a bunker, a false wall behind an oven. In that cramped space were 50 other people, the last Jews in his town.
David was only 11 and an orphan, but no longer a child. The people hidden in the bunker needed food to remain alive. He had done pretty good imitations of cowboys before, but now it was going to be the performance of his life. With his red hair, blue eyes, and ability to speak German and Polish, David was the only one who could save them. He stole the uniform of a Hitler youth and passed for German. He found, stole, and bartered food for them, keeping them alive for half a year. He traveled away from his home town for fear that his former neighbors might recognize him and turn him in. Even the small space behind the oven was too much for a Jew, and the bunker was discovered and the people sent away. David returned one day to find the bunker empty and himself alone and hunted. After the war, Polish merchants reported seeing him in the alleys and shadows. He managed to get a letter to a family member in a slave labor camp, and he wrote, "I will not let them catch me. I will survive. I will get revenge for everyone."
There were millions of Davids who had no place on this earth. They were in bunkers, forests, camps, and on the St. Louis which was turned away from American shores to the death chambers of Europe. How can we comprehend a world there was not one square foot for an 11-year-old Jewish boy. How can we comprehend a world which was silent in the face of such evil?
The Silent World
Before the genocide were the false accusations. Jews were blamed for all the world's ills, for capitalism and for communism, for poverty and for wealth, for the Depression and for Germany's loss in WW1 and the historians were silent.
Propaganda showed Jews as controllers of the world and parasites, and no one spoke up about the media.
David and his family tried to run away when the Nazis entered his town, but there was no place to run. Their neighbors were silent even as the family members were desperately looking for shelter.
When David was not allowed to go to school, his teachers said nothing.
Town after town became Judenrein, cleansed of Jews. A Jew found hiding in a bunker or attic was guilty of a criminal offense. My grandparents, aunts, uncles and were found guilty of being living Jews and condemned to death. The world was silent.
On August 1, 1942, absolutely reliable evidence was sent to the American Undersecretary of State Welles that 2 million Jews had already been murdered. It was before the first mass deportation in David's home town. In the seventeen months which elapsed before there was any response, my grandparents and millions of other Jews were killed. Why were the Jews in the United States silent?
We know that ships filled with Jews were turned back from our shores, condemning the passengers to certain death. The British would not open Palestine to refugees, for fear of angering the Arab world. The U.S. refused to take in more Jewish refugees even though the American immigration quotas were 90% unfilled. Nearly 190,000 quota places sat unused.
David, a lonely shepherd.
David's bar mitzvah was spent on the run. He ran until he found a farm, adjacent to Auschwitz and took on work as a farm hand taking care of the cattle. David, like the David in the Bible, became a shepherd.
However, loneliness overcame him. Looking for a familiar face, David went closer and closer to the fence surrounding Auschwitz until he was spotted by a guard and grabbed into the camp. Although Auschwitz was no longer operating the crematorium, and the Russians were close, the killing machine continued. In only days before the Russian army liberated Auschwitz, the Germans put him before a firing squad. They aimed their guns. David took off a shoe and threw it at the German guard who was poised to take his life. David was defiant. He shouted for all to hear, "We'll get revenge when our brothers come from Russia." The guard pressed the trigger.
David's dreams never came true. His older brother never came back from Russia. Neither he nor David survived, and their deaths and six million others were never avenged. Rather than vengeance we have memory. His dream lives in our memories. It lives for us to hear it and to tell it, and by telling it, remember him and the spirit that just wouldn't give up even in the face of a terrible overpowering enemy. David, one little boy, is one of six million souls, who has no grave marker and whose memory lives in us.
David's legacy to us is not vengeance but choosing life over death, hope over despair and self determination over dependence on others. Holocaust survivors chose life. They got married and had children. In fact, in the displaced persons' camps through out Europe, Jewish birth rates broke all records.
They chose life and out of the ashes of Auschwitz and Treblinka, the survivors transformed the historic dream of Eretz Israel into the modern reality of the State of Israel. Israel is Hatikva, the hope, of the Jewish people.
Survivors were returning home to the land which was not merely a dream and a prayer but the land which had had a continued Jewish presence for thousands of years. These souls joined with Jews who had for over half a century been laying the ground work for Jewish independence.
It was not an easy re-birth. Where did those shattered souls get the strength to fight another enemy and rebuild a nation? Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Elie Wiesel may have had the answer when he wrote of 1948 when the armies of five mighty Arab nations attacked Israel. "On that day, Israel's army numbered 6 million more." On that day my grandmothers and grandfathers and David were among those who held up the Israeli army so that never again would Jews have to be isolated, victimized, demonized, and forced to wake each morning with a justification for their right to exist.
Israel is the Jewish homeland. This tiny nation, smaller than Lake Michigan, assures that no Jewish child will ever be hunted again. There is a place, a holy place, which belongs to the Jewish people. To remember the Holocaust is to remember David and to defend Israel as the Jewish homeland for eternity.