The events of September 11, 2001 are perhaps a fitting introduction to the subject of the Holocaust which is the topic of my presentation today. In both instances there was mass killings by people who showed no regard for human life. Today I would like to take you back to a time in world war II when there was no TV and the true horror of that time can only be related by a Survivor. I am one of the Survivors. Unfortunately the majority of the world stood by, except for a few righteous individuals, while 11 million people were slaughtered. The toll was 6 million Jews, among them 1 1/2 million children and 5 million Christians.
The Holocaust refers to a specific event in 20th century history; the systematic, bureaucratic annihilation of 6 million Jews by the Nazis and their collaborators as a central act of state during world war II. In 1933, approximately 9 million Jews lived in the 21 countries of Europe which would be occupied by Germany during the war. By 1945, two out of every three European Jews had been killed. Although Jews were the primary victims, up to one half million Gypsies and at least 200.000 mentally or physically disabled persons were also victims of the genocide. As Nazi tyranny spread across Europe, from 1933 to 1945, millions of other innocent people were persecuted and murdered. More than 3 million Russian prisoners of war were killed. Poles, as well as other Slavic people were targeted for slave labor and tens of thousands perished. Homosexuals and other deemed “anti social” were also persecuted and often murdered. However, l while not all the victims were Jews, we need o remember that ALL Jews were victims.
The Holocaust was a rupture of philosophy, history and culture; a RENT in the fabric of society and civilization. It shattered our religious faith in God and our secular faith in human goodness and progress. To quote Michael Bierenbaum, a historian, “The central theme of the Holocaust is not rebirth, goodness or resistance, liberation or justice, but death and destruction; dehumanization and devastation, but above all LOSS….behind each loss was a person whose life was ended tragically and prematurely, and for those who survived, there is the burden of memories of worlds shattered and destroyed, of defeat and of life in its aftermath.”
My story closely mirrors Berenbaum’s. I was a 16 year old girl, the pampered and sheltered daughter of a well to do businessman and a loving mother living in Krakow, Poland. There was a maid in the house to make my bed, hand my clothes and help my mother with house chores. I had a 19 year old sister named Ida who was attending the university. My oldest sister named Lilka was already married and had two small children. I had a large extended family as my mother had 9 siblings and my father had 3. Out of 55 member of my extended family, only 5 survived, among them was my sister Lilka. She survived, but her husband and the two little children were killed.
When the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, all Jews were registered and their property confiscated. We were forced to wear a Star of David armband whenever we were in public. We were forced to walk in the street rather than the sidewalks. In Krakow, were were hurdled into A walled compound called the Ghetto with 3 to 4 families crowded into tiny apartments. A long process of starvation began. Nobody except with a special permit was allowed in our out of the ghetto. We survived on smuggled food. I remember looking out of the window seeing women, men and children lying in the street. They were homeless and died during the night from starvation and espouser. Raids went on constantly. People were dragged away by German soldiers never to be seen again We learned to live with fear. My mother suffered a nervous breakdown but we did not want to put her into the ghetto hospital because it was raided every day and the weak were taken away and killed. My father who still had a little money braved a guard who was able o take her to the city hospital. That worked for a while but one day my mother was identified as being Jewish and taken out of the hospital and shot by the Germans. My beautiful sister Ida who was dating a Christian boy refused to go into the Ghetto and when into hiding. She converted to Christianity in the hope of saving her life, however she was denounced by the parents of her Christian boy friend and taken to prison. A letter and a pair of slippers she made for me was smuggled out of the prison. She asked me to forgive her for anything she might have done in the past to cause me anger or pain. I learned after the war that she was killed but never found out where and how.
When the Krakow ghetto was liquidated in 1943(made Judenrein), my father and I were marched to Plazow Concentration Camp some 20 miles away. the nightmare ahead had just began.
The way to survive in such circumstances is to believe that even though others were being slaughtered around you, somehow, by some miracle you would be saved. The time in Plazow was marked by public executions which occurred daily and in rounding out prisoners for Auschwitz which was another 24 5 miles away. Auschwitz was the central destination for large numbers of prisoners who were brought in for extermination in the gas chambers. Those of you who have seen the movie Schindler’s List will have a better understanding of what happened. the movie depicts my concentration camp experience in the Krakow ghetto, in Plazow and in Auschwitz quite accurately….Hiddious memories of the the Plazow experience are vividly imprinted in my memory even now 60 years later. I remember standing in a public square where all the reminisce of the children were torn away from their screaming mothers while lullabies were piped through loud speakers….My best friend was hung for a minor infraction and we were forced to watch. We were surrounded by soldiers and anyone who looked away was shoot. The rope broke but she was hung again until she was dead….One day, I was chosen at random by the monstrous commander Amon Goeth to be shot. They stood me against the wall along with several others and pointed machine guns at us. It was a beautiful spring day and I recall wishing I were a bug or a spec of dust,.anything but myself. I thought how upset my father would when he came to my section only to find me gone. I wanted so much to live. I will never feel the same about the sanctity of life when I was about to be killed. At the last moment Goeth decided upon an experiment in pain. I was placed on a table and beaten into unconsciousness by collaborating Ukrainian solders bit I survived.
One of the most gruesome memories of Plazow concentration camp before its liquidation was the time in the summer of 1944 when I, among other prisoners, were forced to open the shallow graves of hundreds of victims who had been killed before and we had to throw torches into the trenches so that the bodies soaked in kerosene would burn to ashes. You see, the Russians were were advancing and the Germans did not want to leave evidence of their atrocities. The stench of the burning bodies permeated the air for weeks.
One evening, when I went to visit my father in his barrack (we were permitted to visit our relatives for 15 minutes in the evening) I found the barrack empty. I was told that the prisoners had been shipped to an unknown destination. I never saw my father again.
After two years in Plazow, I was shipped to Auschwitz in a cattle wagon. At the time of arrival there, I was stripped naked along with other prisoners and sent through a selection process where Doctor Mengele, known as the
“Angle of Death” looked us over and made the decision as to who would live and who would die. Being pointed to the right meant life, but I was pushed to the left where I fell onto the bear floor. I was emaciated, after three years of incarceration and looked like a skeleton. As I fell to the floor, I noticed that next to me there was an open window and I heard a woman prisoner shouting to her daughter who was sitting next to me, to jump out of the window or she would be killed. At that particular moment, Dr. Mengele stepped out of the room. The girl jumped out of the window and I jumped after her. We blended into the crowd of women who were being led away to be transported to a labor camp in Czechoslovakia. I was liberated from that labor camp by the Russians on the last day of the war in May of 8 of 1945. I weighed 55 pounds.
There are painful memories connected to the camp in Czechoslovakia called Freudenthal which means the Valley of Joy in German. What an irony. One of these memories is constant hugger. I will never forget the excruciating pain at my insides day and night. The only thing I thought about was food. Our daily rations consisted of two slices of stale bread,
a watery bowl of soup and a cup of artificial coffee. A good sight to behold, was a dead horse lying in the middle of the camp. This meant that we would have a small piece of meant in the soup. This happened only twice during the 7 months I spent at the labor camp Of course, the horse had to be sick in order to be killed. I even stooped so low as to attempt to steal bread during the night from fellow inmates while they were asleep. It was slim pickings…..I remember standing in line to get my bowl of soup praying that the ladle would be inserted deep to the bottom of the pot where the soup was thicker. To this day, I have respect for food and reverence for bread which I never throw away…Another terrible memory was lying ill in an unheated barrack in the severe winter of 1944, about four months before the liberation, next to a crying infant who was left to die so that his mother could live. A pregnant woman could not survive and the child had to die.
I consider my survival a miracle. I have no answer as to why I survived. I only know that there were special circumstances that kept me alive. FIRST, during two of the round ups in the Krakow ghetto, I was pulled out from the train destined to Auschwitz. During this period, every transport arriving in Auschwitz was immediately taken to the gas chamber. There was no selection. SECOND, in Plazow, I was chosen to be shot, but instead I was beaten to unconsciousness, but I survived. THIRD, after the selection by Dr. Mengele in Auschwitz, I jumped out of the window to escape the gas chamber and I was sent to a labor camp in Czechoslovakia with a transport of 350 women as a result of Oscar Schindler’s intervention. He had bribed the Commander in Auschwitz to get additional women out of the camp to work in small textile factories in Czechoslovakia where there was a labor shortage. Being in such a camp was no paradise, but it was run by older SS men who were less fanatical to kill. FOURTH miracle was my escape from a death march as the German villagers who lived around the camp, fearing reprisals from the advancing Russians, persuaded the guards not to proceed with the death march…These death marches forced the prisoners to walk hundreds of miles in severe winter weather towards Germany, away from the advancing Russians. Most of these prisoners were shot if they were unable to walk.
Other factors contributed to my survival. I was fortunate to have the ability to retreat from the terrible surroundings into my inner self and dream about sitting with my family around the candle lighted Shabbat table. In my memory, I warmed my shivering bones by the warmth of the candles and my starving body with imaginary food.
Equally significant was the ever presence of hope which played such an important part of my survival. I never gave up hope of seeing my Father again so that we could rebuild our lives after the war…While being marched through the village of Freudentahl on the way to work in April of 1945, I noticed candles burning in the windows in the front of pictures of Hitler. Hope entered my empty soul again. I knew then intuitively that the nightmare was coming to an end. Indeed the war ended one month later. So, miracles, the warm memories of my family and above all hope was my salvation.
At the lowest moment of my existence in the camps, I kept dreaming and hoping that one day the nightmare would be over. When the actual moment of liberation arrived, instead of laughter and joy, I was overcome by fear and I could not stop crying. I questioned whether I would find anybody waiting for me. I was in a foreign country and did not know how to return home. The Russian troops treated us well. the broke the doors to the food warehoused to let us eat whatever we wished, but I was sick with a stomach ulcer and that probably saved my life. Many of the prisoners who gorged themselves on food died of dysentery just after the liberation.
We were loaded into trucks by Russian solders and taken to German homes around the camp where we were encouraged to take whatever we wanted. In one house, my eyes focused on an apple. I had not eaten a piece of fruit in four years. I took the apple, a few articles of clothing and a towel. I only wanted to find my Father.
I returned to my home town of Krakow to locate the remnants of my family. I met a survivor who knew my Father in the concentration camp of Gossrosen where he was transferred from Plazow. He told me that the camp had been evacuated by the Germans and the prisoners taken on a death march. He saw my Father being shot because he was too weak to walk…No words can describe the despair I felt at that moment. The hope which kept me alive during the miserable years of incarceration were dashed.
I soon realized that there was no future for me in Poland..Some of my friends who had returned from camp were desperately seeking ways to leave for Palestine (now Israel) South America or the United States. All of Europe was in turmoil. Refugees from all over were running in different directions. We made our way to a refugee camp in Germany set up by the United Nations. In the Spring of 1946 I was fortunate enough to arrive in the United States with the assistance of the Hebrew Immigration Society. I was among the first transport of Displaced Persons approved for special immigration by President Truman.
I arrived in the US alive, but not well. I was alone, with no relatives, all of 21 with no high school education, trying to survive in New York City. I needed to learn how to become a human being again, gain my self respect and courage to go on. I began working in a factory during the day and going to school at night to learn ho learn English. It was a long and painful process.
It took me a total of 11 years to complete me education. During those years, I married and raised two fine children. Part of the credit for my career goes to my husband who not only helped me with my children but also typed most of my papers. He told me once: ” Ella, I would like to give you something that nobody can take away from you , namely your education”….We came to Phoenix in 1963 and I continued my education here. I graduated from ASU with a Master Degree in 1974 and shortly thereafter I became the Social Service Director at Mesa Lutheran Hospital, a position I held for some 11 years. I continued on a part time basis at John c. Lincoln Hospital till I retired in 1999.
Why did I choose to become a Social Worker? As I studied social problems in college, I realized that I did not have a corner on suffering. When I considered the misery in the world, starvation, disease, the exploitation and the indifference of great wealth next to poverty, I felt the need to help others less fortunate then myself…The years in concentration camps made me identify with the oppressed. Living under the most degrading conditions taught me compassion. Perhaps the concentration camps taught me just as much, and maybe more than the university….The gratitude that I felt for surviving, both physically and mentally, was instrumental in making my decision…I felt that I had the responsibility to try to make the world a little better. There is a Hebrew saying “Tikun Olam” which means to repair the world. We all have that responsibility.
While working at Mesa Lutheran Hospital, I initiated a support group for cancer patients called “Make Today Count” which is still functioning today. A reporter from the Mesa Tribune interviewed me in connection with this group. While we were talking, he learned about my Holocaust experience and how I was using my survival ordeal to help our patients. As a result of this article, I received many calls to speak to students, and since that time, I have not stopped speaking…. When I address students, I make them aware that the Holocaust took place in the 20th century, in a country which turned democracy into tyranny. I want them to know that they are the last generation to see and hear Survivors speak since in the next 5 years they will have either passed on or may not be able to speak. The average age of a Holocaust Survivor is approximately 82 years old…. When the students see my tattoo on my arm and listen to my story, they believe that the Holocaust did take place. Hopefully, when they are confronted with revisionists, those who refuse to believe that the Holocaust happened, the students will stand for the truth. In my presentations, I encourage the students to consider what they have in common rather than what divides them and that we have the freedom to chose right from wrong. My message is one of tolerance for one another. The most important lesson I have learned is that hatred and violence are the result of indifference and the silence of the majority.
60 years have passed since the Holocaust and world war II. It is but a moment in history. As we teach our young people about the past, we must also teach them to be responsible for the future. They will become the custodians for democracy in their time. It is a difficult task in this age of cynicism and violence. They will be severely tested and I am hoping that my presentation will give them some tools for the difficult task ahead.
Richard Rubinstein, a famous scholar whose pioneering work “After Auschwitz” set the agenda for Holocaust thought. He believes that the ultimate question left is how nations will treat those people who are superfluous, who have no rightful economic place in society, the mass murder of superfluous people is the perennial temptation of the modern state. In the United States, we have such people. The old, who no longer work; the young who do not work; the unemployed who cannot find work; the despairing poor, many of them minorities who live from generation to generation without work…We have however established a covenant of social justice in this country where the working population educate the young, give social security to the elderly, and provide minimum services for the needy. Will the present political climate, the strain of economic dislocation and the present downsizing break this covenant ?
To live authentically after the Holocaust, and after the tragedy of of September 11, one must be aware of the reality of RADICAL EVIL and its startling triumph and fight against it. Eli Wiesel, a Survivor and Nobel prize winner perhaps said it best: “So uniquely Jewish, the Holocaust has universal implications. What was done to one people affected mankind’s destiny. Once unleashed, evil will recognize no boundaries. Auschwitz may belong to the past, but I am part of a generation traumatized by mass murder, considered at that time a normal event. Whoever has seen a death camp will tell you that the impossible does become possible, the unthinkable does come to pass. IT IS too late for the dead. IS IT too late for the living as well ?…IT MAY BE IF WE FORGET !!!
Let me conclude with a quote from Deuteronomy (in the Bible). The words are carved in the stone on a wall in the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC::
“For the dead and the living, we must bear witness, only guard yourself and guard your soul carefully lest you forget the things your eyes saw and lest these things depart from your heart all the days of your life, and you shall make them known to your children and to your children’s children”
Thank you very much.