A Holocaust Survivor's Story - Never Forget
Jenny Orenstein, a Holocaust survivor and the grandmother of Zoe Knecht, a Thrive staff member, spoke to the Thrive Study Abroad students in honor of Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day).
She asked that her story be passed down and publicized, so that we will never forget.
This is her story.
Jenny Orenstein's Story – Internment in Rivesaltes (As read by her daughter and granddaughter)
Introduction – ZOE
The camp of Rivesaltes is probably the smallest and least publicized internment camp in western Europe. Situated in the South of France it sits on a rail route 40K from the Spanish border and was considered as a strategic position for the French army. The history of its internment camp is horrific. Today, under the shadow of a wind-farm, behind an industrial estate, desolate ruined huts and latrines bear witness to man's inhumanity to man.
Southern France became a major haven for Jewish refugees attempting to flee to neutral countries. The role of France's Vichy government, which collaborated with the Nazis from 1940 -1944, in shipping Jews and others to Nazi death camps is gruesome. Stark figures remain. The darkest period of the camp was during one three-month period in 1942; nine convoys carried 2,313 Jews, including 400 children of the Rivesaltes camp, and transferred them via the Drancy internment camp to the notorious Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz – where they were brutally murdered. Few people who were deported from Rivesaltes survived the war.
In the Rivesaltes camp, there was serious overcrowding, families were separated and starving, and in the height of its operation, it became the most active way station for persecuted Jews. Nazi Germany was determined to comb Europe from west to east in order to administer, at last, "the final solution of the Jewish question". It is in this context that the camp of Rivesaltes played its most shameful part.
Among the thousands of foreign Jews who were refugees in France and were arrested and interned in the camp of Rivesaltes, were two little girls. Sisters. (PHOTO)
Sophie and Jenny Merel. The little one, on the right is my grandmother, Jenny Orenstein - who wrote the following story:
My story is my sister Sophie’s story too, for we were and still are, inseparable. Most people who have survived the hell of Europe have already written their experiences a long time ago. My children and even my grandchildren are clamouring to know what happened to my family and me. Well, if I do not record this testimony now, it will be as if this nightmare never happened. Nobody would really know what my family and I went through. You, my dear ones, have a right to know… It’s a story that happened to me amongst my people.
I was born into an orthodox family. We were the only Jewish family in our village. 15 minutes walk from my home took us to Hirschhaid, the next village. There, some nine Jewish families lived. It was in Hirschhaid that we attended Shul, as well as Sunday “Cheder”.
My father's name is Shmuel – Shmuel Merel. (PHOTO) Born to Gershon and Chaya on the 11th October 1890 in Goriza, Poland, his family later moved to Tarnow and then to Bamberg in Germany.
My mother's name is Mindel-Minna, (PHOTO) born to Alter Yosef and Scheindel Feniger on 8th January 1890 in Dukla, Poland. Her family moved to Leipzig in Germany. Both families were learned and religious. My parents married in Leipzig where my eldest sister Lottie was born.
The Merel family eventually moved to Sassanfahrt where I myself was born. I have very fond memories of my home life there – though short lived.
We were five children in the family, Lottie (who later became a nurse), Ester (became a dressmaker), Nathan (became an optician), Sophie (a secretary/ typist) and myself – the youngest member of the family, dressmaker/homemaker.
Father worked in the family business. It was a store selling, linen, bedding, sheets, and towels. Transporting goods by bicycle was hard work. No one had a car in those days.
My Mother was always busy; what with demanding household chores, caring for us, mending, cleaning, jam making, cooking, and what not. Once a fortnight a lady from the village came to do the laundry in the out-house, and helped mother with all sorts of domestics jobs. Since we had no oven at home - it was our job, Sophie and I, to take large trays with Challot, cakes and even bread to the baker. After a couple of hours, we would return and bring the golden well-baked, real professional and delicious stuff home. My mother was the best baker in the world.
We had running water in our house, although we did have to warm up water and carry it to the bath (die Badewanne) as we had no running hot water from the tap. It was a lot of hard work. Luckily, we had an indoor W C too.
Father’s hobby was gardening. We lived in a big house, and had a large garden at the back. We had a huge cherry tree that Sophie and I loved to climb, a pear tree beside the house that gave large, sweet pears, three plum trees, and a row of gooseberry bushes that stretched right across the width of the garden.
We children were very active in the garden, watering trees and picking fruits. We also grew a lot of vegetables, which our parents bottled and canned. Mother made the most wonderful mouth-watering pastries and cakes with the home grown fruits and she made delicious jams as well. They tasted far superior to the stuff we buy and eat today. Mother also made her own noodles, all sorts of pasta and vermicelli, as well as “Kreplech”. Hirschhaid, the village next to Sassanfahrt had a small kosher “Makolet” for the nine Jewish families that lived there, and Mother would regularly buy groceries there, but mostly I remember her spending time chatting with the owner of the shop.
We did not eat meat dishes often as there was a restriction as far as slaughtering animals was concerned. The Germans considered the kosher way we slaughter animals to be inhumane. Shechita was forbidden.
Shabbat was always the best and most beautiful day of the week. First of all, our beloved Father came home. (He worked all week long in the family business in Bamburg). Our two older sisters Lotti and Esther came home too, and our brother Nathan, who was in Yeshivah also joined us occasionally for Shabbat. When he was home, he livened up the place a lot – telling tales, jokes and showing us tricks. Sophie and I adored him we hung on to his every word and looked up to our big brother. Shabbat was a time of “bonding” for all of us. Friday evening we prayed at home but Father and Nathan went to shul in Hirschaid. Before lighting the Shabbat candles we changed clothes and Mother would put on her jewellery. Later, we all sat down to a special meal, with home-made Challot and wine that Father made from raisins, and other delicacies. We sang songs in honour of the Shabbat and I remember there was always an exceptional warm atmosphere in our house. Father had a good, clear loud voice. He knew all the songs from the Jewish theatre and had a passion for singing. We had a gramophone at home and many many records – all from well-known Chazanim singing prayers. The Shabbat candles, seven in all – two for the Shabbat; five corresponding to the number of children in the household, gave our dining room a festive air.
Twice a year, just before Pessach and Rosh Hashana our dear Mother would take Sophie and me to a local dressmaker to order new clothes for the chag. The material for our new dresses, usually a pretty blue flowered cotton material, was brought from the family shop in Bamburg. But there was a problem. The dressmaker had some big white geese in her garden. Sophie and I were terrified of them and let me tell you, if you start running away from geese showing your fear -they will outrun you every time, and even pinch you from behind. We dreaded having new dresses made all because of those aggressive geese.
We attended the local school in Sassanfahrt. One day, it must have been in 1939, we were fetched by a policeman in the middle of a morning lesson and were escorted home. There we found our parents packing a small suitcase for each of us. The Germans wanted to be free of all foreign Jews, and were shipping all Polish Jews back to Poland. At such short notice and with the allowance of one small suitcase per person, my parents were in a dilemma. How do you decide what to take with you from home after half a lifetime? The local German policeman who knew Father well apologized earnestly, but once at the train station, it was another matter. The Germans treated us ruthlessly. We were just numbers. We had no identity anymore.
I don't remember much of that journey but I do know that Hashem was good to us. My family was in the last train to arrive at Poland’s border and as luck would have it - our train was returned to Germany. Poland wasn't accepting anymore Jews. You can imagine our rejoicing. We returned to our comfortable home in Sassanfahrt.
My parents obviously knew that the drums of war were sounding louder and louder for they had sent my sisters – Lotti and Esther and my brother Nathan to England with the Kindertransport, just before the war broke out. I, the youngest of the family, was blissfully unaware of what was going on; although at night, I could sometimes hear muffled conversations between Mother and Father, and Father comforting Mother between her sobs.
In front of our house in Sassanfahrt there was a large green empty field where boys used to play football. Now, the German Hitler Jugend assembled there, marching and singing anti-Jewish songs.
My parents had a very good relationship with our neighbours. One night, our neighbour came to our house and warned us about what he had overheard in the “Bierstube” – the local pub. The Hitler Jugend were going to burn down our house. This sympathetic neighbor offered to let us have his loft, and took us into his home. There, we slept on mattresses on the floor – my parents, Sophie and I. Not that we slept. Sure enough, at about 1 a.m. or so German youths gathered outside our house chanting, “Schmeiss heraus die Juden Bande, aus unseren Vaterlande”… and other such insults which I have forgotten. They threw stones at our house but thank G-d did not burn it down, just broke some windows.
After that night my Father decided that we should try to escape to Belgium. We spent a few days packing and sent four huge wooden crates with our most valued possessions, including silver, house linens, and personal belongings to England. My parents made provision for Lotti and Esther’s “Nedunia” in that shipment. However, all was lost. Those crates were never cleared at the customs and that was the end of our possessions. We never saw any of our family’s belongings ever again.
My parents, Sophie and I were smuggled illegally over the border into Belgium. We were taken in a small delivery van, usually used to deliver bread (that had “Boulangerie” written on its side) to a forest. From there a guide took us through the forest on foot to the border. A farmer gave us shelter in a stable, as well as milk and bread. The next day, we made our way to Brussels where my Aunt Ratze (my mother's sister) and her husband had a small flat. Although they had preceded us by only a few weeks, they were welcoming and helpful. We stayed there for the first night and the next day we found our own place. I remember we went to live in Rue Verte. It was not very comfortable, but at least we were together. That was the most important thing to us.
It did not take long before the Germans flew their airplanes over Brussels. Once more, we tried to escape from the advancing and brutal German army. We left for France, and this time took even fewer of our belongings with us and made our way to the main train station. As we were running towards the station the sirens went off. We could literally see the German bombers flying very low over our heads, and then soon after they passed us, we saw bombs dropping over the city and the train station. I think we had a lucky escape. Thank G-d we were saved.
We eventually caught a train to France. Many trains were indeed bombed but our train got through. We arrived in France and were sent to a village together with some other fifty people and had a little time to recuperate. Not for long though - a law came out that Jews had to report somewhere and we were put into a camp. All Jews were interned.
The first concentration camp was called Recebedou. We were still together – the four of us a family so, in my young mind - it was not too bad. But then, they took all the men away and sent them to a working camp. Without Father, it was just Mother, Sophie and me. I can't remember the exact locations we were moved to after that, but we were sent hither and thither, blown around like leaves in the wind. We spent time in four other concentration camps; the longest lasting period and the most dramatic internment of them all was the last camp called “Rivesaltes”, situated in the vicinity of Perpignan and on the border of the Pyrenees with Spain.
We were on yet another train – destination unknown. Suddenly the monotony came to an end and with an abrupt halt and a massive jerk we found ourselves in the middle of nowhere. We disentangled ourselves from other people and their belongings and in the midst of a lot of shouting and prodding were made to disembark and march towards an area in the distance. As we approached we saw a high barbed wire fence encircling the camp. Later, once inside, we were informed that this was the camp of “Rivesaltes”.
It was evening. We had traveled for many hours and arrived in the camp hungry, thirsty, tired and disheartened. We had to obey what the feared armed guards commanded us to do. No food was given that night… it was just the beginning. Little did we know that we would be hungry for most of the time we spent there.
As a small child I remember how afraid I was of the tall lookout towers with the sentries inside. The sentries were armed and pointed their guns at us. The entire camp was fenced off with high barbed wire and lookout towers were positioned approximately every thirty yards or so along its perimeter. We were allocated to a long, windowless, wooden hut which had a single skylight in the roof. The barrack – as I learned it was called was always in a permanent, oppressive state of semi-darkness. No air circulated either and it was unbearably stuffy inside. There were straw mattresses lining the walls on either side of the narrow barrack in such close proximity, that only a cramped passageway in the middle allowed people either to enter and lie down, or to get up and leave. I felt claustrophobic immediately. There were no tables or chairs anywhere; only filthy straw mattresses. My mother held on to my hand tightly. On her other side was Sophie, a small hold-all between them. These were our only possessions. I started to cry and my mother soothed my tears with comforting words and kisses, promising to tell me a story before I went to sleep. My big sister Sophie who is older than me by two years and who I adore now as before looked at me with sad reproachful eyes and told me to grow up and stop acting like a baby.
Day followed night, and night followed day - monotonously without relief. I lost all track of time. Our mattresses were infested with lice and water was very scarce. I will not even try to describe the foul stench of the latrines. Once a day, we received a watery unappetizing turnip soup. Served in a rusty tin it had tiny bits of meat and vegetable peelings floating in it. My mother refused to eat the soup as it was “treife” (not kosher) but made sure that we children ate her portion as well. A small portion of black bread was measured out very carefully with a piece of string so that everybody received an equal share of the bread. It is not surprising that to this very day, after 70 years, I still cannot bring myself to throw out old bread, or any other food. I know what hunger means. Hunger and suffering cannot just be wiped from my memory. Can I forget that which is etched in my memory forever?
One morning, soon after we arrived at Rivesaltes I woke up shivering and feeling feverish. I could not swallow at all. I was taken to another hut which had the word “Infirmary” on the door. There I was examined and diagnosed with diphtheria. I was kept in isolation since diphtheria is an infectious disease. I wasn't allowed to go back to the barrack to be together with Mother and Sophie. I was afraid and very lonely and cried myself to sleep. Mother and Sophie tried to visit me but were not allowed in to the infirmary. All the windowpanes of the infirmary were painted over with blue paint so that no one from outside could look in and those inside couldn't look out. I remember standing by the window and with my fingernail and spit I scratched away two little holes making myself a pair of eyes – to my joy I could now see Sophie and my Mother when they came to visit me. This was a small consolation. I spent most of my day glued to that windowpane. I don't know how long I stayed in the sick bay but it seemed like ages and ages. When I was finally released back to our barrack, Sophie was there alone. My beloved Mother wasn't there. The first thing my sister told me was not to worry, because our Mother had been taken to work in a different part of the camp. I constantly questioned Sophie about Mother's whereabouts. My darling sister repeated herself time and again with patience, optimism, and always offering a glimmer of hope. I so very much wanted to believe her!
I realized that Sophie was all I had left of my family. I had lost everyone I loved most in the world; everyone and everything. My beloved Mother & Father were gone. Lotti, Esther and Nathan were somewhere in England and I had no idea where that was, or if I would ever see them again. I clung to my sister Sophie, in fact I was her shadow and followed her around everywhere. Dear Sophie only two years older than me took on the role of mother and father and protected me from all the anguish, despair and misery as much as she could. She was creative, inspiring, gifted and brilliant. Untiring in her efforts to occupy my mind, she made up all sorts of games to play with me… a branch or twig became a doll… a round pebble or stone became a ball. I can't remember how many weeks of wretchedness elapsed but late one night my sister woke me up from a restless sleep, placed her index finger over my lips, and whispered softly in my ear "DON’T make a sound". She took me by the hand, and led me, silently, through the door and out of the barrack. By now I was wide-awake. As we stepped out into the darkness, a lady standing in the shadows of the barrack gave something to the armed guard outside, and he looked away from us. We made our way quickly and quietly towards the main gate of the camp. The guard there nodded his head discretely at us. My heart was pounding. I was sure everyone could hear it. Sophie squeezed my hand so hard it hurt. I held my breath with fear and without looking back - just kept walking. No one screamed at us to stop; no one shot at us. We just walked out of the camp. A miracle, I suppose. Till today, I don't know who this lady was or who sent her. She must have been from the OSE Francaise: Oeuvre de secours aux enfants. She spoke French to us. Our French was non-existent but her words were music to our ears. This woman, the guardian angel who rescued us from hellhole of Rivesaltes, waved us good-bye and another lady took charge of us. She ushered us into a car and once more we heard softly spoken melodious French. She smiled a lot to reassure us. We had no idea what she was saying. After what seemed like a long drive she stopped the car at a little house by the sea. Yet another lady welcomed us with a smile: “Bonjours les enfants”. We must have answered in German, for she replied “Kein Deutsch!, Kein Deutsch! – “Que le Francais” – "No German, only French!" We were only too happy not to speak the language of our loathsome and hated oppressors. We wanted to forget anything connected with the Germans for they had robbed us of our beloved family, our youth and our innocence. Slowly we tentatively spoke a few words in French, like “Bonjour, Bonsoir, Merci, and S’il vous plais”. We were given a real bath, clean ironed fresh clothes and felt reborn. That night we had a sandwich and a drink and went to sleep in a real bed with clean sheets. Sophie and I both said the “Shema” and prayed to G-d thanking Him for our miraculous release from the dreaded camp at Rivesaltes. It was truly a miracle! We couldn't fall asleep from excitement and whispered to each other in the darkness for a long time into the night. We promised ourselves to say the Shema every night and to thank Hashem daily for all His kindness to us. The next day, we were told that we were in Palavas-les-Flots. A doctor examined us, and measured and weighed us. We were given good food and a young lady took us, along with about 10 other girls, to the beach which was across the street from where we were staying. We sat on the beach all day long. This daily routine continued. We were weighed every week, till, I suppose we were of normal weight again.
Like a parcel that has no address on it, we were sent to various places – children's homes in France. Sophie and I never quarreled. In fact, we were constantly used as an example to other sisters who did not behave as lovingly as us two. The homes I remember are Masgelier and Couret, where we spent most time.
We, Sophie and I, lived through many adventures between the years 1941 and 1945. Two lonely little girls cruelly separated from their parents - I thought we would never smile again. Whenever I questioned my sister about the fate of our Mother and Father - she was vague. The conversation was always the same. Where are they? What will become of us? Simplistically I would look around me and constantly asked – what was it all for? Now I realize that this was an absurdly uncomplicated query and perhaps I should have known better but to dwell on it. But I was a small child and couldn't yet comprehend the big issues of good and evil.
We were kept busy with learning to speak perfect French lest our true identity be discovered, and then suddenly, there was a rumour - the Germans were advancing, our very existence threatened - and the all too familiar shattering scenes were played out yet again. The Children's Home collapsed and the gnawing fear of what would become of us became a reality. Some of the older Jewish girls were sent to be hidden in convents - younger children were holed up with families in the country. Sophie and I were given new names and were told to use another place of birth if questioned, and were sent to a family who lived in a small village near Toulouse. They had a pub and kept rabbits and a few sheep. We spent many hours on our feet at the kitchen sink at the back of the pub, sometimes till late at night, washing up dirty plates and glasses. I was small and could barely reach the kitchen counter - fearful to break something lest there be hell to pay afterwards. We also guarded the sheep and chopped firewood. It was not unusual to hear German bombs falling.
We attended church every Sunday. The priest in the village, an elderly gentleman, was evidently informed about our identity. He was always very kind when he spoke to us.
I don't know how long we lived at the pub but one day we were smuggled over the border from France to Switzerland. We joined a group of about thirty other children who were dressed in school uniform apparently on a school outing in a forest. We were told to be quiet, and to just keep going. Our guide did not want us to attract attention. We knew that there were police and dogs guarding the border – who knew what terrible fate lay ahead of us if we were discovered? At one point we reached a barbed wire fence. Our guide motioned to us that we would just have to scrape through as best as we could to reach the other side – and then he was gone. He disappeared among the trees and we found ourselves alone. Thirty scrawny, defenceless, orphaned little children – the enemy of the great Third Reich. I had a quick look at the barbed wire fence and decided that the quickest way for all of us to get through would be for one of us to pick up the loosest part of the bottom wire closest to the ground, so that the children could crawl through. And I did just that. Sophie waited for me on the other side of the fence – I was the last child to cross over the border. Once through, we ran as fast as we could to put as much distance between us and our past as possible. Soon enough, we saw a Swiss policeman smiling at us and beckoning us into a police station. There someone took down our names and other particulars and we were sent to a large hotel in Geneva. The Carlton, just opposite the United Nations Building, was our first step in a new life. The hotel was used in order to process refugees and from there we were sent to a number of hostels and orphanages. The first place we arrived at was called Alpina and it seemed like heaven after our afflictions. There, we were taken on wonderful walks in the mountains. Food was plentiful and by choice we conversed fluently in French - we never wanted to speak hateful German ever again. Once strong enough we realized that we could not continue eating non kosher meat. Our self imposed dietary restrictions were brought to the notice of the “Directrice” – the matron of the orphanage. She summoned us to her office and explained to us how important it was that we eat well in order for our bodies to recover from the years of nutritional deprivation. We told her that we were religious Jews from an orthodox home and now that the danger was over, we were not allowed to eat non kosher food. This kind and understanding woman made arrangements to send us to a religious home in “Grub” where we not only received kosher food but were instructed in Torah and Mitzvoth. For the week of Pessach the hostel closed down, and the orphaned children were sent out to religious families in the neighbourhood of Zurich. I was placed with a very kind lady who had one child. Sophie was sent to a family by the name of Pugatsch – it was the first time we were separated since I had been confined to the infirmary in Rivesaltes. Sophie constantly came to visit me and check up on me. On chag we met at Shul and in the afternoon joined up with other youngsters. There was a world of difference between the orphaned children and those who were lucky enough to have been spared the war experience. We were so poorly dressed and they appeared to be so loved and beautifully cared for. If we felt any inferiority we weren't going to let it show! When it came to the Jewish folk dancing we, all the refugee children, danced the Horah with all the more flamboyance, to show that we didn't care a hoot.
Life in the hostel continued to the end of the war. When this hostel closed down we were sent to Dr Ascher’s School in Bex-les-Bains. Before the war this institution had been a renowned finishing school, but all boarding schools gave refuge to homeless children at that time. We continued as best we could in the footsteps of our parents and conscientiously strived to lead a life based on the ethics of the Torah – as best we could remember how.
The Red Cross eventually contacted our sisters and brother in the UK. In October 1945, Bloomsbury House arranged passage to London for Sophie and I. The crossing was the worst ever and we were dreadfully sea sick. Once on dry land we took a train. My thoughts were confused, my feelings numb - and after watching the passing unfamiliar countryside through the train window and hearing snippets of a strange language which I could not understand, the train came to rest in Victoria Station. At last we were reunited with our sisters and brother. We hardly recognized them - after all, five and a half years is a long time in a child’s life… we had all changed so much. We couldn't speak English, they knew no French. But body language says it all - they hugged and kissed us and received us with much love and warmth. We were overjoyed to be together again.
That very first night in London, Sophie gave me a good night kiss and a hug. She said "Listen Jenny, I am sorry, but I must now tell you the truth. Our dear Mother died in Rivesaltes, whilst you were away at the “Infirmary” with diphtheria. You were too little to know the truth at the time. I didn't want to hurt you, I didn't want you to lose hope."
I was shocked. All the infantile trust I had built up; the expectancy of finding our parents alive after the war now vanished in the blink of an eye. Truthfully, deep down in my heart, I suspected all along that they had not survived and although I was overwhelmed with grief at the confirmation of my worst nightmare, I could not even cry… my tears would not come.
It took me a long time till I was able to get on with my new life in England and put all the war atrocities behind me. My siblings took us in. We lived in a little attic room on the top floor of a building, no: 60 Manor Road, N16. Lottie, Ester and Nathan did everything in their power to give us a warm and loving home. They really cared for us, as our parents would have wished.
Thrown into the deep-end of things I could not understand a word of English, but this time around, I was sent to school, like any other normal child. Avigdor High School was where I learnt English. As you can imagine, there was a huge gap in my education. I had lots to catch up on. I excelled in French and German and even won book prizes in those two subjects. I finished school and later studied fashion design and dressmaking. Till today, Sophie and I are grateful to our sisters and brother for those good years. Not all that much older than us, they themselves were struggling. It must have been so hard for them.
As for my sister Sophie, who was after all only two years older than me - I just wonder and marvel at her remarkable wisdom, tenacity and resolve. Just a little girl herself, she tried to protect me from all the hurt and pain in the world as best as she could and to a great extent, she succeeded. I shall always be grateful and indebted to her to the end of my days. I am, and always will be her devoted fan and admirer. I love her, till this day, with a deep and powerful emotion.
I give thanks to the Al-mighty, All Merciful, All Powerful who has shown us compassion. He has carried us through dangerous pathways. Our war experience was like walking across a minefield – it was not without Hashem's guidance that we reached the other side safely.
It should be known that the OSE – the French, Save the Children's Organization, saved 60,000 Jewish children from death camps in France during the period of 1939-1945.We, Sophie and I were fortunate enough to be two amongst 60,000 of our people.
You should know that the real misery and suffering, the living hell on earth were in the concentration camps of Auschwitz, Maidanek, Skarzysko-Kamienna and the Warsaw Ghetto to name but a few. Millions of Jews were horribly tortured and tragically murdered - killed in the most appalling way. Can we compare the camps in France to those I mentioned? No, we cannot. We were amongst the lucky ones. We are branded, yes, but then so is every single Jew who passed through the ugly well oiled Nazi mechanism of W.W. II. The brand is not always visible; but it is forever engraved on our souls.
MUM – CONCLUSION
Thank you Sara and Zoe for reading my story. I could not have read it out myself – it is hard for me just to listen to its contents.
Some years ago I returned to Poland with my children and some of my grandchildren. I dedicate the following words of conclusion to my darling husband Salek, Zal – a man who suffered and survived the relentless oppression of the Nazis (Yemach Shemam), and a man who, as I look at our children, grandchildren and great grandchildren, did not struggle for human dignity in vain.
I was a child during those war years and in many ways, the most painful of all the tragedies of the Holocaust – was the fate of the children. No one can hear about those horrific years without being moved and at times overwhelmed, by the ruthless diabolical destruction of innocent Jewish life. From the tiniest baby to the teenager on the verge of what ought to have been the years of opportunity and fulfillment – against the innocent lives of men, women and children, Germany raised its ugly shadow of the swastika and Hitler blamed the Jews for all of Germany's shortcomings.
My husband used to say that Poland is a land soaked in Jewish blood. Jews perished in extermination camps, execution sites, ghettos, slave labour camps, and on death marches. Jews perished of starvation and of broken hearts. The victims, the 6 million who were done to death, among them my parents and Salek's family, could leave no record. A few fragments of diaries, letters and heartbreaking scribbled messages thrown from in between the slats of cattle trucks –do survive. But in the main, people like me must bear witness to what was done to the millions who will never tell their own story.
A Jew who sought safety in surrender was killed without mercy. A non Jew who gave refuge to a Jew met the same end. Such was the hatred of the Third Reich. The end for all Jews was to be death.
And I will say this – contrary to what you may have heard, the will to resist was strong and took many forms. In many places Jews fought with those few weapons that could be found, fighting with sticks and knives, individual acts of defiance and protest, the courage of obtaining food under the threat of death, the nobility of refusing to allow the Germans their final victory to gloat over panic and despair. Even passivity was a form of courage. To die with dignity was in itself courageous. To resist the dehumanizing, brutalizing force of evil, to refuse to be abased to the level of animals, to live through the torment, to outlive the tormentors or to die with the words "Shema Yisroel" on your lips – this too was bravery.
I believe that my father was murdered in Auschwitz. The Jews who arrived at Auschwitz had been given many promises. While black smoke was rising from the chimneys behind the gas chambers Jews still wanted to believe that they were going to be reunited with their loved ones.
Many years ago I stood inside the death camp of Auschwitz and tried to imagine the scene. I tried to stand still as death. My Father, where had he stood? Did he know that Jews were being slaughtered here? Did he know that he was outnumbered and defenseless? Did he recite Shema Yisroel?
I stood at a small pool of water at the end of the camp, infested with mosquitoes – a grey soil pervades. Our guide told me that here were the ashes. I heard my children say Kadish. I lit a candle – but I could not cry. My grief, my anguish is beyond tears.