Three Holocaust Experiences
My friends tell me their stories
I have learnt, I think sometimes the hard way, that one cannot, nor should not criticise anyone who went through, and survived, the shoa, the holocaust, the mass and brutal murder of the Jews of Europe during the Second World War by the German nation and their Polish, Ukrainian, Lithuanian, Slovak -- the list is too long to mention everyone -- collaborators.
The fact that these people are mentally normal, that they married and then raised families, started, from scratch, successful businesses, and became leaders amongst men, can only attest to the hand of God in our world.
I want to introduce you to three men whom I am honoured to call my friends, and I want them to tell you a small part of the story.
Last night my friend Eli told me that today he has yartzeit (remembrance day on the anniversary of the passing of a loved one) for his mother and sister. I know quite a bit of Eli's personal history: deported from Czechoslovakia to Auschwitz at a young age, slave labourer, death march into Germany, eventual liberation from hell at Buchenwald. Into Israel before the creation of the State.
I asked him how he knows the exact date, right in the middle of sukkoth, that his mother was slaughtered.
We arrived at the station. We were "greeted" by the kanada kommando, Jews whose job it was to ensure that everyone got off the train in an orderly fashion and did not take with them any of their belongings. For some reason unknown to me, one of them was attracted to my father.
"How old are you?", he asks.
"Too old for here. Tell them a younger age. What do you do?"
"There's no need for accounts here. Tell them you worked in something physical. Spread the word around to whoever you know amongst the new arrivals."
At our "induction", father told them he was forty-two and was a manager in a brickworks where he had started his career as a labourer. I told them I was eighteen even though I was still half a year from my fifteenth birthday.
We were taken to mens' barracks. Here, in Auschwitz, there were kapos who were mean sadists and there were others who were a little more helpful, though by no means nice gentlemen. I approached one of the latter on that first night. I don't understand I said to him. Our family, father, mother, ten year old sister and I, we arrived together on the transport. But while my father and I are here, I do not know the whereabouts of my mother and sister.
The capo took me to a corner of the barracks, to a narrow window. He pointed at some smokestacks at a distance. "See those chimneys?", he asked rhetorically.
"Watch the smoke rising. See it rise? Op! There goes your mother!
"More smoke. Opa! That was your sister".
Our "eighteen year old" fourteen year old told me it took him a full hour to absorb what had just been said to him.
My friend Moshe Haim lived in Poland, near to the border with Germany. He worked and moved between these two countries. A young married man, he had three children at the outbreak of world war two, the invasion of Poland. The oldest, his pride and joy, was a seven year old daughter.
Moshe Haim decided to make a run for it. "We knew that they would quickly come after the men", he told me, "but we did not believe for one minute that they would touch women and children".
As made his farewells to his family, his seven year old daughter looked him in the eyes and said, "I know why you're running away . . . you're scared of the Germans." It was his last, lasting image of her.
Moshe Haim made it to Lithuania, into Russia, across Asia on the Trans-Siberian Rail with the Mirer Yeshiva and fellow travellers, to Kobe, Japan, and eventually to Japanese controlled Shanghai, China. Here they all remained until the the end of the war, though their initial intent had been escape eastward to America.
The war has finally ended; the Jewish world is taking stock. Moshe Haim receives a message from a cousin that he has survived and so has all of their families. He is elated. He decides to throw a celebratory kiddish for everyone in town. But before that shabboth, he is approached by Rabbi Meir Ashkenazi, a Lubavitcher chasid who served as the spiritual leader of the Jewish refugees in the Shanghai ghetto.
"Your entire family, other than the cousin whose message you received earlier, are dead. Only he and you, out of all of them, are alive today. And your cousin sent his message from the asylum in which he is an inmate."
Moshe Haim's anger with God was immense. How could allow this happen? How could He allow this to happen? He took of his everpresent kippa and threw it onto the ground. He did not want any part of this God.
But then he quickly realised. If I throw all this away, then for what did my family die? For what had they ever lived?
And Moshe Haim picked up his kippa and placed it back onto his head, back to where it had always been.
But my friend still had to show the Creator that he had a gripe with Him. From now on he would only fast on Yom Kippur, not on any of the other fast days.
"I starved often enough in that ghetto", he told me. "I don't need to fast any more."
My cousin, Ernest, was fifteen when he was deported from Hungary [really Czechoslovakia -- thanks to that useless idiot, Neville Chamberlain] to Auschwitz. Slave labourer, death march into Germany, eventual liberation.
On release Ernest returns home, to his family's house. The now sixteen year old, who has already seen more of the struggle for life and survival than the average sixty year old, realises his parents are not returning home. Reality and death in Europe are too real for this generation. He too removes his kippa. He too wants no part in a God who could wreak this damage to his "very own" people. He decides to throw it all away.
And he does. He participated in activities that would not meet his parents' approval; he ate food that they wouldn't want him to it. He was rebelling and his God deserved it.
One night soon after, Ernest's father comes to him in a dream. "Ernest, is this how I brought you up? Is this what we died for? Is this what we lived for? For you to bring children into this world to live like you are living now?
"I woke up in a sweat; my clothes were soaked through. Deep down inside, I knew what I had to do."
My cousin too put his kippa back on his head and returned to the God of our fathers.
Menachem Kuchar, 7th July, 2009
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