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Posts Tagged ‘Holocaust Remembrance Day’

This week I introduced what will be a series of posts under the heading of ‘Seventy Years’, marking the 70th anniversary of the close of World War II and discovery of the magnitude of the most horrific crime in the history of the world, the Holocaust.

Today I travel again back to Auschwitz-Birkenau, sharing some of my personal observations and photographs on the anniversary of the liberation by Soviet troops 70 years ago this week.

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July 12.

After the tour of Auschwitz I, our teacher travel study group has lunch on the bus in the parking lot, then drive the three kilometers through town to Birkenau.

There it is. The entry tower. The iconic symbol of evil.

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Main entrance to the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp. USHMM

Main entrance to Auschwitz-Birkenau . USHMM

 

We follow the guide up the stairs in the tower. From here we can see the sheer vastness of the camp.

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Women's Barracks. Auschwitz II.

Women’s Barracks. Auschwitz II.

 

Dozens of long narrow women’s barracks, brick, still stand, albeit some braced with wood on the gable ends to keep them from toppling until they can be re-pointed. A. indicates that historic preservation here is a major concern.

 

Vastness

The rest of the camp is many square kilometers of row upon row of foundations and brick chimney stubs, surrounded by the menacing curved and tapered concrete concrete posts dotted with white insulators and strung with miles of parallel lines of barbed wire. In the summer of 1944, when hundreds of thousands of Hungarian families were deported here, the rail lines came right into the camp.

View of the Ramp at Auschwitz-Birkenau Showing the SS Selection of Hungarian Jews USHMM.

View of the Ramp at Auschwitz-Birkenau Showing the SS Selection of Hungarian Jews, USHMM.

 

View of the Ramp at Auschwitz-Birkenau Showing the SS Selection of Hungarian Jews, USHMM.

View of the Ramp at Auschwitz-Birkenau Showing the SS Selection of Hungarian Jews, USHMM.

 

Following the German invasion of Hungary in March 1944, over 400,000 Hungarian Jews  were deported and murdered at Auschwitz.

 

The Walk.

Our guide leads us along the path through the camp that leads to the gas chamber and crematorium. We walk in in silence along the roadway, the only sound the crunching of brick fragments and gravel underfoot.

Selected.

Selected.

 

The Walk.

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It appears to have been paved with brick, slave labor, though in some spots it is hard to tell anymore. No one speaks, and on and on we walk. Two minutes. Five minutes. Ten minutes. Fifteen minutes. I’ve been on battlefields that are smaller than this site.

 

Flower ring as we make final approach to the chambers tucked into the wooded area nearby.

Finally we reach the end of the camp where the kitchens stood. A round concrete ring rises out of the earth, maybe 6 feet in diameter. Someone finally speaks and asks A. what it was. A giant flowerpot. She tells us also that they were placed near the entrances of the gas chambers. Flowers at the gas chambers.

Waiting. For what we do not know.

Waiting. For what we do not know. Exhausted from deportation and “travel”. We now know who they were. Yad Vashem.

 

We turn left, and keep walking past interpretative signage. It seems like we are walking outside of camp perimeter. But we are not. Beautiful woods appear and we are walking on the edge of the woods with the camp to our left. We stop near another sign and rest for a moment, allowing the others to catch up. Then our guide calls our attention to the photo on the sign, showing Hungarian mothers and children doing the same thing we are doing. Halting and resting.  And a short path through the woods will take us to the ruins of the gas chamber/crematorium Number Five.

They waited here. Some days, in the summer of 1944, for hours.

They waited here. Some days, in the summer of 1944, for hours.

 

We are resting at the spot they rested at, 20 minutes after walking, immediately after disembarking of overcrowded transports that had been traveling for days. Here they waited, anxiously, as their turn to approach the chamber would come. But the victims of the transport ahead of them had to be removed from the chamber first. Some days in the summer of 1944 these victims were backed up for hours.

I pick up a rock from the path and carry it with me past the ruins. At the ashfield there is more signage and a memorial asking visitors not to walk through the field. I place my stone on the memorial, looking down to watch where I step. But it is probably a futile gesture-this whole place is an ashyard, a graveyard.

 

The secret sonderKommando photos. Where the bodies were burned in open air.

The secret sonderkommando photos. Where the bodies were burned in open air.

 

“So many Hungarian Jews were killed in the Auschwitz camps during that period that the crematoria were incapable of consuming all the bodies, and open pits for the purpose were dug.”

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We turn again, and walk past the remains of crematorium Number Four. To the disinfection center for those selected to be worked to death. Again, a system. Disrobing. Wading through disinfectant. Shower. Uniform thrown at you, mismatched clogs or shoes.

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E’s mother spent two years here. Her grandmother and the little ones were selected upon arrival. Her mom’s beloved sister was murdered in the quarry after slipping while carrying a large pot of soup in the ice and snow with three other girls. Today is a hard day. I want to comfort her, to carry her pack for her. I feel helpless. There is nothing I can do.

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At the Soviet memorial constructed near the two destroyed gas chamber/crematoria at the end, we have a remembrance ceremony. Kaddish is recited in Hebrew. I read it aloud in English. With tears, E. tells us that she feels her grandmother smiling down on this extraordinary group of dedicated teachers. A lump rises, again. I swallow hard and try to blink back the wetness I feel welling in my eyes. Damn, I almost made it. Glad for the sunglasses, even though there is no sun.

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“A Warning to Humanity.”

We light candles, turn our backs, and walk out, which provides another twenty-minute stretch of personal reflection. We have toured the epicenter of evil. We have been here, we try to process-but we just cannot. We need the individuals to speak to us. And like E’s family, they do.

 

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At the close of the disinfection center exhibit there are hundreds of photographs that had been discovered years after the camp was abandoned by the Germans. Pictures of loved ones who perished here.

For me, like the personal home movies of pre-war life for the victims at the exhibit at Auschwitz I, this is what has the most meaning. So I will leave you for now with a few close ups.

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To Life.To Life.

*****

From National Public Radio:

A Holocaust Survivor, Spared From Gas Chamber By Twist Of Fate

by Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, International Correspondent, Berlin

January 27, 2015 3:40 PM ET

 

Jack Mandelbaum, a Holocaust survivor from the Polish city of Gdynia, poses in front of a photograph showing him as a youth.

Jack Mandelbaum, a Holocaust survivor from the Polish city of Gdynia, poses in front of a photograph showing him as a youth. Tobias Schwarz/AFP/Getty Images

Seventy years ago, Soviet soldiers liberated Auschwitz, the most notorious of Nazi concentration camps.

Some 300 Holocaust survivors were at Auschwitz on Tuesday, along with several European presidents and other government officials, to honor at least 1.1 million people who were murdered, 1 million of whom were Jewish.

Among those killed there were Jack Mandelbaum’s mother and brother. The Polish-born Mandelbaum survived, spared at the last minute by an officer of the dreaded SS who yanked the teen away from his family and sent him instead to a forced labor camp.

Last week, Mandelbaum flew from his Naples, Fla., home to Berlin, to help open an exhibit on the children of Auschwitz, and to tell his story.

“I’m a person of action,” he says. “Anger doesn’t get you anyplace. Hate doesn’t get you anyplace.”

In August 1939, as the Nazis were about to invade Poland, Mandelbaum was 13 and living in the Polish port city of Gdynia. Mandelbaum says his father worried that the port would be attacked, so he sent his wife and three children to stay with relatives in the countryside.

He promised to join them six weeks later, but he never arrived. About a year later, he sent them a postcard from the Stutthof concentration camp.

“I guess he didn’t want us to worry about him, so he said he was OK,” Mandelbaum says.

He never saw his father again. His sister later died on a forced march to another concentration camp.

Prisoner 16013

Then, before dawn on June 14, 1942, the SS came for what was left of the family.

“They banged on the door and everyone had to come out in five minutes, and there was a lot of shooting and crying, and people didn’t know what was happening because they had to rush out,” Mandelbaum recalls. “Many people were even in their bed clothes. And we were lined up in the market square, and then we were marched to a local brewery.”

An SS officer there began separating people to the left and to the right. Mandelbaum says he clung to his mother and brother, who were sent to the left. But the SS officer saw in his documents that Mandelbaum had worked as an electrician’s helper.

“He grabbed me and pushed me to the other side,” Mandelbaum says. As for his family, he says, “The people who were to the left were sent to Auschwitz to be gassed. I never saw them again.”

To the Nazis, he became prisoner 16013 and spent the next three years at seven concentration camps. The first was Gross-Rosen, where prisoners worked in a granite quarry.

“There were so many prisoners,” he says. “We were in a big barrack, it had a concrete floor, it had no beds. And we were lined up like herring on the floor, so when one person turned, everybody else had to turn, it was so tight.”

Food was scarce, and the daily meal amounted to a single piece of bread and what Mandelbaum describes as soup made out of grass.

He recalls emaciated prisoners stuffing paper into their mouths to fatten their cheeks so they’d look healthier to the guards assigned to remove the weak for extermination. His own weight eventually dropped to 80 pounds.

But Mandelbaum says he refused to give up hope. He poured what little energy he had into work, hoping it would eventually lead to his release.

Suddenly, Freedom

“We had a good life before the war. I went to a public school, I had good clothes and good food and a nice apartment,” he says. “My dream was to go back to this life and be reunited with my family and my sister and my brother, and that sustained me.”

It also helped that he didn’t know the Nazis were trying to slaughter all Jews, something he says he and other prisoners learned only after liberation.

Their sudden freedom, too, was a complete shock, Mandelbaum says. “We didn’t know anything, only on the morning when we woke up and the Nazi flag wasn’t flying and the guards weren’t there.”

Unlike at Auschwitz, Allied soldiers did not free them, as his camp was in a no man’s land between the fleeing Nazis and advancing Russians. He and a friend from the camp grabbed an abandoned horse-drawn wagon and left as quickly as they could.

“We came across a women’s concentration camp and they were still locked up, so we actually became the ‘liberators’ of the camp,” he says, with a laugh.

Mandelbaum was 17 when the Holocaust ended. He says he returned to Poland several times to see if he could find his family but failed. He did find an uncle living in a hamlet near Munich.

The following year, he immigrated to the United States and settled in Kansas City, Mo., where he married, had four children and became a successful importer of ladies’ handbags. It would be 16 years before he began speaking publicly about the Holocaust, something he says he decided to do after talking to one of his neighbors.

“He asked me what kind of sports did I play in the concentration camp, so all of the sudden it just opened everything up, how little people knew what was going on, and this was when I started to speak in different venues about my experiences,” he says.

That desire to educate people brought Mandelbaum, 87, to Berlin last week. He says it’s sad to see anti-Semitism on the rise in Germany and elsewhere in Europe, but he hopes he and other Holocaust survivors can make a difference.

“You know, when we were in the camps, we would always ask, ‘How can the world stand by and let this happen?’ ” he says. “So it’s a matter of being vigilant, a matter of trying to do as much as you can in order to enlighten people [about] how dangerous it is when you become a bystander.”

http://www.npr.org/2015/01/27/381876276/a-holocaust-survivor-spared-from-auschwitz-at-the-last-second

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Yesterday I introduced what will be a series of posts under the heading of ‘Seventy Years’, marking the 70th anniversary of the close of World War II and discovery of the magnitude of the most horrific crime in the history of the world, the Holocaust.

Today I travel back to Auschwitz-Birkenau, sharing some of my personal observations and photographs on the anniversary of the liberation by Soviet troops 70 years ago this week.

*****

July 12.

So the day that all of us in our teacher travel study group approach with a bit of apprehension is finally here. We are on the bus from our hotel in Cracow to Auschwitz, about 40 miles to the west south west.

Yesterday we arrived in Crakow from Prague, taking the night train on a sleeper car.

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Rolling southward one of our tour leaders points out an impressive large building on the top of a hill that looks like a five star hotel. Built after the German invasion in 1939, it was a rest and relaxation villa for Wehrmacht officers rotating off the Russian front to unwind for a bit, as industrialized mass murder was unfolding every single day less than an hour away.

Hocker Album- Dr. Josef Mengele, Rudolf Höss, Josef Kramer, and an unidentified officer. —USHMM

So, to introduce some of the major players:

I don’t make it a habit to showcase the perpetrators on this site, but in this one incredible photograph, taken at Auschwitz, you can see some of them above. Hoss was hung at Auschwitz  following his trial after the war. Kramer was executed by the British after his stint presiding of the horrors of Belsen after his transfer there. Of course, smiling Dr. Mengele escaped to Argentina and died in a drowning accident in the late 1970s. (The pictures in this photo album surfaced only a few years ago and were studied by my friend archivist Rebecca Erbelding at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. You can read more at the weblink above if you like.)

On to the tour.

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Soon we see the road signs for Oswiecim, the small Polish town at a railroad hub that has become one of the most visited tourist sites in Poland. Most of the world knows it by its German name-Auschwitz.

The bus lumbers into the overcrowded parking lot and docks in the slot. The driver kills the engine. And it begins to rain as our other leader, E.,  relates the story of her mother’s family, the idyllic childhood in this beautiful prewar country, a young teen when the nation is invaded, the oldest of four children. No one on the bus makes a sound. It is now raining very hard.

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What is this place? Our guide A. is a top notch scholar, and she leads us on a day long tour that is hard to put into words.

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We begin at Auschwitz I, the first camp. This place is centrally located, a railway hub dating back to the turn of the century.

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The first prisoners, after it is converted from a Polish military facility, are Soviet POWs and Polish prisoners and other “security risks” who will be worked to death slowly expanding this camp, and the much larger Auschwitz II-Birkenau. She walks us through the exhibits and the displays at the various blocks. Block 4 is the “Extermination Exhibit”. We think about the words, the language. Extermination- as if the victims were vermin. Over 1,100,000 were killed here, most of them Jews.

The Hub. The tentacles during the Holocaust.

We see the map with the spiderlike rail lines radiating inward to Auschwitz like tentacles, from northern Poland, from Germany, Hungary, as far south as Greece and as west as Paris and the Netherlands. In the summer of 1944, tens of thousands were murdered here, per day.

This place is ALWAYS crowded.

We see again the large scale terra cotta model of the process, which the German engineers had perfected  at Auschwitz II-Birkenau- the arrival of the transports, the undressing rooms with signs admonishing bewildered people to hang their belongings carefully and to remember the number of the wall pegs where they left them for quick retrieval later. The shower rooms that could fit in some cases entire transports, which were in fact the hermetically sealed gas chambers. The Germans above with their gas masks, waiting for the proper temperature to be reached through body heat, just the right humidity to be achieved before dropping in the pellets so the gas released would work more effectively. The anguished death throes of the thousands of naked figurines assault our senses. The process is not complete until the corpses are carried out by the sondercommando slaves, defiled for any gold fillings, the hair shorn from the women, the bodies then burned in the open air behind or cremated in the ovens.

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But the tour is now just beginning.  Minutes before, we were looking at a terra cotta model. And now in Block 5 we will be presented with the evidence. This is an exhibition, after all. Exhibit A is about to slap us in the face. Hard. It is a room, 50 feet long, with nothing but human hair piled several feet back and as many feet tall. My heart skips a beat.

What are my eyes perceiving? Now we see a photo of stacks of bale bags, carefully labeled, packed and stacked, awaiting shipment back to the Reich for use in various products for the German war effort. Slippers for submariners so they can walk quietly aboard ship to evade Allied sonar. Stuffing for the seats of German pilots.

We shuffle on in silence with hundreds of others past the spectacles, the pots and pans, the suitcases carefully labelled by their owners with chalk on the orders of the perpetrators, again, for “quick retrieval”. And the shoes. Sorted. Case after case of women’s shoes. Men’s footwear. And then the children’s shoes.

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Our knowledgeable guide takes us into Block 27, the new exhibit on the Shoah. This is a temporary relief of sorts as now we see faces, film and stills, of pre war Jewish life, projected on the walls. We hear songs and voices.

Book of Names. people cry again.

At the end is the Book of Life, containing four million names compiled thus far. A moving moment when E. and others in our tight knit group find entire pages with the names and dates of family members murdered during the Holocaust.

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Girls. Shorn, beaten,  and photographed.

This is the Core.

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Matthew Rozell, Stephen Barry, National DOR Ceremony, Washington, DC April 2010. This photo was taken the day after the 65th anniversary of Steve's liberation in April 1945. We had just been honored by the director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum before the national ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda.

Matthew Rozell, Stephen Barry, National DOR Ceremony, Washington, DC April 2010. This photo was taken the day after the 65th anniversary of Steve’s liberation in April 1945. We had just been honored by the director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum before the national ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda.

So, the ripples continue. Somebody said it was like pebbles being tossed into the still water. This may sound strange, but I am keenly aware of the cosmic element. We tripped the wires of the cosmos.

~”It’s not for my sake, it’s for the sake of humanity, that they will remember”~

I got a nice email  recently. My friend Steve Barry was honored Tuesday evening at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Steve’s daughters wanted me to know that his family made a donation in his name and set up two fellowships for scholars at the USHMM in the Stephen B. Barry Memorial Fellowship. His girls mentioned me in their speech Tuesday night in Washington. Thanks ladies. You know he was a hero. He reached out and touched an awful lot of students in the short time that we were together.

Steve will be one of the persons who will be featured in my book. Against all the odds he survived the Holocaust and later even went on to become a US Army Ranger in the Korean War! I was pretty close to him. Right now I am wistfully looking at his homemade holiday greeting cards under my desk glass, and to my left, a foot away, are the shelves containing his Holocaust library, which was passed on to me after he passed away. He was so funny, too.  He told me he nearly “choked on my bagel” a few years back when he opened his newspaper in Florida and read about me and the train he had been looking for, for so many years!

I miss the guy. You can read more about him here.

 

Steve's name on the wall of donors, USHMM, unveiled April 29, 2014.

Steve’s name on the wall of donors, USHMM, unveiled April 29, 2014.

The inscription kind of says it all. He uttered these words in my very classroom on a Thursday morning to a film crew from New York City, aimed at the 1500 students that he and the other survivors and American soldier/liberators had come to address. That Friday evening of our big soldier/survivor reunion, we watched it together on national news before our final banquet.

You can see the video at the bottom-he’s the one in the preview addressing the interviewer- but the transcript is below.

ABC WORLD NEWS TONIGHT, FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 26, 2009

Diane Sawyer: And finally tonight, our Persons of the Week. It is a story that began almost 65 years ago in the darkest days of World War II. Yet this week, a new chapter unfolded. An unforgettable reunion of Holocaust survivors, and the American troops who freed them, and all made possible by a high school history class.

Matthew Rozell: This is history coming alive.
Veteran 1, entering school with his wife: Here we are, we have arrived!
Matthew Rozell: This is walking, talking, living history. They’re (the students) shaking hands with the past…

Diane Sawyer: It was 2001 when high school history teacher Matt Rozell decided to begin an oral history project. He and his students would just interview family members in the small town of Hudson Falls, New York, to capture fading stories of World War II.
Interviewer (soldier’s daughter): Did you mention the train [to Mr. Rozell] at all before?
Carrol Walsh, former soldier: No I didn’t tell him about the train.

Diane Sawyer: The students unearthed a forgotten crossroads in history. (Gunfire, archival film footage) Near the very end of World War II, April 13th, 1945, the American 30th Infantry Division was pushing its way into central Germany.
Carrol Walsh: We came to a place where there was a long train, of boxcars.

Diane Sawyer: They found a train, holding nearly 2,500 emaciated Jewish prisoners, many just children, being moved from the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, to another camp and certain death. Their German guards had just abandoned them, fleeing the Americans.

Carrol Walsh: A feeling of helplessness. What are we going to do with all these people?
Frank Towers, former soldier: We had never ever seen anything so, (pauses) filthy.

Diane Sawyer: The American soldiers fed the prisoners, and brought them to safety.

Stephen Barry: For 42 years I collected anything that I could to try to find any article regarding the train. It just didn’t exist!

Diane Sawyer: But Mr. Rozell’s class put their interviews with veterans up on a website, along with these photographs taken by the American soldiers.

George Gross: Just very courageous people, little girls who with big smiles on their faces, one of them with their arms out, just aware that the Americans are there. [camera pans over 1945 liberation photograph]

Diane Sawyer: Out there on the web, Holocaust survivors all around the world began to notice.

Stephen Barry: I mean, how many people have a picture of their moment of liberation forever? [camera pans over 1945 liberation photograph]

(students and veterans and survivors singing “The Star Spangled Banner”)

Diane Sawyer: A reunion of the survivors and their liberators took place this week at Hudson Falls High School.

Emily Murphy, student: When they speak to us, you can’t say that you feel how they felt. But you get the feeling, you feel like you were there.

Diane Sawyer: In an age where there are still those who deny the Holocaust ever existed, these survivors say they are the living proof.

Stephen Barry: It’s not for my sake, it’s for the sake of humanity, that they will remember.

Diane Sawyer: And so we choose history teacher Matt Rozell, his class, the Holocaust survivors of that train, and the American soldiers who kept them and their story alive. And that is World News for this Friday. I am Diane Sawyer, and from all of us at ABC News, we hope you have a great weekend.

And here is a link to the 2014 United States Days of Remembrance Capitol Ceremony. Steve’s daughters and granddaughters are in the back row!

 

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Yom HaShoah is Holocaust Remembrance Day. It marks the anniversary of the Warsaw ghetto uprising.

Clara Rudnick around age 15.

Clara Rudnick, center, around age 15.

I recently visited the local synagogue where my friend Clara Rudnick was to speak.   I was very gratified that several of my students also decided to come, and that when we arrived, they and I were also invited to participate in the readings and the candle lighting for the commemoration.

My wife and daughter also accompanied me. It was their first time in temple and the commemoration deeply touched them.

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Clara lit up when she saw the girls and I. She came right over, smothered me with a big hug, and went right over to the girls.

She and her twin brother Avreminkeh were about my daughter’s age, early teens, when the Germans arrived in Lithuania in June 1941. Her oldest brother Itze was 23 years old, and her two sisters Chiyeh and Dorkeh were 20 and 13. Her proud parents Yossel and Chiyena Charmatz were 42 and 40. They ran a highly regard restaurant and bakery that had been in business for generations, in a community of 10,000 that had had a Jewish presence since the 1300s. Forty percent of the prewar population of Sventzion was Jewish.

The townspeople turned on their neighbors. Even the Catholic and Orthodox churches collaborated in providing information needed to terrorize the community. In July, 1941, Lithuanian collaborators took a nearly a hundred teenage boys and young men including Itze outside of town, locked them in a building, and burned them alive. Hysteria rippled through the Jewish community now. In August, nearly a hundred more, including her twin brother, were taken outside of town on Shabbat, forced to dig their own graves and shot. A few weeks later, also on the Sabbath, eight thousand men women boys and girls were ordered to stand in the town square, where they were shot, including her mother and two sisters. Clara was saved only because her father had given her his coat and told her to hide in the local steam bath.

After the shooting, he came for her at night and took her to the forest for two nights without food and water. They found a farmer who was secretly a Jew and stayed until more refugees began to arrive. Deciding it was no longer safe, they

Students Chelsea R., Paige L., Meg V., Cheyenne B., Mary R. flank survivor Clara Rudnick at reception following Yom Hashoah commemoration, 2014.

Students Chelsea R., Paige L., Meg V., Cheyenne B., Mary R. flank survivor Clara Rudnick at reception following Yom Hashoah commemoration, 2014.

moved to the farm of a Christian friend who accepted their money to hide them. Later, they found themselves in the ghetto at Swir. ” I was 15 years old, I had lost my mother, brothers and sisters, and I was very upset.” And in a constant state of peril.

In the middle of February, 1942, the Germans came to liquidate the ghetto. Clara and her father managed to escape with others across a frozen lake as the Nazis shot at them. Her father broke through the ice and placed Clara in the freezing water and lay on top of her to protect her in the cold winter night, until the Germans left.

They traveled twenty kilometers to another ghetto at Mishaleikse, where they were arrested in April and sent to the Vilna Ghetto, subjected to hard labor. Here Clara witnessed starvation, disease, street executions, babies killed and placed in the back of trucks. Mistreatment was widespread and deportations to concentration camps and extermination centers occurred almost daily. Clara again was able to escape, but this time without her father. A local cinema owner told her father he would take care of her. She would see her father only one more time.

In the summer of 1942 (the same summer that Anne Frank would go into hiding, Clara notes) a handsome sum of gold was given to another Christian and Clara was hidden in a dark hidden cellar with a trap door for seven months, emerging only once a day to answer nature’s call. One day she peeped through the hatch to see what was going on upstairs, as there was a great deal of commotion and noise. Bullets raked the hiding spot and she was grazed in the stomach, the cinema owner killed. Clara was caught again.

She was taken before the Gestapo in Kalich, where as a slave laborer she was forced to make fur coats for the Germans fighting on the Russian front. Then the slaves were placed into two trucks. One went to the execution site of Panar, the other to the camp at Kaiserwald. Clara considers it another miracle that she was on the truck to Kaiserwald. Here she worked with dangerous acid to make batteries. She was afraid the acid would scar her and she would be killed.

After some time, she was sent to Stutthof on the Baltic. It was here that she saw her father, through the chain link fence, for the last time. He and 85,000 others perished here. She was terrified.

As the Red Army closed in she was marched out and placed in a barn, locked with other women to die from starvation. It was here that she was liberated by Soviet forces on march 11, 1945. She states, matter of factly, that the soldiers moved on immediately, having no time to care for them.

Heading to Lodz,  Poland shortly after, she did not find any family members anywhere. Regaining her strength, she met another survivor, Abraham Rudnick, a Lithuanian Jew like her who had been liberated by the Americans at Dachau on April 29, 1945. They married in a DP camp and emigrated to the United States in 1949, where they raised a family and built a plumbing and heating business in upstate New York.

So tonight she is here with her grandson and recounts the story, and the postscript of her summer trip back to Vilna and her hometown in Lithuania, and her realization that no one in Lithuania seems to want to acknowledge the countries complicity in the murder of her family and hundreds of thousands of others. But here, speaking in the temple for perhaps the last time, she has her North Country family, and has certainly won over the hearts of a few young ladies this evening. They wont forget, Clara, and they are the new witnesses. It’s so.

Clara told me some years ago that her sons had my dad as their history teacher in high school and that he was held in high regard. As we bid her goodbye, she whispered in my daughter’s ear-“Don’t tell your father, but I love him!” I am blessed to know you now, as was my dad and now my girl, and my students. We’ll keep you close, and remember your mother and father, your brothers and sisters, and all those murdered in those not so distant days.

Clara Rudnick by Erica Miller

 

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Today is the 68th anniversary of the liberation of the train. We’ll have 80 for the final banquet tonight.

I am here in Louisville, KY at the reunion of 12 WW2 soldiers of the 30th Infantry Division and 5 Holocaust survivors who were given new life by these guys 68 years ago. And lots of 2nd generation and 3rd generation-sons and daughters, children and grandchildren, many here meeting their liberators for the first time.

In many ways it is a spiritual event.

Frank gave the introduction and described his role in transporting the prisoners from the train to safety. I spoke on how there were too many random “quirks of fate” to attribute this present gathering to coincidence. Had my wishes come true, and had I never returned to my hometown as I had hoped when I left it for college, the room would have been half empty. I would have never interviewed the tank commander who told me his story. None of these survivors would have known the rest of the story, so to speak; perhaps the soldiers too-

John D. thanked me afterward, describing his time carrying his rifle across Europe as a combat infantryman nearly seventy years ago. He told me now he knows, after meeting the survivors that he helped to liberate, what the true meaning of FREEDOM is, and what he fought for. He thanked me, a teacher. I resisted. He insisted. That about blew me away.

There was more to come.

Kurt and Gideon, “new” survivors, gave testimony for the first time to their liberators. Emotional. True freedom. Kurt remarked that he felt it when the Americans uttered “One Only” as nearly two dozen survivors were shown a clean room after liberation and proceed to attempt to occupy it. To be able to close the door when entering a bathroom, alone.

Eve, Kurt’s daughter, remarked through tears how she knew emotions would overwhelm, but she carried on and read fellow 2nd Generation survivor Sandy’s poem “I am a Survivor”.

She spoke of how difficult it was to grow up, with her two loving parents, knowing what they had been through-how do you, as a teen,  issue the normal teenage complaints when your parents had had it so much worse when they were your age? She ends beaming at her audience through wet eyes, the soldiers of World War II and their families who are returning the love in spades over this weekend.

Later I was very moved at Friday dinner when Gideon’s daughter gathered the children and others in the front, after calling our attention, and thanking God for these soldiers coming into their lives on April 13, 1945 and again now. Candles were lit, prayers were said, and Shabbat was ushered in, and we broke bread together, Gentile and Jew, survivor and soldier, sharing laughter and tears.

More later. For now would like to leave you with an account of the liberation by survivor Aliza Vitis-Shomron, who was recently featured in an AP article about the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. She, too, was a teen in the spring of 1945…

***************************************************

In Bergen Belsen

It is spring outside. The news we get from the older German soldiers who treat us humanely is that the end is approaching. Beyond the fence of the Dutch camp there is an open field. The wind brings in a horrible smell from there. In the distance we can see circles of smoke rising, and dark figures busy round the fire. What are they carrying? They are corpses for which there is no room in the crematorium, they are burning them on the ground one by one. Their ashes mingle with the soil, the rain creates human mud.

“All are of the dust, and all turn to dust again” – said the Lord.

Maybe that is God’s will – if He exists at all.

Human beings: beautiful, with black eyes, blue eyes; writers, teachers, students, disappointed lovers, proud, cowardly, selling fish on the market, fathers and mothers and those who had not yet tasted love. “The Chosen Jewish People” burnt like dung in the field.

At the beginning of 1945 the winter was hard. What may have saved us from starvation and death were the Red Cross parcels that arrived in March.

At the beginning of spring 1945 the cannons thundered. We felt that the end for the Germans was near, and there were many indications that it was so. The main one was that they stopped giving us food. Every day we stood at the fence along the main road, waiting for the soup which came late, often only in the evening.

Evacuation from Bergen-Belsen

Allied planes fly above us making a dull sound and there is nothing to stop them. A few days ago there was an air battle between English and German planes, right above the camp. I hid with the others under the bunks, not that I was afraid, but a shrewd thought was on my mind: Now, just before liberation and the end of the war, I could be killed by an allied bullet or bomb…

I am sure there is no God, only chance rules my life. There is no one to pray to, no one to beg – maybe my lucky star that has protected me until now will continue to do so… Will I manage to survive? A sweet feeling of revenge fills me as I realize that our murderers are also suffering and being killed! My strength        has waned, my feet are swollen from hunger, I have become apathetic to my surroundings.

On the 8th [7th] April, an unexpected order came to prepare for evacuation. We heard the thunder of cannons in the distance, they said that the city of Hanover was in the hands of the allied armies. And they are approaching the little town of Celle. Evacuation? Where? To the gas chambers?

There was a terrible smell in the air. I was hardened, cynical, no longer capable of feeling anything. After the terrible murders in Block Ten, adjacent to us, nothing could move me. I remembered I had to survive to tell the world about my friends. I hugged my mother and sister. They mustn’t separate us!

Mother consults uncle Leon Melamed. Aunt Irena, practical as usual, is already packing the most important things. “There is nothing we can do,” she says with typical decisiveness. “We have no choice. There is no point in staying in a camp that is no longer getting supplies of food. We’ll starve before they come to liberate us.” We agree with her. We get into a long line, men, women and the children who are with us, hundreds of Jews from various blocks.

The people’s faces mainly express uncertainty and acceptance of the situation. We again pass by the piles of skeletons, new ones every day. In the huge concentration camp on the other side of the road we see shadowy figures moving.

Mother and I take the few remaining clothes, the notes I have written in the camp and on the Aryan side, and a passport photo of father. We have no personal documents, nothing reminiscent of our previous life. Mother has only a silver fruit knife that she took with us when we went to the “selektzia” in Warsaw. My legs won’t carry me. We have to go eight kilometers to the railway station in Celle. The road seems endless, the body is weak and not used to moving. Every step calls for an inhuman effort. We crawl along slowly.

Gavriela is carrying her five-year-old brother on her back. Her face is red with the effort. The child has no strength left, he is apathetic. Their mother walks beside them and slaps him gently on his face. Her legs are also swollen from hunger. I walk on. I can’t help them, I have no strength left.

Suddenly a man walks up to me. I recognize him: It is my neighbor, from the next bunk. Without a word he puts his arms under my armpits and drags me along. I lean on him with all the weight of my body. I didn’t get to know him, although we “lived next door”; and now he is helping me!

Who can understand the depths of good and evil in the hearts of men! This small deed, the hand held out in support at a critical moment, imbued me with hope and strength to continue on my own.

People begin to drop their belongings. We also stop every fifteen minutes and sadly throw down a few things. At the end of the march my backpack only holds a little food and two or three items of underclothes.

This experience has affected my life-long attitude to things. Losing things or parting with them means nothing to me, causes me no sorrow. They certainly have no value in themselves, only if they are connected to some precious memory.

My legs are swollen and hurt. I can’t feel them any longer. I long to sit down, to rest, to close my eyes and disappear… I struggle constantly against this urge. Mother is dragging herself along, but walks erect, as always. Mirka walks along well. Suddenly we see railway carriages. Surprisingly, they are normal “pullmans”, not freight cars. The exhausted people lie down on the platform. At the station we are given a little food and water. The journey has begun.

The most precious turnips

We traveled by train for eight days. The train moved little, it remained standing a great deal. The frontline was everywhere and chaos all around us. German families flee with their belongings in all directions in carts and on foot. Have they been encircled? What a cheerful thought! Our leaders and various oracles, experts in solving riddles and interpreting rumors, say that the Germans want to use us as hostages. Besides our group, hundreds of Dutch, Greek and Hungarian Jews are with us on the train, all supposed to be exchanged, from the special camps in Bergen-Belsen. In the meantime the most important thing is to get hold of food.

During one of the stops I saw people jumping from the train and rolling down. I also wanted to do so, but my sister was quicker and out already. I joined her. We rolled down the high embankment to a wonderful pile of animal feed, yellow turnips. I filled up my dress feverishly, grabbing as much as I could carry and hop – climbed back. But at the moment when all the children and youth began climbing up, guards on the roof of the train opened fire on us. The Germans were apparently surprised and reacted late. I ran and lost my sister. I didn’t see a thing, but I was determined to get the turnips into the carriage. The bullets whistled around us, but I didn’t drop the turnips. I didn’t even look back to see who fell and who survived. Only on reaching the top, under cover, did I look back in great fear, in search of Mirka. She stood up next to me, trembling but smiling. We had food for the rest of the journey.

The danger is not over yet…

After a six-day journey we approached the frontline. We realized that we were apparently traveling southeast. The “experts” say that we are approaching a large city in central Germany, Magdeburg, on the banks of the Elbe.

One day the officer commanding the military escort called our representatives. He was well-mannered and received them politely. Hela Schüpper wrote in her book: “The commander took off his military cap and turned to the Jews in fear: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, the end of the war is near. What shall we do?’

Engineer Solovieczyk advised him to surrender to the Allies and put up a white flag on the roof of the train.” Our representatives came back and described the amazing meeting excitedly: The German asked the Jews for advice! Maybe he’ll also ask them for help? That’s a good sign.

In the night the whole escort team fled, using the locomotive. What will happen now, to us? We were alone. Slowly, people started leaving the carriages, the train was standing in the middle of a field. I also got off, with my faithful friend Tusia (Rina Altbecker). We saw a small pond not far away, and “our people” were catching little fish there. Those among them with initiative found a tin, made a fire and cooked the fish. We joined in, glad to share the job.

We breathe fresh air, the sky is clear, it is spring. Although we are weak, exhausted by hunger, hope is reflected in all the faces. Of course, there are also some “ravens”, prophesying that the Germans will not give up as long as they can harm us, but who listens to them? Mother is also pessimistic.

Visiting a village

Mirka and I join the stream of people going to the nearby village of Ferstleben [Farsleben]. The village houses are pretty, clean, surrounded by gardens with fruit trees. We entered a garden in fulllbloom. I knocked on the door of the house. A woman wearing a big apron came out. Her face expressed amazement at the two figures facing her. Evidently we looked like ghosts.

“Kartofel, Kartofel, bitte,” (Potatoes, potatoes, please) I whispered. At that moment the woman started to scream. I didn’t understand a word. She pushed us out. I ran to the trees and began to shake them, so the blossoms fell off the branches. A large stone flew at me. We ran away.

That was the first and last time I asked for food. I felt ashamed. Mirka and I decided not to tell mother about it.

The fate of the certificates

That night we were right in the frontline. We spent the night lying under the carriages. We did not dare flee from there, there was nowhere to go. To hide in the German village? They’ll chase us away like dogs and hand us over to the authorities. We had no choice but to remain in the carriages and underneath them. Whatever happens to the others will also happen to us. Cannon shells flew above us with a terrifying noise. They may have aimed at the train… It was a miracle that we survived till the next morning.

Before dawn the locomotive returned with our escort. People who got out of the carriages in the morning were amazed to see lots of pieces of paper floating on the small pond. They looked strange, and they had not been there on the previous day. When they went to look at them, they were devastated: these were our certificates and other papers protecting us! So we did have such papers. It wasn’t just a deception by the Germans!

{After the war the mystery was solved: as I wrote, at the end of 1944 a group of two thousand Hungarian Jews from Budapest came to Bergen-Belsen, on their way to Switzerland. Our leaders gave them a list of our names, and they passed it on to the Swiss and Jewish institutions in Palestine, trying to save Jews. Apparently it was only then that they sent us the certificates; now at the end of the war, the Germans found them useless.}

But the Germans escorting us had a different plan for getting rid of us. They didn’t want to let the birds in their hands escape, even though the Allies had already encircled them on all sides.

Liberation

Suddenly someone ran from carriage to carriage, screaming in terror: “The Germans want to drown the train in the river Elbe. Save yourselves!”

At the height of the panic, when we heard shots in the distance, we ran outside. People burst out of the carriages. Suddenly someone shouted:

“The Americans are coming!”

To our great surprise, a tank came slowly down the hill opposite, followed by another one. I ran towards the tank, laughing hysterically. It stopped. I embraced the wheels, kissed the iron plates.

The amazed soldier who came out called his friends and they immediately started throwing chocolate to us. They smiled in embarrassment and didn’t know what to do. We had won the war!

It was the 13th April 1945.

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Marc Silver

National Geographic News

Published April 8, 2013

 Note: This is from National Geographic. As the nations commemorates Holocaust Remembrance Week, I’ll be flying to Louisville for the annual 30th Infantry Division Veterans of World war II reunion to take part in the reuniting of 5 survivors with the division that liberated them. The 30th will also be honored with a flag in the annual national ceremony at the Capitol Rotunda. In April 2010 I was honored to be in attendance at the Rotunda ceremony with 121 liberators and dozens of survivors.

I will post more about these events later. In the meantime, if you have not read the news below, it is a staggering development.

The map of the Third Reich is being dramatically redrawn.

Thirteen years ago, when he started digging into the past to document the number and nature of Nazi-era ghettos and camps, scholar Geoffrey Megargee expected to identify perhaps 7,000 sites. He vastly underestimated his task. More than 42,200 sites will be named in the planned seven-volume encyclopedia that he is editing: The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos, 1933-1945.

This week is Holocaust remembrance week in the United States, with an official ceremony at the U.S. Capitol Rotunda on April 11 at 11 a.m. For the latest insights into the Nazi era, we spoke with Megargee and Martin Dean, editor of volume two of the encyclopedia: Ghettos in German-Occupied Eastern Europe.

“To document this on a map and see how the Holocaust affected every single community throughout Europe makes quite clear the scope of the Nazi regime’s murder campaign,” says Dean.

Investigating the Sites

To be included in the encyclopedia, a site had to have housed at least 20 people and have been in existence for at least a month. In addition, it had to have been identified on a map—not the easiest thing to do when some towns in question have changed their names several times since  World War II ended.

The scholars drew upon past research and interviews with survivors but also sought records that have “disappeared into archives in a dozen different countries,” says Megargee. Many of the archives were behind the Iron Curtain until the 1990s, off limits to outside scholars. Even now some are restricted.

The sites include the extermination camps where gas chambers were built for “the final solution” of murdering the Jewish people. But that’s only part of the project’s scope.

“We’re not just looking at sites directly involved with the Holocaust,” says Megargee, “but [also] with the entire range of persecutory facilities that the Nazis and their allies ran.”

Forced Laborers Everywhere

Each listing has a careful yet hair-raising description of the site, drawing from records as well as survivor testimony. Many of the encyclopedia entries were forced labor camps.

“Think of what life was like in Germany,” Megargee says. “There were foreign forced laborers in every conceivable kind of business: farms, factories, retail shops, hospitals, railroads. You couldn’t go anywhere in Germany without encountering people being held against their will and forced to work. Their rights were being violated.”

And it would have been no secret to German citizens that these laborers were in their midst. “Even in a large city, you know who lives in your neighborhood—and who doesn’t,” Megargee says. “And you could see barracks where these forced laborers lived.”

Workers thought to be shirking their duties were sent to work education camps. They faced up to eight weeks of very hard labor along with beatings and possibly solitary confinement. If there was evidence of a change in behavior, the worker could go back to the forced labor camp. If not, he or she might be sent to a concentration camp.

The Work Education Camp Watenstedt-Salzgitter, established “in some woods just to the northeast of Hallendorf” in Germany, could hold about 800 female prisoners and 1,000 males at a time. The Encyclopedia entry mentions 492 documented deaths there in 1942 attributed to “weak heart” or “shot while trying to escape.” A survivor of the camp recalls an SS man “who beat the prisoners on their way to breakfast.” (There were Jewish inmates at this camp, but in most forced labor and work education camps in Germany, the internees were typically non-Jewish Europeans.)

Staggering Death Rate

Megargee says some of the categories of sites he found were “particularly surprising or horrible.” The so-called Care Facilities for Foreign Women and Their Children were essentially holding pens for female workers, typically from Eastern Europe, who had become pregnant. At an earlier stage in the Nazi regime, these women would have been sent home to have the child. After 1943, they were sent to the Care Facilities, where “the baby was either aborted or, after birth, would be killed by slow starvation,” says Megargee.

European Jews were first confined to ghettos. When the ghettos were shut down, most Jews were killed; only a few were selected for work and sent to forced labor and concentration camps, where they again were periodically selected to continue working or to be killed. The death rate for European Jews in the camps and ghettos was a “staggering” 90 percent, compared with 10 percent for the foreign workers held in German forced labor camps, Dean notes.

The Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos pays tribute to those many millions imprisoned and slaughtered by the Nazis by its memorialization of all the site names. On its pages a reader will find camps that few people have heard of, like the work camp at St. Martin’s Cemetery in Poznan, Poland, where Jews had to excavate Polish graves to look for gold teeth, jewelry, or brass, and even smash up the headstones for the Nazi war effort. And there are the infamous names etched in the world’s memory, like Auschwitz-Birkenau with its gas chambers.

“This is giving recognition to all of the thousands of places where people suffered and died,” says Martin, “that would otherwise fade from people’s consciousness.”

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/04/130408-encyclopedia-labor-camps-nazi-holocaust-memorial-museum-holocaust-remembrance-week/

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I just got home from a Yom Hashoah event, Holocaust Remembrance, that was pretty intense.

Three American candles.You know that when folks come up after you speak and squeeze your hands that you have made a favorable impression. Teachers in the audience come up to say they feel inspired.

But  they know that it is not about me.

I let the liberator and the survivor do the talking (see link below), then spoke about our obligations as the new witnesses to carry on the story.

Of course the event is about those who perished. But we must listen while we can to the survivors and become the new witnesses.

For those of you who came out, I re-post the narrative here-scroll down to the bottom for the NPR story, in 3 parts, from You Tube.   To those of you who may be curious, do it. You don’t even have to watch, just turn it up and listen. Set aside a few moments of time to recall, together, the moment of liberation and the aftermath.

But also remember that if we let the liberator’s final message go by the wayside [part 3], then we have learned nothing. Our kids, our students deserve better. Trust me, if you are an educator, or an educational administrator {my emphasis} puzzled with how to get kids to DO ANYTHING for you, they will respond for you with this, if presented correctly.

And as a final aside, the three candles pictured above, Red, White, and Blue, are for

Major Clarence Benjamin,

Dr. (SGT) George C. Gross, tank commander,

and Judge (SGT) Carrol S. Walsh, tank commander.

I kept alive their stories tonight.

Thanks to survivor Bruria Falik for thinking of this, in addition to the six candles for the millions lost and the candle for the 2nd generation. It was my honor to explain their significance. To those of you who offered your support and feedback, in person or on line, thank you. It is what I kind of need sometimes to know that I am making a difference.

Feel free to leave response!

MR

April 7, 2013

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