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Crossing Paths with Elie Wiesel
The importance of Holocaust survivors' stories.
Elie Wiesel, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, was one of my professors at the Department of Jewish Studies at CCNY. He authored many books, including Night, about his experiences as a Jewish prisoner in the Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps. He championed for human rights, including for Israel to exist. Elie Wiesel made me realize the importance of Holocaust survivors' stories and how vital it is to bring this vanished community that flourished before the Holocaust to life. This community never recovered. Although Jews had centuries long history in Europe, its future was severed forever.
He insisted my mother write down the accounts she shared with me throughout my childhood and told me not to be afraid of the journey ahead.
In June 2016, about 3 weeks before Elie Wiesel’s passing, I was invited to tell my story, on the stage, in Santa Monica, Ca. My story was titled Crossing Paths with Elie Wiesel.
My mother committed her stories to my memory, it’s how I became a memory keeper. Wiesel exposed me to the importance of never forgetting. That Hitler and his enthusiastic supporters’ goal was to exterminate Europe’s Jews. The uniqueness of the Holocaust is that it was rationally organized, combining modern technology with death camps and labor camps spread throughout Europe connected by rail lines. Human slaughter was of an industrial scale. Poison gas and ovens were used and those crimes were going to be expunged from the pages of history.
It is said that in every survivor’s family, one child is unconsciously chosen to be a “memorial candle,” to carry on the sorrow and to dedicate his or her life to the memory of Shoah.
A lingering memory from my childhood in Poland is my mother watching the door, optimistic, never giving up hope that a loved one would enter, come back from the dead. No one ever did. Later, when I grasped the scale of the crimes against Jews, I questioned my parents’ decision to live in Poland. They chose to live among the ghosts of their murdered families, to keep their memory alive, to ensure they did not perish in vain. In the words of Elie Wiesel, “to forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.”
My mother’s family, for generations lived in Warsaw, my father’s family in Lodz, he was his family the sole survivor. After the war my parents were forced to live in the south western part of Poland, Germany before the war, as part of the repatriation.
Now I will take you back in time, to the south western corner of the dreary communist Poland where I lived. In our sunny kitchen, in an apartment where the Germans lived before us, stood a massive wooden table. The table had seen better days, it was wobbly, actually barely standing upright. To steady it, each leg was supported by a brick. This decaying table was always covered by a spotless, white, table cloth, that hang to the floor.
Now imagine a small child, growing up fearful of the world around her. To protect me, I created a sanctuary underneath that table. Nothing and no one could hurt me there.
In our home, my mother talked about unthinkable things. The month-long bombing, her city on fire, devastation, horror and death. How she survived and ran east to Russia and Asia.
She had read Mein Kampf, what Hitler planned to do to the Jews, and this terrified her. After Nazis entered Warsaw, she escaped. The chances are she could have survived using false papers, but the fear in her eyes would give her away.
Barely a Woman, she was 21. She took with her only a few personal items. Photographs, keepsakes, diplomas, her entire identity, all that, she left behind with her oldest brother.
After she returned to her beloved city, 6 years later, she learned of the details, of what Hitler did to her people.
Surrounded by a Jewish Graveyard, she lost part of her sanity when she discovered that not one member of her family that stayed behind had survived. Running away is what saved her, pain and helplessness came next. Overwhelmed by grief and remorse she chose to live among the ghosts of her family.
Photographs are used as a way to remember and connect. But not one photograph existed that connected my mother to her family. She mourned and brought them back to life daily. She painted pictures of her loved once, using words.
I saw no tangible evidence that Mother's family ever existed. I tried to understand how they could just vanish, Adek, Sala, Anja, their husbands, wives, and children.
I was frightened and distraught, but also ashamed. I did not believe my mother. In order for my child's mind to reconcile something I couldn’t grasp, I decided my mother was making up this family, that those people never existed. Freud said, that in order to mourn you have to know what you had lost.
To protect myself from this anguish, I looked for ways to feel safe. I focused on Mother’s stories about Russia, which I turned into incredible adventures. I pictured her living in exotic places. The beautiful cities of Saratov and Moscow where she even fell in love. She lived in Central Asia, in the desert, under hot sun, and ate exotic food. My mother was heroic and strong, blond, blue eyed, splendid and beautiful, in her brand new, custom tailored, black coat. I would never allow myself to see her hungry, chase after a piece of black bread, be sick with malaria or get arrested by the Russian secret police (NKVD).
The Russian stories, of where she survived, made me want to be like her, to travel to faraway, exotic places, to follow in her footsteps. After all I was her daughter, I inherited her spirit, we saw the world through the same set of eyes. I followed in her resolve. I lived under hot sun, slept in a tent, rode a camel and ate exotic food. I excavated the desert at Tel Beer-Sheva, Israel and observed the lives of Arab men and women, evoking my mother's stories of mysterious lands.
Archeology took me back in time, while working with the Tel Aviv University and scholars from around the world. In the middle of Israel, in Beersheba, we found a four horned altar dating back to the Israelite period, the Late Bronze Age, 13 century BCE. The latest finding, a lead amulet, found north of Jerusalem on Mount Ebal in Samaria represents the oldest Hebrew text found in Israel, by 200 years (two centuries). The ancient Hebrew inscription consists of 40 letters. Using advanced scans to recover the text, scientists from Czech Republic, Germany, Israel and US worked on this together. This lead amulet connects the Israelites to Biblical writings. The 40 words are blessings and curse words associated with obeying and disobeying the Law.
The Jews had a nation, their independence ends in 63 BCE when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and the 2nd Temple. Jews continued uninterrupted presence in the renamed Syria-Palestina. The native Jews, Mizrahi’s, survived under the different occupiers, lived as minority, dhimmis, under the different foreign rules.
The destruction of the 2nd Temple is responsible for the diaspora, the scattering of Jews. The oldest Jewish community in Europe is dated to Rome. This is how over the centuries Jews ended up scattered throughout Europe. Ashkenazi Jews adopted the Western European and Sephardic Jews the Southern European cultures. Jews ended up outside of Israel because of a historical catastrophe, with generations of Jews born in the diaspora. However, they always believed that Jerusalem is their home. Hence the saying Next Year in Jerusalem. For Jews Jerusalem means home coming.
It was during my time, at City College of NY, in Prof. Elie Wiesel’s classes, that I connected the dots, of how the Holocaust and its aftermath effected my mother and me. And how the reestablishment of Israel is a miracle.
I see him clearly, slender, soft-spoken and frail, yet his presence conveyed determination and urgency. The horrors he lived through were visible on his face. He was 15 when he with his family were taken from Romania to Auschwitz-Birkenau. He alone was liberated at Buchenwald.
For Romanian and Polish Jews, the Holocaust happened swiftly. For example, for the Hungarian Jews, less than half a million, it happened slowly, with new orders, new restrictions, as the time passed. Hungarian Jews were left optimistic. Most historians agree that the Nazis were so driven by killing Jews, that they sacrificed the last years of war and focused on the murder of Jews, as opposed to on winning the war. Half a million Jews, the population at the time, were deported and murdered in Auschwitz in six-weeks, in March 1944.
The Auschwitz report tried and failed to save the last of Europe’s Jews, the Jews of Hungary. There were only two Jews to ever escape from Auschwitz. Walter Rosenberg and Fred Wetzler, a 19 and 25-year-olds escaped in April 1944. Their goal was to warn the remaining Jews and the world what Auschwitz stood for.
Wiesel’s horrors, triggered in me my childhood memories of growing up with the ghosts of my mother’s murdered family. Freud called it “shadow memories,” acquired traumas. Trying to atone what can neither be undone nor ever understood, much less resolved.
I heard Wiesel say something that as a child, I heard my mother say. Wiesel said “there are places in my mind I dare not enter for the fear of going mad.” My mother would say “I lost part of my sanity after I returned to Warsaw and witnessed for myself the total destruction.” Polish Jewish survivors returned to a community that no longer existed, not one member of my mother’s or father’s family that stayed behind in Poland were among the living.
My childhood in Poland now made sense. I understood that in losing her entire family my mother could not escape her past. By engraving her stories into my memory, she pledged me, as the “memorial candle”, the link between the past and the future, the next in line to speak for all those whose voices were silenced. It was to a great risk to her sanity and health to reenter her painful past, but for the sake of the truth my mother wrote. She bravely brought her family & community from after WWI Back to Life. And on the day, she died I entered my mother’s world and confronted the ghosts of my childhood.
Antisemitism under communism did not disappear as it was supposed to. Stalin’s Antisemitism came out after WWII, he silenced the soldiers who came back with horror stories after liberating Auschwitz. His focus became that the Russian people were the victims. In 1968-1969, two years after our departure, most of the remaining Jews were forced out of Poland during an anti-Zionist campaign sponsored by the government. History once again was repeating, the words Jews and Zionists became interchangeable. Jews became the scapegoats.
In more recent times many Eastern European countries, in the post-Communist era are intensifying efforts to “preserve historical memory.” Each of these countries are producing their own false narratives of the Shoah, the Holocaust, by either minimizing, whitewashing or completely erasing the role they played as Nazi collaborators. None of those countries are willing to admit that they collaborated with the Nazis in the systematic mass murder of Jews.
For the sake of the truth, we must remain vigilant. This is not ancient history; the Holocaust survivors are still among the living.
Wiesel was the catalyst and my mother conveyed determination I needed for the journey of becoming a Memory Keeper. My mother died in 2006. My book was published in English in 2015 and one year later in 2016 in Polish in Poland. The second edition was published in November 2020. Available on www.amazon.com