Zachor זכור -- Let Us Not Forget.
Recently I went to a talk by Ben Lesser, a survivor of the Nazi Death Camps. I listened to his story of beatings and hunger, the wailing of burning children, and ashes that fell like snowflakes. His speaking engagement preceded Holocaust Remembrance Day, which corresponds to the 27th day of Nisan on the Hebrew calendar—April 24, 2017 this year for many in the western world. It commemorates Shoah, an era when the Nazis displaced and murdered millions of Jews. The Nazis continued the carnage when they exterminated the disabled. They also snuffed out the lives of countless Gypsies and some sects of Christians. They permanently silenced those that disagreed with them. They invaded neighboring countries and also killed their Jews, disabled, Gypsies and those that attempted to fight them physically or ideologically.
Forty years ago when I first heard about Shoah I asked my German-born mother Ann, who was a child during World War Two, “Why did the soldiers starve the prisoners? Why did the soldiers shave their captives’ heads?” As my mother gently told me about World War Two era Germany, she dug deep into her soul, to try to give life to memories that she’d buried deep inside.
Both my mother and grandmother had what would now be called “post-traumatic stress disorder” or PTSD. My grandmother Karola disliked Adolf Hitler and despite Der Führer’s hypnotizing voice, she said, in essence, that the man was insane. Before my grandfather went off to war, he cautioned Karola to never speak out loud against Hitler—ever. It wasn’t that my grandfather was a big fan of the German Chancellor; it was that he knew speaking out could lead to death and imprisonment. Another instance that led to my mother’s PTSD was the horrific rape and murder of her cousin by Russian soldiers.
Frequently my mother had to take cover in bomb shelters. One time, she was visiting relatives in Mannheim. My grandparents felt that Mannheim was a safe place since it was known for its culture and arts and beautiful palace. Nonetheless, British war-planes dropped bombs, explosives, and incendiaries on the city. My relatives sought shelter. There were people still outside the door, pounding and pleading to be let inside, and with every bomb, the structure shook as if it was inside a thundercloud. Once the “All Clear” was given, the door was opened. Some of the people were still alive. The relatives found one of my mother’s cousins outside of the shelter; the young woman’s head had been so traumatized that her eyes had hemorrhaged and the sclera surrounding her pupils were blood read. She’d also been trampled and was barely alive. There are far too many instances of air-raids and running for cover for me to remember or list. After one such night, as my mother left the shelter the next morning, she looked around in horror: people and animals hung in pieces from the shattered tree limbs.
During this era, my great uncle was arrested by SS agents after he’d gotten into an argument with them. He’d been drinking, and as he wheeled his bike shakily from the biergarten, the agents were waiting for him. They beat the poor man and put him into a concentration camp. This is just one instance of what the German government did to its own Christian citizens. What they did to Jewish citizens was savagely cruel—but it happened.
My mother went on to tell me that during the war, there was very little to eat, sometimes no food at all for the common German citizen. Oh, most likely top Nazis fed on the best sausages and pastries, but every-day people were starving. For a time her family had rabbits. Mother and her young brother Heinz gathered weeds and grass for the little animals. Sometimes her father would cook a couple rabbits, preparing a special meal steeped in a rich cream sauce; but after a bomb fell on their apartment, there was no more fresh meat.
“None of us had food. Not even a potato. If the government couldn’t find food for its people, if markets were rubble, if there was no way for us to work and obtain food, how were the soldiers expected to feed the people in the concentration camps? I’m sure the commanders and big shots in the offices ate like kings, but do you think they would share with the Jews? NO!”
Mother continued, quietly “To answer your other question, heads were shaved because of the lice. Everyone had them back then. One time we lined up for a bath-house. It was a common practice. Many people did not have plumbing, but we were allowed to bathe sometimes in these showers; women and small children in one line and men in the other. Once, a woman in front of me let her pretty, long dark hair down. She shook it loose and I could see the nits and lice on her! Then we went through the doors to shower. After that, I had lice too, as did my brother!” The shower could not wash off what had dropped on her body and belongings. Until the day she died, my mother could not stand the smell of hair, especially unwashed tresses.
Her stories gave me a different perspective.
Once, my mother told me of the time when she was a young adolescent. She was deathly ill from diphtheria and nearly died. In Ann’s young life, she had suffered every childhood illness known at that time, and this one was closing off her throat. Karola left the bedroom and my mother resolved to die. She closed her eyes, but opened them again. There at the edge of Ann’s bed sat “Death”. Through blurred vision she stared at him in disbelief. He was not dressed in a black robe, but wore clothes that were barely rags. The specter gazed down upon her with pity. He looked like a skeleton. Ann could see ribs through his thin clothing. She couldn’t be sure—did the monster even have eyeballs? All she could see were black rimmed, hollow orbs where the eyes should be. Ann covered her face and peeked once more, yet there it remained, that dark angel. Death was now sitting closer to her, staring down. Ann squeezed her eyes tightly. When she looked again the apparition had disappeared. Karola was there about to spoon something into Ann’s throat. My mother tried to explain that the Angel of Death almost took her soul, but was unable to speak. Karola soothed the frightened girl and forced the medicine upon her child.
My mother told the story to only her family and closest friends. She opened up a little more in the decades following the war. In the late 1980s, Mother made one of her last trips back to Germany. She was at a party and saw a very old man she used to know and almost did not recognize him. He asked her to dance and she said, “I have not seen you since I was very little, before the war!”
The man said, “Anneliese, we saw each other afterwards, but maybe you do not remember? You were so very sick. I’d just gotten out of a concentration camp. I found your family somehow, before I even found my own. Karola asked me inside and made a special request: would I watch you while she went to get some medicine. I sat at the edge of your bed and you stared at me for a long time, then drifted off to sleep. I was not sure if you were alive until you struggled for a breath or two. When you awoke again, you couldn’t take your gaze from me. You fell asleep and soon your mother returned with the medicine.”
Ann, at that time nearing sixty herself, hugged the old man and told him her story. “I thought you were the Angel of Death! I told people that Death had come for me, but it was you!”
In her mind and from her perspective, Death was an actual creature that truly had a face. Until her eyes were truly opened to the facts, she insisted this “angel” had come to take her life.
When I was a child, I did not know that most people in Europe were starving and infested with parasites and disease–that is, until my mother told me. Again, what the Nazis did to their own citizens was unconscionable. What they did to the people of the surrounding countries was amoral. What they did to the Jewish people is truly unbelievable. Ben Lesser himself said that he and many of his fellow prisoners could not believe that a civilized, cultured people could do this to their fellow humans in the 20th Century.
I will add perspective is one thing; complete denial is another. Many people can have a shared experience and come out of it with a different story or nuance of it. Yet, there are those that deny that the Holocaust even happened. There are photographs of the dying, the dead, and the walking dead. These snapshots came from many sources: the German government, the allied soldiers that liberated the prisoners etc. There were plans and blueprints of the death camps discovered after the Allies arrived. There were the personal narratives of Nazi soldiers, American soldiers and the people that somehow survived places like Dachau, Auschwitz, Chelmno, Bergen-Belsen and others.
Yet, there are individuals and groups that state, as fact, that there was no wholesale slaughter of eleven million people. They deny that there were gas chambers, ovens, mass graves, starvation and forced labor. They do not acknowledge that there are buildings that still stand as a testament to mankind’s cruelty to man. Whatever the reason, they deny the truth. Their argument is not a “perspective” or a subjective deliberation of who actually died. These people discredit the evidence altogether. Those soldiers that liberated the victims are dying. The individuals that survived the horrors are perishing. All that is left are their stories, pictures and memorials. Please, take a moment to visit these online tributes. If you ever get the chance to see one of the many death camps that is open to the public as a standing, interactive testimony to the mass carnage and systematic execution of millions of people, I urge you to do so –
lest we forget.
Zachor זכור . Remember.