Sunday, April 23, 2017

Holocaust Remembrance Day

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.


Tuesday, April 11, 2017

A Matter of Perspective

     More than a decade ago, March 15, 2006, my two daughters and their friend Jessica accompanied me down to Yuma. Arizona. It was their Spring Break, and we left a couple days after their school let out. The night was full dark since we were still north of Yuma’s city lights. Up ahead in the distance we saw an object, an orb of some sort.  We slowed for just a moment to look, and I rolled down my car window. The object that we saw in the night sky didn’t make a sound. It was not a plane nor was in a helicopter. “That, young ladies, is a UFO,” I said to them, a growing trickle of dread slowly moving down my spine. I felt very uneasy as we stared at the unmoving contraption, which was low to the ground, yet high enough that it was obviously not a child’s toy. This was long before drones. We agreed to leave the area and made a quick dash for Yuma.

(Thirty Years Previous)

     “The moon’s upside down!” Uncle Gene insisted. “Whoever sold you that there telescope is a crook. You got taken!”
     “This is a good telescope, one of the best a man can buy,” Papa retorted. “Besides, there is no such thing as upside down in outer space!”
     “What I see standing off my porch,” my uncle gasped in exasperation.  “The way I see it, the moon has a face! With your scope, it’s upside down!”
     It was the 1970s and my family was visiting Uncle Gene and his kids. My dad tried to tell his older brother that in the vastness of space there really is no up or down, but Gene would have no part of that line of thinking. From his perspective, the moon was not smiling. Nobody was smiling by that time. Both men thought of themselves as intellectuals, and they were both right. For all my uncle’s life, the moon had never been upside down! From North Carolina, to Georgia, to Guadalcanal, to Michigan, that beautiful orb of the night had always looked the same. From the perspective of Gene’s porch in Pinkney, Michigan, United States, Earth, Miss Luna continued to look down upon him, despite her moody phases, and when full, she looked down with benevolence at Gene’s family. From outer space (and Papa’s telescope) position didn’t matter. The alignment of the planets, constellations and galaxies that stretched forth for eternity, started with a big bang. Since that great event, up and down only make sense from the standards of things living on earth: the people, animals and even the plants that dig their roots into the soil and reach out to the sky for warmth and rain.

     Big bang. That was the jolt that I first felt June 24, 2011 when the train that I was a passenger on outside of Reno, Nevada was T-boned by a semi-truck. There were other lurches in the moments after the first impact and once the train finally stopped about a mile from the intersection, my family made it off. There was smoke entering our car and eventually it was consumed by a quick-moving blaze. I mentioned that a couple days after the collision and my oldest daughter insisted our train car was not on fire. From her perspective, it was never aflame. Before being ushered into an ambulance, my eldest child was laid out flat, under a blanket, looking skyward. From where I stood, I saw the roaring flames consuming the box on wheels that had carried us west only an hour before. We were both right.

    Many of you have heard of the story of the four blind men that had to describe a large animal, using only their hands. They did not know as yet that it was an elephant. One felt the tail and said “I have a rope”.  Another felt the front legs and said he was standing before trees. The third person felt wind blowing through his hair so he reached high above his head. Touching one of the pachyderm’s ears, he claimed that someone was fanning him. Yet another man holding the animal’s trunk described a large snake! They were all correct, but still didn’t know the whole truth.

     In Sunday School recently, our teacher, Brother MacArthur, told us a story about a scope that he purchased through a hunting store. It was top of the line. He’d saved for it and looked forward to seeing wildlife in detail. He lined it up and. . . there was a smear or a cloud in the way. He carefully cleaned the surface of the lens with the recommended items that were supplied with his new scope. Once again, the occlusion was there. Figuring there was a defect inside of the lens, he took it back to the store. The saleslady agreed there might be a smudge somewhere inside, but they couldn’t replace the scope on site. His guarantee covered replacement and service only if he would send it back to the manufacturer.

     A few days later, Brother MacArthur was contacted by the manufacturer who said his scope was just fine. He asked that the head of the company take a look at it and the man on the phone insisted that the CEO himself had given it a try. In the face of claims that they had sold a defective instrument, they sent out a new scope in the name of good customer relations.

     Brother MacArthur received his new scope and could hardly wait to take it out to the mountains. He unwrapped the brand new contents of his package, wiped it clean, put it up to his eyes and was treated to a view of:  scenery with the same smudge. Normally a patient man, he angrily wrapped up the scope and went home. He’d spent thousands of dollars on worthless metal, glass and jointed parts.

     The following Monday he called the company, insisted on talking to the head-honcho himself and got ahold of the man. He explained his problem and said he’d be sending the worthless instrument back as soon as he could.

     Weeks later, Brother MacArthur was at a routine eye exam and the doctor informed him that he was developing the beginnings of a cataract.  My teacher felt terrible, recalling the words that he volleyed at the manufacturer just a month earlier.

     Brother MacArthur was right; he could see a smudge. It was obscuring his view. The CEO was right, the lens was a good product and he stood proudly by his product.

     March 19, 2006 – We were leaving Yuma. It was late morning and our brief stay was at its end. Driving north as we left the outskirts of the city, we saw it, the UFO! It was a real Unidentified Flying Object, as we still did not know what it was, exactly. Yet, this time, we had no doubt it was earthly. The thing was still in the sky, tethered to a rope and was some kind of huge, lofty advertisement. It was just as real, but not so intimidating and frightening. We continued on our way and laughed at ourselves.

     We all travel different roads and live different lives. Our parents teach us wisdom and we still see things in our own way. Even though we may not have all things in perspective, I hope we may all get along and agree to disagree.

Please, Note:  In the weeks to come I hope to discuss perspective and individual beliefs in a few more posts. Until then, try to see the world from someone else’s eyes for a couple days. You may learn something about them. . . and yourself.

A Sideshow Journey by Liesa Swejkoski

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