HOLOCAUST STORIES – BY ELLIN CURLEY

I was born in New York City in 1949, just a few years after the end of WWII. My parents and grandparents, all Jewish, lived through WWII hearing horror stories about Jewish persecution and the concentration camps. They genuinely feared that if Germany won the war, a distinct possibility for much of the war, the ‘final solution’ for the Jews would spread all around the Nazi-controlled world. It was a scary time for everyone, but particularly for Jews, even in America.

My grandmother’s sister, Rachel had stayed in Russia, with one other sister, while her siblings and eventually her parents emigrated to the United States. They lived close to the western border, so when Hitler broke his pact with Russia and invaded, their town was one of the first to be taken. This was before the Russian army had even begun to mobilize. The Jews in their town were rounded up and put in the synagogue. The building was set on fire and anyone who tried to escape was shot.

Rachel’s oldest son was in school in Moscow at the time his family was murdered. After the war, organizations were formed all over the world to help Jews locate relatives and friends who were missing after the war. My grandmother spent years searching for her nephew, but no trace of him was ever found.

My grandmother as a young child (between her parents) with her siblings

My mother and grandmother were obsessed with the Holocaust when I was growing up. They read everything they could find on the persecution of Jews, and particularly about the concentration camps. I was given graphic books about the camps at around nine or ten years of age. Way too young, in my opinion.

But I also learned about the camps in another, more personal way. Two Czechoslovakian, identical twin sisters named Irina and Elena were good friends of my parents. They told us lots of stories about their time in concentration and work camps, including Auschwitz.

They were sixteen years old when they and their parents were put in overcrowded cattle cars, squashed together with other terrified Jews, and shipped to Auschwitz. They had no food, water or bathrooms for several days. People were crying and screaming. People got sick and died. The smells were unbearable. They arrived at the camp in horrible shape, physically as well as emotionally.

There was a line of Jews being processed into the camp. Dr. Joseph Mengele was at the front of the line with a whip which he used to indicate if a person should go to the left into the camp, or to the right, directly into the gas chambers.

He also picked people out of the line to be subjected to his horrible, sadistic ‘medical’ experiments – all done without anesthesia.

Dr. Josef Mengele, also called “The Angel of Death”

Irina and Elena tell how their lives were saved by a camp guard. The guard recognized that the girls were twins. He also knew that Dr. Mengele loved to do experiments on twins. This guard’s wife was also a twin so he took pity on the girls. He whispered to them that they should say that they were a year apart in age. Bewildered, the girls did as they were told and were sent to the camp, saving their lives. They also threw away their eyeglasses so they would be judged healthy and ready to work, thus avoiding the gas chamber.

I don’t remember all their stories about the camps. I remember that they were separated from their parents and didn’t know if they were even still alive till the end of the war. I also remember that a good friend of theirs, also a teenager, got sick. They tried to nurse her back to health. They even gave her part of their meager rations of food. But she died anyway and they were crushed.

They told us that they tried very hard to preserve some of their Jewish traditions – a reminder of life outside the camps. They feel this helped preserve their sanity and gave them the strength to survive. They and a few other friends would save up pieces of their daily bread so they could sneak off and have secret Shabbat ‘dinners’ and celebrate Passover at a makeshift Seder. They managed to find something to use as a tablecloth and maybe a candle, to make these celebrations as real as possible.

They were liberated by the Americans and the British at the end of the war. Miraculously, their parents survived (they had also been separated in the camp) and they were reunited. They were emaciated and weak and their heads had all been shaven. They went back to Czechoslovakia and began to recuperate and start a new life. Their hair began to grow back, which was a huge deal for the still young twins.

Tragically, Elena’s new life was cut short in 1948. She was arrested for being a communist, turned in by a ‘friend’. The Czech authorities shaved her head again and threw her into prison for another year. She had emotionally survived the camps but this was too much for her to handle. She had a complete mental breakdown in prison. She was mentally very fragile for the rest of her life. She went up and down emotionally and had many periods of serious meltdowns and crises. Her sister was at her side through all her problem periods, even when they lived in different parts of the world. They remained close the rest of their lives.

I made sure that my children understood the Holocaust, but in an age-appropriate way. When my daughter, Sarah, was around seven, we were in Germany and we visited the Dachau Concentration Camp, which is now a museum to the Holocaust. We answered any questions she had but didn’t push too much information on her. She came across a photo that got to her on a visceral level. It showed a child being torn away from its mother and the mother and child were frantically reaching for each other. Sarah was horrified when she realized that children were being separated from their parents. That’s what she could relate to at her age and it made an indelible impression on her.

Dachau Concentration Camp as a museum today

Both my children are adults now and know a lot about the Holocaust and World War II. Hopefully, they will make sure that their children never forget.

Hopefully, no one will forget.

31 thoughts on “HOLOCAUST STORIES – BY ELLIN CURLEY”

  1. Fascinating- thanks for sharing Ellin’s account. My teachers started teaching about the Holocaust when I was 11. We watched many graphic movies and read many first hand accounts at a young age. A family donated several books on the Holocaust and World War II to our university where it’s all in a separate room. It’s such a huge part of my life that I’m not sure what kind of person I would be if it wasn’t.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I grew up in a very similar world. I guess because we were born so close to the end of the war we were warned. And how weird is it that it turns out the warnings were not for naught. Because antisemitism is back.

      Liked by 3 people

    2. There was a generation of American Jews right after WWII who grew up on Holocaust stories. I was exposed too early to the horrors of the Nazis, but in general, it’s not bad to understand how cruel and prejudiced people can be. Americans are learning this lesson now with Trump’s supporters reaching new levels of bigotry and inhumanity. Thinking that it can’t happen here is naive and can be dangerous. We have to constantly combat the evil tendencies in people – we can’t get complacent.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Ellin, I agee wholeheatedly with you about avoiding complacency. I’ve heard these stories before but it still cuts deeply because I know you and it’s personal. I cannot imagine how you handled these horror stories as a child and in later years. The emotional scars, I imagine, never go away and are reopened by what’s happening in our country right now.
        Ellin, thank you for sharing these stories. I can’t imagine this was an easy piece to write, recalling not only the family stories but your relatives who endured all the horrors of the holacaust.
        Thanks, again, for reminding us – yes – lest we forget.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. We’re being reminded of man’s inhumanity to man every day in the Trump administration. From Nazis marching in the streets to kids being torn away from parents at the border – and the President doesn’t care. He is condoning and normalizing bigotry and cruelty. And we thought it could never happen here.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Ellin — it IS happening here. Everyday. Locally and across the country. We’re in the middle of “incidents” at Massachusetts Synagogues, Temples and Cemeteries. Residents say, “We can’t believe it’s happening, again, here”.
        45 shrugs it off — either fake news or no big deal.

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    2. Must be hard to read and absorb. You’re right about man’s inhumanity to man. We never learn. So, it’s playing out again.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hitting ‘like’ seems wrong with this post. I was taught early about the Holocaust and am glad to know it is taught as a key event in history in English schools. As the pendulum swings in dangerous directions, it is something that needs to be remembered.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So glad to her the Holocaust is being taught in England. I’m not sure how much time it gets in American schools. But people need to remember so we can confidently say “Never again!”

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It was odd, I read you rpost before going to my son’s this morning… and the first thing he asked me was about the Holocaust. So we had a long discussion…
        I agree, we need to remember. It is still living memory, not ancient history… and it will be living history until human beings learn to accept and embrace each other, celebrating differences instead of hating them.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Sue, in my brief stints as a sub at our local high school, I tried to get this across to students. They hadn’t received much info about the Holocaust or Slavery. HIGH SCHOOL. I think I made a small dent but not very much. I believe some kids were trying to wrap their heads around a man of color being in their classroom.

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          1. Slavery was barely touched upon when I was at school. I learned far more about it from my family than I was taught there, It is on the national curriculum, but seems to be touched on fairly lightly, considering that the UK was historically one of the worst offenders…

            Liked by 1 person

    1. We always need to be on guard against man’s baser instincts. There is so much cruelty, prejudice and outright murder going on all over the world, people really shouldn’t have to be reminded how low man can sink. But it’s something that people want to push under the rug. It’s too uncomfortable and scary to think about. So we do have to rub people’s noses in the horror every once in a while.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. I also learned about this when I was young. I read a lot and as a young adult visited a Holocaust Exhibition in Adelaide wanting to understand it better. In my early twenties, I knew a person who was insistent that it had never happened and I did not understand how he could doubt the evidence. People believe what they want to believe I suppose, he was an odd man and basically believed it was fake news. As awful as it is I hope that future generations continue to learn what happened as a warning to what happens if we close our eyes to where our leaders are taking us. I do agree with you that really young children should be spared the graphic details though.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So glad that the Hocolcaust is taught in your part of the world. I don’t know where the Holocaust deniers came from. There are no WWII deniers. No one denies the atomic bombs in Japan. Why would they deny this one, major part of the story. Hitler’s writings are full of references to the Final Solution and the Nazis didn’t try to hide their plans. They were proud how efficient the gas chambers were. So it makes no sense that people claim none of it ever happened. The Nazis would be horrified that their greatest accomplishment would be denied!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It made no sense to me either. After WWII ended many displaced persons from Europe migrated to Australia. At that time we were willing to take as many as we could as it was felt that Australia was underpopulated and vulnerable to threat from Asia. Many Holocaust survivors found their way here. History was still being taught in schools when I was a teen although I don’t recall how much detail our lessons went into about it as part of learning about the war. I think I did a lot of my reading alone.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Ellin this is such a horrific time in history. I only learned about it by reading books. It was never mentioned in the schools that I went to. It should be a mandatory part of the history program because it can happen again.
    Leslie

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Unfortunately it can happen again if we don’t actively guard against it. Horrors like mass extermintions are happening all over the world. There is off the charts hatred against other peoples all around us. Hopefully we can keep it from happeneing in America and the other Western cultures. There are some haters in every country, but if there are enough of us fighting against them, then we have a chance.

      Liked by 2 people

    2. Leslie, you’re right. We’re in the middle of living history that echoes echoes parts of our ugly past. Why are so many people oblivious, indifferent or surprised?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Garry we have to teach our children. I don’t think they are getting this information from the schools. We’ve always talked politics and ethics with our children.
        Leslie

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Man’s inhumanity to man knows no bounds. Although I doubt there is a country in the world that hasn’t been involved in persecuting another race, this by far is the most horrific torture perpetrated on another human being whether man woman or child. It is a time in history that we all need to remember and forward to our children, their children and their children in the hope it never happens again.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. After WWII the Jews coined the catch phrase “Never Again!” We need to remember that it did happen so we can make sure it doesn’t happen again. We have to constantly guard against prejudice and hatred and keep these negative emotions from directing our policies. We’re fighting this very thing in the U.S. today. Anti-semitism is on the rise as is violence and bigotry against blacks and hispanics. Hopefully once Trump is out of office, the haters will crawl back under their rocks and stay there in the shadows, afraid to come out into the light.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Covert, during my working years, I learned time and again, how easy and fast hatred could be spread. The hardest part was separating hate fueled lies from the truth. People always wanted to believe the worst. Getting them to see and listen wasn’t easy, believe me.

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