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 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.
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.
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.