I am only here today because my mother Ilse, and her sister Herta survived Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Our immediate family was one of the lucky ones – we survived – nearly 60 in my mother’s extended family did not.
When we talk about The Holocaust, it is often in terms of the numbers - 6 million killed, 1.5 million of them children. It is easy to say a number, without getting the impact of the scale of the suffering.
I can say a number like A4748. At work we use a filing system called EDRMS and when we save a file we give it a number A47482710. The difference is that A4748 was the number branded on my mother’s left arm when she arrived in Auschwitz from Theresienstadt, in a cattle truck. She was only 16.
My mother was a child, so was my father. He was barely 17 years old when he had to run for his life and dive into the Vistula River with gunshot fire whizzing around his ears. He survived by escaping from Poland and joining the Russian army. He fought in the tank division. He fought at Stalingrad and traveled as far as Tashkent and Siberia.
Both were traumatized by what they saw and experienced in the war- but we children never knew. Our childhood was happy and free. All the kids the in the neighbourhood knew where Mrs. Goldstein’s biscuit tin was. They were free to help themselves. No one was allowed to be hungry
When I was 6 years old a schoolmate around the same age came up to me in the school yard and said,
“Your grandparents were made into soap”.
I remember being stunned. I knew of grandparents- everybody else had them except me but I couldn’t comprehend how people could be turned into soap.
Naturally I sought my mother’s advice. When I asked her
“Is it true my grandparents were turned into soap”, Mum brusquely replied “Don’t be ridiculous!” And that was that. But it did leave me with a whole lot of unanswered questions:
Obviously in his home they talked about the war and what happened to Jews. Why would a parent do that?
My parents wanted us to stay kids for as long as possible.
It wasn’t until the “World at War” series screened on New Zealand TV that The Holocaust was discussed openly at home. When there were clips of Auschwitz my Mother sat right up close to the TV. I asked her why and Mum answered:
“I might recognise someone”.
That truly shocked me because she was looking at walking skeletons.
What does Auschwitz mean to my family?
Auschwitz is a great hole filled with human suffering and unspeakable cruelty. Those who survived carried memories with them all the days of their life.
Just before she died my mother said to me that when the Nazi’s came in the middle of the night to evict her family from their home they were shouting and screaming and had guns, knives and dogs. She said she felt like her insides had been torn out. That emptiness stayed with her all her life.
When I was younger I used to faint easily especially if I didn’t eat a good breakfast. My mother’s response was to tell me –
“If I had done that in the camps – I would have been killed”. In Mum’s Holocaust experience any sign of weakness was a passport to death. As a mother her main concern was for me to toughen up and survive -that was what she had to do.
After the birth of my first child Mum noticed a black dot on the corner of the card with Sophia’s birth details.
“What have they selected her for” she asked anxiously.
“Nothing” I answered “It just shows Sophia’s had the Guthrie test”.
It took some time to convince Mum that the black dot signified the baby had undergone a heel prick routinely done for all newborns. The baby had not been selected for anything.
You may think Mum’s fear of selection was irrational until you realise the “normal” routine in Auschwitz involved daily selections where you had run naked in front of a Nazi officer who would indicate with the slight of his baton if you went left or right. One side meant death. That was the “normal reality” in Auschwitz. That fear never left her.
Mum said you could be killed for owning a toothbrush or anything that made you feel ½ normal or human.
Today is the UN Holocaust Remembrance Day. The Hebrew word for Remembrance is Zachor. Remembrance is a central concept in Judaism:
“Whoever destroys a soul it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a single soul it is considered as if he saved an entire world”.
At the Holocaust Centre we remember not only the evil acts but also the courageous acts of the righteous amongst the nations.
We are also building a memorial of 1.5 million buttons to remember the 1.5 children murdered in The Holocaust.
My mother always said that the war brought out the worst and best of people. She never forgot those kindnesses and emerged from the camps as a woman of deep faith. My father and mother had an open door policy and people of every race and religion were welcomed warmly into their home.
One last story happened in Wellington in 1981 on the day of the Springbok game at Athletic Park. We lived in the street next Athletic Park. When she saw the barbed wire being rolled out she rushed out of the house and screamed at the Red Squad
“I didn’t come to this country to live with barbed wire”. It took several members of the family to restrain her – but we knew she was right.
The barbed wire symbolised all that she had escaped from and all she didn’t want to see in New Zealand – the country she chose to come to.
To me the message is clear – we must stand up for our freedom and cherish it. We must respect (and I prefer the word respect to tolerate) all living in this wonderful country. We are all connected.
Remembering The Holocaust is a pathway to learning these lessons and living in Peace.
Thank you and Shalom.