It Does Not Take Very Much to Trigger Holocaust Memories When You Are A Child of Holocaust Survivors

the wallThe day was the ordinary. I ran errands. I went to Whole Foods for a dozen items that came to $44. I took my car in for service and went to pick it up. There were two more things I did. I watched the Today show as I do as many mornings as I can remember. There was a segment on United States police who are trying to uncover the person who reported Anne Frank and her family to the Nazis. A map was shown of the neighborhood in which they were hiding and the number of German collaborators who lived in that neighborhood. There were so many suspects who were dangerous to the Franks and the segment said it’s going to take a while to discover who it was, and whether it was the man who is suspected, but there was not enough evidence to try him.

Then there was an obituary in one of the three papers that I read every morning, the Washington Post, the New York Times, or the Sun Sentinel, that the second to last man who survived the Warsaw Ghetto uprising died. There is only one woman left who was told to escape the ghetto to tell everyone about the gas chambers, as the uprising was caused by the Jews realizing they were not being relocated but rather they were being gassed in gas chambers. The newspaper article mentioned “Mila 18,” a book by Leon Uris, which is based on true happenings, revisiting the uprising.  According to Wikipedia, “[t]he name “Mila 18” is taken from the headquarters bunker of Jewish resistance fighters underneath the building at ulica Miła 18 (18 Mila Street, in English, 18 Pleasant Street).  Wikipedia also notes that a movie about Mila 18 was in the works in 2017 by Harvey Weinstein, and we know what has happened to his projects. Read more at Wikeipedia.    If you are one who follows stories of the Holocaust, the book, “Mila 18,” can still be purchased at Amazon.

Yes, my father gave me the book, “Mila 18,” when it was published in 1961. He told me, when I was 15 years old, that he was a fighter in a bunker close by to these headquarters.  He said that he knew all of the fighters in Mila 18, firsthand all of the circumstances that were reported on in the book, and that he fought as did the Mila 18 fighters in the ghetto uprising.  He said he was shot in the head trying to escape from the German destruction of the ghetto through the sewers of Warsaw.  He had a scar visible on his forehead to anyone who would ask, but fortunately it was only a bullet grazing him, leaving a surface wound.  See Wikipedia for more information about the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.

The man, who was written about in the obituary, had lectured during his lifetime about his experiences.  He had said he guided people through the sewers to try to escape the ghetto uprising. My father said he and then his then wife were captured by the Germans coming out of a sewer manhole and were taken to Treblinka Concentration Camp.

My father was one of few men who survived the Treblinka uprising as well.  A friend saved his life while he was naked on line to enter the gas chamber, saying my father was his brother.  My father said he carried his wife’s body out of the gas chamber.  He said he had bones broken as he worked the detail removing bodies, and, after a time, he wanted to just go into the gas chamber and die.  His friend, a leader of the uprising, convinced him to hold on a bit longer.  When the uprising began, his friend uncovered bags of guns, ammunition, diamonds, and gold, and said grab others and run.  His friend was immediately killed. My father grabbed four other men.  Having guns, ammunition, and provisions helped them all escape and survive, paying off Polish farmers for food and hiding them.  I read somewhere that only around 100 men survived the Treblinka uprising. To read more about Treblinka Concentration Camp and the uprising, see Wikipedia.

The errands I talked about in the first paragraph came after seeing and reading these references to the Holocaust and I didn’t think anything of it.  The references did not trigger Holocaust memories as I went about my errands.

Then I came home and looked at the photographs of my grandchildren.  One of my grandchildren looked thin to me compared to his school picture from the year before.

A word entered my consciousness.  Muselmann.  See the definition which explains the term in detail from the Shoah Resource Center.

I could hear my father‘s voice saying if you don’t eat you are going to become a muselmann. He would describe those in the Ghetto so near death they were skeletons staggering rather than walking.  As a child, my brother and I heard that term very often. Our refrigerator overflowed with food, and even when the food spoiled, our parents would eat it. They would eat green bread. They would eat anything, even if it was covered with disgusting looking mold. Nothing in our house was thrown away. We were told our parents ate bark off the trees and drank their own urine to survive.  We were given heaps of food on plates and expected to finish it all.  Fortunately, we were not required to eat the food that had spoiled.

Looking at the photograph of my thin looking grandchild, I immediately got tears in my eyes, a lump in my throat and I could not continue anything I was doing other than to shake, stare at all the pictures of my grandchildren and think they would all be dead.  The Nazis would have killed them immediately or worse, tortured them or burned them alive.  I could not do anything for the rest of the day.  The Holocaust overtook me and I pictured only what my father had shared about a Warsaw Ghetto incident recalled in another book based on true incidents, “The Wall,” by John Hersey, that he was in the Ghetto square when the Nazis opened fire on the hay wagon filled with hidden children who were being secreted out of the Ghetto to save them.  My father shared in vivid detail their screams and the blood dripping from the wagon, as someone had revealed this plan to the Nazis.  He had me read that book too. It is still available on Amazon.

It does not take much to change the mood and bring on the memories of the Holocaust I learned from my parents during their daymares and nightmares, and from their stories told directly to me.  I try to avoid references to the Holocaust and will not see movies or read any books about the Holocaust.  The Holocaust does not come upon me with any notice and it does not go away unless I focus on the fact that my grandchildren are okay, that we are all safe.

We know we inherit health issues from our parents through our genes, but we also inherit an entire lineage of fear and pain– generations of it.  Near the end of the novel, “Crazy Rich Asians trilogy, third volume,” by Nigel Barker, Astrid, a main character, says that she is no longer responsible for her mother’s pain and is not passing it on to her son. As a child of Holocaust survivors, my path is different. “Never Again” means sharing at this juncture in my life and also passing along concerns that anti-Semitism is rampant in the world again.

We must know our family history, as surviving the Holocaust required the same skills, strength, and grit.  Fear and pain makes us act in a way to survive.

I will post this, these memories, so difficult to recount. The experience of being a child of Holocaust survivors must be documented for my grandchildren. In the obituary, the last known survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, the woman, said, who will now speak?

I will try.

 

 

With little joy,

 

Mema

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