by Sheldon P. Hersh (Lawrence, NY)
I first heard the story many years ago and at the time, quite frankly, never gave it much thought. But when I heard the story a second time, I was shocked and bewildered. How would things have worked out had my parents relented and given their blessings to an arrangement that few could ever fathom? How could any sane individual make such a proposal and expect a positive reply? But judge for yourselves. Listen to my father’s story as he details an event that occurred right before the birth of my younger brother.
On the days immediately following liberation, if a survivor had gained enough strength to stand before a mirror, he or she would probably have had a difficult time recognizing the image appearing on the glass surface. The reflection would likely be that of a stranger dressed in rags with shaven head, emaciated body and deeply sunken listless eyes. That is how we looked as we emerged from years of darkness and entered a world ablaze with freedom and light. The years of suffering and abuse had taken its toll leaving us both physically and emotionally disabled. How could we ever regain all that we had lost and how do we go about rebuilding our shattered lives? Entire families were murdered, our homes and possessions were long gone and we had virtually nothing but the clothes on our backs. We were the broken remnants of a forsaken people who had been sadistically tortured and systematically exterminated while much of the world stood idly by without raising a whimper in protest.
Who but a survivor could best appreciate another survivor’s needs, fears and aspirations? We quite naturally gravitated to one another. Friends became more than friends and often assumed the role of siblings and parents providing the comfort and support that could only come from a close family member. Each survivor knew that only another survivor was able to appreciate the pain and sorrow that would remain deeply implanted within each of us. After liberation, we were all displaced orphans who placed our trust in one another, relied on each other and yes, married one another.
I was liberated by US military forces while on a death march that originated in the Flossenburg concentration camp, the site of my last confinement. My struggle first began in the Lodz ghetto, continued in Auschwitz and finally ended in Flossenburg, a slave labor camp located in Germany. How we managed to survive when so many had not is a question that I am often asked but unable to answer. After considerable thought, I came to the realization that perhaps it is better for all concerned that this question remains unanswered. Each response, each and every attempt at providing an answer tends to appear so utterly superficial and woefully inadequate.
I was now free but had no idea how to go about restarting my life. My wife and three children were gone; I had no home, no source of income and no documentation. Like most other survivors, I decided that my first priority was to return home in hope of locating any family member or acquaintance that may have survived the war. Most would soon learn that few, if any, had survived. And to make matters even worse, returning Jews were not welcomed back to their hometowns and were often threatened, beaten and, in some cases, murdered without the slightest bit of hesitation by the local citizenry.
Many survivors were quick to marry and start families. Survivors often married out of necessity and on many an occasion, for reasons that would often be frowned upon today. We were pragmatic rather than romantic and realism far outweighed love and the idealistic and fanciful images of securing the ideal and perfect mate. I married a former neighbor who had lived with her family just a floor above my apartment in a working class neighborhood in Lodz, Poland. We were the sole survivors of our respective families and our marriage proved timely and sensible for both of us. We knew each other and trusted one another and that was more than enough. We were married in Poland but with anti-Semitism still an overriding concern, we decided to seek safety in Germany of all places. Two healthy children were born in a displaced persons camp a short while before we set out for the United States.
Survivors formed close bonds with one another. How could an outsider ever appreciate what we had gone through? They could never possibly understand and there were times when outsiders, including those amongst our own people, became adversaries rather than advocates. Whenever Holocaust experiences were discussed, there were a good number of individuals who voiced outright disbelief and often accused us of exaggerating facts or spreading falsehoods. Some even advised that we not talk of our experiences so as not to upset friends and acquaintances.
I was once asked how I felt about bringing children into a world that tolerated the murder of so many innocent Jewish children. My response was simple and to the point. I had never come across any survivor who had the slightest reservation about having children. In fact, not having a child, left many emotionally devastated and deprived of joy and fulfillment. Now that you have the necessary background, permit me to share a story with you.
My family had befriended a couple who, like us, had married after the war. He was considerably older than she but what did it matter? They were both vulnerable and isolated and, like many survivors, decided to wed. Try as they may, they were unable to have children. As each year passed, both grew increasingly despondent and were desperate for a child whatever the cost. They would often come to visit and showered my children with love and affection. We comforted the couple as best we could but their desperation worsened with each visit.
Approximately four years after we settled in America, my wife was pregnant with our third child. We were once again paid a visit by our childless friends who now learned of the pregnancy while we were all sitting at the kitchen table talking about life back in Europe. I could sense that something was not right as they both fidgeted with their tea cups and eyed one another in a way that I found troubling.
Our friend placed his cup on the table and suddenly gave us a look unlike anything we had observed throughout the many years of our friendship. With eyes awash in tears, the tormented fellow began speaking somewhat haltingly but with a tone that could only signify deep pain and desperation. “You already have two children and could likely have more if you so wished….sell me this unborn baby. I’ll pay you whatever you want but we need a child. Without a child we have nothing, nothing at all.” He continued in this vein without letup for a minute or two hoping to convince us to do the unthinkable, to consider the impossible. He promised the world if we would only agree.
I had to put an immediate stop to this madness and as my neck and chest began to tighten, I started out by telling them that I understood their grief and felt their sorrow. “This is nothing but foolish talk, the talk of sheer desperation. I know what you feel, believe me I know,” I whispered. “But we could never do such a thing. I wish there was some other way to help you but we cannot do such a thing.” Not another word was said. As I looked at this sad and desperate couple, I saw tears streaming down their ashen faces. My dear friend knew that I had already lost three children and would never agree to his request. But what was there to lose? He had to ask.
We remained close and whenever the couple came to visit, they paid particular attention to my younger son, the baby they so desperately wanted for their own. I also noted a slight change in behavior whenever they rose from the couch as they prepared to leave for home. While adjusting their coats, they would take a longer than usual look back at the giggling toddler before slowly approaching the front door.
We were like brothers, perhaps even closer than brothers. Our experiences bound us together in a manner that defies description and can never be adequately put into words. My wife and I would have gladly done anything for this sad couple but this was one request we could simply not honor. Two or three years were to pass before they finally succeeded in adopting a baby girl.
Sheldon P. Hersh, an Ear, Nose and Throat Physician with a practice in the New York metropolitan area, is the author of Our Frozen Tears (http://tinyurl.com/kuzlscb), as well as the co-author of The Bugs Are Burning, a book on the Holocaust. “Sell Me The Child” is excerpted from Our Frozen Tears with the kind permission of the author.