Tag Archives: children of the Holocaust

Look to the Sky

by Toba Abramczyk (Toronto, Ontario, Canada)

When I was a small child, my dad, a Holocaust survivor,  used to take me over to the window and ask me to look to the sky. He would take my brother and sister and ask them to do the same thing. This happened all the time, whether it was a barbecue or a family occasion, he would take us out and say “Look to the sky.”

When I got married, he took me outside. It was the hottest day of the year, but he asked me to go out and look to the sky

When I had my first child, he said “I am not good with babies. Don’t let me hold her, my hands can’t carry her and I will drop her.”

His hands were bent and swollen from years of hard labour and butchering meat for years and years.

The day my daughter was born, there were about ten family members in the hospital’s recovery room, all waiting for a turn to hold her. All I could see was her little body bobbing up and down from person to person.

There was so much noise and laughter, but through all this hoopla, I could see my dad holding his first grandchild, tears streaming down his cheeks. He was singing so softly to her. I had never heard my dad sing. Perhaps this was a lullaby his mother sang to him. He then walked my daughter to the window and said, “Look to the sky.”

That’s when I got it, I finally got it, and I started to cry.

I was sobbing so hard, everyone around me thought I was breaking down, but my mom understood. She took my hand and smiled.

All these years, all the times we had “looked to the sky,” my dad was showing his family, everyone who he had lost in the Shoah — mother, father, sisters, brothers – he was showing our faces to them, his legacy, and now his granddaughter.

Toba Abramczyk is the daughter of a Holocaust survivor. Her father was born in Belchatow Poland, the only survivor of seven children. His parents and two younger sisters, grandparents and extended family were taken to Chelmno. One older brother was shot on the street; two older sisters and an older brother were taken to Lodz and then sent to Chelmno in 1944. Her father came to Canada in 1956 after serving in the Haganah as a soldier (1948-1952) in the engineering corp while in Israel. Her mother came to Canada from Rovna Poland in 1930. A single parent of three children, Toba  lectures on the Holocaust, has gone on the March of the Living as a chaperone, and volunteers with various Jewish organizations. 

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A Paris Odyssey

 

by Janice L. Booker (Malibu, CA)

Suzanne’s parents had moved to Paris in the 1930s as a young married couple from Ukraine.  Mr. P. was a barber and opened a shop on a busy Paris street.  They wanted to start a new life away from the anti-Semitic fears in Ukraine.  Two daughters were born and the family lived in an apartment on the floor above the shop.

And then came the rise and popularity of Hitler.  And then the war.  And then the occupation of Paris by Germany.  The barber shop was shuttered and the family stayed in their apartment clandestinely to see if they could outlive the occupation.  Sarah, the younger daughter, then about to become a teenager, blonde and blue-eyed, became Suzanne as a way to fool anyone who stopped her as she was the one sent out to forage for food.

For four years they were able to avoid detection.  When Paris was freed, Mr. P.  decided not to attempt to reopen his shop, fearing that vestiges of the Vichy anti-Semitic regime remained.  Instead the family made plans to emigrate to the United States where Mrs. P. had cousins in Philadelphia.

My father was a barber and had operated his own shop for many years.  We lived behind the store in a two-story house.  When he needed another barber to work “the second chair,” the Barbers’ Union sent Mr. P, whose languages were French and Yiddish, but not English.  However, the South Philadelphia neighborhood where we lived was still primarily Jewish at that time, peopled with many immigrants, so speaking Yiddish worked fine.  After a few weeks Mr. P. said to my father, “I have a daughter exactly your daughter’s age.  She is miserable.  She won’t go to school until the fall and she doesn’t know any English or have any friends.  May I bring her to meet your daughter?”

The arrangement was made. I was not consulted, which increased my anxiety of meeting a girl my age who had undergone life experiences I could not imagine. The next day Mr. P. arrived with a pretty 17 year old who looked visibly intimidated.  We introduced ourselves and tried to find a way to talk.  My high school French had taught me “Open the window” and “The pen of my aunt.”  I didn’t think either phrase would help us communicate, but we discovered we were both fluent in Yiddish and that was our method of conversation for the next few months until Suzanne began her halting study of English.

Eventually, Suzanne married and moved to the suburbs with her family.  I did the same.  We lost touch but sometimes met at a Jewish film festival and were always glad to see each other.

Many years later I was a volunteer interviewer for the Gratz College Holocaust Oral History Project.  I decided to interview Suzanne, and in the intimacy of a two hour conversation I learned more about her years barricaded in the family apartment.  She shared emotions I had not heard before: the daily apprehension of being discovered, her inner trembling when she walked on the street to buy food, the tensions, even in a loving family, of spending four years locked together in one space, never knowing what had happened to their extended family.

I suddenly understood the seclusion and safety of the Jewish life I had led living in a Jewish neighborhood and the false sense of security this evoked in me.  The war had not been threatening to us and it was a while before we heard about the horror and devastation of concentration camps and could begin to understand the attempt to exterminate our people.  Leaving Suzanne’s house that day, I felt for myself the wrenching internal anxiety Jews had always felt throughout the world, throughout eternity.

Some time after that experience I wrote a memoir about growing up in Jewish South Philadelphia and sent it to Suzanne, certain it would evoke many shared memories.  She, in turn, sent me her memoir of those parallel years which she spent hidden in the Paris apartment and told of the loss of dear cousins and friends.  She thought she was lucky; I thought she was incredibly brave. It was not until I read her poignant memoir that I learned Suzanne had been Sarah.

Janice L. Booker is a journalist, author of four books, including The Jewish American Princess and Other Myths, an instructor in creative non-fiction writing at University of Pennsylvania, a Philadelphia radio talk show host, and a free lance writer for national publications.

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Vienna – 1938

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

It was like speaking to my mother,
my mother who has been dead for 14 years.

Invited to dinner, I sat next to Renee,
an elegant woman of advanced years.

She looked like my mother, sounded like my mother,
and spoke in soft Viennese accents
that sounded like melted chocolate.

But most remarkable of all,
she lived in that classical city in the same year,
my mother did, 1938, the year of the Anschluss.

Spellbound, I listened as she told the following story:

“Ordinarily, a red flower sitting in a pot on the window sill
basks in the early light, its petals rising to meet the emerging sun.

Amid the tightening noose of soldiers swarming, doors knocked open,
the flower appears as a symbol that beauty has not been crushed
under the soles of marching boots.

But the bright red flower has been discolored
by the growing and blackening evil,
and serves now as an ominous warning sign.

‘Papa if you see a flower on the window sill, do not come home.
The Gestapo is here looking for you. Run, please!
I do not know when I -or the flower- will ever see you again.'”

Both my mother and Renee escaped the Holocaust,
one to Palestine, one to Switzerland.

How many other lives were saved, I wonder,
by the appearance of one red flower
sitting in the morning sun?

The author of twelve books for young adults, Mel Glenn has lived nearly all his life in Brooklyn, NY, where he taught English at A. Lincoln High School for thirty-one years.  Lately, he’s been writing poetry, and you can find his most recent poems in the YA anthology, This Family Is Driving Me Crazy, edited by M. Jerry Weiss.

If you’d like to learn more about his work, visit: http://www.melglenn.com/

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Beginning to Understand

by Sheldon P. Hersh (Lawrence, NY)

A number of years ago, my wife and I joined a small group of fellow New Yorkers on a journey back in time. It was a trip that had all the earmarks of a solemn pilgrimage. A sacred mission of sorts to a place awash in tragedy and tears and the subject of countless discussions and heated arguments. We were about to land in a corner of the world where fleeting shadows have taken on human form and the ground, overcome with sorrow and tormented by unspeakable memories, yearns to reveal its secrets. Looking out the plane’s window, I began to make out the outlines of the airport below. Our jet was about to land in Warsaw, Poland.

We were all children of Holocaust survivors and wanted to see firsthand what the country was like and to appreciate how Poland, the country of our parents’ birth, had so influenced and shaped their lives. Each of us had heard the stories, the tearful recollections of a time and place that is no more. We were eager to visit the oft-mentioned towns and cities and step foot within the few existing synagogues that at one time boasted of overflowing crowds but that now stand silent, forlorn and empty.

There was much to see and experience but what remains with me above and beyond all else was a visit to the Majdanek concentration camp. This notorious extermination center is located only a short distance from the city of Lublin. Much of the camp remains remarkably intact and reminds one of a well-maintained museum. Glass enclosed exhibits contain some of the possessions that were taken from the victims upon their arrival. Eyeglasses, clothing, shoes and suitcases are all that remain of the many souls who entered this evil place.

Foot paths lead from one heart wrenching exhibit to the next and while traversing one particular path, we noticed that the path was paved with odd-shaped stones that looked strangely out of place. Upon closer examination, it became quite clear that some of the stones were actually broken sections of Jewish headstones that were likely scavenged from a nearby cemetery. Some of the stones had their inscriptions pushed face down into the soil below while others had lettering facing the heavens above.

Names of frail saintly elders, mothers who died in childbirth and children taken by illness could be easily identified. It was almost as though the stones, now severely beaten and dispirited, were directing their prayers to the blue skies overhead. They wanted nothing more than to be left in peace. “Why must the evil doers continue to harass us?” I thought I heard them whimper as nearby trees, sensing their anguish, nodded in agreement.

Some in our party began to weep while others raised their voices demanding an explanation. After all that happened here, one would have expected at least a semblance of compassion and good will. A number of workers were only a short distance away unloading headstones from the back of an old truck. Catching sight of this group of distraught Jews, they suddenly began to chuckle and laugh for, after all, this is how it was and continues to be. And for the very first time, I began to understand.

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.

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Remembering The Shoah Through Words and Action

by Janet R. Kirchheimer (New York, NY)

As the daughter of Holocaust survivors from Germany, I grew up with stories of the Shoah. I was recently asked if I recalled the exact moment I learned about what happened to my family. I answered no, there was no exact moment. It was always there. The knowledge seemed to have come through my mother’s milk.

I was that curious kid who asked about the kinds of foods my parents ate in Germany, what school was like, what clothing they wore, what life was like before Hitler came to power. I also began to ask questions about what happened to our family. As I got older, the questions became more serious. I asked my father to tell me about how he and his family hid in the basement of their home during the rioting of Kristallnacht in 1938, of what it felt like to be sixteen years old and be ordered to report to Town Hall the next morning and to be arrested and sent to Dachau.

There was the night my mother and I sat at the kitchen table and she told me about the kids in her kindergarten class who backed her up against a wall at school and threw rocks at her because she refused to say “Heil Hitler.” She told me how her parents got her out to a Jewish girls’ orphanage, The Israelitisch Meijesweishaus, in Amsterdam. We talked about her father’s nine brothers and sisters, of how only he and one brother and sister survived. My father and I spoke about his family, those who survived and those who did not. His mother, father, older sister who was twenty-two and his younger brother who was eleven. They got out of Germany to Maastricht, Holland and in August 1942 were deported to Westerbork and in November 1942 to Auschwitz and murdered upon arrival.

I had so many stories inside of me and poetry became the way to tell them. After writing and writing for almost fifteen years, in 2007 my book “How to Spot One of Us” was published.

Since publication, I have been speaking in public and private schools and for various organizations. I have told my family’s stories of life before the Holocaust, of trying to escape, of failing, of succeeding, of coming to America and learning a new language, becoming American citizens and of beginning, again. In my poetry, it is my goal to give voice to the dead. In my teaching, my goal is to encourage students to remember and study about the Holocaust and our world today, a world that is still rife with genocide.

Over the last two years I have become involved in other ways to remember the Shoah. I’m working with Emmy Award-winning director Richard Kroehling on BE•HOLD, a cinematic documentary that explores poetry, written by Jews and non-Jews, about the Holocaust from the rise of Nazism to the present. Poems are showcased by poets, survivors and their descendents. I am also part of a multi-media exhibit about children of survivors with photographer Aliza Augustine showing at The Kean University Human Rights Institute Gallery, consisting of my poetry and film and her portraits and photography.

I believe that the past is not simply in the past, but rather a vital part of the present and future. Seventy years ago, WWII ended. The last survivors of the Holocaust are aging and passing away. I feel it is my responsibility to remember and continue to tell the stories of my family before, during and after the Shoah in the hopes it will never happen again to anyone.

Jewish wisdom teaches that remembrance must include action. As a child, I was taught by my parents that every human being is created in God’s image and that is the way I should treat each person I meet. Our actions, small or large can help change the world. Whether it is treating the stranger with dignity or being active in causes to stop genocide, we each can remember the Shoah in our own way thus honoring the murdered and the survivors.

Janet R. Kirchheimer is the author of How to Spot One of Us (2007).  She is currently producing BE•HOLD, a cinematic poetry performance filmhttps://www.facebook.com/BeholdAPerformanceFilm.  Her work has appeared in journals and on line in such publications as Atlanta Review, Limestone, Connecticut Review, Lilith, Natural Bridge and on beliefnet.com.  She is a Pushcart Prize nominee and received Honorable Mention in the String Poet Prize 2014. 

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Kristallnacht

by Janet R. Kirchheimer (New York, NY)

Born in a small town in Southern Germany, my father hid, along with his parents, older sister and younger brother in the basement of their home during Kristallnacht. Translated as the “Night of Crystal,” Kristallnacht is often referred to as the “Night of Broken Glass.” It was a wave of violent anti-Jewish attacks that took place on November 9 and 10, 1938, throughout Germany, annexed Austria, and in areas of the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia occupied by German troops. Instigated primarily by Nazi Party officials and members of the SA (Sturmabteilungen: commonly known as Storm Troopers) and Hitler Youth, the name Kristallnacht reflects the broken glass from the windows of synagogues, homes, and Jewish-owned businesses plundered and destroyed during the violence. Numbers vary, but over 1,000 synagogues and businesses were destroyed, at least 100 people were killed and over 30,000 men were taken to concentration camps. On November 10, 1938, my father was ordered to report to town hall. Along with nine other men, he was arrested and sent to the concentration camp Dachau. He was 16 years old. 

Town Hall

“What for?” my father asked. “What
did I do? I’m only sixteen,” and
the gendarme told him if he didn’t

like it, if he asked any more questions, he could go home,
they’d arrest his father instead. And he saw his father
paying his tax bill in the next room,

and he didn’t call out, afraid they’d arrest him too, afraid
his father would want to take his place, and
the gendarme said he had a job to do, a quota of ten men,

and he didn’t care how he filled it. And my father
knew the gendarme, went to school with his daughter.
He was told to empty his pockets, turn

in any money and weapons, and he turned in
his pocketknife, and told the gendarme he had to go
to the bathroom, and another gendarme, Wilhelm,

took him, and he knew Wilhelm too. He told Wilhelm
not to worry, he wasn’t going to run away, and
Wilhelm said he knew, but he was doing his job.

As my father and nine men were loaded on a truck
that said “Trink Coca-Cola” he turned and saw
Wilhelm crying like a child.

Breaking Laws

Kristallnacht
broken glass
Nazis arrest him
a boy sixteen years old

Dachau
November 1938
a striped cotton uniform
it’s almost winter

he shares a bunk
with a man in his fifties
who freezes to death one night

the next morning a kapo tells him
take off the man’s long underwear
do it quickly
before the SS come for the body
you will freeze at night too
if you don’t

it is the custom of some Jews
not to wear clothes from a dead body
and to save one’s life the rabbis teach
one must break custom

he washes the underwear that night
places it over a chair
next to the woodstove to dry
sleeps on it
still damp
to make sure
no one will steal it

Janet R. Kirchheimer, the author of How to Spot One of Us (Clal, 2007), is currently producing BE•HOLD, a cinematic poetry film https://www.facebook.com/BeholdAPerformanceFilmHer work has appeared in many journals and on line including Atlanta Review, Limestone, Connecticut Review, Lilith, Natural Bridge and on beliefnet.com and Drafthorse http://www.lmunet.edu/drafthorse/main.shtml She is a Pushcart Prize nominee and received Honorable Mention in the String Poet Prize 2014. Janet teaches poetry, creative writing and memoir classes in New York City. You can contact her at janetksivan11@aol.com.

These two poems, “Town Hall” and “Breaking Laws,” are from How to Spot One of Us (Clal, 2007) and reprinted with the kind permission of the author and Clal.

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My Olympics

By Ellen Norman Stern (Willow Grove, PA)

I didn’t think I had remembered. Or perhaps it was something I had wished to forget over the many years since it had happened.

But then the sight of the five interlocked Olympic circles, the flag-bearing gymnasts marching into the crowded spectator-filled stadium, the familiar melody of the Olympic hymn sounding through the television screen brought back a long-forgotten memory best not remembered.

In the summer of 1936, Berlin experienced an uncommon heat wave not usually felt in this temperate European zone. Earlier that late spring, as an eight-year old, I had suffered a heat stroke while playing in the school yard. As a consequence I was forced to spend the many days until summer vacation at home, dizzy and nauseous, lying on the bed in my darkened, spinning room, with a wet cloth covering my head.

Like everyone else in the city I hoped to be well again by the time August came around.

Then the much-awaited Olympic Games were to start in Berlin. The capital city was looking forward to become the site of a world event.

I had the fervent wish to be a part of it. To walk through the avenues flagged so splendidly with the banners of the Olympiad and Germany, its host country. To be in the crowd welcoming the many top sports champions from all over the world. To see them perform, perhaps. To witness their receiving the medals for which they had all struggled so hard.

How I would manage to achieve my dream I did not yet know. Nothing in the real Germany of the day favored the daydreams of a small Jewish child.

And yet…hadn’t I heard of things loosening up in the anti-Jewish world around me? Even from the hushed sound of voices in my parents’ living room rumors reached me that most of the fashionable restaurants in town were starting to remove the signs in their front windows, signs that spelled out Jews Not Welcome. “Even Dobrin and Kempinsky are among them,” I heard them mention two of Berlin’s top cafes. Many friends of my parents looked for every possible sign that the icy spirit of Hitler’s Germany was thawing before the eyes of the world.

Not many days later the sob-filled telephone call of my father’s secretary informed us that he had been arrested right within his office and that we had better not expect him home that evening because she assumed that he was taken right to prison. She had no idea what the charges were.

It took my mother several days of frantic investigating to discover that the charges were “bicycle theft” and were brought by an unknown party.

This type of “denunciation” had become a standard procedure in our day. Anyone with a grudge was using it to get “even” for an unknown slight. Especially if it was against a Jew.

However, it seemed particularly ridiculous in the case of my father. Even I knew that he hardly needed to stoop to such a crime. While we still lived in Hannover, prior to moving to Berlin, he had been a successful businessman driven by a chauffeur; my mother, a fashionable, artistic lady whose household had included a cook, cleaning maid, and a laundress. Why then, bother with such a lowly accusation?

A clue emerged a few days later when my mother received a letter from the police. She opened it with shaking hands, only to drop it with an outcry of horror.

“You are hereby informed to report immediately to the Olympiastadion in Grunewald where you are required to help in the construction of the “Reichssportfeld” by doing Feld-Arbeit clearing the grounds for the upcoming Olympic Games.

“This action is required in reparation for the charges incurred by your husband’s prison sentence and subsequent costs borne by the German government.

“Heil Hitler!”

I, of course, had not the slightest idea what all this meant. All I knew was that at last we, my mother and I, would be traveling to the site of my dreams, the Olympic Stadium in the Grunewald. And I was overjoyed!

Every morning of that summer of 1936 my mother and I boarded the U-Bahn (subway) at our stop in Charlottenburg and rode to the end of the line in the Grunewald Forest. Since no one was at home in our family, my mother was forced to take me along every day of her work. Each day she carried a sandwich for me and a bottle of water, plus a sunhat and appropriate clothing for me to wear during the heat spell. After all, I had already experienced one sunstroke.

This area was to be the future home of Berlin’s 1936 Summer Olympics. It had been designated long before, in 1912, by the International Olympic Committee.

The First World War had prevented any games from taking place. In 1933 when the Nazis came to power, the party decided to make the most of the tremendous propaganda occasion by using the Olympic Games as a showplace for the upcoming progressive world of the Third Reich.

The plan was the construction of the Reichssportfeld, a huge arena that was expected to take two years to build.

One of the sites included in the field was the Waldbuehne, an amphitheater with the capacity to seat 25,000 people.

It was this location which would require the labor of my mother and the many other women who were forced to convert the area into a showplace.

I had no idea of any of this when we arrived for work the first day.

With other women who had shared the train ride we climbed up the subway steps. A huge rock-strewn field of weeds awaited us at our destination.

I held my mother’s hand with one hand and carried my sandwich bag and a book with the other. We were met at the top by brown-clad SA men who registered us and turned us over to matrons who led us to a nearby cabin. There the women changed their dresses into more appropriate attire for the work ahead. Before each person left the cabin she was handed a rake and a hoe.

I do not remember any other children present. My mother settled me into an available chair, said that she would check on me whenever she could, and told me to be good.

And then she stepped outside into the burning sunlight and was assigned a stretch of the large field.

I could see her from my chair inside, although she was out of reach of my voice. In the stuffy heat of the cabin I saw my pretty mother chipping away at rocks or bending down to pull out the weeds she had loosened. It was an unreal, nightmarish view I wish I did not have to witness. It may well be the reason I have tried to forget this episode for a major part of my life.

So began each long, hot day, boring and tiring and far from my dreams of the Olympic experience. It was not until the sun began to set that the hoped-for hour of going home arrived.

August 1 arrived, and with it the opening of the 1936 Olympiade.

It was a time before television brought events into every home. I was not able to view the grand episodes I had hoped to see.

Eventually I saw pictures of the rock-strewn weed-filled field, which was now a lush green carpet terminated by a beautiful amphitheater named the “Dietrich Eckhard Buehne.” Another area of the terrain housed the special box of honor where Adolf Hitler greeted his guests. Everything was grand and splendid and politically motivated. The “Fuehrer” was shown bursting with pride, just as another evil dictator named Vladimir Putin would posture unsmilingly in a similar situation in another country many years later.

The sound of the Olympic Hymn in 2014 brought it all back. How little things have changed!

Born in Germany, Ellen Stern came to the United States as a young girl and grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. She’s the author of numerous books for young adult readers, including biographies of Louis D. Brandeis, Nelson Glueck, and Elie Wiesel. Her most recent publication is The French Physician’s Boy, a novel about Philadelphia’s 1793 Yellow Fever epidemic.

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