Tag Archives: 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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The Old Man and the Tortoise

by Ellen Norman Stern (Willow Grove, PA) 

Whenever I think of Olivaer Platz, I remember the old man and his tortoise. A picture of him remains in my mind and brings up a complete memory of a time and a place.

Olivaer Platz was a small public park in the midst of Berlin when I was growing up in the 1930s. It was located near the major artery of Kurfuerstendamm, and it attracted many people. All around the park were shops popular with customers of all ages.

I remember my favorite, Café Heil, where I was occasionally treated to the small meat pastry I loved whenever one of my parents had coffee and cake there, met friends, or just read the assorted newspapers and magazines available to the patrons. There was an ice cream parlor in the same block, too, whose various flavors of ice cream sandwiches were in enormous demand in warmer weather.

In the afternoons I remember seeing older adults reading their newspapers on the benches in Olivaer Platz. It was only a few squares from our home in Mommsenstrasse 66, and I was occasionally taken there to play in the children’s section.

I went primarily to shoot marbles. The object of the game was to propel the marble with one’s thumb in order to hit an opponent’s marble. If the hit was successful, the other child’s marble became yours. I had a collection of colorful glass balls on which I prided myself. Not being very skillful, however, I was often unsuccessful at the game, lost my own marbles, and came home crying.

One day my mother and I arrived at Olivaer Platz and found that one of its park benches had been painted yellow with an orange-colored letter J drawn on it. The bench clearly stood out from the others. Nearby was a sign proclaiming that due to a new ordinance Jews were no longer allowed to sit on the regular benches and were subject to arrest if they disregarded the law. The yellow bench was now the Jews’ bench.

After that my mother, whom I called “Mimi,” no longer took me to the park, except for walking through it en route to the Kurfuerstendamm. She would not sit on the yellow bench. And she could not—and would not—stand around waiting for me to finish my marble game.

I still remember that bench, primarily because of one old man. I saw him only twice. Each time he fascinated me, not because he sat on a bench that had changed its color, but because of what he did when he sat on the bench.

I watched him closely as he carried a shabby leather briefcase to the bench, sat himself down, and opened the briefcase. Out came a large, dark-brownish tortoise. The old man gently placed it on the ground in front of him, presumably to give the tortoise a little air.

I assumed the tortoise was his beloved pet, possibly his only family. It was certainly a sad time for all of us. How pathetic that lonely old man was I could not fathom then. I only knew I felt sorry for him.

But in years to come, the memory of the old man sitting on the yellow park bench with his tortoise became a symbol to me.

In my mind all of the degradation and isolation heaped upon the Jewish people by the Nazi regime crystallized into the figure of that solitary old gentleman, with his reptile friend, sitting alone on a yellow bench.

(Author’s Note: It was not until September 1, 1941 that a new Nazis law required all Jews over the age of ten to wear a yellow star affixed to their clothing identifying them as Jews. The yellow star was intended to humiliate Jews, as well as make them visible targets vulnerable to attack. Not wearing the insignia carried the death penalty.)

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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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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Berlin, November 10, 1938

By Ellen Norman Stern (Willow Grove, PA)

Late on the afternoon of November 10, 1938 my mother and I were traveling home on the Stadtbahn, Berlin’s elevated train system. Fortunately we knew my father had already landed in the United States after the torment of a lengthy stay and an eventful release from the concentration camp of Buchenwald.

Now there were many details still left to be settled for the hoped-for emigration of my mother and me and we had just come from the headquarters of a government office located in another section of the city.

It was cold. Because of the winter month darkness came early. What I remember most clearly was that my mother suddenly decided to get off the train several stops before our regular one. She did not explain why, only said, “I saw something,” grabbed my hand, and pulled me with her when the train doors slid open.

What she had seen I did not understand until she and I had run down the steps at the train stop and headed toward an area which I immediately recognized as Fasanenstrasse, the street where our synagogue was located.

That evening as we got closer to the familiar building a strange scene unfolded.

A large group of people stood on the street in front of the entrance and stared silently at the magnificent synagogue illuminated by a bright glow from within. I had visited the building many times when its facade was splendidly lit, but I had never seen it so luminous, shining so brightly, as if its heart was on fire.

My mother was devout and frequently took me to services here at our synagogue on Fasanenstrasse, the home of Berlin’s liberal Jewish community. I had witnessed my first religious observance in its sanctuary and visited my first Sukkah in its enclosed rear yard.

I was introduced to the rituals of liberal Judaism here. The sound of its majestic organ and the brilliance of its choir had opened a portal to faith to me.

But its magnificent cupola had always fascinated me. When I looked upward, I easily visualized it as God’s throne. Its high golden dome became an umbrella of holiness and safety to me and I could imagine Him watching me from its heights. Under it I felt protected and sanctified.

My mother pointed her finger toward the sky. I followed her glance and saw flames shooting out of the cupola. They burned brightly in the cold evening air, sending down crackling sparks onto the synagogue roof. I thought it surprising that I heard that snapping, popping sound from so far away.

We stood at the rear of the crowd. There were smirks on many faces. What was more astonishing was the sight of several idling fire engines forming a circle around the front of the synagogue. Nearby, their crews in firemen’s uniforms stood in relaxed conversation. At a close distance there were watchers all around. But no one moved. It was eerie, as if the whole scene were a bad dream in slow motion.

It became evident that no one would put out the fire. We stood there for what seemed to me a long time.

Trembling from cold and fright, I stood in the crowd, strongly aware that something quite terrible was happening. I was heavily troubled by thoughts that ran through my head.

“Why is God allowing this? Why is He letting them destroy His beautiful sanctuary? Why is He not striking all these evil people down?”

I was an eleven-year old child living through a very upsetting time. I had already learned not to voice such dangerous thoughts.

When finally, my mother reached for my hand, we turned to leave, and silently walked back to the elevated train station.

When we reached the station, my mother said her only words.

“Remember this,” she said to me.

I have remembered. Through all these many years.

To this very day.

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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Release from Dachau

by Janet R. Kirchheimer (New York, NY)

“I had a dream last night,” my father tells me.
He dreamed the kapos woke him up at four o’clock
in the morning, on Friday, December 23, 1938,
made him strip out of his uniform, made him
wait in line for an SS doctor to examine him

for bruises and frostbite, made him listen to speeches
by the SS warning him to get out of Germany and never
return. They warned him if he didn’t, he’d be sent back to Dachau
and never leave. He dreamed he was assigned a place
in another line, waited to return his uniform and get his own clothes,
shoes and coat, and that the SS drove him to an area about four miles
from the Munich train station, then made him march the rest of the way.

The sky was so black, he couldn’t see the man who gave him a ticket.
It took twelve hours, and he changed trains twice. He had no money,
no food.
The train arrived on Shabbos morning, and he didn’t want to see
another person’s face and took the back way home through the fields,
crossing eight railroad tracks, careful not to get caught

in the track switches. His father was the first person to see him
as he opened the shutters he closed each night so no one could throw
rocks into the house. He went through the front gate into the house,
saw his mother had baked challahs, and ate an entire one. He went to sleep
at eleven o’clock in the morning and slept until the next day.

“That’s exactly how it happened,” my father tells me. “That’s how I
got home.
Can you believe I still dream about it sixty years later?”

Janet R. Kirchheimer is the author of How to Spot One of Us, poems about her family and the Holocaust.  Her recent work has appeared in The Poets Quest for God and is forthcoming in Forgotten Women.  Janet is currently producing AFTER, a cinematic film about Holocaust poetry.  https://www.facebook.com/AfterAPoetryFilm/

 

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Auschwitz, August, 2016

By Chaim Weinstein (Brooklyn, NY)

I limp in the dark Eicha night with pain in my knee exploding, and I hear dogs barking in the near-pitch-blackness. Tears fill behind my eyes, not from my knee this time, though I say nothing to anyone. I quickly look at my wife and know we are each with private thoughts.

Several friends offer to get the wheelchair or my cane, and I curtly answer that I’m fine, though I’m anything but fine. I’m no martyr, and I don’t love pain. But in this place, my knee is not the source of my torment.

I walk in thin-soled non-leather sneakers where the rock-strewn road hurts the soles of my feet. I am aware that our people were beaten here seventy years ago, tortured, and beaten through hell in ways I pray to God no human being will ever know. So in this place where our people suffered relentlessly, how dare I complain about anything? I remain silent and worry only about how my wife and son are holding up.

Inside the infamous guard tower, we climb up, overlooking the vast Auschwitz acres, and we sit on the floor, leaning against the inside walls. I think of Germans who’d worked the searchlights here looking for “dangerous” emaciated Jews, often shooting them dead for no reason. I hate them all.

And then it hits me: this night it is we Jews who have overtaken this tower, we Jews are in control tonight of this place dripping with evil. We Jews are here: we have won, thriving in our Jewish lives and culture and religion. And the damned Third Reich? Under the ground. History. Pages in some books. In drerd arein, as my blessed father used to say. We Jews are flesh and blood and sinew and bone and we are here, accentuating our Jewishness right here in the lair of the most barbaric people in history.

And here we are, reading from inside this Nazi watchtower the Book of Eicha, Lamentations, over the destruction of the ancient Temple of the Jews. I need to feel sad, but I am nearly giddy with joy that this watchtower, this temple of evil, is in the hands of our victorious Jewish group tonight.

We return the next morning and daven shachrit in the woods of Auschwitz. I see several acorns on the ground, and I pick up a green one and put it in my pants pocket, my personal connection here, the green of it fresh and full of life in this kingdom of death. At home, friends will ask why there’s an acorn on a shelf in my bookcase that holds my Torah books and my collection of Dostoevsky, Shakespeare, Hemingway and others. I will tell them it fell from a tree in Auschwitz where our group davened shachrit together. The customs people at the JFK airport will ask if I have anything to declare, and I will hold out my wrists and tell them to handcuff me because I’ve broken the law, bringing this acorn home in my pocket. The entire world has committed crimes against us Jews throughout history, and my little green acorn has silently witnessed the Nazi massacre of more than a million of my brothers and sisters and I want to own this teeny, silent witness.

Just a week before, we’d walked through Tikochin Forest, where Jews had been force-marched in, many already near death from weakness and starvation. There, the trees have no branches, no leaves. Nothing new grows, just mammoth tree trunks on either side of the dirt path leading to three mass graves, each site draped now in very large Israeli flags, where Israeli officers pay their respects.  In my imagination, Nazis bully us, smash their rifle-butts against our ribs, our heads, our backs to make us go faster. But we can’t, we are so near death. Some of us fall to the ground, lifeless even as we fall.

The Warsaw Ghetto uprising, and the remnant wall. Operation Reinhart. Chachmei Lublin. Treblinka. the Nozyk shul. The Tempel shul. The Rebbe Elimelech of Lezajsk. Majdanek. Crematoria. Krakow. The Rama. Tosafot Yom Tov. The Hocha shul. Schindler and ‘his’ Jews in his factory.

So many reminders of deep Jewish life and most painful Jewish death all over Poland. The Poles, the Lithuanians, the Hungarians, all Hitler’s willing executioners, often gleefully torturing Jewish people. And so many other places and issues and thoughts and pain.

We now have America, as long as that haven lasts.

But we definitely have Israel, our true home, where we Jews will be in charge of the fate of our people. And so it continues for us as Jews whose souls were in Poland, and for us as Jews, part of this mission, living in New York and elsewhere.

On a personal note: when I finished learning the Tractate Taanis in memory of my parents and those of my wife’s, I was excited to make a siyum in Poland. (A siyum is the traditional ceremony one makes upon completing a tractate.) I made a siyum in that very country whose populace sought to destroy the Jewish nation and our Torah, and here I was, in their face, showing them all that we Jews and our Torah live on.

For more than thirty years, Chaim Weinstein taught English in grades six through college in New York City public schools as well as in several parochial schools. His poems and stories have appeared on The Jewish Writing Project, and his short story, “Ball Games and Things,” was published in Brooklyn College’s literary magazine, Nocturne.

 

 

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Remembering Elie Wiesel

by Ellen Norman Stern (Willow Grove, PA)

“Permit me to tell you a story.”

These are the words Elie Wiesel often used to begin an evening’s lecture or one of his “college encounters”.

Why am I using these words? Because they tell best how it happened that I was destined to write a story about this man who has become the prophet of his generation, which is also mine.

A long time ago when I was a little girl pushing a doll carriage along the sidewalk of my Berlin street, a young boy my age sat listening to stories in the House of Study of his hometown in the heart of Central Europe. We were far apart in location, background, and upbringing, yet, without our knowing it, a common experience was being prepared for us which would affect both his future and mine. We did not sense the coming of this experience, because we were both still living in the world of childhood, where all bad stories have happy endings.

Then the whirlwind came. Nothing remained the same.

Destiny was kind to me. I was permitted to live and to grow up in the United States. There, more than two decades later, I picked up a booklet containing a number of stories by a writer named Elie Wiesel.

At some moments in life one knows one has just been struck a by a flash of truth. Everything comes together at that point: something happens, a new insight is born. Such a moment is not easily forgotten.. I was aware of my particular moment when I read “Face in the Window,” a passage its author called “a legend of our time.” With powerful graphic words it describes a man who watches without comment the deportation of the Jews of his town. He says nothing, he does nothing He only observes. He is the symbol of a person, a nation, a world’s inertia in the face of evil: the “I don’t want to get involved” syndrome.

The piece touched me deeply. I knew nothing of Elie Wiesel. Not who he was, nor where he came from. But I felt instant kinship with him. He felt what I felt, and he knew how to express his feelings. He had the gift, the power, and the strong urge to make the words come out. And he spoke to me.

I heard Elie Wiesel speak at public lectures. I saw him on television, knew his face from the covers of his many books.

He was famous.

When my publisher asked whether I would write a book about Wiesel for young people, I said yes, not because I am an expert on Wiesel, but because we both lived through the same unusual time and he expressed so many feelings which I could share.

On a bright January day I traveled to New York for my first face-to-face meeting with Elie Wiesel. My appointment with him was in a mid-Manhattan office suite where an organization had lent him space. In a prior telephone conversation, he had given me explicit directions how to reach his office.  I was impressed with his concern that I should not get lost.

I was properly nervous for this interview with a celebrity. The dark-eyed slender man in the trim gray business suit welcomed me with a sweet smile and did not act like a celebrity at all. With old-world courtesy he ushered me into the room where we would talk.

We sat in the small office and he spoke to me of his childhood, especially of his parents. I had brought along fragments of my manuscript-to-be, and he was particularly interested in seeing that I had the right “tone” in my opening pages. In his own writing, he told me, he must feel the words “sing” before he is sure he is on the right track and continue with the story.

Sitting on a hard chair facing me, Wiesel answered my many questions patiently. I had the feeling I had known this man all of my life: I was seeing a friend.I felt united to him by the fact that, as children, our lives were altered by the Holocaust.

After the interview was over, I wandered through the lunch-hour crowd on East 42nd Street. Originally, I had planned to spend the afternoon with friends in New York. Now, I found I no longer wanted to keep the date.

I had just experienced a homecoming. Those who have heard Wiesel speak at an “encounter” know the sensation: it is a feeling of understanding completely, and of being completely understood. For me, it was an experience I needed to hug to myself, to enfold and digest in private, before talking about it and sharing it with others. I took the next train back to Philadelphia.

“Make this book your own,” he said to me when shaking my hand in farewell that day.”Tell the story the way you feel it.”

My aim then was to tell the story of a victim traveling through hell and emerging as a victor. Perhaps you too, will turn to the stories of Elie Wiesel and understand just a little more clearly why the things he had to say concern you, too.

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.

This piece is excerpted from Witness for Life, the biography about Elie Wiesel that Ellen Stern wrote for KTAV (1982), and is reprinted with the kind permission of the author. 

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