Meeting 1

 

Confronting the Holocaust: my first experience speaking with a Holocaust survivor.

 

            As I sat down at the table and I saw the older generation walking in, it was all smiling faces. People came in and sat down and began showing me pictures from their childhood, and in the meantime, other students began filtering into the room.  However, once everyone had sat down and was de facto paired up with fellow students and Holocaust Survivors, the tone changed. The Survivor that I was paired up with came from Poland where she had lost her entire family during this great tragedy.

The first thing she showed me was a photograph of herself on the day of her camp’s liberation by the Soviet Army. The photograph was of a young fifteen year-old girl who had already suffered so much in more her decade and a half in this world than most on this earth would suffer throughout their entire lives. Her tribulations at the time were indicated by her inability to produce a smile for her picture despite the relief of rescue from the Nazi regime. After she showed me the picture of herself on the cover of a larger article that was produced for the Los Angeles Times during the 1950s, I flipped through the rest of the article only to see gruesome photos of other Holocaust victims. While I had learned about the Holocaust in the past from school and from history books, the pictures of famished men, dead women and children, and other victims created an image of the Holocaust that will stick me with for the rest of my life. I was shocked that anyone could find such actions justifiable and that the world did nothing about it until it was too late. The horror of genocide was made personal to me.

While we did not get to talk about life before the Holocaust until the last ten minutes of the first meeting, I had the great fortune of learning about her values through our discussion of various topics. For one, it was clear to me the emphasis she placed on educating today’s youth about her experiences and ensuring that my generation and the generations to come understand the Holocaust and ensure that genocide never happens again. She showed me letters from appreciative students who took to heart her visits with them. The value she placed on these letters and her desire to talk to more people about her experience shows her dedication to the cause of educating today’s youth. This desire to ensure that the past is not forgotten and that we learn from the mistakes of yesteryear is something that I hope to impart to my own generation and to future ones to come.

Furthermore, our discussion imparted the importance she placed on family. As someone who lost her family during the Holocaust, her appreciation for family ties was encouraging and led me to realize how lucky I am to have my family. The emphasis on family that she placed also appears indicative of cultural values that existed prior to the Holocaust that could be found in Jewish life. Coming from an Iranian background, this take on family was quite familiar and created a common basis of understanding that allowed for a greater connection between myself and her.

I look forward to my next meeting with her. I hope to continue to get a better understanding of the events of the Holocaust with this invaluable one-on-one experience.

 

Meeting 2

 

Liberation and moving to the United States.

During my second meeting with R, she recounted her life following liberation. (which occurred on her birthday, May 8). After she was liberated on her birthday, May 8, she went to her hometown of Sonowiec in Poland, hoping to find surviving family members (at that point, it was only herself and her sister that survived from her parents’ ten children). There she found her former home occupied by people who had moved in following her family’s eviction at the hands of the Nazi government. The Poles who now occupied her home did not greet R and her sister with open arms and reconciliation. Instead, she and many other Holocaust survivors across Europe found themselves unwelcome in their own homes, and even discriminated against. Indeed, Holocaust survivors often returned only to face more racism and pogroms.

            After her experience back in Sonowiec, she knew that Europe would not welcome her and she began dreaming of emigrating to the United States.  However, following a visit to a doctor in her hometown, she found out she had a tumor in her thyroid that must be operated on. Not trusting the Russian doctors in charge in occupied Poland, she decided to wait until she came to the United States for treatment.

At that point, her and two of her friends attempt to go to Munich, Germany, where her friend’s brother lived, in hopes of getting assistance from displaced persons (DP) camps run by the United States and other Western European powers. From there, she wanted to get a visa and come to the United States. Having no money, traveling to Munich was by no means easy. First, she went to Prague and slept by the train station, begging for money to get fare to go farther west.  Once she collected enough money, she paid smugglers to get across Soviet lines and into West Germany, where R and her friends hitchhiked to Munich.

Upon finding her friend’s brother in Munich, she heard news that one of her brother’s survived the Holocaust and she began searching for him. When her friend’s brother began showing romantic interest in R, he told her that she would marry the man who finds her brother. At this point, R’s friend’s brother, and her future husband, left Munich in search of her brother and eventually finds him. They then get married in Munich and soon thereafter have their first child, a girl, in Germany in 1947.

R and her husband made their move to North America, first to Canada and then the United States around mid-century, finally settling in California in 1951. She had her second child, a boy, in the United States. As she settled down, she opened up a successful deli in the San Fernando Valley and worked there from early in the morning until late night. Throughout her life in the United States, she ensured that she saved enough money to give her kids the best education possible. After having her childhood and education taken from her at the hands of Nazi Germany, she took education seriously and made sure this was imparted to her children.

While life began taking on a consistent and steady flow, tragedy and loss confronted R for the next two decades. In 1957, her sister passed away following a fatal car accident with a drunk driver. A few years later, her brother had a stroke and passed away. Amidst this tragedy, in 1963, she finds out she indeed had another surviving sister. Following the end of World War II, her sister was adopted by the Swedish government and was raised as an orphan of the war. After growing up in Sweden, her sister moved to Cyprus and finally Israel, where she lived in a Kibbutz because she could not afford to live otherwise. When R found out, she borrowed money and flew to Israel to see her sister. R then helped her sister establish herself and eventually marry and have children. However, a few years later, her sister falls ill to terminal cancer and also passed away. The tragedy R suffered from losing her family made me appreciate the hardship R had gone through and how she managed to maintain hope throughout these tribulations.

 

Third Meeting with R

 

            One of the lingering questions I had to ask R was whether her sister, who had been adopted as an orphan of the war by the Swedish government following the end of World War II, enjoyed her time in Sweden.  Her sister had told R that the Swedish people were very nice to her, and that her experience was overall quite good, but that she did not feel at home in Sweden.  As an orphan, she longed for a sense of belonging, and for this reason, she decided to leave Sweden and move to Israel.  This search for a sense of belonging, given the horrific aftermath of the Holocaust, was a driving force in the establishment of the state Israel and truly drove home to me the significance of Israel following the events of the Holocaust.

            R continued to recount the story of her sister.  Before R’s sister could make it to what would later become Israel, she had to pass through Cyprus, for the British then controlled migration to that colony.  However, R’s sister eventually made it to Israel, and lived in a Kibbutz.  As recounted in the previous meeting, when R found out her sister was in a Kibbutz, she became upset and did everything to get her out.  R told me that living in a Kibbutz was not acceptable by the standards of her family.  After R’s sister got out of the Kibbutz, she married a Polish engineer and had a daughter, Wagner.  Wagner had a daughter of her own.  However, Wagner was diagnosed with Melanoma and her daughter was given up to a Kibbutz.  Today, Wagner’s daughter is eighteen years old and serves as an intelligence officer in the Israeli military.  R still keeps in contact with her.

            I also asked about R’s husband and his experience coming to the United States. It was actually on his account that it took (relatively) long for R to come to the United States.  While she had been granted immigration to the United States, her husband had not and so she waited with him in Germany until 1951.  When her husband came to the United States, he got a job making deliveries while R babysat to help pay the bills.  R also went to night school to get her high school diploma. 

            After a few years, her husband began working at a deli.  Upon the passing of the deli’s owner, and war reparations given by the German government to R and her family, they bought the deli that they operated for decades.

            In 1965, R went to Paris to look for her cousin who had survived the Holocaust.  When she went to his house in Paris, she found out that he had passed away, but his son and wife survived him.  They were kind to R and she was shown around Paris.  Upon entering a gift shop, she by chance found out that the owner of the store was a Holocaust survivor from Poland.  When he had found out that R was a survivor, he became so excited that he offered her to take anything from the store that she wanted.  She kindly declined.

            Following liberation, R has visited Auschwitz on a few occasions.  She however does not want to return.  She told us how difficult it was for her each time.  She would become physically ill and emotionally distraught and become bedridden for weeks at a time. 

            R also mentioned to us the one thing she kept from her old family home.  After returning to her home directly following liberation, she felt unwelcome and her home had in fact become occupied by strangers.  However, she knew that she had to keep something to remember her past, and so she took a silver menorah, which she has to this day and she hopes to keep in her family for generations.

           

 

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