Session 1: Before the War

The first time I entered Hillel, and met with various students and elderly people, I was swathed in an immense amount of excitement and anticipation about taking part in a-once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.  For the first time, I would be able to have an actual one-on-one interview with a Holocaust survivor.  I had dreamed of this for years, but never thought that such an occasion would ever come to pass.  And now, here I was standing in a room with so many amazing individuals who had survived the worst catastrophe society has ever inflicted on humankind. 

I was quickly taken out of my stupor when a volunteer came up to me and instructed me to sit with one of the elderly so as to begin the interview.  But how was I supposed to choose whom to sit with?  All of these people had stories that I yearned to listen to.  No story was more important than the other, and if possible I’d listen to them all. 

But then I saw Jack Lewin.  I did not know him just yet but somehow I felt connected.  He sat there by himself, quietly awaiting someone to interview him.  Without thinking twice I raced over to his table, anxious to get to know him and consume every detail of his remarkable life.  Two other students sat next to me and we all introduced ourselves.  Jack informed us that he was from Poland but had immigrated to various countries throughout his life.  As he gave us general information about himself, I started to realize that I would soon get to know one of the most amazing individuals I have ever met in my life.

          The conversation started slowly, as he seemed to be a man of little words.  But soon the conversation took pace when I asked him if he knew about anti-Semitism when he was growing up.  He quickly nodded his head and answered in an absolutely certain manner, “Yes!  And to give you an example of the anti-Semitism that was present in my society, I don’t remember ever having a gentile friend.” 

          Jack Lewin’s memory of the anti-Semitism he faced as a child affected him little when my partners and I asked him to tell us about his school years.  A wide and joyful smile spread over his face as he recalled the secular Yiddish school he attended as a boy.  He proudly declared that students who graduated from that school were much smarter than students who attended any old public school.  He also mentioned that some of the most famous poets and writers around the world came from his school.  He laughed when he remembered a time in which all the schoolchildren got together to build a giant sculpture of a character from a movie.  The sculpture was so impressive that it was sent to all the big cities in Poland to be put up for show.

          When we asked him about his family, Jack told us that his father was a lower-middle class painter.  His parents sometimes struggled to pay for his schooling.  But for the most part, his family lived comfortably before the war.  His parents were the “first generation socialists” and had strayed away from Jewish doctrine.  He told us about his grandparents and how both sides had been desperately disappointed that their children had denounced their religion.  Jack gave us an example of the grief his grandparents felt over the lack of religion in his parents’ home.  When the war had just started, Jack’s youngest uncle on his mother’s side was taken by the Nazis and was sent to a supposed labor camp.  Around the same time, Jack turned thirteen but his parents refused to give him a bar mitzvah.  Jack’s maternal grandfather told his father that, as distraught as he was that his son was taken from him, he was more distraught that his grandson would not have a bar mitzvah.  I write about this particular memory, because I noticed the amount of pain Jack felt when he recalled his grandfather’s disappointment.  Jack stated that he now wishes he would have had a bar mitzvah, not because he himself wanted one, but because it would have been the one thing that would have made his grandfather happy before his death during the war.

          Despite the sadness he felt over his grandparents, he ended the first session by telling us that his childhood was an overall pleasant one.  Once again, that genuine smile of his spread over his face as he told us about the constant singing he heard in his house.  He told us that family members and friends frequently came over for dinner and sang various genres of Yiddish music.  Of course I cannot be too sure, but Jack seemed to be in another world when he reverted back to this memory.  He seemed to be in a world that had once enveloped him with innocence and love—a world that was tortuously ripped out of his grasp all too early.

Session 2: Life During the War 

          Clearly, Jack’s life during the war is the hardest part to talk about.  I struggle to find the words to explain the pain Jack felt when he told us about it.  Before delving into his account, I want to affirm that no words will ever describe the heartache, the disappointment, the loneliness, and the anger I witnessed in his eyes when he told us about his experience.

          Jack began his story be telling my partners and me about his time in the ghetto.  He was twelve years old and knew little about the severity of the situation that faced him.  He lived with both his parents and grandparents for a short time.  Soon after, though, his father went to work in a factory because of promises that he would encounter good working conditions and that checks would be sent home to the family.  Indeed, the checks did come in for some time and the family received letters from him for a while.  But eventually, all contact with Jack’s father ceased and they never heard from him again.  Jack told us that, for a while, some of the factory workers returned to the ghetto.  On one of these days, he believes he may have seen his father lying in the cart that was returning the workers.  But this man looked so ill, it was impossible that he would live for more than thirty minutes.  Just as quickly as Jack had thought it might be his father, the man was wheeled away and was never seen again.

          As the war progressed, some Jews became the “elite” of the ghetto.  Because of some sort of connections, they were able to monopolize the little amounts of food that came into the ghetto.  When Jack explained this situation he stated, “While they were living like kings, everyone else was starving to death.”  Jack said that the lack of food in the ghetto was so bad that he could tell if someone was healthy by looking at the back of his neck.  If a person did not have two sinking holes in the back of his neck, then he was not starving and was therefore part of the elite.  Jack quickly paused and took a deep breath.  Between shaky utterances, Jack told us that he could not explain how horrible it is to feel hunger.  He said that he wished no one would ever have to feel or witness such a thing.  His anger rose as he asked how anyone could see a starving person and do nothing to stop it.  He shook his head in utter disappointment as he remembered fellow Jews who consciously chose to steal food from others and watched them starve.

          The anguish in Jack’s voice was even more apparent when he decided to tell us about his five-year-old cousin.  Before I give details about this part of his story, I must state that Jack’s enormous amount of courage sprang forth, because he feared the pain he would encounter when he lingered on this memory.  And yet, he had to tell us to show us the situations his people had to overcome in order to survive.

          Jack’s cousin lived with her parents in the ghetto.  Jack told us that she could have been hidden with a gentile couple because she had blonde hair and blue eyes.  But her parents could not afford to do such, and so she moved with them to the ghetto.  One day, the Nazis came by the ghetto to round up all the children and take them away.  Everyone knew the fate that the children faced.  And yet, the so-called elite called out to all mothers and said, “Mothers, let go of your children!”  Jack told us that he could not understand how someone could have the audacity to tell a mother to let her child be taken away to die.

          Despite such atrocious commands, Jack’s aunt and uncle hid their daughter in a closet under a bundle of clothes.  Then they lined up outside to await the Nazis.  When the Nazis came, they took all the children that were outside.  As soon as the Nazis left, Jack’s aunt and uncle returned home to retrieve their little daughter.  But when they returned she was nowhere to be found.  The Nazis knew that parents would hide their children and so they had looked for them while the parents waited outside.  Jack’s cousin was gone forever. 

          At this point, Jack could no longer control the tears that had been welling up inside him for quite some time.  He yelled between sobs as he gave us this example of the atrocious things that happened to his people.  Jack told us that at the end of the war he found out that his aunt had survived.  When he had his own children, Jack could not comprehend how his aunt had been able to live after her daughter had been taken away.  But Jack was glad that his aunt did survive and hoped that she remarried and had more children “just to spite the Nazis for what they had tried to do to her.”