Happy Birthday to my 100-year-old ‘Mamo’

Golda KirshnerFrom Auschwitz to Canada, a son pays tribute to his Holocaust survivor parents, who endured so much over a century of living

TORONTO — By any measurement, my mother has beaten the odds. Her recent 100th birthday was an auspicious moment leavened by sadness. But as I celebrated, I felt torn — I rejoiced in her longevity, but I was saddened by the physical and mental burdens she carries.

My mother has battled health problems all her life. And now her body and mind have succumbed to the frailties of time and the ravages of dementia.

Despite my misgivings, I know she’s in a good place. My father, who reached the age of 100 last year, is there to keep her company. He, like my mother, is a Holocaust survivor, a veteran of the Polish army.

That they’re still together as a couple — their spats and arguments notwithstanding — and still living in their own home, is remarkable. There are precious few couples like them. The vast majority of Holocaust survivors have already died, but they’re still here, ailments and all.

Surviving the Lodz Ghetto, Auschwitz

My mother was born in the central Polish textile town of Lodz in the second year of World War I. She goes by three first names — Genia, Golda or Jean. When she speaks Polish, she’s Genia. When she lapses into Yiddish, she’s Golda. When she uses English, she’s Jean. I call her “mamo,” the Polish word for mother.

Like my father, David, she’s a survivor of the Lodz Ghetto. When the Germans liquidated the ghetto in August 1944, most of her family, as well as her first husband, already had been killed. She and her five-year-old son, my brother whom I never knew or set eyes upon, were sent straight to Auschwitz-Birkenau by train. My father suffered the same fate.

My knowledge of her confinement at the Nazi death camp — which devoured one million Jews — is sketchy. She was always reluctant to discuss this awful period, understandably enough. What I do know for certain is that she was forcibly separated from her son in the first moments of her arrival there. She never saw him again.

‘I was resurrection. I was hope. I was a new beginning’

After surviving Auschwitz-Birkenau, my mother was sent to other concentration camps, including Bergen-Belsen. In April 1945, starved and sick, she was liberated by British troops. By then, she and my father had met again. Like so many survivors who yearned for company and normalcy, they got married, even if they were not temperamentally compatible.

I was born in Bad Reichenhall, an attractive town in the German Alps. As my mother’s first child after the Holocaust, I was more than just a bouncing, blue-eyed baby. I was resurrection. I was hope. I was a new beginning. And that’s the way she treated me, holding me close, showing me off, pampering me.

We arrived in Halifax in the winter of 1948, when I was less than two years old. The Canadian Jewish Congress had persuaded the Canadian government to admit survivors with skills. My father was a tailor and the garment industry in Canada was short of them. It was a perfect match.

From Halifax, we boarded a train bound for Montreal. There, my father started work at Stein & Gerson — a manufacturer of ladies’ clothes — almost immediately upon arrival. He held his position as a foreman for 20 years.

We lived in cold-water flats off St. Lawrence Boulevard, as it was then called. My father worked hard, but his pay check was paltry. As a result, my parents took in a boarder, an Italian immigrant named Benny, who introduced us to the pungent aroma of Romano cheese and the uplifting arias of Italian opera.

In the early 1950s, we left Montreal’s old Jewish quarter after my parents bought a duplex off Decarie Boulevard. We lived on the first floor and rented out the top unit to a car salesman, who effectively paid for our mortgage. My mother entered the job market after we moved into a bigger duplex in Cote St. Luc, a neighborhood heavily populated by Jews. She worked in a bakery owned by Leon Eisenberg, a fellow survivor. She would bring home cakes and pastries, feeding my appetite for sweets.

I was raised on traditional Jewish food with a Polish twist. Thanks to my mother’s culinary prowess, I was brought up with such delectable staples as sauerkraut and potato soup, chicken soup garnished with egg noodles, roast chicken and turkey, meatballs in a tangy sauce, dumplings slathered with fried onions and apple cake. She discovered a gastronomic novelty, spaghetti, fairly late, but once we had tasted this exotic dish, there was no turning back.

When my father was laid off after his employer declared bankruptcy, a pall of gloom settled over the house. How would the bills be paid? The answer was not long in coming. My parents bought a dry cleaning store in downtown Montreal and they prospered, at least for a while.

Around this time, I went to London to do a postgraduate degree. When I returned 10 months later, I learned that my father had been shot and grievously wounded in a holdup and that the business had been sold. When I asked why I hadn’t been informed, my mother replied, “We didn’t want to interrupt your studies.” My mother was a great believer in education.

The following year, I went to a kibbutz to study Hebrew in Israel. When my parents visited me there in 1971, I was dating a young Israeli woman of Polish origin. I wasn’t ready to commit, but my mother told me she had a diamond engagement ring in her purse in case I decided to take my relationship to the next level. It didn’t happen and she was disappointed.

Shortly afterward, I met Etti, a Bulgarian Israeli who was pursuing an MA degree in English literature at Tel Aviv University. We were married in Tel Aviv in 1972. I returned to Montreal almost two years later. Within a month and a half, Etti joined me there. Eventually, we moved to Toronto, where we had two lovely daughters, Mia and Lauren.

In 1981, my parents left Montreal for good, eager to be near me and my sister, Marilyn. Subsequently, my youngest sister, Shirley, settled in Toronto as well. My parents were content in Toronto, pleased by their close proximity to their children. They enjoyed their retirement and watched their grandchildren grow into adulthood.

‘When dementia tragically took hold of my mother, everything changed’

But when dementia tragically took hold of my mother, everything changed. Confined to a wheelchair, she no longer cooks and cleans and has lost her mobility and freedom.

She rarely speaks English now, having reverted to her childhood Polish, which I don’t understand. Conversation with her has become virtually impossible.

Her face lights up when she greets me. And when I press my cheek against hers, she gives me a kiss. Having lost her ability to converse, she mutters a few words, but they usually leave her lips in the form of fragmented sentences or gibberish. It’s frustrating and infinitely sad for all of us.

My mother, at 100, is not the same vital person she was five or 10 years ago. Imprisoned in a decrepit body, she can’t function normally. The lamentable condition in which she finds herself will only get worse, though I trust she’ll be made as comfortable as possible.

Whatever happens in the near future, Genia, Golda and Jean are embedded deep in my heart. She’s my mother and I love her.


Finding Peace on Kristallnacht Anniversary

Werner LeschzinerOn November 9, 1938, my father, Werner Leschziner, 27, was at work at the Handelsbank Ivria in Leipzig. That night, he was dragged out of his rented room at Nordplatz 2 and thrown, together with thousands of other Jews, into the Buchenwald concentration camp. As synagogues burned all over Germany and their decorative stained glass windows crashed to the ground in what would become known as Kristallnacht, his fiancé, my mother, Lotte, rushed home to her parents who lived next door to one of the large shuls on Gerberstrasse. My grandfather worked as a gabbai at the shul.

In 1939, with the help of my mother and Wim Van Leer, my father managed to get out of Buchenwald and make his way to England. My mother followed later that year, before the start of WWII. Neither of their sets of parents was able to escape and they met their fate in Treblinka (my father’s parents) and Auschwitz (my mother’s parents).

My mother’s parents fled ahead of the Nazis to Antwerp and then to France, where they were rounded up and sent to a series of camps near the French Pyrenees. Eventually, in August 1942, they were transported by the French national railroad to Drancy and arrived in Auschwitz on September 11, 1942. Both then in their 50s, they didn’t survive another day.

Just last week, the US State Department proudly announced a new agreement with the French national railroad to pay restitution/ compensation (what words!) to “the survivors and their heirs.”

Wait — survivors? Yes, the agreement ONLY applies to those who survived the deportations; their spouses, the heirs of those survivors AND, incredibly, to those who survived and died AFTER 1948! In other words, the heirs of those, who, like my grandparents, perished in the camps and were transported by the French national railroad to their deaths, no, we are not eligible to claim anything.

According to the NY Jewish Week: “French President Francois Hollande signed it [the agreement] into law July 24, and the $60 million is scheduled to be transferred to the U.S. by Nov. 30. The agreement provides France with “legal peace” from any Holocaust-related litigation involving the French railroad deportations.”

My grandparent’s names, Avraham and Ida Ehrenreich, appear as deportees on the wall of the Memorial de la Shoah in Paris; on the list of Transport #31 from Drancy to Auschwitz compiled by Serge Klarsfeld, and in deportation records at Yad Vashem.

According to Yad Vashem,

A total of some 76,000 Jews from France, most of them from Paris, were deported by train to the East. Most of the deportees were murdered in Auschwitz. Most of the deportations left France from Drancy. Of all the Jews deported from France to the extermination camps in the East, a total of some 2,500 survived.”

Instead of compensating the descendants of the 76,000 who were murdered; those who were deprived of knowing our grandparents and other relatives, the French are getting their “legal peace” in 2015 by throwing crumbs to the heirs of 2,500 survivors.

So on Kristallnacht 2015, I mark not only the fate of those like my father, who endured, but survived Buchenwald, and my grandparents who perished in Treblinka and Auschwitz, but the ongoing injustice and refusal of the guilty nations to acknowledge the suffering and offer up anything resembling meaningful reparations.


Paradise Lost, and Remembered, for the Jews of Rhodes

Excavation TeamAn exhibition at the University of Hartford explores a once-thriving Greek Jewish community before the Nazis deported all 1,800 to Auschwitz; only 150 survived

HARTFORD, Connecticut – Under a blazing July sun in 1944 the Nazis forced 1,800 men, women and children of Rhodes onto waiting ferryboats. This was the start of a harrowing three-week journey to Auschwitz-Birkenau and signified the Nazis’ attempt to obliterate all traces of the Greek island’s Jewish presence.

The Jews of Rhodes were first mentioned in the Book of Maccabees and for more than 2,000 years stood at the intersection of East and West. When the Nazis occupied the island it appeared their culture, as well as the people, would be forever lost. But Dr. Richard Freund, Director of the Maurice Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Hartford, is making sure that doesn’t happen.

A new exhibit at the university — “It was Paradise: Jewish Rhodes” — explores the island’s more recent Jewish community, and links between ancient Israel and the Greek island. It also showcases Turkey’s consul Selahettin Üklümen, who saved the lives of 42 Greek Jews during World War II, as well as displays of personal items and books in Ladino on loan from the Rhodes Jewish Museum.

“I’ve worked on ancient sites in Israel, I’ve worked in Sobibor in Poland and I was struck how sad it was for this small island Jewish culture to be wiped out in the space of an afternoon. It’s cataclysmic,” Freund said. “This is a way of not giving Hitler a posthumous victory.”

‘I was struck how sad it was for this small island Jewish culture to be wiped out in the space of an afternoon’

The exhibit was born of Freund’s 2014 archeological excavation of the island’s Kahal Shalom synagogue. Founded in 1557 the synagogue was destroyed during the Allied bombing of Rhodes but has since been restored; it is the oldest synagogue in Greece today.

Freund and his team, which includes students and faculty from five institutions, have been excavating in and around the synagogue, using ground-penetrating radar to detect any artifacts with historical value.

Dr. Philip Reeder, Dean and Professor of the Bayer School of Natural and Environmental Sciences at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, mapped Kahal Shalom, Kahal Grande and nearby church ruins. Using pre-World War II documents and maps, Reeder gleaned enough information to set the search parameters.

For Reeder, who worked with Freund in Sobibor and is also working on a project in Lithuania, it’s a job as scientifically fascinating as it is historically somber.

“From a scientific standpoint, we’re obsessed with getting data. However, I was trained in geography so I often think about the human aspect,” Reeder said. “Even if you’re not Jewish it weighs on your mind. You are on Rhodes where all the Jews were rounded up and executed. As a Catholic kid growing up in Baltimore I heard about the Holocaust but didn’t know a lot about it. It’s very sobering.”

The team’s work has highlighted the many layers of Jewish life on the island. During the Hellenistic period Jerusalem and Rhodes traded; the discovery of hundreds of Rhodian stamped amphorae in Jerusalem speaks to this period.

In the 12th century, Rabbi Benjamin of Tudela, a Spanish traveler, visited the island and wrote in his “Itinerary” that he found between 400 and 500 Jews living there. In 1480 the Jews of Rhodes defended the city against the Turks; only 22 Jewish families survived the attack. Rhodes eventually became a significant Sephardic center and thrived for 400 hundred years.

During Ottoman rule about 4,000 Jews lived on the island. There was a rabbinical college and a Jewish yeshiva. While many of the island’s Jews left after the Italians ousted the Ottomans in 1912, the remaining population cultivated strong ties with the rest of the island, Freund said.

The team’s painstaking excavations add texture to the island’s history and traditions, something the 40 Jews who live on the island today are delighted to share. Aside from speaking with the island’s small Jewish population, Freund embarked on a testimonial project with descendants and survivors of Rhodes, which are part of the Rhodes project.

‘Anthropology is never just about the buildings and the artifacts…it’s about people’

“Anthropology is never just about the buildings and the artifacts. It’s not just about three shards of pottery and 50 coins. It’s about the people,” Freund said. “I wanted to know about the music, the songs, the history. I wanted to see the different influences and how you preserve a culture when you live outside the original country.”

That’s how he learned more about a particular pair of slippers that are on display. Inlaid with pearl, the takos, or mikveh slippers, have a wide, leather strap affixed across the instep.

“They took a simple ritual, a woman going to mikveh, and transformed it into something so aesthetically unique,” he said. “There is also a ketubah, a marriage document. It’s so beautifully illustrated, its colors so unique. It’s something that isn’t found in European documents.”

Many of the objects on display were packed into the suitcases of those who left Rhodes before 1939. For the remaining 1,800 Jews, the start of the war was by all accounts difficult even though the draconian laws of the Third Reich had yet to reach the community. But when Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini was deposed in 1943 and the Italians joined the Allies, the Nazis took over the island.

A knock on the door

On July 18, 1944 a German officer knocked on the door of the president of the Jewish community and ordered all men over the age of 16 to appear at the former Italian Air Force headquarters. The men had to bring identity cards and work permits — it was a ruse designed to get the men to come without resistance. Once the men were in place the Nazis ordered the remaining Jews to the spot, with their belongings. If they failed to comply they would be shot.

The Germans forced the Jews onto ferryboats bound for Athens. From there they were packed into cattle cars. Three weeks later, on August 16, the trains arrived in Auschwitz-Birkenau. The Nazis immediately sent them to the gas chambers. Only 150 survived; 120 women and 30 men.

Today a stark black granite monument in the Juderia, the old Jewish quarter of Rhodes, honors those who perished.

Freund said the exhibit does more than tell the story of Rhodes; it’s a vehicle for educating people about the robust Jewish community that once called the island home.

“Jews were not just a people in Europe. They were part of the Muslim world, the Greek world,” he said. “It is good for people to hear about a culture that was so rich and so different.”


Remembering Thomas Toivi Blatt, Survivor of Sobibor

Can we grieve for a man we don’t know?

If he was a holocaust survivor who was part of a group that led a revolt and escaped from Sobibor we might. If he was someone who reminded of us of our grandfather, our father, people we knew throughout our lives, we might. If he were a groyser mensch, a man who despite everything that happened to him, felt love for others, we might.

Thomas “Toivi” Blatt, 88, one of the last survivors of the Sobibor uprising, the only mass escape from any Nazi death camp, died in his home in Santa Barbara, California this past weekend. Born in the small Polish town of Izbica, he and his family were deported to the death camp in 1943 at the age of 16. Within an hour, his father, mother and younger brother were gassed and burned.

Blatt later wondered how he had been spared — he was short and very thin and Sobibor was purely an extermination camp. People were either shot or gassed upon arrival. Yet, somehow, when the commandant Karl Frenzel asked for tradesmen to step forward — out of the line to be gassed — “I gave Frenzel a penetrating look ‘pick me’ and somehow, I don’t know how to this day, I influenced him with my mind, and he said, ‘you little one, come…’”

In Sobibor, Blatt was taken into a small resistance cell in the camp led by Baruch Leon Feldhendler, a rabbi’s son who later joined forces with Sacha Pechersky, a Russian Jewish soldier who was deported to Sobibor from Minsk. Together, they plotted a revolt, killing with their bare hands, a Jewish Kapo named Berliner, along with several members of SS, using knives and hatchets. Having seized a few guns they shot their way out of the camp but the camp was surrounded by mine fields and many who fled were killed by mines or by SS bullets. Blatt and a few dozen others made it to the nearby forest. Many were hunted down and killed within the coming days. Blatt himself was shot in the jaw, but managed to survive in the forest for the rest of the war.

In the late 1950s, he emigrated first to Israel and then shortly afterward to the United States. Blatt saw it as his life mission to document what took place at Sobibor. He traveled regularly to the site where the camp once stood. “I’ve practically cleaned up one quarter of the place myself, picking up the bones and burying them,” he said in 1987.

What sparked the revolt at Sobibor like at no other camp?

It happened that a group of Jews from Lublin who worked at a nearby concentration camp Belzec were abruptly taken to Sobibor. Of course, they were lied to, but in the cattle cars and trucks, they figured out that Belzec was being liquidated and that now they too were in their final hours. Some of them had the presence of mind to write notes and put it in their shirts and pants, knowing that the Nazis would be having Jews sort through their belongings after their death. One of them wrote, “We know we are being killed and the same thing will happen to you. We will not be defeated. Avenge our deaths.”

Toivi Blatt whose job it was to sort through the clothes of the dead, found one such note and passed it through to members of the resistance cell. They had to get out of hell, he explained. They were all going to die anyway, they might as well kill.

My generation in America, born in the 1960s and 70s, knew of no earth-shattering wars, plagues, persecutions or famine, yet we had a particular relationship with the survivors. We became, like it or not, as the writer Irving Howe once said, “witnesses to witnesses.” They were our mothers our fathers, sometimes our grandparents, aunts and uncles. They were the men we knew in shul.

The first time I learned about Sobibor I was 8 or 9 years old. To my mother’s dismay, I had ordered a book called “They Fought Back” by Yuri Suhl and read it with a strange relish. In it there is a chapter dedicated to the revolt in Sobibor. This made a tremendous impression on me. I had known survivors only (to my child’s mind) as a pitiable, passive group, but these people at Sobibor did not just accept the blows and the shots. They fought back and won. The Jews humiliated the SS at Sobibor! This was a revenge fantasy that was no fantasy at all.

Not too long ago, a PBS special on Sobibor was released. Blatt was interviewed at length. I was surprised to learn that Blatt in 1983, uneasily consented to meet with the commandant Frenzel who though he had received a life sentence, had been released from a German prison after 16 years on a technicality. According to the transcript of the meeting, Frenzel “apologized.” Blatt gives no absolution. He just wants to face the murderer and to fill in the facts for posterity. The one who fought back no longer fought back in the same way. Blatt preaches no hate, no vengeance, only memory as he patiently chronicled, recorded and re-chronicled the facts, as he called them.

In watching the film, where Blatt and a few other survivors are interviewed, I got the sense that their stories and their very lives had become for us like the notes that Jews of Belzec passed on to Blatt and the others at Sobibor. “Don’t forget us.” In their last years, our job has been to lay a pillow beneath the heads of our witnesses, our survivors, our heroes — those that saw the old world and gave birth to us in the new, those who saw what we will never see.

Everyone is fond of the Talmudic expression “he who saves one Jewish life, it as if he has saved a whole world” One may also say today, we who have lost this one life, we have lost a whole world. These men, these gorgeous, men, brave, thoughtful, Jewish to their core, they have entered us. We will never forget them.

Written by

Simon Yisrael Feuerman

Living Word From a Dead World

A new project at Yad Vashem analyzes the first letters that survivors wrote after the Holocaust, letting their loved ones know that they were alive

When Tzipora Shapiro walked out the gates of Auschwitz on Jan. 27, 1945, the first thing she felt was guilt. Her father, grandfather, brothers, aunts, and uncles all died in the Lodz Ghetto, and when the Nazis transferred Shapiro and her mother to Auschwitz, she watched as they sent her mother to the gas chambers. As a young, able-bodied woman, Shapiro was put to work in the camp—and was the only member of her immediate family to survive.

After being liberated, Shapiro stayed in Poland, hoping to find a distant relative who may have survived the war. Thirteen months later, she finally found the address of a cousin who had fled to British Mandate Palestine before the ghettos of Poland gave way to genocide.

“At long last,” Shapiro wrote on Feb. 15, 1946, in her first letter as a free woman, “I’m hurrying to send you a living word from a dead world.”

After telling her cousin, Rhuze, that she had survived while her parents and the rest of her family had died, Shapiro wrote:

How could I justify to you that I left the lions’ den intact, that I saw fiery furnaces, red flames in the skies? That I saw thousands of people led daily to the gas chambers, not knowing what awaited them in ten minutes; that I saw sheaves of sparks and tongues of fire, and sometimes even part of a roasted hand bursting forth from a gigantic chimney; that I stood naked daily at roll call for the Selektion, and the SS man, as if to anger me, sent me back to the camp and didn’t take me to the oven … and a huge prayer, a stubborn prayer for divine benevolence, for death.

Shapiro’s letter, written in Polish on a piece of paper that has since turned yellow and wrinkled, peppered with the brown stains of time, is one of thousands being pored over by historians in Jerusalem who are searching for clues to better understand a people and a period of time that to many seems over-studied, but to historians remains full of holes. Researchers at Yad Vashem have embarked on an unprecedented project called “First Letters,” examining the very first dispatches sent by Holocaust survivors in the days, weeks, and months after liberation to let their loved ones know they were alive.

There is of course no shortage of books, films, and millions of words devoted to the Holocaust and those who lived through it. Yet most personal accounts emerged only years and even decades after the war, when survivors were finally ready to revisit their horrifying memories through the mollifying filter of time. “First Letters” is unparalleled in that its messages reveal the very real and complex emotions of Holocaust victims who were just coming to terms with the atrocities they faced. In essence, these letters represent the most original source Holocaust scholars have ever had.

“These letters bring us their first personal voice,” said Iael Nidam-Orvieto, the leader of the project and director of Yad Vashem’s International Institute for Holocaust Research. “They give us an intense glance at the way survivors felt and thought about themselves, their situation, and their future exactly at the time of liberation. We’ve never had that before.”

Nidam-Orvieto, an Israeli Jew of Italian descent who lost some of her own family members to the Holocaust, first thought of the project six years ago, after coming across a note in the Yad Vashem archives. It was written by an Italian survivor to his family in Palestine, describing all he had suffered during the war. Over the next few years she saw similar correspondence trickle into the Yad Vashem archive through another project, “Gathering the Fragments,” which began in 2011.

“Gathering the Fragments” called on survivors and their descendants to submit Holocaust-related artifacts, photographs, and documents to Yad Vashem; many of these time-stained pieces of paper had been sitting in attics, boxes, and old suitcases throughout Israel. So far 150,000 items have come in, including 83,000 documents, 60,000 photos, 3,150 artifacts, and 500 pieces of art. This material adds to Yad Vashem’s database of 4.5 million victims’ names, 125,000 testimonies, and 179 million pages of documents.

After looking through the piles of material she and her research team received, Nidam-Orvieto realized that these letters weren’t just an interesting side note to “Gathering the Fragments.” Taken together, they represented a new historical treasure trove. While there was no single bombshell of information gleaned from the letters, such as a previously unreported concentration camp, these documents tell us more about Holocaust survivors, what they went through, and their immediate feelings after the war, than we have ever known before.

“I never thought so many of these letters had been written,” said Nidam-Orvieto, adding that when she spoke to other Holocaust scholars around the world, they too were shocked to hear how many of these dispatches she was finding.

Scholars weren’t the only ones who didn’t know these letters existed. Even family members who had these notes in their possession for decades had no idea what they were, as most of them were written in Yiddish, Polish, Czech, and other European languages.

Nidam-Orvieto kept her idea for a separate project around these letters tucked away until November 2014, when Yad Vashem decided that its theme for 2015 would commemorate 70 years since liberation. It was then that she initiated the “First Letters” project. Since then, she and other researchers have been furiously translating and analyzing the messages, trying to learn as much as they can about their authors and what happened to them. Yad Vashem plans to publish dozens of the letters in a book that will be published in the coming year.

While they differ vastly in the feelings they convey, many of the dispatches begin the same way: “I survived and I’m alive,” as if these were two entirely different states of being.

Bernard Zucker had been a free man for 28 days when he wrote his first letter from a refugee camp in Austria to his sisters, who had survived the war by fleeing to Palestine. They were the only other surviving members of his family.

I, who four weeks ago existed only as #87292 in the Mauthausen concentration camp, and was intended like all the rest for the crematorium, have survived and I’m alive! I’m alive and I’m healthy! It’s really unbelievable! Your brother is a human being born anew! I have the ability to write a letter, my first in so many years, to you!

That they had survived the Final Solution and could now begin a new life was something survivors were only beginning to realize through the process of writing these messages to their families, explained Nidam-Orvieto. “It was a way for them to declare to themselves that they had made it,” she said.

In a note written in Yiddish on Sept. 1, 1944, Hirsch Brik wrote from Kovno, Lithuania, to friends in Palestine.

I’m alive and I’m free. After three torturous years, I am back to being a man like all other men. The German bastards have murdered my entire family. … There isn’t a long enough paper to list all the names of our common friends who have been savagely murdered.

In another letter, Brik voiced his wish to “make aliyah,” or immigrate to the not-yet-established State of Israel. It was a desire expressed in many letters, as more than half of all Holocaust survivors moved to what was then Palestine after liberation. Brik did immigrate in 1947, changing has last name to Barak, a practice of “Israelization” that was common among early immigrants. His son Aharon Barak later became a legal adviser to the Israeli government, participated in the 1979 peace negotiations with Egypt, and served as chief justice of the Israeli Supreme Court.

Yet another common theme pervasive in these letters is a morbid sense of guilt. Tzipora Shapiro, the Auschwitz survivor who detailed to her cousin how regretful she was for surviving when everyone she loved had perished, also apologized for what she called “the unpleasantness” she had shared with her cousin:

Forgive me for this bitter letter. I will never talk about it again. From now on I will write you only happy letters, filled with hope for the future. … You see, you cannot go through all of this without it leaving a deep scar that manifests in terrible memories and feelings of guilt.

Others also carried this complex weight of shame and regret. Olga, whose letter is without a last name, survived Auschwitz but lost her only child, an 11-year-old boy, to the gas chambers. “Believe me, it would be a blessing if I wouldn’t remain alive,” Olga wrote to her aunt.

Some survivors hesitated to tell their loved ones what they had been through out of fear that they wouldn’t be believed. “They felt that what they experienced was so painful and horrible that they have to tell their family members it’s true,” said Nidam-Orvieto, noting the widespread skepticism surrounding news of the Holocaust at the time.

With each letter they analyze, the historians at Yad Vashem are not only translating the words, but investigating the past and future of each author in order to learn more about the Holocaust and the human beings who were reduced to numbers.

“We’ve become detectives with these letters,” said Robert Rozett, the director of Yad Vashem Libraries who is leading the project with Nidam-Orvieto.

For instance, there’s the story of Syme Rysavy, who wrote to her brother Ned eight months after her liberation from Auschwitz, informing him that their mother and her own husband had died in the gas chambers:

You will never be able to understand it, even if, God forbid, you were there. … You will not be able to comprehend the sadism and lack of humanity.

By matching the information in her letter with names, testimonies, and documents in Yad Vashem’s database, Rozett was able to piece together the letter-writer’s heroic life story.

In 1939, Syme’s whole family, including her parents and her husband Fritz, were all living in Brno, in what was then Czechoslovakia. The Nazis had just invaded, and Brno was annexed by Germany. On March 18, Syme invited her parents and younger brothers, Ned and Michael, over to her house for a special family dinner. Syme, then 31, had asked Ned to bring his violin and a suitcase packed with his and Michael’s belongings. It had seemed to Ned an unusual request.

Around noon, the family gathered at Syme’s house, where Syme told her brothers to flee Brno immediately. Their parents, she said, would stay with her and Fritz, as they were too old and frail to run and hide. She gave Ned and Michael some money, and told them to leave as soon as possible.

The brothers listened to their older sister, and despite the Nazi invasion, they managed to flee Brno for Krakow, Poland. As a gifted violinist, Ned began performing around the city. One night, after hearing Ned play, a British Consulate official offered him a visa and a scholarship to attend the Royal Academy of Music in London. Ned convinced the official to give Michael a visa too, and the brothers survived the war in London, later moving to Palestine.

Syme was imprisoned at Auschwitz with her parents and husband but miraculously escaped during a death march to another camp in 1945. After the war, she moved to Toronto, where she remarried.

The letters contain information that survivors rarely spoke about otherwise. “Survivors were able to write things that they were unable to say orally,” said Nidam-Orvieto.

Bernard Zucker, who wrote to his sisters in Palestine, went from the refugee camp in Austria to Italy, where he rescued Jewish children and brought them to Palestine with him. There he reunited with and married the woman he had proposed to before the war, who was also a Holocaust survivor. Together they settled on a kibbutz and had eight children, eventually changing their last name to Tzur.

Eli Tzur, their now-67-year-old son, is one of 7,000 Israelis who has donated Holocaust artifacts to Yad Vashem since 2011. Like many children of survivors, he grew up in a home where the subject of the Holocaust was untouchable.

“They barely ever spoke about their experience in the war, and I didn’t ask,” Tzur said. “Many children didn’t ask their parents what happened. They were silent and so were we. We didn’t want to hurt them by opening their wounds.”

Before his father died in 2001, Tzur returned to Poland with him to visit the various camps where he had been a prisoner. Even there, he said, he was afraid to hurt his father, and so he didn’t ask many questions. Only after reading his father’s letters did he finally discover all he had witnessed and felt during the five horrific years of his life that he had tried so hard to forget.

Still, there are some stories and people that have simply been lost to history. Some letters just don’t have enough clues.

Zahavit, whose letter contains only her first name, is one of many elusive survivors whose story is and may always be a mystery. All we learn from her message is that she survived both Auschwitz and Bergen Belsen. In her note, written soon after British troops liberated Bergen Belsen, Zahavit writes in Hebrew:

You may not understand me, better us, who went through all of Germany’s savageries. While we were imprisoned, we forgot that we’re people, human beings. We were no more than a number and we didn’t matter to anyone.

Rozett has come close to discovering Zahavit’s roots, but without her last name, any hint of where she’s from and who she sent her letter to, she is merely a name on a piece of paper.

“This is something almost every Jewish family can relate to. It’s like, ‘Why didn’t I ask grandma before she passed away?’ ” said Rozett. “Reading these letters rescues these people from oblivion, but there are pieces of them that you just can’t know. That’s part of what the Holocaust did. It left fragments. We spend a lot of time looking at those fragments and building an understanding, but we’re always going to be missing fragments.”

Yardena Schwartz is an American journalist and Emmy-nominated producer based in Tel Aviv.

Postcards Sent from Warsaw Ghetto Given to Jewish Institute

WARSAW, Poland (JTA) — Thirty-nine postcards sent during World War II from the Warsaw Ghetto have become part of the permanent collection at the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw.

The acquisition of the postcards was announced this week by the institute. The postcards were given to the institute by Anita Prazmowska, a historian and lecturer at the London School of Economics, who took care of them after the death of her friend, Tamara Deutscher, the addressee of most of the postcards.

Deutscher, a Jewish woman from Lodz, left Poland after the war broke out and went to London, leaving behind her family in the Warsaw Ghetto. The family was able to send letters to Deutscher via the country’s diplomatic mission in Lisbon, Portugal, where Stefan Rogasinski, a friend of Deutscher’s, worked and sent on messages. Rogasinski also reportedly sent food parcels to the ghetto, the last one in August 1943.

The postcards show signs of censorship, according to Pawel Spiewak, director of the Jewish Historical Institute.

Agnieszka Haska, a historian at the institute, said it was possible to send postcards and packages to neutral countries. But, she added, “Jews were not allowed to use stamps with Hitler. They had to write letters in German or Polish. Hebrew, Yiddish and Esperanto were banned.”

Thomas Blatt, Survivor of Escape from Sobibor, Dies at 88

Thomas BlattProminent witness at the trial of notorious camp guard John Demjanjuk passes away in California

WARSAW (AP) — Thomas Toivi Blatt, who was among a small number of Jews to survive a mass escape from the Nazi death camp of Sobibor in 1943 and who decades later served as a prominent witness at the trial of the convicted camp guard John Demjanjuk, has died. He was 88.

Polish-born Blatt, who lost both parents and a younger brother in the gas chambers of Sobibor, died Saturday morning at his home in Santa Barbara, California, a Warsaw-based friend, Alan Heath, told The Associated Press.

Heath remembered Blatt as a “quiet and modest person” who suffered nightmares and depression until the end of his life, yet never wanted vengeance either on the Germans for the murder of the Jews or for the complicity of many of his anti-Semitic Polish countrymen.

“Despite what had happened to his family, he constantly repeated that one should not hate and he certainly bore no malice towards Germans — and urged others to do the same,” Heath said on Monday.

Blatt lectured about the Holocaust, wrote two books and campaigned to preserve the site of one of the few uprisings by Jewish inmates against Nazi guards during World War II.

Until he was his mid-80s, Blatt traveled back frequently to his Polish homeland, often visiting Sobibor, his nearby hometown and a daughter from a first marriage.

Blatt was born on April 15, 1927, in Izbica, a town in southeastern Poland near Lublin that was largely Jewish and Yiddish-speaking before the war although his family wasn’t devout.

Blatt was 12 when Germany invaded Poland in 1939 at the start of World War II, and was 15 when the Germans created a ghetto in the town in 1942, where he and his family were imprisoned.

When the family was taken to the extermination camp in April 1943, he was pulled out to do odd jobs at the camp, fixing a fence and sorting documents. His parents and brother Henryk were murdered immediately.

In one of his books he remembered his last words to his mother: “And you didn’t let me drink all the milk yesterday. You wanted to save some for today.”

He describes being haunted with regret for those words.

“I would give anything to be able to recreate that moment, to change it and hug her and tell her I love her, but by 1943 it was as if we were robots, moving like expressionless shadows,” he wrote in “”From the Ashes of Sobibor: A Story of Survival.”

Six months after his arrival, Blatt took part in the camp’s successful uprising, in which most of the Nazis were killed and 300 prisoners escaped. Most who escaped ended up being hunted down and killed, but Blatt was among about 60 who survived the war. He eventually emigrated to the United States, where he settled in Santa Barbara, California, and owned and ran three electronics stores in the area.

In the 1980s, Blatt returned often to the camp to check on its condition, regularly finding human bones among tall grass and weeds.

“I’ve practically cleaned up one quarter of the place myself, picking up the bones, burying them,” he told the AP in 1987.

Years later, he was a witness in the trial of the retired Ohio autoworker John Demjanjuk, which ran from 2009 to 2011. Demjanjuk, originally from Ukraine, was convicted as an accessory to murder in 2011 but he died in 2012 still steadfastly maintaining he had never served as a death camp guard. Because he died before his appeal could be heard, his conviction is not considered legally binding.

Before traveling to Germany to give testimony, Blatt told the AP in an interview in Warsaw that he wouldn’t be able to identify Demjanjuk.

“I don’t remember the faces of my parents right now. How could I remember him?” he said.

Nonetheless, his testimony bolstered the prosecution’s case that if Demjanjuk was there as a Ukrainian auxiliary guard, he would have been involved in the extermination of Jews.

“All of them were executioners, all of the Ukrainians,” Blatt told the court. He conceded, however, that the 150 or so Ukrainians who acted as guards came under the authority of the approximately 15 German SS men at the camp.

“The German was God,” he testified.

In his 2010 interview, he spoke of the depression that would hit him after he would lecture about the Holocaust and first thing every morning, often after experiencing nightmares, when the reality of what he suffered would hit him again. He said that the longer he lived the more he thought about his beloved little brother, a highly intelligent and gifted boy.

“I never escaped from Sobibor. I’m still there — in my dreams, in everything,” Blatt said. “My point of reference is always Sobibor.”

Blatt is survived by three children and several grandchildren.


Graves at Sobibor Dug up by Treasure Hunters

Sobibor Nazi death campMass burial site disturbed at Nazi death camp in Poland

The graves of Holocaust victims at the Sobibor Nazi death camp in Poland have been dug up by treasure hunters.

The mass graves were discovered to have been disturbed during an archeological dig, the Daily Mail online reported on Monday.

“There has been a big archaeological project going on, but when we started excavating we discovered that people had already been digging near to where the gas chamber had been in Camp Three,” a museum source told MailOnline. “We found lots of pits which were nothing to do with us and clearly weren’t professionally dug by scientists. We don’t know who did it, but we suspect they were looking for gold or metal.”

“The idea that thieves have been here looking for such disturbing mementos is truly shocking,” the source also said.

Up to 300,000 people, most Jewish, were killed at Sobibor.

Poles dug for valuables on the sites of Nazi death camps at the end of World War II, American-Polish historian Jan Gross, who described the “Treblinka Gold Rush” in his book “Golden Harvest,” claims.