Wednesday, June 29, 2016

TOP STORY >> Mother recalls end of horror

Leader executive editor

(This column from April 18, 2015, was the winner in the large weekly category at last weekend’s Arkansas Press Association’s Better Newspaper contest.)

“They have said, ‘Come, let us cut them off from being a nation; that the name of Israel may be no more in remembrance.” Psalms, 83:5

My 89-year-old mother spoke on Holocaust Remembrance Day on Thursday at the assisted-living facility in Florida where she lives. She spoke for 10 minutes about the horrors of the concentration camps, as did another survivor, a man who is a couple of years older than my mother.

There are several others at the residence who survived Auschwitz, but they no longer talk about the past. My mother still remembers the names of the concentration camps where she was imprisoned, first Auschwitz, then Frankfurt, Ravensbruck and finally Bergen-Belsen. “The past is with me every day,” she says.

She was there on April 15, 1945, when the British army entered Bergen-Belsen in northwest Germany. I told her that Wednesday was the 70th anniversary of her liberation, when she was 19. At first she didn’t believe me, and then she added up the years in her mind and said, “That’s right.”

Bergen was the first camp liberated by the Western allies, who were stunned when they found thousands of people dead from hunger, overcrowding, hard labor, typhus and other diseases.

An estimated 35,000-40,000 died in Bergen-Belsen, many of them executed by orders of Josef Kramer, the commandant, who had the vicious look of dozens of serial killers you see in the news all the time. Kramer was tried and hanged in 1946.

Anne Frank and her sister died from typhus in Bergen a few weeks before liberation. “One day they simply weren’t there anymore,” one survivor recalled. Victims died from typhus 12 days after they showed their first symptoms.

My mother was too weak to walk after her liberation, and she remembers seeing corpses all around her. But she insists she never lost her faith in God. She heard the birds singing outside the camps and daydreamed about seeing them someday on the other side of the fence.

In her short memoir of surviving the camps, she writes of hearing the British approaching Belsen and the German guards running away.

“The next day, April 15, Sunday, I was lying down — I couldn’t move. We didn’t have food; I felt very weak. I heard the girls saying they will be here soon. We will be free; we will be liberated soon. When I heard that I said, my God, don’t let me die now. Maybe it is true; maybe the Germans left.

“So, a few hours later, early afternoon, the big miracle happened. I saw the first tank with the soldiers. Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery of the British army liberated Bergen-Belsen, the death camp. The girls who could walk, they jumped on the tanks. They were crying and laughing and hugging each other. I was just lying on the ground. I was happy and sad, and the truth is, I didn’t understand the whole thing.

“I was there a couple of hours, then I thought I should move from here because it is spring. It can rain, then what will I do? So slowly I started to crawl and I got in the warehouse. There was lots of clothing — the SS uniforms, the long winter coats with fur linings. I lay down on that and I was lying and thinking. I was so mixed up with my feelings. I was very weak. I didn’t know how long we didn’t eat. I think I fell asleep for a little while.

“All of a sudden I heard a man’s voice. He asked in Hungarian, ‘Is anybody here?’ I got scared. I didn’t see him because I was lying down. I was afraid to answer. Then he said, ‘I want to help you.’ Then I answered. I said, ‘Hurry up, I am sick.’ I told him I am in the left corner of the room. He found me and he came closer. He asked my name and from where I came. I told him and he said where he is from Hungary. His village wasn’t far from Nyirtura, where I was born. I looked at him and noticed a Star of David on his uniform’s arm. He explained to me he left Hungary illegally and went to Palestine and from there he voluntarily went to the English army — that was the International Jewish Brigade. They went to fight and they defeated the Nazi monsters together with the allies.

“I was so amazed. The first soldier, the first liberator whom I saw, was a Hungarian Jew from my part of the country. He felt very sad about what he saw. They saw many terrible camps, but Bergen-Belsen was one of the worst.

“He gave me a piece of chocolate and some cookies. It was a lifesaver to me.

“He asked me about his mother. He told me her name and asked if somewhere I was with her. But I wasn’t. He heard what they did in Auschwitz.”

He thought his mother was also sent to Auschwitz like my mother and her family. They all perished in the gas chamber soon after they arrived in the most notorious death camp, where more than 1 million people, mostly Jews, were murdered.

“He left,” my mother continues in her memoir, “and soon I heard the microphone, the loudspeaker in every language. Attention, Achtung, Uraga, Pozor — then in Hun-garian, ‘Figelem, Figelem. Attention, Attention. All the prisoners in Bergen-Belsen who suffered so much, you are all free now. The British army has liberated our lager.”

Three weeks later, on May 5, 1945, a group of black American soldiers entered Mauthausen concentration camp as Patton’s Third Army swept through Austria and into Germany.

My father and his cousins were among the survivors. He passed away almost eight years ago, having outlived most of the Nazis, as have my mother and another survivor who is 84 years old.

In November 1944 in Budapest, Hungary, when this survivor was only 14, a group of local Nazi thugs took her away, along with 19 other children from a so-called Swedish house that enjoyed the protection of the Swedish government.

The children were to be shot on the banks of the Danube, their bodies tossed into the river. They stood at the river when a couple of men working for the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg drove up in a car and told the fascists to let the girls go.

The Germans went along with the Swedes who offered asylum to the persecuted, but the men at the river were local Nazis. The 14-year-old girl heard the Swedes call out her name and she ran toward the car and escaped with the men, while the other children were murdered and thrown in the river.

A monument honors those victims, along with hundreds of empty shoes they were forced to take off before they were killed.

Raoul Wallenberg rescued thousands of Hungarian Jews and is honored at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum as one of the Righteous Among the Nations. The Soviets kidnapped him after the Red Army entered Budapest in January 1945. He was executed in Moscow a few years later.

“Whosoever saves a single life, saves an entire universe.”

(Mishnah, Sanhedrin 4:5)