Broken on the inside – The War Never Ended by Dutch author and journalist Simon Hammelburg is based on 1200 interviews with Holocaust survivors and their children. The book reads like a novel but is based on facts, some of which have never been revealed before, disclosing insights of the psychological aftermath of survivors as well as the post-war generations and the traumas that are passed on for over six generations.
and turned out the lights,
I heard my mother pray
with all the others.
The room stank
like stables. Foul air
burned my nostrils.
Soon, moans replaced
the prayers. I wondered
about the promised water.
When the valves creaked
open, I felt no water,
only something invisible
on my skin. We were naked
as the truth that could not be
hidden any longer.
My mother squeezed me
to her bossom—I never liked
the smell of almonds.
The last thing I heard was
the sweet sound of violins,
the trumpeting of angels.
First published in A Quiet Courage: A Journal of Microfiction and Poetry in 100 Words or Less (November 2015).
Author’s Notes: The order to exterminate the Jews was signed in July 1941. At Triblenka II, the path leading from the undressing barracks (many were fooled into thinking they would be getting hot showers) through the forested area into the gas chambers was cynically called die Himmelstraße (the road to heaven). But the killing process at Treblinka—suffocation and carbon monoxide poisoning—differed significantly from the method used at Auschwitz and Majdanek, where the poison gas was hydrogen cyanide (which has the smell of almonds).
It took me decades to write my historical memoir, The Liberator’s Daughter. Sifting through my father’s letters and diaries from World War II was both hypnotic and repulsive. As an ambitious first generation born American, he progressed from the son of a shoe peddler to a Harvard scholar before becoming a US military intelligence officer deployed to England, France, Belgium, and Germany towards the end of the war. He gathered intelligence from the populations about Nazi troop movements and activities. Post-war, his role was to interrogate Nazi prisoners of war, determining who should be prosecuted.
My daughter came home from Middle School where they were studying the Holocaust and asked me “Mommy, was grandpa a Nazi?” How do you answer such a question? Easy! I said “No”, because all of my life I had heard my parents rail against the Hitler regime. They sent my father to the Russian front and my mother to the basement for shelter from the Allied bombers attacking Berlin. But thirty years later, a fifth-grader in my French class, who was also learning about the Holocaust, asked me, “Why are the German people so awful?” Now the answer was not so easy, because the student unwittingly used a stereotype painting all present-day German people as Nazi criminals. Without going into the history of WWII, I briefly explained that not all Germans are awful, just like not all Americans are awful. Still, seeing an opportunity for a lesson, I taught the French words for “war and peace” (la guerre et la paix) and went on with class.
It has been 70 years since I was liberated from a Nazi concentration camp. I was just a teenager then; I’m 87 now. Holocaust Remembrance Day is April 15th, and I have been thinking about what I want you and your loved ones to remember about the Holocaust. I speak frequently about my experiences, and I am able to remind people about what happened, provide them with vivid descriptions, and answer their questions. But I am among the last of the survivors, and one day—sooner than I would like to think—we will all be gone.
The first time that I agreed to serve on the local Holocaust Remembrance Day Committee was painful, even after almost seventy years since the end of World War II. I agreed to assist in promoting the event beyond our Jewish community and I agreed to participate in the reading of the names of the victims. And I resigned myself to being an usher at the event, not my favorite thing. What I didn’t bargain for was a seat on the stage when I offhandedly shared that I was helping in memory of my father who was a U. S. military intelligence officer during World War II. Aaron Levine was an army translator of German and French. And by the way, he was a liberator of a labor camp.
The academic study of ethics, in light of the experience of the Holocaust, has witnessed rapid development in the last decade. In addition to research into ethical decision making during the Holocaust itself in such volumes as Rab Bennett’s Under the Shadow of the Swastika: The Moral Dilemmas of Resistance and Collaboration in Hitler’s Europe, more general reflections on the significance of the Holocaust for contemporary ethics have come to the fore from Jewish and Christian scholars alike. There have also been voices such as Herbert Hirsch who have questioned whether we can learn anything from the Holocaust in terms of the moral challenge facing us today given the sui generis nature of that event as well as the immense complexity of a modern, global society.
I sat in a restaurant overlooking Hamilton harbor pondering my morning researching Bermuda Jews in the island’s Archives. I’d spent many hours reviewing Bermuda’s Jewish tourism prior to World War II. Yes, my family had mentioned ‘restricted’ places where no Jews were allowed. But mostly I remembered their stories of Bermuda’s war-time kindness to Jews. Dr. Hollis Hallett, the Archives founder, directed me to documents from the 1930s showing the impact of an increasingly global anti-Semitism on Bermuda tourism. What should I write about this ugly period?
Shomerim* at Birkenau
*guardians or keepers of the dead
Tagged with the numbers scarred
on my grandmother’s arm, I step through
the open gate once barred against her.