Russian President Putin got my attention when he suggested that Jews with Russian citizenship might have interfered in the 2016 US presidential election. “Maybe they’re not even Russians,” said Putin. “Maybe they’re Ukrainians, Tatars, Jews, just with Russian citizenship – even that needs to be checked.” Putin reminded me why my great grandparents made the harrowing journey from Russia and the Ukraine to the United States. My ancestors weren’t the only ones. Between 1881 and 1924, over 2.5 million East European Jews sought to escape the relentless persecution and ghettoization. The slice of history was captured in the movie Fiddler on the Roof, but while Hollywood entertained, it didn’t fully show the history of anti-Semitism in Russia and Eastern Europe, or its ongoing ripple effect.
When I heard that Holocaust Survivor Eva Schloss was speaking in Chattanooga, I seriously considered staying home. I know Holocaust stories all too well from my work in Holocaust education, the hand-typed memoirs of survivors sent to me, and my father’s World War II letters. Dad was a US military intelligence officer assigned to interrogate Nazi prisoners of war. His letters described their education into fascism and its authoritarian ultranationalism, dehumanizing minorities and suppressing opposition.
I have moved quite a lot in my life, especially in the first part of it, clocking one to three schools per year on average and as many caravans, mobile homes, flats or apartments until the age of 16. The good thing with this nomadic lifestyle is that it has forced me to be quite ruthless over the years in terms of keeping or discarding belongings.
We are now in the process of converting our attic into an adult bedroom in our family home with a view to get me a small desk for my musings and a walking wardrobe for my other half. This not a move but it almost feels like one. To do that I have to get rid of quite a lot of bits and pieces that have been accumulated since our previous move 10 years ago or so.
My Holocaust research started with SW Germany, where my relatives were rounded up. My great-aunt, Hedwig Schwarz, was the only Jew to escape deportation in Horb/Rexingen. She was handicapped before the Holocaust, fell off the transport car, and was rescued by a nameless person who took her to Marienhopital in Stuttgart, where the nuns cared for her. My sister, daughter and I visited the hospital to thank the current generation of sisters for taking care of Hedwig. They told us that Hedwig was the only Jew in the hospital, though there were some Resistance members; and they treated her with silence, because they thought that was the best medicine. Can you imagine!
Here’s a poem I wrote about echoes in Horb and a photo of Hedwig in her hospital bed, surrounded by photos of all the others who were taken. The poem was first published in Prism: An Interdisciplinary Journal for Holocaust Educators, and in Packing Light: New and Selected Poems, Black Widow Press. 2009.
Mezuzah In Memory, Hedwig Schwarz
In the doorpost of her house, a hollow
where the mezuzah used to hang.
I press my hand against the indentation,
my way of speaking to the past.
Touch the hollow where the mezuzah
used to hang. In Horb, Nazis renamed her street
Hitlerstrasse. My way of speaking to the past
is to listen, press the old men for answers.
1941, Jews were packed into Hitlerstrasse.
Now it’s a winding picture postcard road,
Jew-free, pleasant as it seemed
before Nazis pressed my family into Judenhausen.
I press my hand against the indentation.
Over Horb, a hundred doorposts echo, hollow.
I teach a poetry workshop in SW France for the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. The moment I stepped out of the car, an elderly neighbor started to talk to me about the Jews who had lived there. That part of France was a hotbed for the Jewish Resistance. Dr. Hirsch, radiologist, was taken my Mengele to work on medical experiments (he testified against Mengele at Nuremburg). His wife Berthe was taken to Auschwitz and gassed; the two children were hidden by the villagers. I met one of them, Nicole Hirsch, who is still traumatized though she’s over 80. We think we know about the Holocaust, but the individual stories still want to be told.
Loss, trauma, memory, and the impenetrable ties of family are the elements that weave together Sharon Hart-Green’s panoramic debut novel Come Back for Me (New Jewish Press). Set in the aftermath of World War II, it is a gripping story about the redemptive power of love and self-understanding.
Come Back for Me tells the story of two young Jewish characters; one is a Hungarian Holocaust survivor Artur Mandelkorn who is on a desperate quest to find his beloved sister, Manya, after they become separated during the war. Artur’s journey takes him to Israel where he falls in love with Fanny, a young woman who still bears the scars of her own tragic past in Germany.
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.
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.