My father’s Auschwitz number was 161440, and unlike many survivors, he generally responded to questions about the numbers and their meaning. His openness led to some confusion as I grew up in our small, mostly Jewish community of Sea Gate, Brooklyn. Why, I wondered, did people speak in soft whispers when mentioning anything having to do with the Holocaust? It struck me as strange that these American kids seemed embarrassed by what happened.
We arrived in America when I was five, and as I struggled to assimilate and learn as much as I could about my new home, I childishly ascribed their Holocaust discomfort to some, still to be learned, cultural difference. Certainly, I decided, it wasn’t important enough to bring to my father’s attention. That changed in my mid-teens when our history class was studying the Holocaust. One of my friend’s fathers was a Jewish G.I. who had liberated a concentration camp, and I was present when his son asked about the experience. The man’s eyes shot to me and I swear to this day, I read naked fear.
Reluctantly, the man admitted he was haunted by what he saw, enraged at the people who had done it, and finally … ashamed that the Jews would let that happen to them. Appalled, I asked what he thought the people should have done. “They should have run away,” he blurted out.
When I asked if he meant from the camps like the one he liberated, he cringed and admitted through tortured eyes, “No. I can’t imagine anyone escaping from that place.”
“So where should they have run from?”
His voice rose with agitation, “From the ghetto, damn it! They should have gotten the hell out of there before they ended up in a concentration camp.”
“Are you suggesting,” I demanded, “the people were cowards?”.
He looked at me in horror, he knew both my parents had survived Auschwitz, and shook his head in denial, “No, not cowards but,” his eyes darted from side to side like a trapped animal, until finally he said dismissively, “they just shouldn’t have been there. That’s all I’m saying … they shouldn’t have been there.”
Angry and hurt, I resolved to ask my father directly, and being a man with little patience for equivocation, I used that wretched word. To my surprise, he broke into an amused smile, “I’ve been called many things in my life, but coward,” he shook his head, “never that.”
When I pointed out that the man hadn’t called him personally a coward, he became serious and demanded, “Then who was he referring to? The mild mannered middle aged accountant or possibly, the healthy young man who was a teacher and soccer coach? I don’t believe he was speaking about the old and infirm, nor the young and dependent, in which case, he must have been speaking about people like me, your mother, and that metaphoric accountant, and soccer coach.”
After a moment he continued, “To be precise however, your friend’s father is not completely misinformed. In the early months of the ghetto, able bodied people could escape with relative ease. The place was teeming with so many souls, the Nazis couldn’t keep up with the exact numbers. Scores of people were also dying of starvation or illness on a daily basis, making an exact census virtually impossible. Escape for many of us would have been a simple matter because anyone with a profession that could benefit the Nazi military or enrich individual high ranking Nazis, had a work pass to leave the ghetto each morning. And since it was a relatively simple matter to exchange identities with someone who’d died, you could leave and … not come back.”
“So, why didn’t you leave?” I wondered.
“I had your mother, and like me, most people returned because they too had family dependent on them who remained behind in the ghetto.” A sadness worked its way onto his face, “And to abandon them to almost certain death, was antithetical to the family structure that had preserved our people for the two millennia of the Diaspora.
“Eventually, the Nazis began transporting those unable to work, but for the most part, they deviously kept most family units intact. Then in November 1942, the Nazis ordered a massive relocation of 80% of the ghetto population. Entire families were ordered transported, but since they included the young and able bodied, most believed it was truly, as the Nazis insisted, a reallocation of labor and not, a death transport.”
My father paused, “They were wrong. The trains went to Treblinka where … they were all reduced to ash within 24 hours of arrival.”
He cleared his throat, “As the massive transport was departing, the ghetto was put into absolute shutdown. Surrounded by machine guns and mobile canine units, work passes were suspended for 48 hours making escape, impossible. The few thousand of us who remained were counted, cataloged, and then warned that any escape attempts, successful or not, would result in the public execution of ten innocent prisoners.”
Stunned, I asked, “And they did that?”
“Yes. On those few occasions when people did what your friend’s father suggested and ran, the Nazis selected and brutally killed ten innocent people for each escapee. Take note of the fact I said … few.”
His eyes became intense and bore into me as he explained, “Your mother and I, along with many others, planned to escape in the wake of the massive transport. But virtually none of us followed through. Despite the daily work passes once again being honored, the people who left in the morning, returned each evening. This time however, it was not because a relative remained behind, but because they were compelled by some basic and fundamental aspect of our shared humanity. Even knowing it would likely cost our lives … we returned, and remained.”
A sad smile came to my father’s face as he said, “So now, I leave it to you to decide, who was the coward, and who, the hero.”