The heartbreaking story of Sal Wainberg, who hid from the Germans with his family in war-torn Poland, as recorded by author Deb Levy.
There is no number tattooed on the arm of Sal Wainberg, yet he is a survivor of the Holocaust. According to Deb Levy, who penned Wainberg’s memoir, entitled Bury the Hot, what Sal “doesn’t have branded on his skin, he carries deep inside… he doesn’t have a number; just a narrative.”
Wainberg “has wanted to write his story for a long time,” Levy writes. “Seeing the written testimony is the final step he needs in the five stages of grief. He needs to know he’s left his legacy.”
Levy, whose parents are long-time friends of Wainberg and his wife, never knew that he had a Holocaust story to tell. As she began to interview him with the purpose of putting his memories into book-form, she wondered how he could recall, with such detail, the horror of growing up in war-torn Poland. “There are memoires, sensations as clear to me now as they were some 70 odd years ago,” he told her. “They swim through my mind, with traces of understanding I had as a child and reconciliations I’ve come to in my later years.”
The German invasion
Bury the Hot takes us back to Żelechów, a small town in eastern Poland where Wainberg’s family lived a relatively comfortable life. They owned a small store, not far from the town’s central square, which filled with merchants for its weekly market. And then the sky clouded over with planes marking the German invasion. For a five-year-old boy, years of personal sacrifice and a struggle for survival were beginning.
Wainberg’s family went into hiding, not a simple task for a young boy. “They couldn’t see what was happening outside. But they could hear. Gun shots, beatings, cries. The kapos’ Yiddish screams overlapping with German orders shouted through bullhorns.”
How did Sal manage to keep still? “My brother and I possess a fear, a fear that had been instilled in us from the start of the war. You see people killed right in front of you, you understand very quickly what ‘be quiet’ means.”
Escape came with a dash through the forest to a Polish farmer who “risked his life and that of his family” to hide the Wainbergs and other Jews. Sal grew up too quickly for a young child. “He was a small boy who dug four graves” including “a final resting place for his sister.”
Sal and his family “took on each struggle as best as they could; hoping the nightmare would be over soon, never imagining what atrocity lay around the corner. They pushed forth because they had to, because human beings are wired for survival.”
Survival story as legacy
For years, Sal refused to talk of his Holocaust years, not even to his wife. But later, after making a decision to leave his story as his legacy, he began to speak to schoolchildren and to answer questions about his life. This led to his turning to Levy with a request that she write his memoir.
The author quotes Elie Wiesel as stating that it’s the survivor’s “duty is to bear witness for the dead and for the living. He has no right to deprive future generations of a past that belongs to our collective memory. To forget would be not only dangerous but offensive; to forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.”
As Levy concludes at the end of this poignant story, “We may think that when it comes to the Holocaust, we’ve heard it before. In fact, we haven’t. We can never hear enough. We must listen to those who survived; we must read their personal accounts. We must recognize the collective suffering is nothing less than six million and more unique stories of struggle, determination, tradition and fate – every single one of them incredible, all of them heartbreaking.”
Sal Wainberg died on February 22, 2012. Very soon there will be no survivors among us to relate the horrors of the Holocaust first hand. Thanks to the loving efforts of Deb Levy, Sal Wainberg is not forgotten and his personal account, as related on the pages of Bury the Hot, will bear testimony for future generations. We must never forget.