It was a small piece really, just a few paragraphs here in the pages of, TOI. The article announced the excitement surrounding the imminent release of a long awaited book. The book, the piece explained, was the English translation of the eyewitness account of Auschwitz by a non-Jewish Polish officer. That struck me as odd; why, I wondered, would the account of a Nazi concentration camp as seen through the eyes of a non Jewish Polish officer, be of interest to a predominantly Jewish audience. Weren’t there enough eyewitness accounts of Auschwitz through the eyes of Polish officers who happened to be Jewish? Of course I knew of one, I’d recently written it myself, but assumed there must be others – plenty of others. The assumption led me to do a search on google, Amazon, and finally, Barnes and Nobles. Nada – I found nothing.
More than a little surprised, I contacted the editors. I advised them of the existence of the Jewish officer’s eyewitness account, and they graciously invited me to join the blog. In the interests of full disclosure, I should explain that I am a physician and not a professional journalist. And the Jewish Polish officer, who gave an eyewitness account of Auschwitz, I am proud to say, was my father.
I am a child of the Holocaust. That is not an admission which comes easily to me because frankly, I have never felt like one. Yes, both my parents survived Auschwitz and each was the sole survivor of long established and once, very large Jewish families, but our relationship with the Holocaust was decidedly atypical. There was sorrow and pain to be sure. How could there not be when my father lost his parents, a younger brother and five younger sisters, while my mother lost her parents and older brother? Nevertheless, in our home the topic of the Holocaust was not associated with handwringing, beaten down furtive glances, slouching shoulders, fearful whispers, and most definitely, there was no embarrassment. To my parents, any sign of weakness in the face of the Holocaust smelled intolerably of defeat and victimhood, a condition they rejected through the entirety of their lives.
Over the years, I’ve met many people who, like my parents, survived the camps. I’ve also read the testimony of others or saw them interviewed on television and quite frankly, found their reactions to be not at all like that of my parents and in particular, my father. Growing up, I had the impression they actually believed themselves victorious over the Nazis. They’d been subjected to the worst the butchers had to offer and come away not only alive, but most importantly, unbroken. They remained, each in his own way, defiant. My mother, quietly, inwardly, and my father, demonstrably and vocally. Neither was ever willing to give an inch.
Unlike many survivors, my father would, in his own fashion, answer questions I posed about the Holocaust. That willingness to be engaged led me to presume, as I entered adulthood, I knew and understood what they’d endured and survived. That presumption proved to be outrageously naive.
I was 30, the father of two children, and finishing my medical residency, when my mother’s terminal cancer motivated my parents to action. They believed themselves stewards, through memory, of the lives of all their perished loved ones, and if they died without passing along the souls they held in their keeping, the Nazis would have achieved the victory my parents vowed never to allow. As their first born, that legacy was passed to me for safekeeping. In the process, I discovered amazingly that my father had been one of only two Jewish graduates of Poland’s military academy class of 1939. Stationed along the restive German border, he survived the blitzkrieg that began WW II on September 1, 1939. After Poland’s capitulation, he was captured by the Nazis who, owing to his being an officer, assumed he was not Jewish. He managed to escape and, unwilling to stop fighting the Nazis, joined the Russian Army as a private. Given his military bearing and knowledge, as well as the fact he was fluent in German, (his father was a Jewish Austrian cavalry officer who raised his son to be trilingual) he was quickly identified as being officer material, and rose rapidly through the ranks. When the Nazis attacked Russia on June 22, 1941, he was once again an officer on the front line. In all, he spent three years in bloody combat against the Nazis. All this before he and his teenage bride, my mother, were separated in November 1943, and both transported to Auschwitz.
In passing what they termed, “This burden,” to me, they permitted me to take extensive notes and asked only that I wait until after their passing before I conveyed what I’d learned to my younger siblings. When that sorrowful time arrived, I chose to honor my parent’s wishes by putting the legacy they entrusted with me in writing. That fateful decision turned into a remarkable odyssey of discovery.
As a physician and someone who believes in the scientific method, I felt duty bound to verify, to the extent the historical record would allow, the accuracy of dates, incidents, and the people my parents named. The result of my six years of research was the joyous confirmation of the uncanny accuracy of their memory, but no less, I finally understood their unusual relationship with the Holocaust. Guided by their eyewitness, I reached a level of knowledge and comprehension that sets many of the whispered and troubling myths about the Holocaust in general, and about Jewish character in particular, on its ear.
In subsequent blogs, I hope to acquaint you with my, their, take on the Holocaust. That having been said, I imagine the fact a non-journalist who wrote a book about his father, might tempt some of you to cut and run, but I hope you won’t. I hope you’ll come back because I suspect you’ll learn something about that terrible time, about your brethren, and possibly even … about yourselves.