In the Presence of Heroes: 48 Hours with 150 Auschwitz Survivors*

Auschwitz survivor and Brooklyn, New York resident Samuel Beller, born in Oświęcim, Poland, remembers his loved ones during the ceremony marking the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.
Auschwitz survivor and Brooklyn, New York resident Samuel Beller, born in Oświęcim, Poland, remembers his loved ones during the ceremony marking the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

I have been to the Auschwitz-Birkenau museum before, typically in the spring and usually accompanying high school students on the March of the Living. During these experiences, we often focus on learning about the atrocities committed and learning about the victims.

This time was different. This time, I was privileged to be accompanying 150 Auschwitz survivors and their family members, as part of a delegation organized by the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Foundation, led by World Jewish Congress President Ambassador Ronald S. Lauder and planned by the JRoots travel team, to mark the commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. This time, it was an opportunity to learn and mourn but it was also an opportunity to celebrate the resilience of the survivors in attendance.

From 11 different countries, they each made the exhausting trip to Poland. Many in wheelchairs, some with walkers, some octogenarians and some nonagenarians.

Some returning to Auschwitz for the first time since their liberation, while for others who accompany annual educational missions and March of Living delegations, this would be a return to painful place.

Some of the survivors came to tell their stories for the first time and for some – sadly, this will be last time. Some could not bear the pain of telling their stories at all.

Some came to find closure and some simply came to light a Yizkor candle and recite a memorial prayer in Auschwitz. For a mother. For a father. For a sibling. For a child.

One survivor who would be returning to Auschwitz for her first and last time told me that she intended on bringing earth from Auschwitz back to her home country so that when her days end, she can be interred with the earth from the place where her loved ones were murdered.

Despite the different reasons for making the long journey to Poland in the middle of winter, these precious survivors – heroes of the first order – came with dignity, with courage, with resolve and with the same singular purpose. The came to show the world that the passage of time does not dim the collective Jewish memory. As one survivor put it, they came to ensure that the world does not suffer from amnesia.

They came to remind the world that the words Never Again matter. They came to remind the world that Never Again will we be indifferent to incitement and hate. Never Again will we be silent in the face of evil. Never Again will we indulge racism and antisemitism and Never Again will we ignore the plight of the vulnerable – all central pledges in the Never Again Declaration drafted by Professor Irwin Cotler and endorsed by Jurists and Parliamentarians from around the globe.

The sad reality is that many of these survivors will not be at the next milestone commemoration and that reality became even more evident when we learned that one of the survivors (Tzvi Ben Rivka), who made his way to Poland from Peru, suffered a heart attack the day before the ceremony. He is recovering.

I made it my priority to meet as many survivors as possible. I wanted to learn about their birthplaces, their communities and their families. It was my goal to collect their stories so that I could become their storytellers when they can no longer tell their stories.

I met a 94 year old Auschwitz survivor named Simon Berger, son of Elimelech and Shprintsa Berger, brother to Joseph, Rachel, Esther, Malka and Moshe. Simon was born in Lodz and he only knows the burial place of his father – the rest of his family having been murdered in Auschwitz.

On November 25th, 2015, Simon did something extraordinary. Accompanied by his wife, his children, his nephews, grandnieces, grandnephews and other family members, Simon traveled to the villa in Wannsee, Germany – the site of infamous 1942 conference where fifteen high ranking Nazi officers met to formulate and detail their plan to exterminate European Jewry.

In the very same room where those Nazi officers met, standing at the head of the very same table – precisely the same spot where Reinhard Heydrich once stood – Simon recounted the day on which the Nazis entered Lodz in September of 1939. Simon told his family that the first order of Nazi business was to humiliate the Jews of Lodz. And so the Nazis forced a Rabbi to don his Tallit and Tefillin and they mockingly paraded him around the city on a truck.

Some 75 years later, standing in the very same room where the depraved plans to murder his family were devised, Simon proudly and defiantly unfurled his Tallit, donned his Tefillin and recited the same blessings that his father and grandfather before him no doubt recited.

The Nazis tried to humiliate him in 1939 and in 2015 – Simon Berger literally turned the table.

I met Ben Lesser, born in Krakow, Poland in 1928 and a survivor of numerous ghettos, death camps and death marches. From a family of seven, only Ben and his sister survived.

Ben refused to succumb to the darkness of the Holocaust and he dedicated his post-liberation life to speaking, writing and teaching a new generation about remembrance and the consequences of hate and intolerance. In 2009, Ben established the ZACHOR Holocaust Remembrance Foundation and I will proudly wear the Foundation’s pin on my lapel as a reminder of Ben but also as a reminder of the work still ahead of us.

I heard Michael Bornstein tell his story. He was only 4 years old when he arrived in Auschwitz and was tattooed with the number B-1148 on his forearm. The average life span of young children in Auschwitz was two weeks but through the wit, courage and ingenuity of his mother and grandmother, he survived.

Michael spoke during a dinner hosted by the Krakow JCC the evening before the commemoration ceremony and he recounted the day that he, together with his mother, went back to their home in Zarki, Poland after liberation in order to recuperate their family belongings which they had hidden. The only item that they retrieved was a small Kiddush cup. Michael displayed that Kiddush cup to the audience and he told us that that the cup was used at his Bar Mitzvah, at the wedding of his children and at the Bris and baby naming of his grandchildren. The family heirloom, he said, now stands as a symbol of faith that can never be broken.

During Michael’s speech that evening – I heard a baby crying in the back of the 1000 plus capacity crowd. That baby, I thought to myself, was a descendant of one of the survivors in attendance and represented the 3rd or perhaps or even the 4th generation.

Michael’s story reminded me of a story that Ernest Ehrmann – an Auschwitz survivor who made the trip from Montreal to Poland with his daughter and grandson – recounted to me years earlier during the March of the Living experience that we shared. Ernest tells the story that after liberation, he returned to his home in Czechoslovakia and found his father’s Shas – the tractates of the Talmud – discarded in a barn. He carefully packed up the books in a wooden crate and the crate followed him around post-war Europe and eventually to his new home in Canada. Today, he still studies the Talmud from his father’s Shas every day and he sometimes finds the remnants of his father’s beard hairs in the cracks of the yellow pages.

How many survivors present that evening have stories like the Bornstein family Kiddush Cup or Ernest Ehrmann’s cherished Shas.

I spent time with Angela Orosz, whose birthplace on her passport is listed as Auschwitz-Birkenau, Poland.

Angela was born in the barracks of Camp C in Auschwitz-Birkenau.

With a birth weight of 1 kilogram, she survived only because she was so malnourished that she had no energy to cry. Her discovery by the Nazi guards would have meant certain death.

On this day, Angela was accompanied by her daughter-in-law and her son Avram, named after her father who was murdered in Auschwitz and whom she never met.

I met Vladimir Munk, an Auschwitz survivor who made the trip from Plattsburgh, New York. Vladimir’s parents and most of his family were murdered in Auschwitz and as he put it, this trip was like going to his family’s cemetery.

After the war, Vladimir re-enrolled in school and went on to earn a PhD in microbiology and biochemistry. He eventually married his girlfriend (they met in the Terezin concentration camp) and when the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968, he and his wife moved to Plattsburgh, New York where he taught at SUNY Plattsburgh until his retirement in 1990.

Vladimir often speaks to high school seniors and his message is this:

 “While your lives today and in the future are not comparable to the situation in the camps, you may feel sometimes stressed, depressed, hopeless, ready to give up. Evoke then my stories and fight – for your career, for your future, for your life. You may not always win, but the victory will be always sweet!”

On the bus ride to the ceremony in Auschwitz, I sat near Rachel Roth. As our bus was pulling in, her son told me that Rachel, while in Auschwitz, tried to end her life by running into the electrified barbed wire fence but did not have the energy to pull herself from the ditch running on the inside of the fence. A Nazi guard spotted her and shot but the shot narrowly missed and Rachel managed to scramble back to the barrack.

As Rachel returned to Auschwitz 75 years later for the commemoration, she was accompanied by 29 family members representing 3 generations.

Ted Bolgar, an Auschwitz survivor from Montreal who has accompanied 15 March of the Living high school cohorts, was also surrounded by three generations of descendants.

75 years ago – if you would have told these incredible people that the day would come when they would return to Auschwitz with 3 generations of descendants, accompanied by heads of state, world leaders and the President of a vibrant and prosperous State of Israel – they would not have believed this to be possible.

I hope that the strength and resolve of these survivors was captured by the millions of viewers of the commemoration ceremony around the world, by the heads of state, the parliamentarians, the monarchs, the religious leaders and the military leaders in attendance, all of whom, on this day, were appropriately relegated to sitting behind the honored survivors.

As a Canadian, it was extremely gratifying to see the Governor General of Canada, Her Excellency Julie Payette, along with members of Parliament Michael Levitt, Laurel Collins and Rhéal Fortin, together with Leslie Scanlon, the Canadian Ambassador to Poland and members of the Canadian Armed Forces in attendance at the ceremony. It was heartwarming to watch the Governor General spend time with the Auschwitz survivors who made Canada their home after their liberation in order to get to know them and to learn their stories, during a private reception which she hosted.

I was humbled to be a spectator.

Just before I made my way to Poland, I had the privilege of spending Shabbat in Tel Aviv. I went to Shabbat services and in the Synagogue that I attended, I noticed an unusual discolored wooden donor plaque leaning against a wall. The plaque was from 1951 and it listed the names (and donation amounts in Israel Lira) of the donors who participated in the building of the Synagogue’s Ark. As I read the names, it occurred to me that these donations were, for the most part, made in honor of parents or children who passed away a few years earlier.

These donors were Holocaust survivors who just a few years removed from their liberation, had begun to re-build their families, their lives, their communities and in this case, their Synagogue.

During his speech at Krakow JCC dinner, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky summed it up best when he stated that humanity cannot adequately ascribe a word that captures and reflects the strength and resilience of the Holocaust survivor.

There are simply no words to describe the strength, courage and resilience of the survivor.

These are people who, when one of the speakers said that this would probably be the last gathering of so many survivors under one roof, responded by saying “see you at the 80th commemoration”.

These are people, who when disembarking the bus for the ceremony in Auschwitz, would not take a hand to help them down the steep stairs of the bus, preferring to do it on their own. Upright and proud for the world to see. No assistance was necessary. Not in this place. Not this time.

These are the people who braved the cold of the winter, traveled long distances and returned to a place of unimaginable pain to declare Hineni – we are here!

Despite the suffering and darkness that these people had seen in their lifetimes, their sense of humor was unfazed by their experiences or their years. One of the survivors in attendance, an Auschwitz survivor from Hungary, was asked by one of the Polish guides whether she spoke Polish. She politely but facetiously responded “no sir – I came to this country by accident”. If there was a microphone handy, I would have given it to her to drop.

For 48 hours, I was surrounded by heroes.

I once heard a story about Rabbi Shalom Eliezer Halberstam, a revered rabbi and scion of the Sanz Chassidic Court. In April of 1944, Rabbi Halberstam, was deported from the Nyiregyhaza Ghetto in Hungary to Auschwitz. In Auschwitz, a sadistic Nazi officer who learned of Rabbi Halberstam’s prominence murdered his son in front of his father’s eyes. The Nazi officer asked Rabbi Halberstam “where is your God to whom you always pray? Why did he not save your son?”.

What the Nazi officer did not understand was that he was surrounded by Godliness.

Those who survived could have chosen to become reclusive and live out their years in solitary. No one would have blamed them. Yet these survivors chose to rebuild. Their families, their institutions, their communities, their countries and of course – the Jewish homeland. They laid the firm foundations upon which the Jewish people would build, prosper and flourish and today, we are the beneficiaries of their actions and accomplishments. In doing so, they restored faith in humankind and they proved to humanity that people can in fact be created B’Tzelem Elohim – in the image of God.

These are the people that I was privileged to spend 48 hours with.

48 hours that I will cherish for the rest of my life.

*Dedicated to the memory of Peter Dezider Kleinmann Z’L (1925-2000), a survivor of Auschwitz.

About the Author
Lawrence Witt is a labor, employment and human rights lawyer with the Canadian firm Miller Thomson LLP. In 2017, Lawrence was co-chair of the Montreal March of the Living Delegation comprising of 250 participants accompanied by 10 Holocaust survivors. In 2019, Lawrence received the Gertrude and Henry Plotnick Young Leadership Award from Federation CJA. Lawrence is also a graduate of the Wexner Heritage Program. In the early 1990's, Lawrence studied at Yeshivat Machon Meir in Jerusalem and he subsequently served in the IDF as a lone soldier in the Armored Corps.
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