We are in the beginning of a new decade, and the reality is that by the end of this decade there will be very few survivors alive to give a first-hand testimony of the horrors of the Holocaust. Their testimonies will be on video and audio, in books, and on glass shelves of museums. But, what eventually dies with them is the personal account of what happened during WWII that affected the Jewish People as a whole.
The testimonies that Holocaust Survivors share today are a constant reminder of the inhumane treatment by Hitler and his perpetrators whose evil minds were possessed in trying to find ways of getting rid of them. But, the victory for the Jewish People is this remnant of European Jewry who lived to tell their stories.
And, yet, while the survivors fade away, anti-Semitism rises and rises. This past week of events “Remembering the Holocaust: Fighting Antisemitism” drew so many unexpected leaders of nations to Jerusalem. Why? Because the fact is that they cannot, effectively, get rid of the hatred and contempt in the hearts of men. Yet, they can do more than they are doing to unite, together, and stop these hideous crimes against humanity. According to recent reports, violent anti-Semitic attacks, assaults, and vandalism of Jewish sites, increased worldwide in 2019. This included assaults of individuals in homes, in schools, in universities and in public places.
The presence of Holocaust Survivors, themselves, are a constant reminder of what did happen and what could happen if nations do not see the signs of the times and take action.
I had the opportunity of interviewing two survivors this past week. One of them is an Israeli originally from North Macedonia. Her name was Rachela Sion. She later changed her name to Rachel Shela Altaraz when she immigrated to Israel and married. Her story is unique because, though she suffered greatly, she miraculously escaped being sent to a death camp.
On March 11, 1943, when the North Macedonian Jews were rounded up and first taken to a tobacco factory in Monopol, before their journey ended at Treblinka, Rachela and her sister found themselves on a different path.
Rachela explains, “I was taken to Monopol, from Stip in the trains that were totally full of people. They were going to Treblinka, only standing, with no space at all. It was terrible. I was separated from my mother. She was on one side. I was on the other side. Terrible conditions. There was no food, no water. We couldn’t change clothes. Certainly no drinking or eating. We lost 10’s of kilograms. We were desperately tired.”
Rachela’s sister, who was with her on the train, had been married in Pristina, under Italian occupation. Because of her marriage papers, her sister had gotten a letter that she did not have to continue from Monopol to Treblinka.
As Rachela’s sister was getting off the train, and they were kissing and hugging goodbye, their mother pushed Rachela towards her sister and said, “Take her; take my little girl.”
Rachela can still remember that day. “Of course, my sister was trembling. She was afraid that someone would shoot her because she took a kid that was not her kid. She was afraid that someone was following her.” Rachela continues, “We were really afraid that we would be shot. We got to a little table at the entrance to Monopol. They checked our belongings and confirmed that everything was O.K. Nobody asked about me, as if I was invisible. They just let us go. When we left, my sister was excited, and said, ‘Why didn’t they ask anything?’ ”
They continued their journey to an area near Pristina and were hiding there. At some point, Rachela’s sister died, and Rachela was left alone. The rest of her family perished in Treblinka. She was only 8 years old at the time.
Rachela then hid in the home of a Muslim family. She got ill and was taken to an area hospital. Someone told the police she was Jewish and she was arrested and brought to a concentration camp. At 10 years old, she was the only Jewish child in the camp. People told her there that she should not cry. Since that time, until today, she has not been able to shed tears.
At the end of the war, in 1945, the Jews in the camp in Pristina were liberated by the Red Army. From there, Rachela moved from one family to another; one survivor’s home to another. Then, she was sent to an orphanage in Belgrade because no family would keep her as she was too thin, weak and ill. There were 150 orphan children that she lived with.
In 1949, after Israel’s independence, Jews from the land traveled to Europe looking for survivors. Through the help of Israeli agencies, Rachela made Aliyah (immigrated) by herself. She first lived on a kibbutz, eventually married a survivor from Sarajevo, and raised her children in Israel.
Rachela is a Zionist who is very proud to be living in Israel with her large family. She feels she is safe. She states, emphatically, “Only God can help us.”
She is one of the 2% from North Macedonia that made it through the Holocaust; the only survivor from the city of Stip.
I asked Rachela what she would like to share with Jews that are living abroad, and who are considering immigration to Israel. She replied, “They must come here because anti-Semitism there is a fact. I can’t believe why the Jews don’t come!”
I also had the opportunity to interview Dr. Giselle Cycowicz, who had stories to tell about the years she spent in Holocaust-like conditions. Her unique perspective gives insight into what it was like for European Jews before they were sent to the camps.
Giselle, a 92 year old Holocaust Survivor, spent most of her younger years in the town of Chust (Czechoslovakia/Hungary). Her three sisters and parents lived comfortably, owning several businesses, until anti-Semitism went from just words to actions. While the Holocaust was affecting most of Europe, the Jews of Hungary spent 5 years “protected” under fascist rule. Giselle testifies of the pre-Holocaust days, and recalls what would happen when Jews, like her father, would walk down the street wearing their business attire, which included religious garb.
“When my father and other Jews passed by, somewhere you heard, ‘Stinking Jews.’ We were the stinking Jews. We had nice homes. We had clean homes. But, we were the stinking Jews.”
Giselle and her family grew up hearing such ethnic slurs, so for them it was something they just got used to. But, later on, as Hitler tried to occupy more of Europe, getting closer and closer to her regional area, the fears set in. “We did not know what was going to happen to us.”
As conditions became much worse for Jews, Giselle was frightened. “Everybody has somewhere in the back of his mind, the thought, ‘What if I have to run? There is not always a place where I can escape.’ ”
During Hitler’s occupation of Europe, Hungary was governed by Nicholas Horthy, a fascist collaborator. Though Horthy was expected to cooperate with Hitler, he held off and did not immediately allow the Nazis to enter Hungary and take the Jews to the camps.
“And, Hitler was going crazy because he (Horthy) was a declared sworn partner. The Hungarians asked to be partners of Hitler, but here they behaved in a strange way… Hitler could not tolerate Horthy’s refusal to give up the Hungarian Jews.”
By 1943, Hitler was declaring Europe to be ‘judenrein’ (free of Jews), but according to Giselle, “There was still the Hungarian Jews to await the gas chambers.”
Giselle gave several examples of anti-Semitism growing up. When she was 12 years old, she went to the first day of public school. It had been under Czech rule, but once Czechoslovakia fell to Hitler and the Czech’s left, the schools came under Hungarian rule. “We were sitting there the first day in school. Somebody throws a crumbled paper into my back and I pick it up from the floor and open it up. It’s something torn from a school book. And, it said on it, ‘Death to the Jews.’ ”
Giselle decided not to complain about the note. She sat with the other school children waiting for the teacher to come in. The teacher finally arrived and blessed the children with words of encouragement. “And, then she looks around at this rainbow of different types of kids and she says, ‘Which are the Jewish kids?’ She makes us get up and then she says, ‘See, there is a door, please go out, because there is no education for Jewish children.’ ”
From then on, Giselle did not receive a formal education until she was much older. She stayed in Hungary with her family from ages 12-17, and then they were rounded up, with other Hungarian Jews, and taken to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Giselle spoke of another situation that happened in her town. One day, a non-Jew came into her father’s store, stating that he wanted to stay there. He asked her father to teach him how to sell. It was a time when the Hungarian government had already taken the licenses away of Jewish business owners. Everyone needed a license to operate a business in order to pay taxes.
“So we lost two licenses. This man stayed in our business. After a couple of weeks, he told my father he’s fine; he doesn’t need him anymore. The man stayed there, and my father walked out. Everything that was ours, was his now.”
At one point, Giselle’s father gathered the family together and told them that they did not have any income anymore. “I remembered how I felt; how I understood it. There was no way of having an income. Nothing. A man with a beard and with a suit. What can he do here? And, there was no possible way to get a livelihood.”
Most of the Hungarian Jews had grown up poor, but Giselle’s family had lived comfortably, until things got progressively worse for them and their neighbors. The closing of Jewish businesses in Hungary forced many to secure what they needed through the black market… another humiliation for Giselle’s family because it was illegal and risky. On one occasion, her father was badly beaten and taken to prison for three days simply for giving ten bottles of mineral water to a former business customer.
While Giselle and her family awaited their fate during those five years in Hungary, she explains, “Hitler was in search of methods to kill Jews the fastest way; the easiest way; and, the cheapest way.”
In the meantime, the quality of life continued to deteriorate for the Hungarian Jews, and personal freedoms diminished. Eventually, Giselle’s family was sent to one of three hastily set-up ghettos in Hungary where they stayed in crowded conditions for several weeks. Then, they boarded trains with minimal possessions.
Giselle spoke of the horrible conditions in the train box cars, similar to what many Holocaust Survivors suffered through. Three days later those Hungarian Jews that were still alive on the trains were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Her family arrived there on May 25, 1944, during the Jewish holiday of Shavuot. It was there that she watched her father disappear in one of the selections, never to be seen again. As typical of the sub-human conditions in Birkenau, her family was devastated by the horrors they experienced, forced on them by ruthless Nazis watching their every move. They feared, especially, that Giselle’s mother, already in her 40’s, would be taken away in the selections they faced daily.
As I sat with Giselle for almost 7 hours in her Jerusalem apartment, the impact of the cruelty that she experienced in the Holocaust was no longer a distant memory. It was as real in her memories today as it was then. At times she wept telling her story, remembering the filth; the lack of food and sleep; the few personal essentials needed to survive; the pain; the fear; and the disgrace she and her family had to endure on a daily basis in the camps. At one point they were forced into the showers, like vermin, their hair shaved off, so they could be “disinfected” by the Nazis who were intent on making sure the survivors were treated like animals and no longer as human beings. It was a living hell.
Yet, Giselle’s mother had faith. According to Giselle, her mother would say, “Don’t be afraid. God is with us. He will help us. Don’t worry. We will be alive and together.”
Eventually, they were liberated by the Red Army in May 1945. Giselle, her mother and one of her sisters made it back to their town of Chust, where they re-united with Giselle’s other sister (who had also been in the camps). Her family was together again, but without her father who perished in Birkenau. Some of her family traveled to Germany because of the Displaced Persons camps there; others went to Budapest. Giselle recalled there was a big concentration of refuges there and activities for them. Then, her family went to Prague.
In 1948, Giselle and her two sisters came to America as students. Her mother eventually joined them, getting a job as a teacher. Giselle married, had children, and spent 44 years in the United States where she got her doctorate degree in psychology at age 42.
In 1992, at the age of 67, Giselle immigrated to Israel with her family. She was employed in various jobs, and then got work as a psychologist with AMCHA, an organization that helps Holocaust Survivors. Giselle is active in that work today, helping survivors with mental health needs, especially those suffering from Holocaust memories and trauma.
One thing that struck me during the time I spent with Giselle is that her family did have the opportunity at the time of their persecution to go to Israel. Her father was a Zionist. He loved hearing about Israel from a special friend who had been there. But, as Giselle describes, “There was no television, no books. He knew from the prayers he recited every day.”
During their years in fascist Hungary, her father managed to request a certificate of passage (a laissez-passer), to bring his family to Palestine. But, her mother refused to go. Her father brought the certificate with him to Birkenau where he died.
Giselle joins other Holocaust Survivors, today, who see it as their duty to share their testimonies, determined that the Holocaust will never happen again. The question is, how can their memories be kept alive so the world does not forget the most terrifying crimes against humanity that were ever committed?
Both Rachela and Gisselle still display raw emotions about their years during what Jews refer to as “the Shoah”. Rachela summarized the memorable events of this past week with a surprising attitude of faith and hope. In a matter-of-fact way, she found an answer that brings comfort to her soul.
“Maybe God can come spread some happiness and goodness and wisdom to all the people of these nations. And, maybe they will just let us live in quiet and peace.”