Sara Leibovits was on the cusp of her sixteenth birthday when the Gates of Hell flung open, greeting her with the deceitful assurance that ‘Arbeit Macht Frei.’
In riveting detail, Leibovits, with the assistance of her second-generation survivor daughter, Eti Elboim, gathered and assembled the fragments of Sara’s extraordinary story of survival, now told in THE GIRL WHO SURVIVED AUSCHWITZ (HarperCollins, September 19, 2023).
For Leibovits, the lessons of the Holocaust are not only about remembering the atrocities but also memorializing the acts of courage and kindness. She believes in the importance of identifying with experiences that have shaped the very being of generations of Jews. For example, Leibovits explains that during the Passover seder narrative, Jews encourage those present to relive their ancestors’ bondage in Egypt. Leibovits made it clear that it is also her sacred duty to ensure that future generations of Jews identify as survivors of Auschwitz.
The color purple signifies royalty and luxury, but for Auschwitz’s innocent victims, purple exemplified the Nazis’ determination to dehumanize and demonize them. One of Nazis’ methods to dehumanize their victims, was to replace their names with numbers. At age sixteen Sara Leibovits ceased to exist, degraded to A-7807, the purple tattoo etched on her arm for the crime of having been born a Jew. Ironically, the numbers tattooed on those who survived became an indelible record of the Nazis’ crimes against humanity.
The depravity of the Nazis, aided by their all too willing and eager European accomplices, today stands as a living indictment of the atrocities heaped upon the Jews. Leibovits said that she and others did not recite the Hebrew response upon learning of one’s death of, “Baruch Dayan Ha’emet,” (Blessed is the True Judge) because in Auschwitz death became a part of the daily routine.
Life in Auschwitz, like the other death camps, was surreal. On one occasion, Leibowitz’s father, who served as a Sonderkommando, (a Jew forced to aid with the disposal of gas chamber victims) before the Nazis murdered him, managed to smuggle her a package of cosmetics, which he knew she was unaccustomed to using. Dressed in rags, with barely enough food to survive, she and the other women understood why he sent them a package of makeup. Once applied, it would give their cheeks a healthy glow, thus saving those who were pale and sickly, from the gas chambers.
Despite the fact the Nazis murdered her parents, little brothers, and numerous other members of her family, leaving her with nothing but memories, she held fast her desire to continue to do good-deeds. She learned firsthand that even in the midst of Hell the human soul had the resilience to choose good over evil. Her attributes of kindness, compassion, and caring were beyond the clutches of the demonic Aryans of the Third Reich.
Leibovits believed that the souls of the murdered ascending in thermals of ashes, found solace in the fact that many of their descendants returned to their ancestral homeland and settled in the Land of Israel. For all, but the barbaric architects and perpetrators of the genocide of the Jews, the final solution was life – not death.
Seventy years after her liberation by the Russians, she became an advocate and lecturer to inform the next generations of the horrors of the Holocaust. Despite all she witnessed and endured, she remained true to her Jewish faith and declared, “The arrogant mock me without restraint, but I do not turn from Your Law.” Thus was the power of her faith. She delighted in having lived to see new generations of Jews nourished and nurtured in their motherland, Israel. Unlike previous generations of Jews in the Diaspora, the new Jews of Israel no longer had to feel grateful to those who begrudgingly tolerated them as unwelcomed guests, even in lands where their families had lived for generations.
Although this story is about Sara Leibovits, the only survivor of her family who had passed beneath that dreaded ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ archway, it belongs firmly rooted in the genealogical tree of the entire Jewish family.