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Beth Sarafraz
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The Holocaust survivor’s wife

The story of survival is something holy, to be passed on without alteration or sanitization or a 'happily ever after' ending

Six million Jews died in the Holocaust – hunted down by Nazis and other cold-blooded killers – going person by person, house by house, village by village, country by country, like they were checking off a list and every Jew in the world was on that list.

Survival would require nonstop vigilance in blending in with non-Jewish populations, impersonating those raised to mark time with public church rituals followed by family celebrations. Surviving depended on gaining the trust of non-Jews, but never trusting them too much in turn. This was true not only during the war, but afterwards, as well.

At what point was it safe to be identified as a Jew, religious or not? How long did it take, after the war, to publicly resume observance of the Sabbath and the kosher dietary laws? Would it ever be safe to gather in a synagogue, or to create yeshivas to educate Jewish children, or to hire a mohel to circumcise your son?

Safe to say what history and the Haggadah record: It is never “safe” to be a Jew, not anywhere, in any generation, from the first to the last, till the end of the world. But those who survived the worldwide Nazi slaughter have stories to tell, testimonies to get on the record. For them, bearing witness is sacred; for those audiences who read or watch these reports, the information handed over is vital to the pursuit of justice. The personal survivor stories shared with today’s Jewish communities might ultimately save more lives in the future if, God forbid, anti-Semites plot (once again) to erase Jewish life from our planet.

October 1982. I was a young freelance reporter back then, standing on the gas pedal of my Chevy, speeding home from a two-hour interview with a Holocaust survivor’s wife, worried the story I’d heard would evaporate out of my head like a dream if I didn’t hurry up and write it down. Everything was stored behind my eyes; nothing recorded on tape, film, or paper. But I knew that even if it took the whole night, I would and could recall it all and set it down right and proper. By 4 a.m., I’d finished filling up 45 pages of a yellow legal pad.

“Now what?” I asked myself. I filed it away in an orange crate marked “Unpublished, As Yet” and went to bed.

For what felt like a million years later, I wrote and published other stories, raised my kids, lived a grownup life in New York. Sometimes I wondered what it would have been like, trying to live the same adult life in Warsaw, 1939, but how could I know? Never did I dream of a future that included getting on a line for the gas chamber. But sometimes I dreamed of my 1982 Holocaust story, wondering when the time would be right to publish it.

I’d never heard a survivor story quite like it — the way she told it – about her Jewish husband growing up in big city Warsaw, Poland, until German Nazis turned it into a walled-in torture chamber for Jews; about how he survived the Shoah, sometimes living in the woods; about liberation day and a ticket to America at the end of the war; about settling in a well-to-do north Jersey suburb and working two jobs to afford the house, the cars, the wife and kids; about fitting in with people who cried at football games and never imagined playing games for really high stakes — like hide and seek with the Nazis in the woods; about a greenhorn Polish-Jewish refugee supposedly living the American dream on the outside, while traumatic Nazi nightmares expanded like balloons inside his head.

We didn’t have a name for life after trauma until 9/11 and then we did – Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, especially for first responders on duty that black day in 2001 when terrorists brought down the World Trade Center, killing 3,000 innocent people. I wrote stories about cops and firefighters who started drinking and seeing counselors to cure violent flashbacks from that one terrible day.

It triggered a memory from when the Holocaust survivor’s wife described her husband’s flashbacks, covering a span of years. Even living the good life in suburban Jersey didn’t put him at ease. He was still hiding out – not from the Nazis, but from the neighbors — who he believed might be Nazis.

Nazis had killed his entire family in their systematic, orderly way. First, they cut off part of Warsaw creating a ghetto; then, they locked the Jews inside. From this ghetto, Harry and his sister were sent out to a work camp where she was murdered; his parents were backed against a wall, with nowhere to run or hide, forced into cattle cars bolted shut from the outside, driven to concentration camp gas chambers where they perished inhaling Nazi poison.

The fact that he – alone — survived most likely pushed him, after the war, to choose the safest-looking exit ramp off the derech. (There’s the sign: WELCOME TO WAYNE, NJ!) Sometimes he’d hide in plain sight, in the last place vicious anti-Semites would likely be hunting Jews. Sometimes he’d disappear off the very face of the earth, if it seemed like too many faces in the neighborhood looked too Jewish to be safe there. Always, he’d wrestle demons choking him in his sleep.

He’d married a blonde-haired, blue-eyed gentile woman — a real “shiksa” girl — his family would’ve said about her, except that they were all murdered for the crime of being Jewish, so nobody got to meet her or have “the talk” with Harry about the consequences of marrying “out.” But may we just cut to the chase on the subject of his family: Dead Jews don’t talk. Unlike his survivor friends, Harry had never written his memoirs nor spoken to any Jewish groups about his experiences in Hitler’s Europe. He’d not sought counseling for his nightmares, confiding the truth only to his wife – who he trusted and loved – who revealed his secrets to a freelance reporter when he wasn’t home.

I wondered if Harry recalled the Yiddish song, “Shvaig Kindele,” popular in the Warsaw Ghetto during those years. Its lyrics taught Jewish children about life (but mostly death) under Hitler, graphically describing the entire horror show. Unlike other favorite Jewish mother lullabies (about raisins and almonds, learning Torah, being escorted to the chuppah), Shvaig Kindele ended with a life and death warning about what one must do to stay alive: “Zog nit ois az bdu bist a Yid! / Do not tell that you are a Jew!

This lullaby from hell gave a Jewish child permission to pretend he belonged to some other culture or religion, to be quiet and choose life at its most painfully basic level without shame or hesitation, to remain alive until the end of the season of evil, when a Jew could live as a Jew – openly – again.

But who had the heart to imagine The Day after the Holocaust? That day would come too late for six million, while the lone survivor of an entire family could try to be Jewish, openly, again — alayn via shtain / alone like a stone in the world.

In essence, the Holocaust survivor’s wife told a story about her husband that had the ring of truth. It humbled me when I sat down to write it. It made me reach to think of things outside my own experience and knowledge. In the end, it forced me to ask: Who am I to judge this person – or any other Holocaust survivor — about his attitude about God, other people, and life itself?

Here, I give you this incomprehensible story now, about a Jewish man whose entire family was murdered by Nazis and who, with “Zog nit ois az bdu bist a yid!” presumably playing in his head, miraculously escaped. After the war, he moved to America, married a non-Jew, decided to raise his kids as Jews, bought a house in a non-Jewish neighborhood, tried unsuccessfully to socialize with ethnic Germans living across the street, and suffered constant violent nightmares.

His only true friends were other Holocaust survivors, such as Martin Gray, author of the 1971 personal memoir, For Those I Loved. (At a 1982 Holocaust survivor gathering, held inside Manhattan’s Hotel Wellington, Gray sat for the short interview I’d requested and graciously introduced me to Harry and Audrey.) Many years later, at 93, Gray would be found dead, face down in the swimming pool at his home in Ciney, Belgium.

Below is the account told to me in 1982 – about one of the last Jews standing after the Nazis lost World War II. Told by the Holocaust survivor’s wife, it is a straight up, unsanitized profile of her husband and certainly no fairytale — unless you consider staying alive a “fairytale ending.”
– Beth Sarafraz, 2023

**********

What Happened in Warsaw could happen in Wayne

October 1982 – Welcome to Wayne, NJ, a clean, quiet, upscale suburban neighborhood. No stoops, metered parking, crowded streets or hard-faced urban hustling will you find here in glorious suburbia — just a private backyard lifestyle behind split-level homes, no sidewalks out front, nobody walking anywhere, late model cars parked in garages and driveways.

There’s a car in Harry’s driveway, so maybe somebody’s home. I grab my purse and start hiking briskly up the small hill that is the family’s front lawn. Then I’m on a concrete patio with the front door straight ahead. Affixed to it is a medium-sized plaque that spells out in fancy script: MR. AND MRS. HARRY MANN.

Harry is a survivor of the Holocaust, sole survivor of his family. For such a man, having once lost everyone and everything, his name engraved on the door suggests pride of ownership and maybe courage too, to display his name — and stand, sit, live behind it.

Below the plaque, a large slapped on sticker reads: BEWARE THE DOG. A real dog backs up this warning with nonstop ear-splitting barking, the second the doorbell rings. A couple minutes go by; it stops. If anyone was home, they would’ve heard it, for sure. Plus, they would’ve removed those letters sticking out of the mailbox. I’ve driven a long way though, so I hit the bell again, for the hell of it. The dog goes crazy for another couple minutes. Then, silence.

Why do I get the feeling that maybe they’re not answering the door, but someone is home? I circle the house, cutting across the driveway where the car is parked, turning at the corner into their backyard, where I spot the front of the back entrance – sliding glass doors. Behind them is a typical family room and a woman sitting on a couch.

The woman sees me at the same moment I see her. She’s startled, makes no move to get up. So, I tap a little on the glass, even though I know she sees me. She comes to the door, slides it open a couple inches, looks at me and waits.

I tell her my name, that we’d met a while back at a New York hotel where I’d gone to interview a Holocaust survivor who’d written a bestseller. I quickly add that I’d sent her a letter but maybe she didn’t get it?

“Oh, yes!” she interrupts. “You’re the reporter who wanted to interview my husband’s friend from Warsaw, Martin Gray.”

“Yes, I’m that one.” Relieved she is smiling now, I take a chance and ask, “May I come in for a minute?”

She opens the door wide, and I step into the room, brushing past a large white cat on its way out. All over the place are loose beads, pearls, string. She designs jewelry, puts it together herself. Now she retrieves a half-finished necklace from the table, reseats herself on the couch and resumes stringing gold beads.

“I don’t want to take too much of your time,” I begin, “but did you get my letter?”

“Yeah, we got your letter,” she says, “but we’re both very busy. My husband and I each work two jobs. We’re putting our daughter through college and it’s very expensive. Harry is a mechanic and also has his own business, but he doesn’t make a fortune. I have a job, and, on the side, I do this. So, we’re very busy. We really didn’t discuss your letter, but we did read it.”

So, I tell her, “Well, I was hoping to hear your husband’s story and write an article.”

She says, “Yes, okay. But not everybody is a Martin Gray writing books. Most people are like Harry. He works in a sewing machine factory where the other employees are Polish, but not Jewish. They don’t know his past.”

I tell her, “Look, I’m not going to do something careless and crazy, just a look back at how one man survived the Nazi killers.”

“That’s good,” she says. “Remember the night we had dinner with Martin Gray at the Wellington, what we talked about at the table? His second wife was telling how he travels a lot, how she’s home alone with the children, and sometimes gets these terrifying anonymous phone calls, with the caller saying: ‘I’m gonna kill you and all the children.’ And it’s not just calls. One time, someone threw red paint on their house – to look like blood!”

Oy vey, I’m thinking, this is what happens when a survivor talks publicly about the Holocaust?

Audrey seems to read my mind: “I understand why Martin feels this need to bear witness, to make sure people know what happened. But do you know what it costs when you do that?”

I’m getting the picture that it costs a lot.

She explains: “You’ve lost your whole family to the Nazis. You’ve started a new life, a new family. By going public, you put them all in jeopardy; you destroy the peace and quiet you have left in life. You wouldn’t believe what’s out there. So many people are animals.”

I’ve never heard about animals getting together and committing mass murder. Evil people, yes, I do believe they are out there, those cruel, vicious, evil people you speak of. But calling them “animals” isn’t right. Animals don’t organize and plot the mass murder of other animals or people.

**********

One time, the rabbi of a Jewish group asked Harry to make a speech about his experiences in the war. “My husband only tells certain stories,” Audrey says. “The ones that make it sound like — an adventure. He never tells the other stories to people.”

“Did he tell the other stories to you?” I whisper, almost afraid of the answer.

“Years ago, he told me the worst of it — once. Just that one time.”

I ask her what happened with the speech.

“They asked him to speak about the escapes, the fighting back – not necessarily about the things that would break him up. But Harry isn’t a writer, like Martin Gray. He’s a mechanic, working with his hands. Still, he sat up, night after night, writing an outline of what he was going to say to these people. The rabbi had convinced him it was important to tell how the Jews fought back. Anyway, he gets this whole thing done and asks me to take a look. I read the whole thing and he says, ‘Well, what do you think?’”

I ask her, “What did you really think?”

She answers that she told him the truth: “Harry, I know the whole story, so you don’t have to fill it in for me. But this won’t make sense to anyone else, unless you tell what happened before. You left out too much.”

She tried to help him fill in the blanks.

“Look,” she explains, “I knew he wasn’t willing to tell anything that was going to break him up. He was afraid. He had to stand up in front of all these people and he didn’t want to cry. Since I love him, I had to tell him the truth: ‘Harry, I really don’t think this speech is going to do anything for them or for you because they’ll have too many questions you don’t want to answer.’”

What kind of questions, he asked. She gave two examples: “Like, why did you do this? Or why was that important?”

I picture her answering carefully, trying to sound like an English teacher explaining the art of the essay, how you make a statement and then illustrate it with an anecdote. I picture Harry listening intently, like a student eager to learn the techniques of storytelling. But the teacher-student picture is too fake to believe, too sad to work, I think to myself.

His wife confirms it: “He tore the outline up and said, ‘I can’t do it.’”

**********

She tells me about Harry’s night terror, the same one every night since their first year of marriage – and probably well before that, too. He dreams he’s being choked. He gasps for air like someone trying to survive his air being cut off, fighting for his life in his own bed while deeply asleep and unconscious. The first time he did this, his wife did what most people would do. She tried to wake him up, so he’d realize it was only a dream.

It didn’t work.

“When I reached over and touched him, he socked me in the face – hard. I fell back and lay there, my face hurting, listening to him choking, watching him thrashing about, really scared to try again and stop him. But I was afraid he’d have a heart attack. So that night, I devised a technique that would serve both of us well forever after.”

She describes it: Rolling all the way over to the very edge of the bed, reclining on her side with her back to her husband, she kicks back until her leg hits him. He then flails his arms and punches into the air, never noticing his wife has moved out of reach. For decades, it’s always been the same nightmare — its origins never explained, nor who – nor what is cutting off his air, nor why.

**********

Harry, born and raised in Warsaw, Poland, was 12 when it started to happen, the brutal hopeless life under German Nazi rule. Living in the walled-off Jewish ghetto with his mother, father and sister, it seemed lucky at first, when the Nazis took the two pre-teen children to a labor camp to work, paving roads. Their parents remained behind, in the ghetto. The camp was bad, but it wasn’t a concentration camp. They weren’t killing the Jews outright there, not yet. But it was bad enough that Harry wanted to get out, escape from there. He didn’t trust the Nazis. He felt compelled to go and discussed it with his sister.

“What do you think we should do? Maybe we should both escape together, right now?”

She didn’t agree, thinking they should wait a while, see if it got any worse. After all, they were only being worked to death – not killed outright. The situation wasn’t critical, said his sister, and it wasn’t time to run, yet. He walked away and thought about this but couldn’t bring himself to agree. He escaped that night with another guy. The next day, seeing it could be done, he went back for his sister.

She wasn’t there. No one was there. The Nazis had exterminated every Jew in the camp. The camp itself was erased, razed to the ground. Was this action on the list of scheduled Nazi activities? Or was this a collective punishment for the discovery that two of their prisoners – Harry and his friend — had escaped? The unanswered questions would torment Harry for the rest of his life.

He left and went to the ghetto to look for his parents, but they weren’t there. They’d been rounded up in one of the cattle car transports headed nonstop to a concentration camp. There, after being herded into specially built sealed rooms, they were painfully gassed to death, then burned to ash and smoke inside a crematorium. Thus did Harry lose his entire family in a single day.

“He’s not writing books about this. He’s not talking about it to anyone,” says his wife. Of course, she would also not be talking about it if Harry were sitting here with us girls – his wife and a female reporter leaning into the living room couch like best friends in the Sisterhood. While one is talking about what it’s like to live with a survivor, the other one is listening, nodding, not taking a single written note or asking natural follow-up questions — not even when Audrey confides that she’s not Jewish, that she and Harry were married by a judge, that they’re raising the kids as Jews.

**********

One night, Audrey tells me, they hear a lot of noise across the street. A neighbor is giving a party — his whole house is lit up; many guests fill the backyard. The people who own the house are German – but not German-American. These folks are German Germans, in their middle to upper years, with thick accents. There’s never any trouble with the neighbors, just cordial greetings, hello and goodbye.

This night, the neighbor comes across the street to their house, rings the bell and says: “We’re having a party. Please come over and have a few drinks with us.” Harry and Audrey thank him but decline, saying “It’s late.”

The neighbor persists, “Oh, come on, it’s not that late. Just come over for a drink, something to eat.”

Audrey and Harry, not wanting to insult their neighbor, say all right and off they go – after agreeing privately not to stay long. They walk into the backyard. People are eating and drinking. There’s music too, and dancing.

“I looked around me,” Audrey says, “and I could almost hear the clicking of heels. The men were tall, with cold blue eyes, their blonde hair mixed with gray. Look, I’m an American girl; I didn’t go through the Holocaust, like Harry. But I got such a strange feeling, so strong that I was overwhelmed with the desire to get out of there. I knew that if I was feeling this way, Harry was feeling it even stronger – that we were surrounded by Nazis.”

Surrounded by Nazi neighbors in suburban Jersey? I’m on the edge of my seat and ask what happened next.

“We had a drink and kept pretty much to ourselves for a while. Harry loosened up a little. He socialized, walked around talking to people, you know, polite conversation: ‘Hi, how are you? Where are you from?’ I knew, however, what he was really doing, finding out how old they were, where they were in Germany during the war years, what they did. I knew what he was looking to find out.”

Then, says Audrey, a tall German walked over to her and said: “Would you like to dance?” For Audrey, this question turned into a dilemma of crisis proportions.

“I didn’t know what to do,” she explains. “I did know what Harry would do, seeing me dance with this man.”

She was afraid to just say no, afraid to seem rude, snotty, or plain unfriendly. Had the man been anything but German, she would’ve politely refused, not fearing repercussions. But this German guy might react to a refusal with brutal violence, an art form with those people, according to Harry.

“So, nu?” I ask, trying to imagine what kind of words would work to avoid dancing with Hitler.

“I said okay,” she answers, looking down, twirling a long blonde hair around her finger. “We started to dance. I could feel Harry staring at us. Then suddenly, he ran over, grabbed my arm and we flew out of there. He couldn’t take it.”

**********

Audrey explains the close-knit relationships between survivors. “You see, these people all lost their families. So, they keep close ties with each other, even when they make their lives in different countries.”

When Harry gets together with Martin, she says, they usually talk about the “adventures” they had in the forest, fighting with the partisans, against the Nazis. There were times when something funny happened, that made them laugh. Usually, they’re not willing to bring up the “other stories.”

But one night, they did – Martin Gray, Harry Mann, and a third guy. Their wives and children were there. They started to talk about the “bad” stuff. There was a bottle of Vodka on the table. The stories were told, the bottle was handed around. Harry never drinks. But that night, he did.

His wife remembers sitting there “thinking such a stupid thing — that the children will see their father drunk.” They were talking about things they saw: a baby thrown up in the air and bayoneted — horrendous memories, and so they cried and kept on drinking for hours.

After that, many years went by with no word from Martin, who, they assumed, didn’t have their latest address, due to Harry and Audrey moving around so much (Harry thought it safer not to stay too long in one place).

When their daughter decided to become a vegetarian, Audrey remembered Martin Gray and his wife Dina had once joined a Manhattan vegetarian society. Audrey took her daughter there. When one of the club members asked how she’d found them, she answered that their dear friend, Martin Gray, used to belong.

“Martin Gray?!” the man exclaimed. “That’s the guy who wrote the book about his life, escaping the Nazis and then, going through worse tragedy after the war, when his wife and four kids were killed in a fire.”

Shocked, Audrey rushed to a bookstore, bought the book, and read it together with Harry. That was how they found out what had happened to their friend, called him immediately and planned a reunion to be held at Manhattan’s Hotel Wellington. In attendance at the gathering on that warm October night in 1982 were Martin Gray, Harry, other Holocaust survivor friends, their wives, and one freelance writer who considered the story of survival as something holy, to be passed on without alteration or sanitization or a “happily ever after” concluding paragraph.

About the Author
Beth Schenerman Sarafraz is a writer living in Brooklyn, New York. Her work has been published, through the years, in The New York Times, New Jersey Monthly Magazine, The Jewish Press, Brooklyn's Courier Life Newspapers, NY Blue Now Magazine, Police Officers Quarterly Magazine, East-Side Boxing.com, The Brooklyn Eagle, and more.
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