I often tell people that Yom Ha-Shoah is my favorite holiday. They think it is a flippant remark, but in all sincerity, I think that taking a day to pay respect to some of the darkest days of history is not only extremely humbling but it is important as fewer and fewer Holocaust survivors living and Holocaust denial and antisemitism rise. I am a descendant of Holocaust survivors.
Though I never my grandfather, Alex Schachter, I am very fortunate to have had the opportunity to meet my grandmother, Lilian Lederer-Schachter. During World War II, Lily (as she was called prior to arriving via Ellis Island in 1950) was living in Subotica, Yugoslavia. In 1944, the Nazis arrived and she was deported to Auschwitz. I have fond memories of going to my grandma’s house in Chicago, She was an exceptional baker and cook. She was thrilled when my siblings and I would come to visit from Iowa. I did not realize then, what a tragic, horrifying youth she had. Lily was a Holocaust survivor, and thankfully, she wrote a memoir so that the coming generations wouldn’t forget.
My mom, Audrey, is a very talented woman as well – taking after her mom. She, too, is a great cook and baker, has a strong connection to family, and is also a very talented writer. When she was younger, my mom wrote a short story from the perspective of Lily during the dark days of the Holocaust. I think that now, more than ever, we need to remember how important hope and faith are – now that we are living our new “normal” lives – we have to remember how things could be so much worse – and that even in the darkest times, a little hope can be a huge help.
I had just enough time to dash off a card to Alex before they took me away along with the other Jewish women and children. The able men had been forced two years earlier, in 1942, to serve under the Hungarians at hard labor in designated forced labor camps. Alex, twenty years old at the time, was among them. He would write home occasionally and I longed to receive his letters. It was heartbreaking to read his descriptions of the suffering and cruelty they were forced to tolerate. He was put to work digging trenches for bunkers and building transport bridges in waist-deep water. They worked long hours and were given little food. They were never issued uniforms and only had the ragged clothes they were wearing when they were taken away.
I would write to him often because the letters helped him continue the struggle for survival. I wrote about all of our precious memories of the good times and of our anticipated dreams for the future. I told him I loved him and would wait for him. But the war was worsening and anti-semitism was spreading. The Nazis invaded the area in 1944.
Abandoning homes and belongings, the remaining families were forced at gunpoint to load into dreary, metal boxcars to be “resettled.” It was a merciless journey. I was petrified and confused. Where are they taking us? Women with screaming babies and released mental patients packed into the cars until there was no room to move. Human waste and vomit coated the lower half of the boxcar and it was a great effort for me to avoid the filth. At first, the pressure of the other bodies helped me to stay standing, but soon the weakest ones began fainting and dying from hunger, thirst, weariness, or fear and as they slipped down into the repulsive waste area, the task of standing became increasingly more difficult.
To keep my sanity, I thought of Alex and the times we spent together. When we used to take walks in the evenings we talked of our dreams and hopes for our future marriage and happiness together. It was so beautiful to imagine. On clear nights we gazed at the stars and wished for our future happiness. Alex made me promise to find the Big Dipper anytime we would be separated and in this way, we could be united. Oh, how I wished there were windows in this cattle-car so the stars would offer something for me to hold on to, to help me through this. How could our dreams ever become realities with the war going on all around ou us? All of my hopes and dreams were beginning to shatter. They were all unattainable unless a miracle could happen. I had to hang on to that slim chance of a miracle occurring. There was nothing I wanted more than to be in the safety and comfort of Alex’s arms. Thoughts of him helped me to fight whatever obstacles might prevent us from attaining our happiness.
After a seemingly endless trip, it is impossible to even guess how long it lasted, the train came to a stop, the doors slid open and a blinding stream of sunlight flooded in. From where we stood, this destination could not be worse than the conditions we experienced in arriving here, but soon the atrocities began. It all became clear to us now, that the “resettlement” was a one-way ride for many of us.
As we climbed down from the boxcars we were separated into two groups; one group was the stronger, healthier people and the other group consisted of the weak and sickly. Passing beneath the arched gateway into this horror-filled extermination camp, Auschwitz, the weak group was immediately taken to be stripped of possessions and then gassed to death while our group was taken to be registered.
The registration involved getting identification numbers tattooed on our inner wrists, having our heads shaven, and stripping all of our clothes in exchange for a blue and white striped cotton uniform which was the only tangible possession we would know in this place. Although the Nazis took all of our material belongings, we still had our memories and dreams. At least they couldn’t deny us of those things. I prayed that Alex was still alive and at best that he was not suffering the same pains we, at Auschwitz, were experiencing.
As I later found out, Alex had received my card before the Nazis transferred them out of the Hungarian camps. Just hearing from home helped boost his spirits and hopes of surviving this mess. But weeks went by without word from me or his family and he thought, “So all of the terrible rumors about the Nazis taking our women and children to the camps are true. These monsters are murdering Jers and we can’t do anything about it.” Soon the Nazis transferred the forced-labor prisoners to concentration camps. Alex went to Mauthausen with many of the men from his camp. There were no railroad facilities available and as a result they were forced to march the distance for several days. Those who could not find the strength to continue were shot by the SS who followed along in trucks. Alex struggled to keep up with his friends because he needed their support to last the distance. He couldn’t help wondering about me. He had not heard from me since we were forced out of our homes, but I didn’t want him to know we were taken away. All I wrote on the last card was:
My dearest Alex,
Things here have been steadily worsening. I heard some rumors of a mass Jewish resettlement but nothing is definite. I love you very much and I will wait for you when it’s all over.
I was put to work in a thread factory in Auschwitz. We worked hard and long hours and I found myself daydreaming quite often about Alex and our future, of how something as inhumane as this situation can occur, and about what life is really worth. I prayed to God more during the months I spent at Auschwitz than in my entire life preceding those months. At night I wondered if I would wake up again, or if I would be amongst the prisoners scheduled to be gassed the next day or forced into prostitution. It was a great effort to fall asleep even with the extreme weakness of my withering body. I gazed at the sky and searched for answers. The only hope for happiness rested in survival. I had to strain my soul for strength. There shone the Big Dipper – I hoped Alex was also sharing that moment with me. If we could endure this torment and pain, we could do anything. To survive would be to defy Hitler and his Nazis. They were the villain, our obstacle. “They cannot do something like this and get away with it…” Eventually, I would fall asleep wanting to go on and fight for my dignity and my future.
Alex was confused because all of his ideals had been shattered. He had been taught that God would help him and he could not comprehend the reason for the way things were. “What use is praying if He can let something like this happen?” Being a strong-willed man, however, he continued the battle of survival. He had become a male nurse in the make-shift medical facility at his camp. Built to present an illusion of good treatment by the Nazis, most of the medical treatment performed by the Jewish doctor there was for controlling bleeding of severed body parts inflicted by guards who were dissatisfied with the victim’s performance. Alex became good friends with the doctor and he helped Alex get better provisions. He greatly appreciated the help, but even with the extra food and fewer work hours, he couldn’t see much light for the future. He would look to the sky and gaze at the stars for long spans of time late at night. He reflected on his life — “All I have are my memories and my future. If I let go now it will all have been for nothing. If it is all I can do to prevent the Nazis from attaining their ultimate goal of annihilating the Jews I MUST survive.” Then he set his thoughts on happiness in the future; marriage and a family and a normal life again.
Looking at the Big Dipper, he recalled some of our good times and this helped him keep struggling. He became ill, suffering from typhoid fever. The sick men were put in a woody area, separated from the rest of the prisoners and left there for the night. In the morning, when a guard returned and ordered them to line up before the morning whistle, Alex thought something unusual was happening. He stood up and confidently walked toward the barracks. The guard yelled at him several times to halt, but unsuccessfully. He glanced back once to find his doctor-friend talking to the guard and then he was clear. He entered the barracks, wrapped himself in a blanket and sat in a corner on the floor. No sooner did he sit down than the rat-tat-tat of machine guns shot down the other sick men. This was a sign to him that he was chosen to survive. God was on his side. He had been reaching for something to grasp for a tinge of hope for survival. Up until now, he wasn’t sure, but now he knew, the future was told in the stars.
On May 4, 1945, the hoping and praying all seemed to be answered when the U.S. Army liberated us from the clutches of these monsters. I was among the first to get home. Amazingly, my entire family was lucky enough to come back. Most of the other families weren’t quite as fortunate. I went to the train station every day to see who had survived this nightmare. I was especially anxious to see Alex. I knew he had to come back even though there were rumors that he had been shot to death. I just wouldn’t believe them; he had to return or all of my struggling would have been in vain. The last train arrived and I desperately needed to see him step off of it. I was ecstatic when he finally did appear. It was a marvelous reunion, almost too good to be true. I felt as if we were the two luckiest people in the entire world. I was 18 when we were married in November 1945 and Alex was 23. We are living proof of the cliché, “where there is a will, there is a way.” True love is a strong force that lasts regardless of any circumstantial obstacles and may even be intensified as a result of the circumstance. It was a great effort for us to keep hoping and keep believing that we could ever survive and be together again. Now that we have fulfilled our ultimate dreams of happiness in marriage, a family, and a normal existence, free of the anti-semitism that we suffered for, we are thankful for our lives.