Yom HaShoah and the survivors: “a heart that is so hard that nothing can affect me”

Cover With Postmark of Ghetto Fighters’ Kibbutz, Yom HaShoah, 1967

After the Shoah

As we mark Yom HaShoah—Holocaust Memorial Day on the Jewish liturgical and Israeli political calendar—we naturally think first and foremost of the dead, in their millions. But there were also the survivors. Many went to Mandatory Palestine and the new State of Israel or the United States. Some tried to rebuild lives in the vast cemetery that was Europe. Many of the few now remaining live in shameful poverty.

It would be a mistake, as we mark our annual commemoration of the Holocaust, to think that the story of the survivors ended with the liberation. As a piece in the Jüdische Allgemeine reminds us, many soon came to feel, “we are liberated but not free.” Many languished in Displaced Persons camps, still behind barbed wire—ironically, sometimes even the same barbed wire as during the war. Others, returning home, found that their erstwhile neighbors had no desire to see them come back. Some perished at the hands of these neighbors. And for all, there were the memories and the guilt of survival.

* * *

I wanted to be with my people

In the summer of 1939, my father, seeing war on the horizon, returned from the safety of Amsterdam—where his Czechoslovak firm had wisely established a branch the previous year—to Poland via Nazi Germany: in order, as he later said, “to be with my people.” He had, as he put it, romantic dreams of fighting fascism. He survived the German bombardment. Relatively fortunate to be in the Soviet occupation zone (yes, Poland was dismembered by attacks from two directions, not just one), he escaped at the end of 1939, joined the Polish Army in Hungary, and made his way surreptitiously via Yugoslavia and Fascist Italy to France and the remnants of the Polish forces, just as the Battle of France was unfolding. He was among the Allied troops evacuated to the United Kingdom, where, as I have written earlier, it turned out that he had escaped the Nazi furnaces only to fall prey to the fires of the antisemitism of his compatriots.

After June, 1941, a few relatives were able to join the retreating Red Army and find refuge in the USSR, but most were caught in the Nazi net. Some were killed outright, some went into hiding or joined the resistance; some were deported to the camps.

* * *

The following are excerpts from letters by two of the survivors.

Two cousins, Sylvie and Leon, had been living in France, where they studied medicine, a career that would have been denied them in their native Poland, where Jews suffered from discriminatory quotas. Sylvie spent the war in hiding. Leon served in the French Army in 1940 and later joined a group of foreign-born communist resisters, but was betrayed and deported to Auschwitz.

I . . . . have had no news from my father for over 3 years. I have no illusions.

Letter from Sylvie Kostmann, Paris, 25 February 1945

My dear cousin,

I am very happy finally to have received news from you, since the liberation of Paris I have awaited a letter from you. I received two addresses from the Polish Red Cross, and I was able to write to you, but alas! a great misfortune occurred and I didn’t have the courage to write to you . . .

I don’t know where to begin. There are so many things to recount. Voilà, the 4 years passed without too much damage, without our having revealed ourselves. We had only our emotions. But finally the Americans entered Paris, and we were liberated. You can imagine our happiness! But fate decided otherwise. [Her sister, who had likewise been in hiding, survived the liberation only to die in a tragic domestic accident] . . . .

You cannot imagine how I have lived these 4 ½ months, at times I thought I would go insane, I felt as if I was cut in half. All this made it very difficult for me to write to you. Write me: are you wounded? or sick? Could you come to Paris? I still have your clothes here—what should I do with them?  I . . . . have had no news from my father for over 3 years. I have no illusions.

Léon was deported to Auschwitz (Silesia) in February 1944, he has sent news that he has been liberated by the Russians. No news from the family. But much sadness: women and children deported, without news.

* * *

I now live with a heart that is so hard that nothing can affect me

After my father escaped to Hungary, he visited his sister’s fiancé’s sister and husband, Paula and Morcy Rosenthal, in 1940. In the course of the war, Morcy was sent to a Hungarian forced-labor battalion but had the good fortune to be captured by the Red Army and then joined the Czechoslovak Forces. Paula and the children were imprisoned in a ghetto and then deported to Auschwitz. Seventy years ago this week, she was liberated.

A Happy Family: The Rosenthals, Huszt, 1940 

Letter from Paula, Salzwedel, April 19, 1945

     I am writing to you at your Portuguese address. Perhaps the letter will reach you there.

     Briefly: a year ago, I was taken from Chust to the camp at Auschwitz. There, they took my dearest children, and probably burned them in the crematorium. Since I was healthy, after 38 months of suffering [i.e. including the Chust ghetto], I was sent out to work in a factory in Fallersleben, near Braunschweig, together with Regie [another sister-in-law]. I am now in Salzwedel, also near Braunschweig. Janka and Adolf remained in Budapest. Since May 1944, I do not know anything about what happened to them. Perhaps they, too, were sent to a camp.

     Maksiu! Were you able to get in touch with Morcy? Do you know if he is alive?

     I plan to go to Palestine, but I have the faint hope that I might find my children. They say that there were camps for children. I send you my best greetings.

Letter from Paula, Litoměřice, 28 March 1946

For a long time, I could not decide to write to you . . . .

You know that I was liberated by the American Army in Germany, on April 14, 1945—I will write you in detail about my fate— . . . .

In the second half of June, I was repatriated to Prague, knowing already, from Radio Prague, that Morcy had returned from Russia as a captain in the Czech Army and was in Prague, where I found him.  . . . . I lost my mother, Rysia and my beloved children—the children in the gas chamber and the crematorium—and I now live with a heart that is so hard that nothing can affect me . . . .

The Saddest Photo in the Album: Murdered Upon Arrival at Auschwitz, 1944

One learns that one can live in one dress a whole year. . . .

I can’t write about what I went through because then I’d have to relive it again, especially the moment – when they took my children. When I have to talk about it, I am close to despair . . . . I am lucky that Morcy and I found each other again, and together, we will somehow overcome this tragedy . . .  We are hiding our heads like ostriches, we don’t talk about it as far as possible. We decided to have a child again, which I expect soon. Morcy is a darling, as he was before; we are relatively happy . . . . His two brothers (Ari and Jozi) are also alive, and so is Regie. Frieda and the children remained in Auschwitz. Ari is a 2nd Lt. in the Czech Army, and Morcy was demobilized as a Captain. They both have all kinds of medals and awards. Morcy was wounded in the Battle of Dukla. Morcy is a judge in the district court here. He is an “Untersuchungsrichter.” He interrogates those who collaborated with the Gestapo. We have a completely furnished apartment, which was left by the Germans and is owned by the state. Perhaps we will get to own it. As to our belongings in Chust, there was nothing left. I returned from the Lager [camp] with one dress. Slowly, we are acquiring some things. One learns that one can live in one dress a whole year. . . .

We have suffered too much because of our ancestry and do not want to start hiding again.

We are not feeling too comfortable because fascism has left its traces here, and our ancestry cannot be hidden. Where could one hide better? We changed our names – if we were not as old as we are, we would go to [illegible]. We have suffered too much because of our ancestry and do not want to start hiding again.

New Child, New Life, New Hope: Karlovy Vary, 1949

Who can tell the toll that these experiences really took on the survivors? They went on, they coped, they rebuilt their lives. But were they ever truly “liberated” from their past?

Warsaw Ghetto Uprising commander Yitzhak Zuckerman (“Antek”) survived the war and became one of the founders of Kibbutz Lohamei HaGeta’ot (Ghetto Fighters’ Kibbutz). After meeting him, Leonard Fein recalled, “I’d been told he was an anguished man, but if there was evidence of that I did not notice it. Yet I understood when he told an interviewer, ‘If you could lick my heart, it would poison you.’”

About the Author
Jim Wald is a professor at Hampshire College, where he teaches modern European cultural history, including the history of antisemitism and fascism, and the history of the book.
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