What’s It Like to Discuss the Holocaust With a Survivor?

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June 19 2014 10:55 AM

What’s It Like to Discuss the Holocaust With a Survivor? 

This question originally appeared on Quora.

Answer by Joshua Kaplan:

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I am an Orthodox Jewish guy, so as you can imagine, I have met many Holocaust survivors over the years. Until I got married, however, I did not get to actually discuss with any of them their personal Holocaust stories in a detailed way. I do have lots and lots of relatives who did experience the Holocaust, but those relatives did not survive. The first time I did actually have the opportunity to have a discussion with a survivor was when I got married.

My wife's (maternal) grandfather is an Auschwitz survivor. When we were first married, being young and insensitive, I used to bring up the topic and talk to him about his experiences, and it appeared he did not have any qualms talking about it. One day, one of my uncles approached me and explained to me that being the sweetest guy in the world, my grandfather would talk to anyone about anything, but I should be aware that on a day he talks about his experiences, he will wake up with nightmares that night.

Originally, I thought this was strange, as my mother-in-law had told us lots of stories about his time in Auschwitz, and she never mentioned that it had such an effect on him. Additionally, I had heard that in times past he had the custom to describe his whole story every year at the Passover seder. (This is actually common of survivors—describing their own personal exoduses from slavery to freedom.) So I asked my mother-in-law about this, and she explained that when he was younger, he was able to talk about it without having nightmares. Interestingly enough, the nightmares had started again at the time that Germany was reunified and the Berlin Wall came down. Seeing Germany standing tall once again was seemingly too much to bear for someone who had seen most of his family slaughtered by that very nation. Obviously, I felt horrible and stopped bringing up the topic at this point.

About 10 years after we were married, my grandfather came to visit for a weekend. The weekend that he came happened to be around the anniversary of his arriving at Auschwitz and the murder of many of his family members. (Actually it is the approximate anniversary—or yahrtzeit—as the exact date they were murdered is not certain. He commemorates the yahrtzeit on the day they arrived in Auschwitz.) We were walking home from synagogue on Saturday morning when he suddenly began saying his story. It was as if he was transported to another world. He spoke quietly—we had to lean in closely to hear him. He had a far away look in his eyes as if he was not seeing the world around him. When he took a momentary break from talking to catch his breath and someone asked him a question, he didn't hear it. It was as if he was transported back to that hellish world that was Auschwitz. That may sound melodramatic, but that is an accurate description.

This is how he explained his welcome to that hell on Earth called Auschwitz:

He was about 12 years old when the Holocaust reached his part of Europe (Slovakia). A few short months later he and his family were deported. No one on the transport (including the adults) were aware of their destination, but rather thought they were being resettled somewhere else.

Traditionally, a Jewish boy begins wearing tefillin by his bar mitzvah at 13 years of age, but even though he was a few months short of that, his father gave him a pair before they were deported. He explained that as they were relocating to an unknown place, there was no way of knowing if they would be able to get ahold of a pair there, so it would be worthwhile to take along one for his bar mitzvah. That bit of thoughtfulness unknowingly saved his life.

The traveled for a few days in a rail car designed for transporting cattle. They were crammed inside, and there was only standing room. There was very little air in the car, and the only food they had was whatever bread his mother had thought to bring along for "the trip."

They arrived at Auschwitz in the middle of the night. As soon as the door to the cattle car was opened, his senses were assaulted by the sounds of dogs (both human and canine) screaming and barking, the sight of SS officers dressed in black and prisoners that he described as appearing lifeless aside from the fact they were actually walking around, and by the a strong stench that he had never experienced before.

After tumbling out of the cattle car, they spent a few minutes trying to get their bearings. While standing there, he remembered that he had left his tefillin behind in the cattle car and went to retrieve them. While in the car, a woman came over to him and told him: "When they ask you how old you are, say 16." He had no clue what she was talking about. Who would ask? And why should he lie?

A few minutes later, at the behest of the SS officers, the large group (he said it numbered in the thousands) was separated by gender (though small children went with their mothers). Grandfather and his father and four older brothers went with the men, while his mother and four younger siblings (two boys and two girls) went with the women. He said goodbye to them thinking he would be seeing them later after settling in to their bunks.

After being whipped (literally) into a single-file line, each of the prisoners was made to stand in front of a doctor. (He says he believes it was the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele but cannot be sure.) When Grandfather's turn came, he was asked his age. Remembering the advice of the woman on the train to lie about his age, he did. But in his confused state, he answered 18 instead of 16. The doctor looked at him skeptically and said he did not believe him, so he said he meant 16. The doctor asked him for his birth year to see if he would fumble and he really could not answer the question. Luckily a man behind him whispered "1928," and he answered the doctor correctly. He was sent to the the right as were his father and two of his brothers. The remaining two of his older brothers were sent to the left. At that point he did not understand the implications of that flick of the finger but rather thought that those being sent to the right would be sent to labor of some sort, and those sent to the left, being either too young or weak to work, would be left alone. As a matter of fact, he said he was a bit annoyed at himself for obeying that strange woman's advice. Those sent to the left were marched off never to be seen again.

Two days later, he was still trying to determine the whereabouts of his six siblings and his mother who had been separated from him. While asking around, someone pointed out to him the tall chimneys spewing smoke into the sky and and asked him what he thought the smoke was. He replied that he thought it was some sort of factory that was part of the camp. "No," the man replied. "That is your mother."

And then he understood.

When he finished talking, he looked at my children and said: "At the time of my bar mitzvah, I was in Auschwitz, and did not dream I would survive. Now, look! I have more than 75 children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren!" (That was then; now he has more than 100.) "More than 10 for every one they murdered!"

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