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Only The First Four Hurt: Part V October 3, 2010

This is the fifth part in a series documenting my Uncle Irving’s account of his personal and family history during and after the Holocaust.  Previous entries include Only the First Four Hurt , Only the First Four Hurt: Part II, Only the First Four Hurt: Part III and Only the First Four Hurt: Part IV..slf

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We had bunks and I don’t remember who was next to me or who was my neighbor. We were all in our private worlds.  Trying to survive.  That’s what we thought about all day long.

I remember one guy who was with me in Auschwitz from the town I came from.  I didn’t even know he was there in the camp.   But he must’ve known that I was there because one day — we each got a small piece of bread every day to eat.  It wasn’t really bread.  It was made of sawdust.  Every person got half a loaf of those sawdust breads every day –  A few months into being in the camp this man from my town came to me with half a loaf and said:  ‘Take this. I can’t eat anymore.  Maybe it’ll help you.’  Maybe he knew something I didn’t.  I never saw him again.

There are a lot of things you try to push away.

Irving’s face crumbled.  He bowed his head and with shoulders heaving with sobs, he divulged:

All these years I tried to black all this out.  For me it was natural.  That’s why I’m breaking down now. For me it was always natural.

He continued sobbing quietly.  And then he wiped his face with one of the white, paper napkins on the table and pressed on:

Things continued like that until February 1945.  The Russians were coming close to the camp.  Of course we didn’t know that.  But the Germans decided to clear out the camp and sent us marching.  I don’t know how many days we marched in the snow and rain without food.  But if anyone fell, they were shot dead on the spot.

Irving was referring to the death marches.  As Russian troops advanced from the East and U.S./British troops approached from the West, a panicked German army attempted to clear out concentration camps and “erase evidence” of the atrocities committed within by marching camp prisoners to remote locations. Lacking food, water or insulation from the freezing cold, scores of already weakened and ill prisoners died en route.

After walking many days without food or water we got to a camp.  It wasn’t a camp but that’s what they called it.  It was a forest called Gunzkrhin.  And I remember that when we walked into this forest area, dead bodies were piled one on top of each other as high as a building.

I fainted.  And from that point I don’t remember any more until…I have no idea how long I was unconscious but it must have been a very long time.  The next thing I remember is that one day  the army – the SS army – came in and they were passing out food.  Gift packages to everybody with drinks and food and bread and chocolate and I don’t remember what else.

Nobody could believe they were doing that.  We thought they just wanted to bribe us before killing us.  The Red Cross came in the same day to see how they were treating the prisoners.  Then it was clear why they were feeding us.

I don’t remember if I ate anything but I lost consciousness again.  I do remember that whoever stayed alive….

Irving trailed off here…crying quietly.

Most people died.  There were only a few hundred of us left that were even able to move anymore.

The next thing I remember is that the Germans disappeared.  People were laughing and screaming, saying that the Americans had come.  I was in and out of consciousness.  But I remember them yelling and screaming that the Americans had liberated us.

The Americans were passing out food and feeding people.  But whoever ate dropped dead.  I wasn’t strong enough to eat or get up onto my feet. I guess I was just lying on the ground. I was lucky.

When liberating concentration camp survivors, unknowing soldiers offered food to the starving victims.  The sudden onslaught of solid nourishment was such an overwhelming shock to survivors’ systems that many died of “food overdose”.

I remember the American soldiers had taken SS as P.O.W.’s  and they were helping to feed us.  After people died from the food, they sent SS people with porridge and very light food to eat.  I was there for two days.

Then I was taken to a sanitorium in Lindz, Austria at an American army camp. I was unconscious and I woke up in the sanitorium a month or maybe a few weeks later.  I don’t have an exact recollection of time but at the beginning May or something similar, they took me to a recovery place.  That’s when I got my mental faculties and consciousness back… he indicated, tapping his head.

We were there until they got ready to send people who had stayed alive off to different places.

Some of the long time of blackout from the time I was in the field to the time I was taken to the  sanitorium I was unconscious.  Sometimes today I try to remember things like the day before the Red Cross visited us when the Germans gave us those nice things. I also try not to remember other things.

But there must have been a time lapse from the time the SS left the forest to when the Americans came in.  I’ll tell you why: I was weak but I left the camp with one of the boys and found a dead horse in the town where normal Germans lived. We decided to cook the head for ourselves.  I remember this and the horse very clearly but then I don’t remember all of it.  Maybe it was a delirious nightmare.

Off to the side, my Aunt Babe had been listening.  She signaled and shook her head ‘no’.  “Hallucination” she said, looking at Irving.  “There’s no way you would have had the strength to go into town and get a horse and cook it.”

But I do remember waking up and discovering that the SS were working for the Americans. 

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Only the First Four Hurt: Part III August 8, 2010

“A week after we got there they started transporting people out of the ghetto.  They  picked a certain number of families each time to transport to Auschwitz.  We didn’t know where we were going at the time – we just knew we were going to a labor camp“… Only the First Four Hurt: Part II.

The following is Part III in an ongoing series documenting my Uncle Irving’s account of his personal and family history during and after the Holocaust. Prior entries include Only the First Four Hurt and Only the First Four Hurt: Part II. . . slf

“We were among the first transports.  About a hundred of us were forced into a train car with two sliding doors.  Space was so tight we could only stand and there was no toilet for us.  The Germans put a bucket in the train to be used by everyone.  So if you had to go, it was in front of everyone in this bucket.

“We traveled like that for two or three days – I’m not really sure how long.  It was April so it wasn’t really hot but on a sunny day on the train it could be.  We passed through towns where we’d stop to wait for other trains to pass.  I remember people watching us – town people – and everybody on the train was screaming for water.  We were so thirsty.  There was no food or water.

“We got to the final destination which was Auschwitz but at the time I didn’t know what it was or where I was.  Germans were there with whips and dogs and they were yelling and screaming for us to ‘Rush! Rush! Rush!’ to get off the train and go stand in line.

“I was with my two youngest brothers and my mother and father – there were only three of us kids at home at the time.  My four older siblings had moved to Budapest to stay with family and get an education.  I remember my father was holding my youngest brother Deszo’s hand and my mother was holding my other brother Gyorge’s arm.  He was about three or four years old.

“When the Germans formed lines, they separated me from them.  Now I know it’s because I looked older.  My relatives in Budapest were rich and they owned clothing stores and  they had sent us clothing to hide.  The anti-Jewish laws were affecting all Hungarian Jews, even in Budapest.  So they sent men’s suits to our house for us to hide in case their stores were taken away from them.  At 15, I had dressed in a man’s suit before leaving home; never in my life had I ever worn a suit like that.

“Because I was dressed in that suit I looked older and I was sent to the line for people going to the work camp.  My family was separated into the other line and sent to the crematorium. But at the time, I didn’t know where my family was going.

“They took us into Auschwitz into a camp where we got undressed and went to take a shower.  We had to undress completely and get our heads shaved and then we were issued our pajamas.  They were like striped overalls.

“The kapos in the camp weren’t German – only Polish – and I didn’t speak anything other than Hungarian.  So I asked them when I would see my parents and they pointed to the sky. We were so scared at the time that I don’t remember understanding what that meant.  I couldn’t think about it.  I was scared and shaking. It all happened very fast.

“On the first day I was taken to a barracks and there were hundreds of people inside.  But there were no children around.  And if there were, they were kept alive for medical experiments.  They didn’t leave any kids alive that they didn’t want to use for something.

“Each barrack had a Schreiber and a kapo.  A schreiber (literal translation from German: “scribe”..slf) keeps records and the kapo carries out Nazi orders.  These people weren’t Jewish.  They were Polish or from some other country the Nazis took over.  Usually they were criminals who had been given authority.  Some of them were homosexual and although I didn’t know it at the time, a few kids were spared for each barracks for the kapo and schreiber to….

Irving trailed off at this point and looked down at his hands, resting folded on the dining room table.  He resumed a moment later.

“When we got out of the wagons at the barracks and were being rounded up with whips and dogs and they yelled ‘run!’ and go here or there, 99% of the kids were gone.  Teenagers, like me, were beyond kid status.

“I remember the first night.  We fell asleep on bunk style slots that ran three to four levels high.  We were so tired from standing on the train for days that as soon as we got our clothes and went in, we went to sleep.

“The next day they gave each of us a container to be filled with soup once a day.  I didn’t want to look at the soup let alone eat it.  It wasn’t soup.  It was grass mixed with water.  I refused to eat mine that day and some of the people who had already been there for a bit were more than happy to take it from me.  They said:  ‘By tomorrow you’ll be hungry enough to eat it.’  Sure enough, after 2-3 days of not eating, I ate.

I was curious:  Did he see anyone from home?  Did he recognize anyone?

“That first day I met a guy from the neighboring town where we went to synagogue.  He was an older person, my parent’s age, in his 40’s or so.  He was the only person I knew from our area because most of the others that I remember were Polish.  But I spent a very brief time at Auschwitz – maybe three or four days.

“We basically stayed in the barracks all day long.  Once a day we went to stand in line for soup and we also got counted every day and the schreiber took note.  But I wasn’t there longer than a week.  After that they transported us to Mauthausen by truck.  It took a few hours to get there and when we arrived, we were put in the same style barracks.

“There they separated different people off into different work areas.  It was more of the same: We stood in line a few times a day to be counted.  They kept counting us to make sure nobody escaped.  I would say I was there a couple weeks and it was standing in line, getting beaten up and sometimes, randomly, they would shoot every third or fourth person in line.  Standing there you never knew if it would be you.  Or if they didn’t like the way you called out your number, they would shoot you.

“My number is 71943, by the way.  It was on a band I wore.  Most people who got there before me had tattoos.  I mean, people started coming in the 1930’s in Poland but by 1944 they didn’t have the time to burn the numbers on people’s arms anymore.  I don’t remember where we got the band but I remember my number.”

 

Risky Business February 13, 2010

I was chatting on the phone with my friend “G” the other day and the subject of his 20-year network news career came up.

How did you get started with them? I asked. 

His story was fascinating.

It was 1982 and Israel was going into Lebanon to root out the PLO. Being an elite paratrooper, I got a “Tzav 8” – it’s an emergency order for reservists calling for immediate mobilization.

At the exact same time, I was offered the chance to go into Lebanon and cover what was happening for one of the major American networks.

I was conflicted at first.  I mean, a military order is a military order.  But on the other hand, I knew that this was a huge break that wouldn’t come around again.

So I opted out of the order and went with the network.  And that’s how I started my career with them.

The irony?  After the dust cleared and I was back in Tel Aviv, I never, ever heard from the army.  It was if they’d never sent out the order.  And one of the funniest parts of it all is that while I was in Lebanon working, I SAW my unit.  They all called out to me and waved: “Hey G!” Of course, they didn’t know I’d been called up.

I was stunned by my friend’s story.  His gamble turned to gold and he has enjoyed a prestigious career that has taken him from Winter Olympics, to war in Somalia to an airlift operation that saved more than 14,000 lives to the fall of Berlin’s Wall and beyond.  He has met heads of state, international terrorists, world class artists and athletes and he has worked with the best in the business. He now languishes in retirement on a small Caribbean island.

When he relayed his tale I was reminded of Martin Fletcher, NBC News Israel correspondent of several decades who I worked with in the early 90’s.

I was always impressed by Martin’s ability to predict industry trends.  But when I read his book Breaking News I  discovered he had something in common with my friend ‘G’:  Martin took big risks that paid off.

In his book he writes that while he was stationed in South Africa, he advised editors at NY headquarters to send him into a nearby country as conflict erupted.  They refused.  He was so certain the story was cover-worthy that Fletcher went in anyway without informing his higher ups.  A short time after, entry to the country was cut off.  His editors phoned to see if there was any way he could get in.  He was already there.

I found that, too, to be remarkable.  The move could have jeopardized his career and instead it put him ahead of the game.

Internally I laugh.  My acquaintances take BIG risks.  I debate over which swimming pool membership to get.

I’d say there’s a lesson in there to be learned.

 

Lisa Meets Prince Albert October 31, 2009

Earlier this week my friend Lisa posted this as her Facebook status:

lisainviteIn deference to 5 high school years spent in Mr. Hayden’s basic and advanced French classes, I was able to decipher that:  1) Lisa was being invited to a journalism awards ceremony  2) The ceremony would take place in Monaco, and 3) Bleedin’ Prince Albert II would preside.

I phoned her straight away to get the scoop.  And found out that she would be the one getting the bleedin’ award!

Lisa wrote this piece for The Columbia Journalism Review back in May.  It’s an analysis of Israel’s media cover during the January 2009 military incursion into Gaza aka “Operation Cast Lead”.  Based upon the entry, she was chosen by the Anna Lindh Foundation to receive the 2009 Mediterranean region Journalist Award for cross cultural dialogue.

I found out totally by surprise,” Lisa disclosed. “I’m on the foundation email list and I got an announcement about the prize and my name was on it.  I squeezed my eyes and rubbed them and looked again.  I couldn’t believe it.  About ten minutes later, the head of the jury called from Rome and made it official.  He said I was the only category winner the jury had unanimously favored.

I read the CJR analysis.  It’s good, important and the issues raised surrounding Israel’s collective consciousness are critical.  The timing of the award is not to be missed: it comes as a storm brews in Israel over the UN’s Goldstone Gaza Report – a summary of Cast Lead human rights issues findings named for the person who headed the fact-finding mission into possible abuses.

Lisa told me she worked harder on the piece than anything she’s ever written.  “I wrote three drafts, interviewed a lot of people, transcribed – I spent 8 weeks on it and felt it was the best thing I’ve ever done. I thought it would ignite discussion and debate.  But it disappeared like a drop into the Pacific Ocean.  And friends told me it was boring, too dense and not my best work.  So there was certainly a worm of self-doubt after that.”

When she received news of the honor,  it was,  in her words, a moment of quiet gratification.

And deservedly so.  Talent aside, L’s good people.  We met four years ago when I returned to Israel from a long hiatus in the U.S. & I’d all but given up on journalism; burnout & cynicism had put me off the profession. A mutual acquaintance advised: “If you want back in, give Lisa Goldman a call.”      lisa

I did.  She was connected and forthcoming with phone numbers, information & advice.  We met for coffee, she hooked me up with gigs and in later years she addressed a Writer’s Group I moderate.  During our first phone talk, she offered invaluable advice: “Start a blog.  You need a blog.”

Back to this week’s award, the foundation is flying her to Monaco, the ceremony takes place at a super fancy hotel, dress is formal, there’ll be a cocktail hour & round-table discussions and of course, the Prince will preside.

“I don’t have a thing to wear!” she lamented on FB last week but has since hit the Tel Aviv boutique circuit, spending “the equivalent of a secretary’s monthly salary” on an all-black Escada number.

On the eve of flying out to rub elbows with royalty, a different worm of doubt niggles.

As an Israeli, you always wonder:   ‘Is the European jury choosing my piece because the zeitgeist is to be critical of Israel?  Previous winners have done that.  But that’s insidious and I try to push it aside. I hope and think it was chosen because it was a good analytical piece.  I wrote it because I really care and worry about this place and want it to be better.”

You are making it better, says this jury of peers.  Go. Have. Fun.  Tell Albert:  HEEEEYYYY!!!!

 

Art’s Passion August 8, 2009

For a long time I thought my overwhelming “museum feelings” were linked to certain sites or specific pieces of art.

The type of feelings that envelop with totality and without warning when viewing works of art.   

Like the time tears welled threateningly while glimpsing the Venus de Milo at the Louvre.

Or when my heart swelled wildly while touring Tutankhamun‘s tomb treasures in Cairo.

Perhaps the love affair with art began when I was in high school;  I chose French Renaissance Art as my subject for a term paper which meant spending weekends – quite willingly – in Cincinnati’s Art Museum Library conducting research.  My instinct, however, sez it started years before.

Nonetheless, I find that whenever I frequent museums or art happenings – Burning Man included – there’s usually a painting, sculpture, fixture or installation that renders me “struck”.  I get a lump in my throat and my vision goes blurry.

Yesterday’s SFMOMA visit was no exception; I was struck several times by vastly different exhibits.

Initially touring the permanent exhibits, I was quite surprised by Paul Klee early works described as “monstrous figures.”  I love Klee’s sweeping grandness and color but I was taken aback by this dark, detailed material.

Then I felt a swell of gratitude taking in originals by Dali, Diego Rivera, Magritte and Warhol.

The day, however, belonged to cutting edge fashion and portrait photographer Richard Avedon, whose career spanned 50+ years.

Avedon’s 1950’s-1960’s photos of Twiggy, Brigitte Bardot and Katharine Hepburn oozed natural beauty and starlet material.   But his image of Marilyn Monroe seemed to capture the icon’s mix of blazing sex symbol & confused nymph that would be her legacy.  THAT image presented an emotional moment for me.

Equally moving were Avedon’s images of Louis Armstrong, Igor Stravinsky, Nureyev’ “En Pointe” and Merce Cunningham who died two weeks ago.  His politicians spanned decades and worlds removed from Kissinger to Carter to Obama as Senator.  

Equally moving was the series of photographs documenting his father’s losing battle to cancer and the commissioned body of “In The American West” works portraying faces of middle America.  What a career span and what an incredible talent.

The MOMA also featured works by Georgia O’Keefe and Ansel Adams which presented yet another revelation.  Georgia didn’t do it for me.  She used to but not anymore. That’s just the way it goes, I guess.  But the Ansel Adams works spurred  awe and yet another throat lump over his Sand Dunes gelatin silver print.

After touring, I sat on the museum rooftop in the sun beside the large installations basking in the afterglow of appreciation.

Museums are magical places; I am oh-so-lucky to have the mobility, eyesight and wherewithal to visit them.

 

Iran Controversy May 18, 2009

iran

Did the Reagan campaign sign a deal with Khomeini’s Iran to delay the release of the American hostages held in Tehran until after the presidential election of 1980, thereby assuring Ronald Reagan’s election victory over President Carter?

My friend Brian Josepher (B.J.) thinks so.  Or according to his new book, that’s the case.  Brian has penned his third and most recent novel, a “faux” history of events.

The Complete and ExtraOrdinary History of the October Surprise is a faux chronicle of Iran-U.S.-CIA-Reagan-Carter-Economic downturn-Hostages, collaboration, dirty dealing, conspiracy theory, tons of info.

Mine came in the mail yesterday so I best get crackin’.  You can look at it or order following thes links here.

Congrats, B.J.!  Goodonya, mate!

 

Crying on the Job May 6, 2009

I think I committed a faux pas.  But I’m not 100% certain.

I cried during an interview.

The interviewee didn’t seem to notice – I didn’t wail or tear at my hair or anything.  My face simply went screwy and got hot and a few tears spilled over my lower eyelids.

That’s probably not something you’re supposed to do if you’re a truly professional journalist.

It happened when I was out on assignment for my Manhattanite book-author friend who I’ve been helping on his latest project.  I interview concentration camp survivors living in Israel in their Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, etc. homes asking questions e-mailed by my friend.

So far the work has been incredible:  hearing stories, witnessing two survivors compare numbered arm tattoos,  looking through old photo albums…

Spending time with survivors I realize how very privileged my life has been and how honored I am to sit with them and document their lives.

But maybe I’m hardened.  Because in all the years I have covered all sorts of stories nothing has reduced me to tears.

And there have certainly been moments.  Like interviewing a man hours before he was to attend the double funerals of his wife and daughter, both killed in a Tel Aviv suicide bombing.  Or witnessing an elderly man sitting despondently in the rubble of his just-bulldozed home.  Or sitting with an inner city teen who stared blankly into space in the aftermath of his sibling’s shooting death.  Didn’t cry.

What did it for me yesterday was a certificate.

To be exact:  The Certificate of Liberation i.e. the “Provisional Identification Card for Civilian Internee of Buchenwald.”

On April 22, 1945 the survivor I interviewed was liberated from Buchenwald Concentration Camp by the American army.  He has held onto the wallet sized, brown leather-bound document signed by American General Bertel something or other  for 64 years.  It’  states that “Herr (blank blank in the interest of privacy) was kept in captivity from 16.4.1944 to 22.4.1945 in Nazi-German concentration camps and was liberated from the concentration camp of Buchenwald.”

It blew me away to see the authentic signed military document.  I traveled in my imagination to the place and time  that document was received and imagined the officer handing it to the survivor and the incredulity on both parts.  The significance of holding onto that document for six decades struck a chord.

I know, though, that I’m not the only journalist who has ever broken down on the job.

Some years ago B.Z. Goldberg’s documentary Promises was shown in cinemas worldwide. In what was the film’s most poignant scene, Palestinian and Israeli children are shown sitting together in the West Bank living room of one child’s home after having spent the day playing, laughing and getting to know each other.  Separated by politics and army checkpoints, they live a mere 20 minutes apart but would have never met had the filmmaker not brought them together.

Suddenly, one of the Palestinian boys begins crying.

What’s wrong? director B.Z. queries.

They’ll go back to Israel today and then we’ll never see them again, the boy answers, knowing all too well the reality of his situation.

The camera then pans to B.Z. who is also crying.

I was awed by that scene because  B.Z. allowed himself to spontaneously shed tears and he kept the shot in the film.

It was nominated for Best Documentary Oscar in 2001.

So about the crying thing…I dunno.  Mypersonal jury’s still out.