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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 IV August 20, 2010

This is the fourth 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 and Only the First Four Hurt: Part III...slf

My Uncle Irving has a habit.  When he tells a story he sometimes breaks into a wide grin. And a slight chuckle.  His narration continues but within seconds his face goes distorted, his voice cracks and he breaks down into sobs while delivering some sordid twist to the tale he is telling.  At this point, the narration stops and he hangs his head, shoulders heaving with sobs.  This is a habit I witnessed numerous times while documenting his story…slf

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After Mauthausen I was taken to another camp – Gusen II.  This was a real work camp.  A camp where people were sent to different kinds of factories and were given jobs.  It was very serious.  First they took me to – I have no idea what the factory was but it was underground and there were real big pieces of wood – trees – that we had to move from one place to another.  They brought them in with trucks and we had to move them.

One time a big piece of lumber fell off the truck and I got hit by it, I think in the head, and fell over.  After that they decided I was too weak to do that work anymore.  So they took me to a place where we had to fill up small wagons the size of cars with broken stones.  The wagons sat on train tracks.  Somebody would push the cars away and when they brought back the empties we’d fill them again.  What they did with it I have no idea.

Between all these things, something happened every day.  People got killed, people got close to the fence and were shot or electrocuted, people committed suicide by throwing themselves onto the electric fence.

Something, indeed, happened every day at the Gusen Camps.  Gusen I, II and III, three of 49 Mauthausen, Austria sub-Camps, came to be recognized as particularly tortuous.  “Compared to Gusen,” one historian commented “the other camps were paradise.” Scores of children in Gusen were “euthanized” by lethal injection to the heart and the elderly and ill were put to painful, slow death by being forced underneath pummeling, freezing cold shower water in freezing cold temperaturesThe main focus of Gusen labor centered around mining stone quarries.

The inmates’ nickname for Gusen II:  “The Hell of hells”

I remember it was very snowy and cold.  That was winter.  We would stand out there for hours in our pajamas  and wait for them to count us. And people got beaten up for all kinds of reasons.

I had no friends. No people I talked with or anything like that. It didn’t work that way.  We were all trapped in our own private worlds. Everybody was out to save his own life and to survive.  There are a lot of things I didn’t tell you because I wanted to block them out.  There are so many stories that I could tell you….

In Guzen II they had a latrine for the whole camp.  For everyone.  It was a long toilet where you sit on a wooden plank that has holes.  You sit there to do what you need to do.  It was walking distance from the barracks – a 5-10-minute walk.

One night in middle of night – I didn’t know it but they knew it.  I guess I was sort of sleep walking .. I went to make pee pee and I couldn’t make it.  So I must have made in my pants.

The next day, they called me – the Kapo to the Schreiber’s office at the end of the barracks. I didn’t understand the language. But they had decided I would get 24 lashes with a stick.  I asked: “For what?  What did I do?”  It was because I made in my pants in the middle of the night. And I didn’t even know I had done it.

In case you ever have to get 24 lashes with a stick….

my Uncle looked me straight in the eye and then grinned and chuckled.  It was his habit.

Only the first four hurt.  After that you feel nothing.  I fainted.

His head bowed and shoulders heaving with sobs, he paused for a few minutes.  His sobs audible, he wiped at streaming tears with a table napkin.  A few minutes later, he resumed.

You lie naked and they hit you on your toochas.  They don’t hurry.  They take their time.  And you faint. And you can’t sit down for a week.

So many things happen in the camp that you black out.  Certain things I remember but I’ve blacked out a lot of things. I remember standing in line and every third or fourth person is getting shot and I happen to not be the third or fourth person.

I remember that people who couldn’t work or who got too weak were put into a room at the end of the barracks – it was a long barracks.  The room was closed and it was for people who couldn’t work or stand up anymore. Once a day they came with a wagon pushed by two people and they carried the people away to the crematorium while they were still alive.

Everybody knew that if you were put into this room, that’s the end.

One day I got an infection – I don’t remember exactly when this was – and it was on my inner ankle and it was very bad.  It was getting worse and worse.  It wasn’t painful but there was no way to treat it.  So you just ignored it.  Every time they talked or decided what to do with me I had no way of knowing what was going on because I didn’t know the language.

But they decided I couldn’t work anymore with my foot the way it was and they put me into that room.  It was a closed room with a wooden slide that went directly down to the wagon that takes you away.  I don’t know if they wanted to scare me or send me to the crematorium but I was there for half a day.  At the time you don’t even care.  That’s what they’re doing so you do what you have to do.

After half a day they took me out of there to a place where you get bandaged.

A long time later, after I got home I thought to myself: I was so close so many times. Why was it that so many times I got out at the last minute?  I can’t remember everything.

 

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.”

 

Dedicating Life in the Aftermath of Death January 12, 2010

The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie – deliberate, contrived and dishonest – but the myth, persistent, persuasive and unrealisticJohn F. Kennedy

I spent last Saturday in Nablus.  Not the prettified city in the link here but a small outlying village perched on a hillside right below Elon Moreh settlement. Elon Moreh is where, according to the Old Testament, God told Abraham he was giving “your descendants this land”.  It’s why the Jewish settlers are there, for the most part, and it’s down the road from Yasuf Village, recently in the headlines when settlers set fire to the local mosque and burned holy books.

But I digress.

I went to the area with an Israeli  who, after his son was killed in Lebanon, chose to dedicate his life to fostering understanding between Israelis & Palestinians.  He works on projects like bringing Palestinian kids who have merely read about seashores to Tel Aviv’s beach – a half hour’s drive from their village.  He hires clowns and entertainers for village events,  helps re-plant old growth olive trees uprooted by…you know who… and this weekend, he dedicated a new playground built to replace the previous one destroyed by …you know.

To get to the village,  we had to pass through three Israeli army checkpoints and sign a waiver. But it was a feel-good day and upwards of a hundred children, teens and Palestinian official types were there.  I wasn’t nervous about violence.

After being there, the closest thing I can draw a comparison with in  U.S. terms is  inner city projects – just a lot greener and minus the dealers and drive-bys.  The village countryside is beautiful – lush green,  graduated craggy hills characteristic of this part of the world, olive groves stretching forever and partially built skeletons of homes awaiting further construction.

And yet, basic infrastructure was lacking.  Trash was strewn by the roadsides and along the hills and raw sewage streamed between olive tree rows.  As we approached, children swarmed, touched, patted, fired questions in Arabic and stared unabashedly, taking in every utterance and movement.   Allah help me had I pulled a stick of gum from my backpack.  Unless, of course, there had been enough to go around to all 4 dozen kids.

The dedication itself was run-of-the-mill:  Clap clap.  Smiles all around.  Hand shaking.  Photo opp.

What’s interesting is the response I got when relaying my plans for the day to friends.     It’s been the same response for more than a decade whenever I announce I’ll be going into the West Bank or Gaza. That is, unless I’m talking to a journalist. “Why are you going there?  Did you lose something?  Aren’t you afraid?  It’s dangerous!  Are you crazy?”

I won’t downplay the serious nature of the political conflict nor will I make light of terrifying lynchings Israelis have fallen prey to in Palestinian areas.  But most people on the Israel side of the Green Line haven’t crossed to the other side unless they’ve served there in the military or they’re journalists, settlers or peace activists.   Ditto vis-a-vis Palestinians coming to the Israeli side of the line.

Both populations get most of their information about “the other” from what they see on the news:  often frightening and violent depictions.  Mainstreamers on both sides are scared and have no idea what life looks like “over there” beyond the lenses of extremism, suicide missions, military uniforms, rocket launches and bombing campaigns.


My strong sense after visiting this weekend is that there’s not a hope in hell for working anything out in the long-term between the parties until getting to know “the other” and moving beyond “Arab terrorists” and “military occupying Jews” stereotypes.

And for the record, I’m not trivializing the pain or suffering others have endured nor am I lightly suggesting a kumbaya-live-in-love-and-harmony approach.  There’s no easy fix and it may never happen.

But I figure if the Israeli who devoted his life to reaching out can do it after his loss. . .

 

Quotes of the Week. . . January 22, 2009

My parents back in Philly were freaking out.  I talked to my mom for the first time in three weeks today.  It was very traumatic.  But it’s over and my prayers were answered.  All I kept asking God for was to be able to see my parents again. . .U.S.-born soldier serving in Gaza since the start of Israel’s Operation Cast Lead

Mom, you’re the best most wonderful mom in the whole world.  I’d give you a shekel just to prove it but I don’t want to waste the money. . .My 7-year-old son

What happened to the good old days when you could kill people and dispose of the bodies in a field and nobody had to know anything?  Now you have to fill out paperwork, file reports and account for every single dead person!  God!  . . .Anonymous person in Tel Aviv cafe

We heard some stories in Gaza about miracles that made me think: The messiah is here.  It’s time.  It’s finally time.  The messiah has come. . .Israeli soldier at Gaza military base

“My daughters, they killed them, Oh Lord. God, God, God.”. . .Gaza physician, Dr. Izeldeen Abuelaish sobbing during a phone interview following the deaths of his three daughters and a niece after an Israeli army shell penetrated the wall of their home.

“I think this broadcast will change public opinion in Israel. . .It feels to me as if some of our audience is seeing and hearing about the high price ordinary Palestinians are paying in this conflict for the first time.”. . . Israeli television journalist Alon Ben David in an interview with the BBC after airing Dr. Izeldeen Abuelaish’s anguished phone call.