“After your speech, I wanted to write an email to my parents summing up the two hours you spoke with us. How do I present the many details, but make it so they would read it, not skim or skip to the end? I couldn’t include too much because it would be too long. I realized that must be how you feel every time you tell your story.
If you tell too much the listeners eventually zone out, check their phones, chip their nails, or watch the clock. Not because they don’t care, but because it’s hard for our generation to sit still. But how can you tell your full story in only two hours? Even in three days?
Besides thanking you for the most incredible two hours, I want to apologize on behalf of my generation – those who came late, those who didn’t bring money to buy your book (more important than any textbook), those who didn’t shake your hand after you finished speaking, and those (myself included) who won’t be able to fully recount your story because we will miss important details or forget over time.
You have probably been told a million times how special you are, but I’ll be the million and first. When you held my hand that extra moment and told me to share your story, I started crying. You inspired me.
My three roommates, all students from comfortable backgrounds (with simple worries about money, clothes, and school), discussed your story for over an hour. No one checked their phone or paused to look at Facebook. We just sat around our kitchen table talked, cried, and laughed. Your words go further than your speeches… thank you. I will never forget you.”
– From an overseas Tel Aviv University student
Leah Kaufman, a child survivor, survived because of G-d’s miracles. She survived a death march, scavenged for food, looked for shelter, hid out in the forests, posed as a Christian orphan, was betrayed by a fellow Jew and sent to Pechora in Transnistria, where very few survived. She witnessed the death of her entire family one by one. And so much more.
In 1948, the Canadian Jewish Congress sent 16-year-old Leah to Calgary to be fostered by a Jewish family. They family did not begin to understand the horror she had suffered and told her not to tell macabre stories. Thus, Leah was silent for the next fifty years.
The atrocities that took place during the Holocaust were so enormous that mere words could not possibly convey the experience. Survivors can’t forget what they lost. Leah was only nine years old when, one Shabbos morning, her family – two parents and seven children – was lined up to be shot and miraculously escaped. Her mother, Bracha, the last of Leah’s chassidish family to die, continually obligated Leah to “Live. Remember. Tell The World” (also the title of her book, dedicated to her mother’s memory).
When Leah arrived in Canada, she immersed herself in her studies. Even though she had missed eight formative years of education, and lived through hell, she eventually earned a Masters in Education from Concordia University. Leah was hired by a Jewish day school and became a devoted and beloved teacher. She taught Judaism, Hebrew, and Yiddish. After 10 years, the school introduced Holocaust studies into the curriculum. At that point, Leah had never told anyone, not even her own three sons, that she was a survivor.
“I simply broke down the first few times I tried to prepare the Holocaust curriculum. Slowly, I trained myself to teach this subject by distancing myself from whom I was – a survivor. It was extremely difficult to do; nonetheless, keeping my identity hidden was a good thing in retrospect. Otherwise, I would have become the focus, either as a ‘hero’ or a ‘victim,’ without doing justice to the many children, their agony and their memory.”
Until one day it slipped out. As Montreal was home to many survivors, the school had a yearly assembly about the Holocaust. The children wore yellow stars and lit candles in memory of lost neshamot. Leah participated, but refused to wear a star or be actively involved. One year, a student asked her, “Morah Leah, why don’t you also wear a yellow star?”
“Because, I already did.” The shock reverberated through the class.
“Right. You’re just kidding about the yellow star?”
“I would never kid about such a thing.” The secret was out. And the children’s behavior changed. They became careful and protective of her.
Giselle Tamler a”h, like Leah, lived in Canada and was also from Hertsa, Romania. Being much older, she had been married when the Jews were forced on the death march. Since Hertsa had been taken over by Russia before the war, Leah had become proficient in Russian, as well as Romanian, Ukrainian, Hebrew and Yiddish, and then German. The death march was to Transnistria, a Ukrainian province which Hitler had granted Antonescu, the Romanian dictator, permission to use for ghettos and death camps. Few survived the hell of Transnistria; Leah and Giselle were among the survivors.
For two years, Giselle incessantly called Leah, insisting that she speak up. “She harassed me. She kept on telling me that by not speaking I was a Holocaust denier. And she was right. When the Holocaust deniers became more vocal, we all had to come out.”
At that time, Yehudi Lindeman, a professor of Literature at McGill University, was arranging meetings to allow hidden child survivors to tell their story. When Leah came to the first meeting, she was astonished to see a room filled with half of the parents of her students and many other members of the community. There were lawyers, doctors, all highly educated and accomplished who hadn’t known of each other’s hidden identity. Professor Lindeman himself had survived as a young child hidden in Holland.
Leah started to speak and spoke to her listeners’ hearts.
“When I spoke to children, I would tell them about the children of the Holocaust, and they knew I would only tell them the truth. I would also use the powerful text I Never Saw Another Butterfly, Children’s Drawings and Poems from the Terezinstadt Concentration Camp, 1942-1944.
“Once, in a classroom, one of the children handed me a slim pictorial book, Where is Willy? Even though I had never seen it before, I agreed to read it to them.
“On the first page, Willy is seen sitting with his family, his parents and his sister. ‘Willy is happy at home,’ read the text.
“On the next page, Willy is sitting in a classroom wearing a yellow star. ‘Willy is not happy.’
“Then, on page three, Willy is behind gates in the Warsaw Ghetto. His sister is on the ground, both are hardly alive, and death is all around them. Willy is trying to put some food into her mouth.
“The last page is blank. The children were horrified. They cried out in unison: ‘Where is Willy?’ I could not answer them. I said: ‘Class, you tell me: Where is Willy?’
They broke out weeping. The principal asked me: ‘What have you done to your class?’ I told them about a child, just one.