My father escaped into the French countryside, assumed a gentile identity, became a farmhand, and joined the French Resistance. After the war he fulfilled his mother’s last wish, coming to America and reuniting with his sisters.
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I had always been told my grandmother died in Auschwitz, but when speaking about his mother my father would focus on the happier memories and not what must have been a horrific end. It was something we never talked about, though as was true of most Jewish children of my generation, I had read about the unimaginable horrors that went on in Auschwitz.
So I was totally dumbstruck when, as mentioned above, during a lighthearted chat about his mother’s cooking my father suddenly veered the conversation to Auschwitz and the terrors his beloved mother certainly experienced. At the time my father was frail and had little appetite. I had asked him about the favorite foods of his childhood and which of them he would most like to eat now.
To my surprise he responded with a question infused with haunting regret and fresh incredulity.
“Can you believe it? She was such a good cook and yet I made her eat ash,” he said.“Do you think she blamed me for what I did? Should I have let her die? Then she wouldn’t have gone to Auschwitz.”
Stunned by the turn in conversation, I assured him that of course he had done the right thing and besides, how could he have known what would happen to her? But to my dismay, my reassurances fell on deaf ears. He continued with his morbid monologue of what his mother certainly experienced the following summer when she was deported to Auschwitz.
“If I’d have let her die, she wouldn’t have been around when the Nazis cleared out Rivesaltes,” my father said.“I found out after the war that they had packed her into a cattle car.First she was sent to Drancy and then she was in a transport that left for Auschwitz on August 14, 1942.”
I had read many accounts of the ghastly train journeys to concentration camps; how the Nazis had packed Jewish prisoners into closed cattle cars, forcing them to stand upright for days with no food, water, or bathroom facilities.
“Can you imagine what that train must have been like for her?” my father rasped.
Desperately wanting my father to be spared these anguished thoughts but not knowing what to do, I kept silent. In the past my father had told me his mother had been transported from Rivesaltes, some 530 miles north, to the Drancy transit camp in the Paris suburbs. German records released after the war reveal she had spent just two days there before being shipped the final 930 miles east to Auschwitz.
From my reading I knew how Nazi guards with rifles and ferocious dogs ordered new arrivals to stand at the railheads for selections. In a low whisper, still in disbelief that this happened to his mother, my father continued: “They emptied the cattle cars, the young and healthy to the right, the others to the left. If you went to the right, they thought you could work, so they let you live as a slave for a while longer but when you were used up, they killed you. If you went to the left, that was it. You were a goner, they sent you to the showers.”
In a hoarse voice, my father talked of the German efficiency in processing the incoming prisoners who were not to be killed immediately, how they were forced to strip, their heads shaved, their arms tattooed.
“Can you imagine what that must have been like?” he asked. “Thankfully my mother did not have to endure that. Everyone in her transport – they were all older women – went straight to the gas chambers. There were no survivors.”