Too many of us have heard firsthand of the horrors our parents (grand or great-grandparents) endured in their younger years, yet the reality remains impossible to grasp or fathom.
A recent poll reveals, shockingly, that two-thirds of millenials and four out of ten American adults are unfamiliar with the Holocaust or claim to have never heard of it. It is incumbent upon us, the children of Holocaust survivors, to perpetuate their memory and make certain the world will never forget.
I find myself transported back in time as I immerse myself in tender memories of treasured moments I spent with my mom (Sara bas Ben Zion, a”h). Not that I’d ever fully appreciated then how precious those times were (do any of us ever really?).
My mother and her sister, two years her senior, were as close as sisters could be; each eerily left this world behind on Shabbos Mevorchim Shevat (two years apart).
With patience and gentle prodding, I’d managed to assemble bits and pieces of an intricate puzzle depicting their incredible ordeal that began when one sister was merely nineteen (my mother, called Suri), and the other an innocent twenty-one (my aunt, known as Gitu).
My mother, the youngest of five children, was especially adored by her father. She would reminisce about how she loved to quietly linger in his study and listen to his soft melodious voice as he studied the holy scriptures. Enveloped by the warmth of the room’s atmosphere, she would scan the vast array of sefarim that lined the shelves. When her father would ask her for a sefer, she would lovingly oblige, knowing just where to find it. His smile would melt her heart.
It was she who’d inherited her father’s ear for music and, as a little girl, delighted her family by accompanying his magnificent renditions of zemiros at the Shabbos table. My zeida, Reb Ben Zion Harnik, was a chazzan, a teacher of chazzanus, as well as a shochet. Theirs was an idyllic life in the picturesque town of Reteag, Romania, in the Transylvania region.
When Peri, an older married sister who lived a distance away, needed help with a newborn, my mom was elected to go. Things were especially difficult as the young father had been conscripted into the Hungarian forced labor camp, leaving his wife, a kimpeturin, to mind their infant and grocery outlet by herself.
It was spring of 1944 when armed SS guards showed up at their door to inform the two hapless young women that they were to pack – nothing more than their hands could carry – for they were going “to work.” The filled-to-capacity bus they were made to board took off for the ghetto of Kolosvar, where they would spend several anxiety-ridden weeks housed in tents under squalid conditions, before being herded like cattle into overcrowded train cars.
The duration of that ride was endless. The stench of human sweat and waste mingled with the tears of young and old, making it torturous to simply breathe. As they disembarked, Suri and Peri clung to one another. Suri had her infant niece in her arms as they clutched their meager belongings.
A lively band greeted them, along with the large infamous banner that screamed “Arbeit Macht Frei.” They dared entertain a sliver of hope that this was but a temporary sojourn and they’d soon find themselves back home – wishful thinking short-lived as the notorious, evil Dr. Mengele, stick in hand, flanked by armed Nazis with dogs, barked orders at his captives.
When Suri was commanded to hand the baby over to Peri, they cried and begged not to be separated. Their anguish and tears were for naught; one was told to go left, the other ordered to go right. One sister perished in the gas chambers, the other survived.
The holding pens in Auschwitz had been filling up, what with packed cattle car transports arriving daily. Unbeknownst to Suri, her sister Gitu had arrived before her. My aunt had described to me the nightmarish scene that unfolded at their home during the time Suri was away helping Peri.
My maternal grandparents and family resided in a courtyard-like setting that also housed their shul, the home of the shammes and a couple of close-knit community members. They’d lived in morbid fear of late, as the winds of war howled ominously. Word traveled quickly of the harrowing events transpiring in neighboring cities. Gitu recalled how their father, our revered zeida, had risked his life to fulfill his calling as the town’s shochet, of how he’d climb into a waiting wagon under the cover of darkness, his beard concealed by a handkerchief to reduce his chances of being stopped by the resha’im.
Any rapping on their door was unnerving. Gitu would run and hide beneath her father’s heavy winter fur coat, traumatized by a recent distressing episode. SS guards had come to their home, demanding the keys to their shul. Gitu was elected to guide them to the house of the shammes across the courtyard. They then proceeded to the shul together, where the shammes was ordered to open its doors. Gitu was then ordered to return home.
The shammes had never emerged. Following the scuffle and screams heard echoing through the terrifying stillness, no one had dared step foot outdoors that night. At the break of daylight, the shaken men of the community made a gruesome discovery: the bullet-riddled body of the shammes had been callously tossed into the brook that ran beneath the bridge of their once tranquil village.
A mortified young Gitu, beset by guilt at having led the poor shammes to his demise, was consoled with the reasoning that this worthy Jewish soul had merited a proper burial, whereas who knew what lay ahead for those already deported.
The beleaguered families soon moved out of their homes, abandoning the courtyard and their sacred shul. Pesach was cautiously celebrated with families of a nearby area, but even that refuge was all too brief. Before long, they were herded with their belongings and taken to the central ghetto of Daijh, where each moment was spent not knowing what the next would bring.
Their worst fears were realized when Gitu and her mother were brusquely separated from their beloved father/husband. Taken in different directions, they were led to the trains that would transport some on their final journey. Women were methodically stripped of their visible finery and jewelry. Earrings were ripped from ears, chains seized, watches confiscated, and human dignity was mercilessly trampled.
Just as Gitu anxiously voiced her concern for the welfare of her younger sister Suri, mother and daughter suddenly found themselves being forcefully separated. Gitu ran back to her mother and was pulled away. She returned twice more to cling hopelessly to the woman who had given her life. Her frantic attempts were thwarted, and in a flash her mother was gone. Never to be seen again. Once more Gitu was overcome with guilt – this time at having spent the last precious moments with her mom tormenting her about her sister.
They spilled out of the cattle cars bewildered and disheveled, with facial expressions reflecting the fear and torture they’d endured on their grim journey. Following days of grotesque confinement under unbearably excruciating and inhumane conditions, they could hardly straighten their painfully bent forms. Above the din of the music (a deliberate ploy by the Nazis to confuse their captives), the newly arrived could not discern the shouting and wild hand waving from behind the barbed wire fence.
My mother had recalled the thought that raced through her mind at the time: this must be where the mentally unstable are kept. As she beheld the frenzied gesturing of bald-headed figures in ill-fitting smocks that hung limply from frighteningly thin frames, what other conclusion was there to reach?
Little did she dream that one of those “crazies” was her sister, Gitu – who just weeks earlier had relayed by phone the dreadful news that their father, the respected baal tefilah and shochet, had shaved his beard following the savage murder of their poor shammes. (While away by Peri, Suri had called home from a public phone to check on the welfare of their family.)
Ever since her incarceration in Auschwitz began, my aunt Gitu, along with several other girls from her hometown, had frantically searched each new transport for her younger sister. Their daily vigil finally paid off. Though Suri, caught in a massive human sea of confusion, failed to spot her sister, Gitu was resolute in getting her sister into her bunk.
Each bunkhouse housed fifteen girls, divided into groups of five. In a maneuver orchestrated by sheer guts and resolve, one group member had voluntarily and bravely swapped places with Suri who had been assigned to different barracks. The lightning-quick exchange took place in a packed bathhouse. When the two sisters were tearfully reunited, Suri woefully realized that she had now joined the ranks of those “deranged” people behind the wire fence. The two young orphans brought each other up to date, shared their grief, and protected one another with a fierce devotion.
As she pensively recalled that long-ago time, my aunt Gitu raised her hand to her cheek, as if still reeling from the force of the stinging slap she was dealt for defying the rules when she once turned her head to check on her younger sibling in line behind her.
My mom, in turn, had recounted how once during roll call she’d felt her knees buckling, almost passing out from hunger. Gitu, who’d kept a constant watch on her sibling two years her junior, had held her up and frantically pinched some color into her sister’s cheeks so that her paleness would go unnoticed by their vicious taskmaster. (They’d subsisted on a daily ration of stale bread the size of a sugar cube, and some tasteless watery soup.)
Unaware of the circumstances surrounding their other family members, they’d badgered their female guard about the whereabouts of their parents. Their overseer, thick-skinned and nearly as cold-blooded as their captors, finally pointed to the distant chimneys and the bellowing smoke emanating from them. “There they are! What’s left of them is what you see and smell drifting to the skies!” she spat.
It is, indeed, nothing short of miraculous that those who’d undergone such inconceivable horrors returned and summoned the pluck and wherewithal to gather the remnants, to claim their rightful heritage and resume productive lives. These two courageous survivors leaned on each other for the duration of the war, gleaned chizuk from one another during unbearable moments, and wept together as time lay bare the harsh realization of the cruel fate suffered by their beloved parents and married sisters with their babies.
Despite being dragged through the gutter for endless months, their steadfast emunah never wavered, nor did they ever dream of abandoning their Torah lifestyle. To their eternal credit and our gain, they imparted their ageless insight, timeless class and elegance and precious legacy to their children and grandchildren.
This past Shavuos, as I lit the yahrtzeit candles commemorating 74 years since the tragic demise of my (maternal and paternal) grandparents and extended families in the ovens of Auschwitz – grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins I was deprived of ever knowing, I humbly beseeched my Creator to help me realize the fulfillment of the hopes and dreams of our beloved, heroic ancestors and do them and the Ribono Shel Olam proud. Zecher Kedoshim l’vracha.