The Holocaust is “Still Happening”

Recording Song - David Lang Studio - Fun

[photo:  The Goldbergs recording He’elita for the audio book-Aug. 2018]

 

“Yeah, it makes you realize that the Holocaust wasn’t something that simply happened, but is an event that’s still happening.” (The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million, by Daniel Mendelsohn, 289)

How can the Holocaust be “still happening”?  It’s an event that took place 75 years ago.  It’s over and done with – leave it to the history books.

I cannot.  The Holocaust, for me, is alive and is “still happening.”  It’s still happening because Sam and Esther’s stories echo in my thoughts daily.

I am not alone.  There is a world of people who feel the pulse of the Holocaust in their 2019 lives.   Some have walked through the looking glass to examine their own souls in the context of a Holocaust survivor or victim’s story.   One can never go back to the “old ways” after stepping through that glass. Reality and self-understanding are spun anew.  It’s a spiritual journey into the dark matter of the world and a deep dive into one’s own soul.  But we are in the good company.

The quote at the top is from Daniel Mendelsohn’s book –The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million, published in 2006, in which he tells of his quest to discover what happened to his great Uncle Shmiel Jager, his wife and four daughters.   They were murdered by the Nazis, but Mendelsohn was obsessed with finding out how, when and where.  His journey took him across continents and like me, discovered people he could never have imagined would enter his life.  These six Mendelsohn relatives are gone, but through his book and his exploration, they are now part of the landscape of his life and the lives of his other family members.

Each searcher’s journey has a different focus, a different twist.  One such Holocaust exploration looks at the murders of family members through a journey to thirty-five Holocaust memorials, all around the world.  Victor Ripp, in Hell’s Traces: One Murdered, Two Families, Thirty-Five Holocaust Memorials, published in 2017, focuses on the death of a three-year-old boy, Aleksander Ripp, who was murdered in Auschwitz.   “What had once happened was history,” Ripp states, [b]ut it was a history that, the memorial insisted, still intruded on the present” (Ripp, 30).

Yes, Holocaust memory insists on intruding on the present, on our lives as we live our mundane existence of daily, weekly and monthly schedules. Holocaust memory brings a new way to live, to live with open hearted gratitude for my mundane existence.

I have often opined that the number six million is too big to understand and far too big to have meaning in our contemporary lives.  “One six followed by a string of zeros.  How did you feel something as flat as a number,” askes Noah Lederman in his memoir A World Erased: A Grandson’s Search for His Family’s Holocaust Secrets, published in 2017, “The number was spoken and written so often that it grew into something emotionless and digestible, a textbook statistic served up like one historical corpse.  We hardly even glanced at death tolls from the Crusades and the Inquisitions. What would happen when the liberation of the camps reached it century anniversary? How would future generations react to six million and the Holocaust?” (Lederman 55-56)

This is the six-million-dollar question – how will future generations react to Holocaust stories.  I go to sleep asking this question.  I believe that telling the stories as Lederman, Mendelsohn, Ripp (and now me), and others are telling it – brings the stories of one, two, three, six of the victims of Nazi Germany, whether they survived or were murdered in Europe, into focus for those willing to read, to listen and to feel it deeply.

This is really happening.   People are telling the stories of their family or people that they know in the most personal way – by opening up and exposing their own vulnerability.   Louise Steinman, a granddaughter of survivors went on a week-long Bearing Witness Retreat at Auschwitz-Birkenau, which brought together people of many religions to meditate, share, cry and experience each other’s pain at this most painful place on earth.  After this experience, she traveled many times to different parts of Poland seeking her grandparent’s stories and reconciliation with the Poles.  In her book, The Crooked Mirror: A Memoir of Polish-Jewish Reconciliation, she tells that someone once asked her what “kind of book about Poland” was she writing?  “Was it . . .  Poland in the past?  Contemporary Poland?   I thought for a minute, . . . The Poland in my head.” (Steinman, 211)

The past two decades have seen the publication of books, like My Soul is Filled with Joy, in which the authors open their lives and their minds to the victims’ or survivors’ stories, brining it into the 21st century.  “As the writers of this generation begin to tell these stories from their own vantage,” Ruth Franklin states in A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction, published in 2011, “they have turned Jewish literary tradition inside out. And in doing so, they demonstrate that the stories of the Holocaust remain tellable.” (Frankel 238)

Yes, we must tell the stories in a way that our children and grandchildren can welcome them into their lives – Zachor

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KURT FRANZ – THE LALKA – what ever happened to him?

Lalka Yad Vashem

“What happened to Kurt Franz – the Lalka of Treblinka – after the war?”

I have been asked this by numerous readers of my book.  I didn’t exactly know.  I knew that after Treblinka shut down, he went to Trieste, Italy and later was tried for war crimes.  But I didn’t know much more.

Here is what I have found out:

After the Treblinka uprising, the Commandant of Treblinka, Franz Stangl was fired (are we surprised?) and the Lalka took over as Commandant.  The Lalka forced the remaining Jewish prisoners and those who had been recaptured after the uprising to dismantle the entire camp and make it look like there was no Death Camp  – just a nice farm.  All remaining Jews were murdered at the end of this dismantling project, sometime in November 1943.  After Treblinka was razed to the ground, the Lalka was sent to Sobibor and from there on to Trieste in northern Italy.

It was in Trieste that he joined his SS buddies: Odilo Globocnik, the head of Operation Reinhardt; Christian Wirth, one of the doctors at the T-4 Euthanasia Program and Commandant of Belzec; Franz Stangl, the previous Commandant of Treblinka; and Erwin Lambert, the architect of the T4 Euthanasia Program and Operation Reinhardt.  They were in charge of rounding up the partisans and the Jews.  Their job was to either murder them or send them to camps such as Auschwitz, Ravensbrook or Bergen-Belsen.

See blog post:  Italy the Perfect Vacation Spot, written April 14, 2017.

https://soyouwanttowriteaholocaustbook.wordpress.com/2017/04/14/italy-the-perfect-vacation-spot/

In May of 1945, the Lalka was arrested in Austria by the Americans.  He somehow escaped and fled to Germany.  He was later re-arrested in Germany, again by the Americans.   But – get this – he was released.  [That is crazy.]  Apparently, his actions at T-4 Euthanasia Program and at the Death Camps were not known.  He went back to Dusseldorf and worked there as a construction worker and a chef (pre-war profession).

In December of 1959, he was arrested again – on “suspicion” that he was involved in war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Wonder what gave them that idea?

He was tried in Dusseldorf in 1965. Sam Goldberg was flown from New York to Washington, D.C. to give a deposition for the trail.  The whole family went.  Shlomo informed me that it was his first time on an airplane; he was 14.

On September 3, 1965, the Lalka was sentenced to life in prison for “participating in at least 900,000 murders.”[1]

He was released from prison in 1993 for ill health and died in an old age home in Wuppertal, just outside of Dusseldorf on July 4, 1998 at the age of 84.

July 4, 1998 – 54 days after our daughter Esther was born and named for her grandmother Esther Wisznia Goldberg – best revenge ever.

 

 

Sources:

Chris Webb and Michal Chocolaty, The Treblinka Death Camp: History, Biographies, Remembrance, 321-323.

WIKIPEDIA – HISTORY OF JEWS IN ITALY

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_Jews_in_Italy#Jews_during_the_Fascist_era

Holocaust Education & Archive Research Team: THE DESTRUCTION OF THE JEWS OF ITALY

http://www.holocaustresearchproject.org/nazioccupation/italianjews.html

US Holocaust Memorial Museum – Holocaust Encyclopedia: The Holocaust in Italy.

https://www.ushmm.org/learn/mapping-initiatives/geographies-of-the-holocaust/the-holocaust-in-italy

 

 

[1] Webb, Chris & Chocolaty, Michal, The Treblinka Death Camp: History, Biographies, Remembrance, 323,

Sam Goldberg – Historical Record Corrected – a little bit anyway

yad-vashem-treblinka-survivors

Back row center – the short man with a hipster scarf – is Sam Goldberg. 

This iconic picture, taken by the Soviets in 1944, shows a group of men who participated in and survived the Treblinka uprising on August 2, 1943.  This picture is in almost every book about Treblinka.  The short man in the back row with the hipster scarf is either unidentified or given the name of “Shimon Goldberg.”   Shimon Goldberg is also in the picture, but he is in the front row, second from the right, the one with his legs crossed, wearing gloves – he usually gets labeled just “Goldberg.”  

Yad Vashem has this picture in their photo archive, but they gave up and just say – Treblinka uprising survivors.  The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum does that same:

https://www.ushmm.org/research/the-center-for-advanced-holocaust-studies/miles-lerman-center-for-the-study-of-jewish-resistance/medals-of-resistance-award/treblinka-death-camp-revolt

Many books and websites, however, name the individuals in back row center as Shimon Goldberg.   One such website is the website run, in part, by Chris Webb, who has provided me with invaluable information and corrections to my book about Treblinka, as well as a couple of amazing photos found in the book.   His website – Holocaust Historical Society – is chocked full of so much information that you could write a master’s thesis on the Holocaust just from the information on this website.

https://www.holocausthistoricalsociety.org.uk/index.html

But this website had Sam labeled as Shimon in the picture and in his list of Treblinka survivors, Shmuel Goldberg’s name was missing.   So, I wrote to Chris to see if we could remedy this historical error – at least on his website.   He agreed and the mench that he is, fixed it right away.   Now the short man with the hipster scarf is identified as Shmuel Goldberg and a short biography of Sam is included in the list of survivors on the website.

https://www.holocausthistoricalsociety.org.uk/contents/treblinkadeathcamp/survivorsandescapees.html

I am grateful to Chris Webb for helping me begin to fix this historical error.

But there is more – I noticed that the website includes testimonies of Treblinka survivors.   So, I asked Chris if he would be willing to include Sam’s testimony, as it relates to Treblinka, on the website.  He said “yes.”   I am so pleased that Sam’s testimony will live on the website, along with other survivor’s testimonies.   Chris may even include some of Sam’s testimony about Treblinka in the next edition of his book – The Treblinka Death Camp: History, Biographies, Remembrance.  It will be published in 2020.

I am humbled as we begin to bring Shmuel (Sam) Goldberg into the world of Holocaust research and literature.  He is one of approximately 65 to have survived this place of horror, but was one of the fifty or so men who planned and participated in the uprising.  Perhaps most astonishing, he is one of only two people to have been brought to the camp in June of 1942 and forced to help build it  – to survive.

Remarkable, really.

Selma Wynberg Engel – Survivor of the Death Camp Sobibor Uprising – Leaves Us

Sobibor Memorial

[photo:  Sobibor memorial]

Two months and twelve days after the prisoner uprising at Treblinka, inmates at Sobibor revolted against the murderous Nazis and attempted to escape.  It was October 14, 1943.  Of the 600 inmates in the camp that day, 200 survived[1].

Sobibor was the second of the triumvirate of Operation Reinhard Death Camps built by the Nazis in Poland (Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka).  It began gassing Jews in April of 1942 (Treblinka began July 23, 1943).  Over its 18 months of operation, 165,000 humans were murdered there.[2]

One of the prisoners to escape on that day in October of 1943 was Selma Wynberg.  She died on Tuesday in East Haven, Connecticut at the age of 96.   The New York Times has a beautiful obituary in today’s paper:

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/07/obituaries/selma-engel-dead.html

After the escape, Selma married another Sobibor escapee, Chaim Engel, and together they moved to Israel in 1951 and then to America in 1957, settling in Connecticut.

You may be familiar with the 1987 movie Escape from Sobibor.  Selma’s character was played by Ellis van Maarseveen.  Also, a 2010 biography was written about Selma by Ad van Liempt, called Selma: De vrouw die Sobibor overleefde (Selma: The Woman Who Survived Sobibor); (ISBN 978-90-74274-42-5, which was made into a documentary on Dutch television (Selma is from the Netherlands).

Sadness over the loss of the survivors must spur us on to continue to tell their stories and learn from their lives.

May her memory be a blessing.

[1] Arad, Yitzchak, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka: The Operation Reinhard Death Camps, Appendix A, p. 391.

[2] Id.  Compare to Treblinka – 870,000 murdered over 13-16 months.

OY, THE GUILT – A VISIT TO THE JEWISH HERITAGE MUSEUM

Museum of Jewish Heritage - outside KIT and SZG

Sesame bagel toasted with cream cheese and pastrami lox – this is what I ate for lunch on Sunday.  As the new flavor of pastrami lox worked its magic on my taste buds, I recognized the obscene irony of sitting in this beautiful café on the second floor of New York’s Jewish Heritage Museum enjoying this hearty lunch with my husband, Shlomo.  My sense of guilt was acute.  I had just walked through the main exhibit filled with pictures of starving humans, shadows of their former selves, suffering at the hands of the Nazis.  Should I feel guilty enjoying my bagel and lox?

It was hard for me to believe, but neither Shlomo nor I had ever been to this Museum.  It is housed in a large, warehouse-looking, tan colored building in lower Manhattan, just off Battery Park.  The Museum is divided into three floors, the first floor depicts life before the Holocaust, the second floor has exhibits about the war years – 1938 – 1945, and the third floor shows life after the Shoah – divided into exhibits about Israel and the United States.  There was much thought that went into the design of the building, from a long corridor that leads to a circular space where we viewed something that looks like a memorial, to the third floor with its view of Ellis Island and its long, squat building – looking ominous, shrouded in fog.

The founders and curators of this museum had the impossible task of simplifying the complexity of what happened to the Jews during the Holocaust.  In the beginning of the exhibit, the museum emphasized that though the numbers are large, we must realize that each person murdered or each who suffered, but survived, are real people – each one, an individual with a life and a story.  In order to create an experience that conveys the enormity of what happened in a way that a museum-goer can follow, they had to simplify the history.   They did a magnificent job, given the constraints of space and time.

But it was frustrating – especially as I overheard a docent explaining that Jews in the Warsaw ghetto all went to labor camps or concentration camps.   I held back from stepping in to correct him (I really had to stop myself).  Most Jews in the Warsaw ghetto were stuffed into a train and shipped to Treblinka – the first “transport” arriving on July 23, 1942 – about a month and a half after Sam had been brought there to build the Death Camp.  Most of the remaining Jews in the Warsaw ghetto were murdered during the uprising.  You might say – no need to quibble – concentration camp, death camp – who cares what it’s called.   Well, I do.   Concentration Camps were places of cruelty and death from disease and starvation – horrible places – but they were not Death Camps, they were not Treblinka, where 870,000 people were dead 90 minutes after they stepped off the train.

And yet, it was moving to see the Treblinka uprising – August 2, 1943, proudly noted in the list of resistance attempts.  Knowing that Sam was part of this historical event when a group of Jews at Treblinka said – enough – and revolted against the murderers.   Shlomo had tears in his eyes as we stood before this engraved wall.

Museum of Jewish Heritage - resistance timeline

I feel that My Soul is Filled with Joy: A Holocaust Story helps to achieve the mission of this and other Holocaust museums – thought there is a collective story of what happened to the Jewish people in the Holocaust, we must not lose sight of each person as an individual with feelings, desires, fears – of the Germans, of separation, of loss, of the police, of injury, illness and death and of course, of not having enough food.  The telling of Sam and Esther Goldberg’s story brings the enormity of the Holocaust down to the story of two people, whose lives were forever changed on September 1, 1939.

This brings us back to my bagel and lox.   My mother-in-law, Esther would be so happy that we were eating such a delicious and hearty meal at this Holocaust Museum.   She would have told me – don’t feel guilty – eat!  She then would have insisted that I buy another bagel, wrap it in a napkin and put it in my purse for later – just in case.

[photos:  top: Nazi anti-Jewish propaganda poster; bottom – book about poisonous mushroom, and how Jews use poisonous mushrooms to kill German children.]

Museum of Jewish Heritage - Nazi propoganda

Museum of Jewish Heritgate - Poison Mushroom book.jpg 2

Two Amazing Women – Woven Into the Fabric of My Life

One day – two amazing women – Marion Blumenthal Lazan (photo on right)  and Cheryl Stern (photo on left).

These two Jewish women are from different worlds – one born in Germany before the war and the other born in New York after the war was over.  But they have impacted my life deeply and are changing the world – day by day – encounter by encounter.  They are connected – to quote the end of my book – as part of the “singular strands of the universe” that have “been woven together” in my life and in the telling of Sam and Esther’s story.

I got to visit them both yesterday!

Marion Blumenthal Lazan was under five when the war started.  In her book, Four Perfect Pebbles:  A True Story of the Holocaust, she describes her experiences from the perspective of a child – through those innocent eyes that became clouded as she lived in Westerbrook, a refugee camp in the Netherlands and then the Bergen Belsen Concentration Camp.  The book published some 20 years ago tells the world about her experiences during the war.  And she has indeed told the world – the book is translated into German, Hebrew, Japanese and other languages that I cannot recall.  There is a school in her home town in Germany named for her!  Marion, now in her 80’s, together with her husband of 65 years, Nathanial Lazan, travel the globe speaking to crowds large and small to tell the story of her childhood in Nazi Germany.  She emphasizes, among other lessons, that we all encounter hardships in life and yet, we can overcome and move beyond.

Here is a link to her website:     http://www.fourperfectpebbles.com/

I was introduced to the powerhouse that is Marion Lazan because of a chance encounter with a friend from college this past summer.   Michael Lazan was on a business trip to Seattle and asked if he could stay with us for Shabbat.  As we sat and discussed my project – My Soul is Filled with Joy – he told me about his amazing mother and her book.  I suggested that perhaps she might write an endorsement for my book and indeed, she generously agreed to do so.  When Michael told me all this, I had not yet read Four Perfect Pebbles – so I figured I better read it.

Because I love listening to books, I decided to get the book on Audible.  As I listened, I realized that this book is very special – it is indeed a book well suited for middle school and high school students – it is educational, engaging and emotional (and not too long!).   But as I finished listening, with the sound of the narrator still ringing in my ear, I realized that I had discovered the voice for My Soul is Filled with Joy.   I knew I wanted to have an audio book, but the idea of finding just the right person to narrate was daunting.  But here she was – Cheryl Stern – a captivating voice with emotion and modulation and terrific accents for the dialogue.  I knew she was the voice I wanted.   But how to find her – all I had was a name.  I sent an e-mail to Michael and asked if his mother knew how to get in touch with her narrator.  He said that it was done through the publishing company, so she did not, but kindly sent me a link to her website and it happily had an e-mail address.  I looked at her website and realized that she is an actress in New York city and has done many creative projects, bringing art, entertainment and new levels of awareness to her audiences everywhere.  In fact, she is a recurring character in the very popular series Marvelous Mrs. Maisel – she appears in episodes 4 and 5 of the new season!

Here is Cheryl’s website:   http://cherylstern.com/

I sent her an e-mail explaining how I found her, how much I loved her narration of Four Perfect Pebbles, and that I would like to discuss the possibility of her narrating my book.  She called, and we discussed the project and boom – she agreed to do it.  Conveniently, her husband Tom, is an audio producer and together they could provide a finished product.  In fact, she said, Tom is a composer and he could write some music for the opening and closing.

“Oh, no I said – I have the perfect music for the audio book.”

I explained about the song we sang to the Stys family and how I wanted the song to be used for the opening and closing, as well as smack in the middle of the book – at the point where I describe how we sang the song to the Stys family.   She loved the idea and that was that.  I am pleased to report that the audio book is complete and should be up for sale on Audible/Amazon in less than a week.  Cheryl did not disappoint.  Her narration is passionate, full of emotion and energy and the song is placed at the perfect spots.   I could not be happier to have yet another dream fulfilled.

Since I am in New York for our daughter Elisheva’s wedding – last Sunday – I knew I must meet these two women.  Yesterday morning I took the subway to mid-town, got off at Columbus Circle and walked a few blocks through the concrete jungle to a beautiful apartment building.  I was announced by the doorman and rose in the elevator to the 23rd floor.   As I entered their apartment, we hugged.  I felt a deep sense of satisfaction to meet these two people who sat for hours struggling over the Polish and Yiddish words in my book.   I have such a deep sense of gratitude for the hard work they put into the audio book and I am so happy to have them now as a part of my life.

When I left them, I walked 20 blocks down to Penn Station and took the Long Island Railroad (LIRR) to Lynbrook, where Marion and Nathanial Lazan were waiting for me.  I received the warmest welcome, as if we had known each other for many years.  As I entered their beautiful home (where my friend Michael grew up), I could tell that this was a home filled with love.  We sat for hours eating a beautiful lunch talking about her book, my book, her travels and the zillions of encounters she has had with students and adults alike – all over the world.   Nathanial showed me his lair in the basement where his computer and office sit, amongst the posters shining with gorgeous photos of Marion at various events and receiving honors.  As I sat on the LIRR heading back to Manhattan in the late afternoon, I felt that same feeling in my gut – the sense of God as the grand weaver of the strands of the universe – the same feeling that overwhelmed me as I finished writing the book.

Two remarkable women – in one day – what a lucky woman am I.

Pittsburgh – Kristallnacht of My Soul

SONY DSC

 

As I process the Pittsburg massacre, I cannot stop crying for them, for their families, and for all the Jewish People.  As I mourn our newest Jewish martyrs, I am experiencing the whiplash of a time machine.  I am thrown 80 years back, when Rose Mallinger (Z’L) was a girl of 17.  The Germans incited a massive theft, incarceration and murder of the Jews of Germany on November 9 and 10, 1938 in a program that became known as Kristallnacht, the Night of the Broken Glass.  Now, the glass windows of my soul are shattering as I watch the funeral processions each day in Pittsburg.

Shooting seems like an easy way to kill Jews.  In 1941 and 1942, the German army units called – Einsatzgruppen – managed to shoot one million Jews into pits in eastern Poland and the Ukraine.  It was in one of these massacres, just outside of Slonim, that my mother-in-law, Esther Goldberg’s entire family was shot into a pit.  She survived the massacre because she was in the hospital, recovering from typhus. My mind now is busy flashing from the scene of shooting in the Tree of Life Synagogue to the German killing field outside of Slonim.  Both were products of the same senseless hatred of the “other.”

But then the Germans came to the realization that shooting Jews one at a time takes too long, too many bullets and is too hard on the Nazi soldiers carrying out the dirty task.  Some of them were having nervous breakdowns having to look into the eyes of each victim as they pulled the trigger.  So, they came up with a more efficient way to murder Jews – the gas chamber.  Once it became clear that this new killing method was viable, Rudolph Hoss, the Commandant of Auschwitz declared:

“Now I was relieved indeed, . . .that all of us would be spared these bloodbaths.”[1]

My father-in-law, Sam Goldberg, watched trainloads and trainloads of Jews arrive at the Treblinka Death Camp, where they were chased into the gas chamber and murdered with this new, more efficient method.  The victims were dead within 90 minutes of their arrival.  Sam was one of approximately 65 who survived that place of Hell.

As I lay awake in bed, I wondered what Sam and Esther would say if they were still alive?  They would cry for the lives lost in Pittsburg and they would cry for their family murdered during the Holocaust.  They might take the shattered glass of their lives and tell us, their children, to hold onto the memory of each person.  To light a candle for them.  They might have said that we, who remain, must teach the world a better way, a way of goodness and that we must stand up to hate.

 

[1] Wachsmann, Nikolaus, Kl: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps, New York:  Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015, 269.