Reminisces and Reflections on the Shoah
By Tricia Schwitzer
I am queuing for soup at the World WIZO HQ canteen in Tel Aviv. It’s lunchtime. I am hungry. The lady in front of me ladles rich vegetable broth into her bowl. I do not need to pray that there will be enough vegetables left in the soup to sustain me. No, I don’t need to think about that at all. Yet I do. Even now, five years later.
Five years ago, and I had read everything I could in preparation for my trip to Poland; the heart-wrenching observations of Ellie Wiesel, Primo Levi, Mary Berg, and others who bore witness.
I had revisited the battered old suitcase in our storeroom, containing the evidence of my late father-in-law’s internment in Auschwitz-Birkenau and Buchenwald, including the rough and stained, striped shirt of the uniform that he was wearing when American soldiers liberated him in 1945. It is tiny.
I read so much, I listened to the memoirs of the Holocaust-surviving members of my husband’s family and had, on more than one occasion, visited Yad Vashem. I thought I was ready for this trip.
On Sunday, 12th April, I flew from Tel Aviv to Warsaw and joined British friends in the March of the Living (UK) group. We were 250 participants from the UK of all walks of life, Jews, non-Jews, students, professionals, youth leaders, laypersons, and first and second-generation Holocaust survivors. We were split over five buses, each with its own group leader, Holocaust survivor, and educator. Each of us on our own personal journey to listen, to learn, to feel.
Yet the more I learned, the more I saw, the less I understood.
For the five days of the trip and from now until the end of my days, I ask, “Why?”
We went from Warsaw to Lublin to Krakow and saw the scant remnants of our once-proud, once-fine upstanding ancestors. In Poland, the history of Jewish life dated back over a millennium and formed a vital part of the cultural history. I was intrigued to learn that in the 1930s, over 120 different Jewish newspapers were printed daily or weekly in Polish, Yiddish, and Hebrew, serving a Jewish population of some three and a half million. Between the 1939 invasion of Poland and the end of World War II, 90% of Polish Jewry perished.
From the stripping of basic human rights to the desecration of the sacred symbols of the Jewish faith, from the segregation and discrimination came humiliation and degradation and the internment in ghettos. We learned of the cruelty and barbarism, the likes of which any human being cannot comprehend. And yet, European Jewry refused to give up hope. As hunger, random killings, overcrowding, disease, and desperation reigned in the ghettos, and Jewish life was defaced, there were those who, ever optimistic, dared to dream of better days ahead. The contents of their suitcases as they packed for their journey eastwards to Auschwitz paid testament to that fact.
But they never got to unpack!
In the museum of Auschwitz preserved for eternity are some of those same suitcases and their contents: brushes, combs, cosmetics, religious artefacts, dishes, pots and pans. In one of the displays, a lone rolling pin caught my eye. Did the lady who owned that rolling pin dare to imagine that one day she would bake delicious kuchen for her family as she always had?
We, who had risen fresh from our comfortable beds in four-star hotels, had eaten hearty breakfasts. We, who had packed ample layers against the elements in our backpacks, emerged from our air-conditioned luxury coaches and descended to the depths of hell wearing our comfortable walking shoes, safe in the knowledge that we had an exit strategy. At any time, we could turn our back on the abject terror we witnessed and find our way out. And we did – but it does not leave us.
We visited the death camp of Majdanek and Belzec, Auschwitz, and Auschwitz Birkenau, where European Jewry was viciously terrorized, incarcerated, incinerated, and eventually wiped out. At each place, we stood solemnly at the monuments of remembrance and recited a Kaddish, each of us, in our way, sanctifying the memory of those we never knew but loved anyway.
Sometimes, the gravity of what we witnessed got too much for us, and we would walk out to breathe fresh air. I put my hand on the cold, damp wall of the gas chambers in Auschwitz-Birkenau and heard the silent screams. I wept and then felt guilty for weeping – for I did not experience the hunger, the whip, the pain of burning flesh, the panic. I had no right to cry.
It was five years ago, the 70th anniversary since the liberation of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen and the end of the Second World War. The precious survivors amongst us were well into their eighties. They knew as we did that they are the final witnesses to the horrors of the Holocaust, and they have made it their life’s work to share their stories with the coming generation.
At the Belzec death camp, one of the survivors, in trembling voice, recited Kaddish for his late parents and little sister who were murdered before his very eyes. This was the same man who gave me my new preoccupation with the soup tureen. He had told us, over dinner back at the hotel, that in those dark days of abject hunger, it was a lucky man who got his broth from the bottom of the pan because that’s where the vegetables lurked.
For four days in April, our journey took us deeper into hell but on the fifth day, the scene at Auschwitz shifted inexplicably. This evil place took on a different, hopeful guise as some 12,000 plus participants of March of the Living (MOL) worldwide descended from their coaches on a perfect sunny day, wearing their MOL jackets and baseball caps and carrying Israeli flags. We marched as if an ocean of blue and white that surged slowly yet forcefully forward alongside the train tracks that had brought our ancestors to their certain death. We marched as one, against the past, towards the future, because we are living, and we can.
We walked solemnly.
As we entered Birkenau, the names of murdered children rang out through loudspeakers. We drank copious amounts of water as we retraced the steps of the thirsty and the starving and those doomed to die. We placed markers on the train tracks of those we had lost. I put down two markers, one to remember my husband’s lost family members and another for our 42,000 slain sisters from the 14 WIZO federations in Eastern Europe in whose memory we continue our work for the people of Israel. And how strange, that amongst the crowd of marchers I saw one of our WIZO Presidents, Estela Faskha from Panama, and we hugged. Each of us mirroring the emotions of the other.
The march concluded in a poignant ceremony. Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, himself a child survivor of Buchenwald, addressed the crowd. Torches were lit in memory of the murdered, and in tribute to the Righteous Among the Nations, and to honor our precious survivors who lived to bear witness.
As they lit the last torch for the State of Israel where the Jewish people were reborn, and Dudu Fisher led the March of the Living Children’s Choir in a rousing rendition of Hatikvah, I once again found myself in floods of tears, but this time, I felt no guilt in crying. It was my right and obligation. It still is and always will be.
Today, 2020, there is no March of the Living this year. The 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, Bergen Belsen and the end of World War II is marked only on the virtual stage of digital media as the Coronavirus pandemic denies us social gathering. Our survivors are older, more vulnerable, nearer to their natural end of life. They are less in number but forever alive in our collective memory.
And even though we cry our tears in the safe space of social distancing, we will not, dare not, cannot, ever forget!
Manchester-born Tricia Schwitzer immigrated to Israel in 2001 and currently serves on the World WIZO Executive as Chairperson of the Marketing & PR Division. She manages, writes and illustrates the World WIZO social media pages and co-edited the Centennial edition of the WIZO Review. She is married to Avi, the mother of Ric and Nic Glancy and she lives in Ramat Gan with two naughty black cats.