Today marks 75 years since the Red Army liberated Auschwitz-Birkenau. I’ve lost count how many times I went to the site of those death camps as part of the Zen Peacemakers’ annual bearing witness retreats there, maybe around 20. Each time I’d shake my head and say: Enough, I’m never going back there again. Then I’d go again.
Every year I light sticks of incense on this day in January. Today I also burned some sage, which is usually used for purification. I did it as an act of healing.
My mother was placed in the Terezin concentration camp in Czechoslovakia, in which at least 70,000 people starved to death. At some point there was no food and the camp commandant ordered trains to come in to take all remaining prisoners to Auschwitz. They were loading up the trains when trucks bringing food came.
Two of her sisters, a brother, and a nephew were not so lucky. Frieda, her older sister, put a 2 year-old boy called Menachem (Hebrew for Consolation) in the care of a Christian woman who did this for monthly payment. Long after Bratislava, their home city, was proclaimed Judenrein, free of Jews, my mother and another brother would sneak off every month from the cellar where they hid to bring her money. Frieda gave birth to her second child, Freddie, and at Auschwitz was invited by Dr. Mengele to give Freddy up and join the labor pool (a slower way of dying). She refused and the two were gassed immediately.
Another sister, Golda, was summoned by the authorities to join a convoy of girls to do labor for the war effort. Labor for the war effort consisted of building the Auschwitz-Birkenau infrastructure that would later put to death some 1.1 million people, but no one knew that then. They never heard from her again.
After the war my mother took Menachem, her orphaned nephew, and they became two of many Jewish refugees throughout Europe on their way to either the United States or Israel. In one of the refugee camps she met two sisters and they became dear friends. Once she heard them discussing another girl who’d been with them at Auschwitz, who’d arrived on one of the first convoys and finally died of consumption, and realized they were talking about her sister.
Another of my mother’s younger brothers called Mordechai was a sickly 10 year-old boy. When the family realized that they’d have to go into hiding, they decided to put Mordechai into a hospital, reasoning he would be safe there. They put together all the money they had to bribe the authorities to put the young boy there. But the Nazis emptied that hospital and put the patients on the train to Auschwitz. There they were put to death immediately.
Every time I’ve gone to Birkenau I look at the photo of a young boy wearing a black old newsboy hat with a black jacket and pants, walking alone with the others to the gas chamber. Every year I feel like my heart drops down to my feet seeing that boy, motherless, fatherless, alone in the world, surrounded by Nazi guards and big snarling dogs, screams, shouts and curses, alone in his terror, uncomforted. I can barely breathe when I look at that photo, like I can barely breathe when I describe it here.
My mother managed to leave Europe by stowing aboard a ship in Marseilles on its way to Haifa, Israel, which was then being blockaded by the British. With her was the little boy, Menachem, that Frieda had left behind. Photos of him show a boy with blonde curls and a shy smile. That little boy is now a man in his mid-to-late 70s, living in a beautiful apartment in downtown Toronto with advanced Alzheimers, but my mother still talks of him as though he’s that little blond-haired boy living close by, almost in the next town.
On my last visit there in December she lay in bed, close to death herself, and talked of her searing love for him. I turned to my brother and sister and said: “It’s really clear who was her favorite child, and it was none of us, so we can finally stop fighting.”
It’s hard to explain what life looks like when you’ve absorbed these stories since you learned to talk and understand, when the woman who raises you seems bigger than life, of heroic proportions, having survived and helped others survive in situations you’ll never face.
“My daughter was born in the West,” my sister said when she gave birth. “She won the lottery.”
But Auschwitz happened in the West. There’s probably not a Jew in the world who wouldn’t bet that it could happen again, in different form perhaps, but still again. And of course, it happens to different people all the time even as I write these words while bright snow covers New England. These towns feel so safe, with their democratic-model town hall meetings and progressive views. But instability breeds fear, and fear can breed panic. And how many of the rest of us become passive and lethargic in the face of things we feel we can’t control?
For most of her life my mother was on the lookout for danger. Strength and toughness were the qualities she admired most; she called it being a man. It’s taken senility to soften those brittle edges. I called her today:
“Mom, are you watching the ceremonies marking today?”
“Of course I’m watching them. But don’t worry about me, I have plenty to do.”
“I’m speaking about today, mom, the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. There must be lots of ceremonies in Israel.” I wanted so much to connect with her on this day.
“Of course there are,” she says matter-of-factly. “Don’t worry so much, I have plenty to do. I’m very active.”
I wouldn’t give up. “What about today, mom? Anything special about today?”
“No,” she said. “Every day is special. Every day.”