REMARKS by JOSEPH BUKIET
Sixty one years have passed like the link of an eye since the destruction of the Cracow Ghetto. We, who survived the massacre of March 13th live with it every minute of every day of the year. We cannot and should not forget the murder of the children and the murder of the old people. I, for one, remember every horrible detail that happened on Platz Zgody that morning. How the Ghetto was surround by police, how the SS marched in with their guns shooting, with whips in hand creating panic, and how some of us were loaded on trucks to be taken to Auschwitz.
Yes, 61 years passed and to our shock anti-Semitism is on the rise in Europe again. The hate against us “cinas chinon” never stopped. The world would like to forget the atrocities and murder which was committed against Jews. Some say how long are you going to talk about the Holocaust? Don’t you think 61 years is enough? I say to them, “Never!” Are you afraid your conscience will start bothering you?
To help revive anti-Semitism, which really never died, an actor by the name of Mel Gibson made a movie called The Passion in which he depicts the Jews as evil, as murderers. In France, Jews are being persecuted, beaten, synagogues burned just like 61 years ago. What can we, the survivors, do about that? We can teach our children and grandchildren, we can speak at schools and at gatherings, we can teach student and teachers of the evil of anti-Semitism.
It is at occasions like this and like those at any other institution from Yad Vashem to Washington’s Holocaust Museum to New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage to all sorts of local centers —that we not only remember the past but think about the future. We mourn our parents and try to protect our children and grandchildren. We combine memory and vigilance. We never forget and, perhaps more importantly, we never let the world forget.
Europe is the lcoation of our memories, yet our present is in the United States and Australia and South America and Israel. We can support and get involved in our local Jewish Federations and we can encourage our children to become active participants in local Jewish youth groups. We can ask our synagogues to get involved in projects to help support Jewish communities in France, Russia and other countries where anti-Semitism is a threat. We can write letters to our Congressmen and Senators to support Israel. We can show our support of Israel by buying Israeli products and contributing to Israeli charities and most of all by visiting Israel.
INSIGHTS by JONATHAN EVAN SLUTZMAN
Ten days ago, I landed at Franz Josef Strauss Airport in Munich for what was to be a one-weak vacation with some friends. While our group would number six by the end of the week, a friend from Boston and I were the first to arrive and were to spend a couple of days on our own in the city.
Our first real challenge of the tarp came shortly after reclaiming our baggage, when we needed to purchase tickets for the S-Bahn from the airport to our hotel in the city. Or course, neither of us speaks German (or any Germanic language for that matter), so we had to do our best at deciphering the ticket machine and felt pretty good when we figured out which ticket we needed (a 4-zone) and how much it cost (8 euros each). Purchasing became a different matter entirely, as we had just used that ATM and between us had nothing but 50 euro notes, and, or course, the ticket machine would not accept a 50 euro note for an 8 euro ticket. That was when a gentleman and his companion, who had both been on our flight from Heathrow, came over and also needed to purchase tickets to the city. In perfect English, this German man offered for us simply to travel with them since a two-person ticket was the same price as a 4-person ticket. Not only did this save the two of us 16 euros, but it resolved our difficulty with the ticket machine. More importantly, though, it served as a warm welcome to a city in which no person here would have considered vacationing 50 years ago. That warmth remained throughout our stay in Munich, despite our butchering of the little bits of the German language we learned, as everyone we encountered had the same welcoming attitude.
Many of our ancestors longed for this kind of warm welcome 250 years ago. They longed for it during what may be the greatest development in Modern Judaism — the Haskala. The Maskilim sought Judaism to fit the mold of Enlightenment religion, namely that secular thought and study, specifically reason, were the pinnacle of civilization, with religion as one facet of society. They saw this as the key to becoming members of the greater society. At the same time, the Hasidim saw this as an indication of the decline of Judaism. They thought that Judaism needed to focus on belief and internal communion with God, without subjecting what they saw as the word of God to secular-style criticism. As has often been the case, people saw two extremes of a spectrum without recognizing the middle. Both of those extremes failed in their quest for perpetuating Judaism. I am here today to share with you why I believe that the road to ensuring that the mantra of “Never Again” is curbed on either side by traditional Judaism and be secular society.
Why should we live as traditional Jews, in what I will call a traditional Jewish society? I have been known to say to friends that had I not been born Jewish, I would certainly not choose to take upon myself the restrictions and requirements Judaism has given me. But why do I embrace them? It turns out that those same friends are terribly jealous of the Jewish life that I lead. To be fair, they are not jealous of the individual restrictions like Kashrut and Shabbat, but they do long for the sense of community that we have as a people. As an illustrative example of this communal benefit, I’ll tell you about the Shabbat that I experienced last week, again in Munich,
On Friday morning, a friend and I were walking though the city, looking for what was identified in our guide book as a Jewish Museum. When we found the building, which is also a shul, we were told that the museum would be closed until the middle of the following week and, after more questioning, that we could come back for services that evening. Our next task was to do a little food shopping so that we could have a small Shabbat dinner at our hotel after services. While walking down the street, I happened to notice a store with boxes and boxes of matzah in the window — CafJ Brocha. We went in and found many other foodstuffs and a small food service counter. Never wanting to pass up an opportunity, we asked the welcoming gentleman behind the counter if he knew if the shul had any English-speaking families who would be able to host a couple of travelers for dinner. The round, kippah-wearing man said we could eat in the restaurant at the shul with him and his family, as he organizes dinner there. One could write this communal experience off as being an isolated incident, but I could tell you similarly welcoming stories about London, Boston, Cleveland, or any number of other places. Our Jewish culture and society afford us these special opportunities because of who we are, and it must be maintained. What are we preserving if not our Judaism?
At the same time, though, remaining insular and separate will do nothing to ensure that such atrocities as the Shoah do not happen again. In fact, I would argue that following the segregationalist approach of original Hasidism can make matters more difficult for the Jewish people. People fear what they do not know and maintaining Jewish societies as separate from the rest of the world ensures that the secular world does not know us. Furthermore, we cannot deny that the Enlightenment happened and that reason was introduced into the world as a formidable concept. Jewish society is intertwined with the rest of the world and we should take advantage of that. I stand here today as someone who was able to take advantage of what the secular world has to offer and both my friends and I are stringer, better, and smarter for it.
This brings me to one reason why we must embrace the secular world, in addition to the Jewish world, if we art to ensure that nothing like the Shoah happens again, in any place and against any people. As an example, I say to you that there are now four more Christians who feel more than a detached connection to the Shoah because of their connection to me and my Jewish friends. One of my friends in our traveling party last week is a committed Lutheran, who is currently studying towards a second bachelor’s degree at Oxford University, following her first at Princeton. She had learned about the Shoah primarily from books she read around the age of ten. She sees this experience as a secondary one, never having heard primary testimony from a survivor or other source. Importantly, though, she said that hearing a survivor speak would probably also only be a secondary source to her, as she doesn’t have any personal connections to that period of history. Her primary experience came in the form of a visit to Dachau. This was her chance to see for herself and learn on her own terms instead of those presented in a book. It wasn’t until she learned that my family was involved, though, that she fully internalized the experience. I served as that connection for her — a connection that would not have been made had I not lived in both the Jewish and secular worlds at the same time.
Of course I recognize that I am advocating a path for us and our descendants that is hardly easy to implement — a path with many difficulties and tenuous points. It is a path, though, in which I passionately believe and that I think is the right one. If we don’t maintain our Jewish heritage, culture, civilization, tradition, and beliefs, then what are we trying to save? What are we trying to ensure for our descendants if we don’t maintain our heritage? At the same time, though, how can we ensure that future without accepting that the world around us is not the same as it was 300 years ago? How better to ensure that future than by enlisting the help of everyone around us? We all have much to learn and experience in our time. It is our responsibility, though, to help our descendants experience our heritage just as we must help our brethren learn it as well.
Mothers' Memories by Simone Hilfstein Scheumann
As always I am happy to find myself in such wonderful company, even as we gather to mourn our martyrs. Today, I would like to share stories past down from my mother whom many of you knew. Her name was Erna Hilfstein (Kluger). Born in December of 1924, she had a rather wonderful, and privileged life in Krakow Poland until her early teens. My mother’s first great lose came when she was no longer permitted to attend school. In my hand today I carry her most prized position. It is not one of her awards for her scholarly work in the History of Science, or publications for her research, or her academic degrees. I hold a book of Pan Tadeusz’s work, which was awarded my mother Erna Kluger, by the president of Krakow, Dr. M. Kaplicki, after winning a completion in 1934. She was ten years old. This book was hidden by her friend and returned to her over forty years ago.
From late 1941 through March 13th, 1943 my mother with her mother Anna Kluger where forced into the Podgórze ghetto. She along with her mother lived with another family in one apartment. She came to know the Hilfstein family who lived in the apartment next to theirs. Even though there were continuous restrictions, hardships of all sorts, she met and married my father Max Hilfstein the 15 of November 1942 at the age of 16. They looked out after each other and their families as best they could. They had many jobs, some which my father did not revel until close to his death. My parents where in the last group to leave the ghetto upon it’s liquidation March 14th of 1943. They stayed behind and did cleanup. I am not prepared to discuss this day in any detail, as their stories of those last moments of liquidation are still too overwhelming for me to recount. Simply to say: They both bore witness to the brutally and murdering of many on Platzgoda.
From March 14th, 1943 through January 1945, they where in Plaszow, a penal labor camp which I shall refer to as a concentration camp. In January 1945, my mother, father and others walked to Auschwitz - Birkenau. My mother was carried much of the way by my dad’s cousin Marcus Reich. Mom remained in Auschwitz for 13 days and then walked to another camp where she was transported in open animal carts to Bergen Belsen. By then, Dad had took another path. On April 15th, 1945 the English army under General Montgomery, liberated the camp. My mother was found lying on a pile of dead and dying bodies. The first soldier that came to her took her for dead.
Throughout my life, my family shared many of their experiences. As a child the conversations I overheard where simply too surreal for comprehension. My grandmothers’ tattooed arm was a clear and constant reminder. My parent’s inability to sleep though the night was disturbing. Interestingly enough, I remember the emotions conveyed in their descriptions of the Holocaust more then the specific details. No doubt my own method for coping. I am therefore fortunate that my father, and later my mother became Holocaust speakers at public and private schools throughout the tri-state area. Many of their talks where recorded. Every new presentation revealed more details; other layers to add to their imprisoned years. From all this and their comprehensive testimony documented in Spielberg's project, I have been able to walk in their shadow, feel their pain, see through their eyes, and take a personal glimpse into those horrific and unbearable years that haunted my parents the rest of their lives.
Today, I would like to share with you three specific events from my mothers’ most recollected thoughts that she shared with others. These events all have a common thread of dehumanization, humiliation, degradation, and dignity denied! I know her ordeals not only scared her body and sole, but ultimately defining who she was and who she would become in the post war years.
In Plaszow there was an Unterstufurer Jon: a little man that loved to kill. One day my father paid someone to get him some apples. Jon found out and called father to him. My father was a barber at that time. Jon was extremely angry. But since dad was necessary, he summoned for my mother. Jon put his gloves on and slapped mother, sending her flying into a wall. Father could do nothing! Mother stood up and was slapped again. Her face was completely swollen. The end result was that my father had to stand and watch this. He could do nothing to help his wife and she knew it. Mom survived the beating. What was the lesson?
When in the Plaszow ghetto, mom had to walk through a courtyard and pass a camp commander with his two most vicious dogs. They where trained attach dogs. Mother was told that she would have to stop and bow to the dogs and saying “goodmorgan har Ralf, goodmorgan har Rolf”. She was told to do this as otherwise the dogs where trained to attack, and would tear her apart. My grandmother begged her to do as instructed. Mother was crazed with fear yet she said she would not belittle herself that way and would rather die. The defining moment came in the morning. As mother walked thought the courtyard, seeing the dogs she complied and greeted the dogs as instructed. Why is this story so significant? My mother said on that day she was a chicken, a cowered. That even though she was human ….. now she was less then human. This tortured my mother. She knew she was human; she was not an untermench (less then a man). She did what she needed to do to survive, but this totally destroyed her.
When mom arrived in Bergen Belsen, she said you really didn’t do anything…there was not much work for her ... just staying, starving and being eaten by lice. However, every once in a while someone was needed for some job. One day a soldier came to the barracks and asked for woman to work in the kitchen. No one believed this, yet many women including my mother volunteered. When they entered a room there where twenty soldiers, ten on each side, standing with horse wipes. The women where told if they wanted to work they would have to pass through. Mom covered her eyes and run through. Mom made it though. This went on for three days. …. the work in the kitchen was real. This meant that she peeled potatoes, and turnips. She would get a little more soup. The total number of workers in the kitchen after those three days was 12 girls and one older woman of 35... They all sat silently peeling. In the kitchen there was a barrel of salt. They all craved salt, but where forbidden to take some. The older women couldn’t stand it, and one day grabbed for the salt when the guards back was turned. She placed the salt in a rage, but the German turned quickly and only saw a hand and the rage with salt falling to the floor. He was extremely angry. He gave the women 5 minutes to give up the person, who would then receive 50 lashes. If they did not turn in the guilty one, all would get 25 lashes. When the guard left, one girl said “good for you” and was ready to give up the 35 year old. Mom argued that they should not tell, since no one can survive 50. Somehow, all agreed to say nothing. Mom was first to get the 25. A Nazi guard tore the clothes off her back and begun. Mom had to count after each strike. 1, 2, 3, 4 …… and after 22 she could not remember the number that came next … her mind was swimming, but somehow she did remember and it was over. After the 5th strike mother said the pain was running through her entire body. In mothers’ own words, “I was cut up to pieces”. The other girls followed… but fortunately the Nazi tired and the strikes where not as severe after the first few girls. All survived. Mom said “ I will never forget the excruciating pain and yet the feeling of joy on that day … I did not say who took the salt”. I not only save someone’s life, I convinced others. I am not an untermench. I am human. I am a nice person!”
After losing one family member after another, losing friends, a way of life, witnessing the most horrific acts of brutality, being so hunger for so long, suffering physical and emotional cruelty, my mother never understood how she could function at all.
I have visited Poland and particularly Krakow, on two separate occasions. These trips have been very significant person quests. I have been able to begin solidify the many stories and put them into some kind of context for my personal comprehension. I have come to understand fully, why my parents had a need to return to their birthplace so many times. It was to show victory over oppression, to prove their individual strength, to confront their fears, to thumb their noses at the world and the oppressors, to find the truth as to where their loved ones had perished, to reclaim their life before the war and declare their place in the world for themselves and their loved ones. Thank you