It seems only appropriate, with Passover coming next week, to share the below.
I was in Dallas briefly at the beginning of March to celebrate some fantastic ladies who came to Paris to meet me for my birthday last year , and a friend invited me to go with her to the Holocaust Museum. I’d never been, in the whole 8 years I lived there. How could I say no?
The special exhibit at the museum right now is about the flight of Margret and H.A. Rey, the creators of Curious George, from Paris to Brazil, and then the US, during WWII. The truly special exhibit, though, was this woman:
This is Hanna Rigler, also known as Sarah, a Lithuanian Jew who survived a ghetto, a camp, and a harrowing escape, which she wrote about in her book Ten British POWs Saved My Life. The following is what stuck with me after listening to her talk, and speaking with her afterwards.
The men were mostly gone by the time they came and took the children, during the day while the adults were at work. The old people, and the children. Imagine: coming home to find your children and your parents gone. Your children, whom you had birthed and nurtured and then guarded when you were moved from your neighborhood, your own home, to this ghetto. Your parents, whom you had guarded, as well, as they aged, whom you fought with, disagreed with, loved, cherished, appreciated because they watched your children so you could go get what little work there was to be had, what meager money to be earned. And then to come home and find the building empty, the family gone. This, no more:
But like you say over and over, you were lucky. You were lucky, and it makes all the difference. You were too young to have a family yet. You and your sister had found work, cleaning and cooking in an official’s house, so you were not at home when they came to take you. So when your mother came home, she didn’t see what others saw: the vaccuum. Instead, she saw you. The fate of everyone you knew – all your friends, their families – the elderly, the young, the men: unknown. There would be little time to adjust to this demographic shift; soon, they will be coming for you.
They will come for you and what is left of your family – the mother, the sister. They will put you in the cattle car of a train, in Lithuania, in July, where the heat makes its way through the wooden slats of the wall but the air is nowhere to be felt. The lack of air presses down on you like the bodies of too-many people shoved in next to you. The smell of the one bucket you all share in a corner will bear on you too. You will think it is too much to survive, but you will. You will travel like this for days – seven days, nine days – who knows how many? And when you arrive, you have only just begun.
You will be given a number.
There must have been number 1. By the time they get to you, the number will be greater. It will be 58386, and you will wonder where everyone has gone, because when you arrive, the camp will seem empty, except for the shoes. The shoes pile high. They will pile high long after you are gone, and bear witness to the 58,385 pair of feet who walked through the gate before you.
There is a rumor that the Red Cross is coming to visit POWs, and so you will be kept alive, for now. Soon, when the threat of freedom comes, the marching will start. You will be lucky, and get a coat. It will be a bad coat, thin, and you will have no choice but to wonder to whom it used to belong, and which pair of shoes from that pile were also hers, but you will wear it as you walk away, moving in front of the front.
You talk about the unpleasant things. You will mention, to catch the attention of errant school kids, the hunger – how the coffee you got was really water; how the soup was water too, with just a little cabbage; and how the one small bread was meant for ten people and never enough, and yet you lived for the bread. Or because of it. You will tell the children how you would swear that if you had enough bread to eat, you would never want for anything else in your life, save for maybe a piece of potato on top as a delicacy. In this gluten-free paleo generation, they will fail to understand why you could want such a thing.
You will tell the children you know it isn’t nice to talk about, but when you don’t wash, when you can’t bathe, the lice come and so you all had them, on your skin, making sores, quite ferocious. The children will be texting on their phones in the back row. You will tell them how your numbers dwindled to 500, from thousands, because anyone who couldn’t walk was shot and left to rot on the roadside, and anyone who was eating only coffee-flavored, or cabbage-flavored, water can’t walk hundreds of kilometers through Poland in the winter.
The children perk up a little when you tell them how you tried to trade a diamond watch your mother had buried for some bread, and how, having accepted the trade, someone returned with the police instead of bread. They chased you around town, a posse with pitchforks shouting, “yude! Yude! Yude!” They hear you a little better when you say you don’t mind if you are killed. Even though you are barely a teenager, you don’t mind this being the end – but you just don’t want your mother and sister to have to see it.
It sounds more like a movie they have seen, when you tell them about the chase, about hiding in the barn for three weeks, amongst the hay, in a feed trough, fed from time to time by the British POWs you credit with saving your life. When you say, pressed for time to wrap up your lifetime story in less than ten minutes, that the Russians were not a very nice liberating force, that they raped the women and that again, again you were very lucky, their disappointment is palpable.
When it is over, they ask almost no questions. They are about the age now that you were then, a continent and a half away, a lifetime removed. They hear you say it again, “you had to be very, very lucky to survive,” and they don’t see their luck is in geography. They don’t hear you, afterward, when you share, “these children, they know nothing. In New York they know everything. Here, nothing.” And is there nothing left for us to do but thank you, hold your hand and thank you, and walk way. Another group is coming in, and you have your story to tell.