Marina H. Smith in the Introduction to the 46 Jews published here, who survived the Holocaust, tells the reader: ‘Every life is different. Every story is different too.’ That is true of us all, but there is a pattern of before and after. The survivors are young, middle or upper-class adolescents, some of them younger children, when the Nazis came to power and swept through Europe, when transport to the East meant certain death in Concentration Camps such as Auschwitz. I came to hear about this volume when a fellow writer Elsie wrote a moving peace about the funeral of her father. His story is here, each story different, each story the same, a broad synagogue of suffering, arranged alphabetically under S for Schaufeld, Avara, ‘A Journey – Chorzow to Wembley’ followed by the story of Elsie’s mother Vera, ‘Saved by the Kindertransport’.
Vera Schaufeld’s story is self-explanatory. She grew up in Klatovoy in the 1930s. Her father studied law and one of his teachers went on to become President of Czechoslovakia. Her mother was a paediatrician who studied in Prague and Paris. The population of their town was around 8000 and about 350 of them were Jews. Vera’s parents weren’t observant Jews. They were assimilated intellectuals. The nearest kosher butcher, for example, was 30 miles away. After Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia on the 15th March 1938 Jewish survivors could be counted on one hand. Vera’s mother and father used what clout they had to get their daughter on one of the Kindertransports leaving Prague for England. She survived, quickly forgetting how to speak Czech and German, becoming nominally assimilated into everyday English life. Her family died.
Her odyssey was not unique other tell here of the rituals of humiliation on the Kindertransport of having their property looted and of a group of children being taken from the train on the Dutch border and being made to lick the platform by SS men and missing the train, being sent back to their deaths. Vera met Avram and they married. Here again is a commonality, like marrying like. I imagine it has little to do with Jewishness, more to do with unspoken suffering. After the war nobody much talked about the camps, the deaths, and nobody much wanted to know. For ten years or more there was collective amnesia and silence.
Andre Swarz-Bart in his fictional masterpiece The Last of the Just chronicles the pogroms against the Jews, against the idea of their otherness, and the way ‘history penetrates legend and is assimilated by it’. And the Just Jews, Lamed-Vow, becomes ‘experts in sorrow’.
O God, cover not our blood with thy silence.
Avram Scaufeld’s survival is indeed miraculous. He was a thirteen-year-old adolescent in 1939 when the Germans invaded Poland. The next day he became a man and had to work for the Judenrat in Sosnowitz to survive. He was one of the lucky ones taken to work in a forced labour camp in Lower Silesia in autumn 1942. Then his luck ran out. In 1943 he was sent to work on construction with thousands of others, from half-a-dozen countries, in Blechammer. Rations became sparser and camp conditions worsened. Each prisoner fighting for scraps of potato. Avram survived but as the Red Army closed in the Germans began to evacuate camps. Long columns of prisoner marching in the cold to an unknown destination. The Death Marches were walk or die, those that couldn’t walk being shot and left in a ditch. Avram suffered from a leg ulcer and was crawling with lice, a Musselman, who could no longer keep up. His decision to step onto the cart picking up stragglers ensured his death. But when the SS came to shoot stragglers outside a cemetery, Avram found enough strength to climb the wall and hide. He was recaptured by a German policeman and handed back to the SS. He was packed in an open cattle truck with other prisoners and sent to another overcrowded camp. He was sent away once more to a forced labour camp, Langstein, digging tunnels into a mountain. Little food and any transgressions punishable by death the mortality rate was so high the dead were stacked like ‘cordwood’. His legs gave way, he was incontinent and he couldn’t walk. Two SS men with Alsatians found him and he thought this ‘a funny way to die’. Taken to the sick bay as the Allies got nearer an SS man came to evacuate it and warned those that couldn’t walk would be left burnt in their bed. Most of those that could walk were taken by the German on another march died. Avram drifted in and out of consciousness. How many miracles keeps a man alive in a few short years?
We can know little of the camps, a few grey outlines against the backdrop of the raw emotions and human experiences. Perhaps Scwarz-Bart’s image of hell in which Andalusian Jews ‘venerated a rock, shaped like a teardrop,’ comes closest, or the Hasidic story of the Just Man that rises to heaven, but ‘he is so frozen that God must warm him for a thousand years between his fingers before his soul can open itself to Paradise’.
Post-war the silence of those that suffered and the eugenic policies of the Nazis led to a kind of moratorium for about ten years while those countries involved in the war rebuilt their economies. Now we have the right-wing backlash that mass murder did not take place and that is why these witnesses light the way and show that it did and show it by their storytelling.
But evil does not go away. It morphs in new ways. There’s something familiar about Jacob Judah, on the Mynamar border writing about 70 000 refugees trying to cross the border into Bangladesh and being turned back. Contemporary echoes of the SS in reports that Rohingya men and women are indiscriminately killed and Myanmar ‘military are taking the children from the arms of their mothers, and throwing them away.’ Echoes of the grey ghosts of the Sonderkommando moving among transported Jews and telling mothers to give their children to an older aunt. The problem is that no one can offer workable solutions and even fewer care to try. Nobody wants refugees. We prefer to let them die. But there for the grace of god, go I.