Every survivor’s story is one of miracles — and luck.
I wrote that sentence in my mind as I stood facing the open Torah Ark for Yom Kippur on September 30, 2017, during the Neilah service in the final hour of the Day of Atonement fast (no food or even water). At that moment I resolved that I needed to preserve the survivor and savior stories I personally knew.
Why does one moment in time light a fire under motivation — to do what I probably should have done years ago?
Perhaps this motivation started with the Alternative for Deutschland’s strong and frightening win in Germany’s Bundestag election a week earlier.
Or perhaps the recent discussion of the book club to which I belong tipped me over the edge. We had read Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl’s book MAN’S SEARCH FOR MEANING. The discussion leader talked about Frankl’s thesis of willpower to survive, and I kept saying it was luck no matter how strong the willpower to survive.
And I should know about the role of luck due to all the survivor and savior stories that haunt me.
In the beginning I was a second-generation-born American Jew in a small town (Elgin, Illinois) Jewish community with only one woman I knew whose family had gotten out of Germany. In later years I would appreciate that this woman’s niece, Sherry Lansing, a former CEO of Paramount Pictures, was the first woman to head a major Hollywood movie studio. Lansing’s mother, her aunt, and their parents had gotten out of Germany “in time” — meaning in this book “before the war,” which started on September 1, 1939, when the Nazis attacked Poland.
I remember the moment as a teen that I first read about Anne Frank in a newspaper article spread out on our dining room table. At that time I knew very little about the Jews, the Gypsies and the millions murdered by the Nazis.
Then in September 1970, only 25 years after the end of WWII, my husband and I were stationed in Munich with the U.S. Army. As we took the train from Frankfurt to Munich, I looked out the window at the railroad freight cars and wondered whether these were the same cars that had carried the Jews to their deaths.
Once in Munich my husband worked under a non-Jewish Department of the Army civilian who had been imprisoned in Dachau before the war and then released. The man had worked for the Americans undercover in Italy during WWII and his father had been a prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials for Nazi war criminals.
In the same U.S. Army intelligence unit was a Jewish Department of the Army civilian who had gotten out of Germany in time and who had returned with the U.S. Army and served as a translator at the Nuremberg Trials. (His father had been murdered in Auschwitz, and his mother survived by claiming French citizenship due to the vagaries of Alsace, where she had been born.)
About two months after we arrived in Munich, while reading a book in my army-supplied housing unit, I first learned about Kristallnacht, realizing with horror that this day of November 9, 1970, was the anniversary of that infamous attack on Jews, synagogues and Jewish stores in Germany and Austria on the night of November 9-10,1938. (Austria was annexed to Germany on March 12, 1938.)
Living in Munich, we several times visited nearby Dachau, the first Nazi concentration camp, opened only two months after Hitler took power in January of 1933. And in Germany we met our first survivors and had our first up-close-and-personal Holocaust experiences.
While in Germany we decided to start keeping kosher when we returned home to the U.S. This decision was influenced by the emotional toll of living in Germany only 25 years after the decimation of such a vast number of European Jews. Although my husband and I were born too late to save any of the murdered Jews, we could choose to live a Jewish lifestyle in support of what had been ripped from them.
In May of 1972 my husband and I returned to the U.S. when his active duty commitment was completed. A few months later I became the editor of Friday Forum, the monthly literary supplement of the weekly Jewish Exponent newspaper in Philadelphia.
During six years in that position I edited and published first-hand accounts of Holocaust survivors and saviors as well as interviewing in person both French Nazi hunter Beate Klarsfeld and Ruth Kluger, the savior of many Rumanian Jews who she helped smuggle into then-Palestine. I also wrote reviews of numerous Holocaust fiction and nonfiction books.
These and other Holocaust stories I know continue to haunt me. In my family the frequent refrain when I mention something in a conversation is, “Does it have to be the Holocaust?” And the answer often is yes.
Let’s return to the timeline of now in 2017:
The book club discussion of MAN’S SEARCH FOR MEANING was September 11.
On the evening of September 21, the beginning of the second day of Rosh Hashanah this year, one of our dinner guests mentioned he has a friend, a Dutch Jew, for whom Anne Frank as a young teenager babysat. The Dutch family hiding our guest’s friend as a baby was denounced. As the Gestapo arrived at the family’s home, the maid threw the baby over the fence, saving him — and probably the family members hiding him — from death at the hands of the Nazis.
I told our Rosh Hashanah dinner guest that, during the time my husband and I lived in Munich, the Anne Frank House had been at risk of closing for lack of funds. I still had the article from the European edition of the Army newspaper Stars and Stripes about this risk of closure. I also had a carbon copy of the letter I typed to accompany donated funds to the Anne Frank House from the few of us American Jews in Munich at that time.
The Alternative for Deutschland’s political victory in federal elections to elect the members of the 19th Bundestag took place on Sunday, September 24. (My younger daughter and I had seen this far-right party’s political posters in Berlin in August of 2016.)
Then the moment in Neilah on September 30 when I realized that, by writing a memoir, I could preserve so many of the stories that haunt me — both those of the survivors and of the saviors.
The next day of October 1 I told my friend Susan Chodakiewitz, with whom I have been working for years on a Holocaust project about her long-time personal friend Israeli Nazi hunter Tuviah Friedman, that I could wait no longer. The way to preserve these stories was a memoir that I would start to write immediately. (And this memoir would include descriptions of Holocaust-related media including books, movies and other digital content with a reference list at the end of the memoir.)
Only a few hours after I wrote the beginning of this memoir introduction on October 2, my younger daughter brought home as a gift for me a hardcover illustrated book she had received at work — BRUNDIBAR — written by Tony Kushner and illustrated by Maurice Sendak.
She handed it to me with the words, “It has to be the Holocaust.”
The book is based on a Czech opera for children performed 55 times by the children of Terezin, the Nazi concentration camp in German-occupied Czechoslovakia also known as Theresienstadt.
I mentioned to her that, when she and I had seen a special exhibit on Maurice Sendak several years ago at the Jewish Museum in New York City, I remembered reading that, on the morning of his Bar Mitzvah, his family had learned of the murder of his relatives in Europe by the Nazis. The juxtaposition of hearing such horrendous news on the morning of one’s Bar Mitzvah had stayed with me.
My daughter immediately looked up Maurice Sendak on Wikipedia. The entry began:
Maurice Bernard Sendak (/ˈsɛndæk/; June 10, 1928 – May 8, 2012) was an American illustrator and writer of children’s books. He became widely known for his book Where the Wild Things Are, first published in 1963. Born to Jewish-Polish parents, his childhood was affected by the death of many of his family members during the Holocaust.
I looked at his birth date — June 10, 1928; 13 years later, on the night of June 21-22, 1941, the Nazis broke the nonaggression Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact between Russia and Germany by launching a massive attack on the Soviet positions in Eastern Poland. The Nazis’ Einsatzgruppen death squads wiped out the Jews in the path of the Nazis’ lightning advances into Russia.
Bar Mitzvah dates are often based on a boy’s Jewish lunar calendar birth date, which fluctuates from year to year in relation to the secular calendar birth date. Thus if Sendak’s Bar Mitzvah had been held two or three weeks later than June 10, it would explain the likelihood of receiving the horrific news on the morning of his Bar Mitzvah.
Finally, the question of why both survivors and saviors?
In 2017 the number of each group still living is very small. I had Shabbat dinner in a sukkah on October 6, and the mother of one guest was a survivor still alive at 94. These firsthand accounts will soon be forever gone, leaving a huge void for Holocaust deniers to rush to fill.
Equally important is to preserve both sides of the harrowing experiences. In these pages I will relate many stories of which I was the midwife of their recounting, two of which are these:
- The Jewish mother who gave her diamond ring to a Polish peasant to bring her daughter back from a Jewish summer camp in Russia in June 1941 when the Nazis broke their nonaggression pact with the Russians. While this act was only the first of a string of miracles that ultimately saved her daughter’s life, to this day I can’t look at my own diamond ring without wondering whether I would have had the foresight to have done this. (The Nazis wiped out every person in that children’s summer camp.)
- The Polish countess who hid Jews on her estate until the Nazis came for them. She believed a small boy had been among the Jews murdered, only to learn through a chance encounter many years later that he had hidden in the bread oven on the estate and thus survived.
Now let’s begin these stories of both survivors and saviors.*
Phyllis Zimbler Miller
Beverly Hills, California
October 8, 2017
*To be continued.
© 2017 Miller Mosaic LLC
Phyllis Zimbler Miller (@ZimblerMiller) has an M.B.A. from The Wharton School and is the author of fiction and nonfiction books/ebooks. Phyllis is available by skype for book group discussions and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Her Kindle fiction ebooks may be read for free with a Kindle Unlimited monthly subscription — see www.amazon.com/author/phylliszimblermiller — and her Kindle nonfiction ebooks may also be read for free with a Kindle Unlimited monthly subscription — see www.amazon.com/author/phylliszmiller