lunes, 28 de abril de 2014

Eva Slonim and the burden of bearing witness to Auschwitz

Eva  Slonim’s long-sleeved silk dress hides the ­number A27021 that was ­tattooed into her left forearm when she was 13 years old. Now 82, this well-groomed, dark-haired woman bears scant resemblance to the head-scarfed scarecrow standing with her sister Marta behind the barbed wire of Auschwitz-Birkenau on the day Russian soldiers photographed their liberation in January 1945. She had difficulty recognising her gaunt self when that startling image was published decades later, but she remembers her mother recoiling momentarily when they were reunited after an incredible odyssey on foot over the mountains home to Bratislava, in what is now Slovakia. “She was motionless. She did not say a word… I was frightened by her eyes, which had widened in horror. She was looking at me like I was a ghost. Perhaps I’m too ugly for her now? Perhaps she doesn’t love me anymore? Perhaps she is ashamed to look at me?”
She recalls her thoughts in her memoir ­Gazing at the Stars – the title coming from her father’s urgent counsel at the train station as he sent Eva, 12, and her sister Marta, nine, into hiding one spring day in 1944, unsure if he would ever see them again. “‘Remember: the same stars will shine over you as over Mutti and me… just look at the stars, speak to them, tell them your fears, your worries. I will also look at the stars and I’ll try my best to answer.”
Pared back to its narrative bones, the story Eva has been recounting for decades in classrooms and auditoriums around Australia unfolds powerfully in these pages. Her parents’ fraught decision to stay put when the Germans invaded their homeland was the first agonising choice that triggered a hundred life-or-death ­calculations in the fight to save themselves and their seven children. Three would end up in Auschwitz-Birkenau: little Judith, six, died there and Eva and Marta survived. The family’s resettlement in Australia was a miracle that could never completely heal the psychological wounds that propelled Eva to write her memoir.
Melbourne writer Oscar Schwartz, 25, helped her shape the book that had stalled ­following the sudden death of her son Malcolm six years ago. Every Tuesday afternoon for four months Oscar would visit Eva at her Caulfield home. Over tea and biscuits she held forth in her small study. He listened, digging for tiny details of colour, mood, sounds, smell that she’d skip out of familiarity and he’d retrieve with fresh ears. She wrote chapters. He edited them. They spent another year crafting the chronology of her slim, earth-shattering testimony. She bore witness. He served as scribe. Their collaboration should linger as a thorn in history’s side.
Inside a small, candlelit memorial room at Melbourne’s Jewish Holocaust Centre her soft, low, heavily accented voice is almost drowned out by the chatter of schoolchildren being led on a tour through the nearby exhibition space. Eva is not on display herself, although she lives and breathes the events they are learning. One of the first child survivors to speak out publicly, education is Eva’s mission. “I think the time has come when everybody wants to talk. There is an urge,” she says of the cascading personal stories, which had lain dammed up for decades after the war. Her parents, Eugene and Margaret Weiss, both passed away without ever having broken their silence. “No one said a word. We never asked and they couldn’t bear to know what happened to us.” Bent on rebuilding families and fortunes in new lands, the past was boarded up like a ­derelict slum unfit for habitation.
Melbourne landed the highest number of war-scarred Jewish migrants, partly because they couldn’t get much further from Europe without heading for Antarctica. Eugene and Margaret sailed here in 1948 with Eva, Marta, Noemi, Ruth, Renata, toddler Rosanna and baby Hannah. “We did not speak of Judith, our little Judith,” Eva writes of her sister’s death in the concentration camp. A brother, Kurti, survived the war but drowned shortly afterwards.
Being the eldest and the only licensed driver in her family, Eva delivered the tins of wafers manufactured by her father from shop to shop, attracting countless proposals from men impressed by her work ethic. In 1953 she ­married Australian-born Ben Slonim, whose life had not been shattered by war or persecution. “Everyone knew where the [Weiss] girls came from,” he tells me in a broad twang so different from his wife’s accent, “but the Holocaust was remote from me.” Keen for a large family, Eva did not burden Ben with the details of the ­memories that haunted her at night. “When I had little children I was busy with work.” She dreamt of being a doctor but instead translated medical papers for university researchers. “I didn’t have time to think about what happened. I put it aside. I pushed it aside,” she tells me.
The museum where we meet was founded in 1984 as communities around the world redoubled efforts to document the demolition of their kin. Eva’s father died this same year. Inside a locked drawer of his desk she found papers he had hidden from the Nazis, notes that her aunt had smuggled from the camps, and the yellow cloth stars her family had been forced to wear. The past was elbowing its way into the light.
Eva’s daughter Aviva Debinski remembers ­sitting on the couch as a small girl listening to her mother’s stories. “She was passionate about passing on the message to us. She emphasised the camaraderie and how people helped each other. We grew up in the Holocaust’s shadow.”
Her mother’s desire for the widest possible audience is owed in part to the memory of a young boy she met inside Auschwitz. “All day he would sit on the heater duct that spanned the barracks… his head was shaven and he would sway back and forth,” she recalls. He kept to himself until the day he ran to her in tears. “‘My name is Schmuel,’ he cried. ‘I am nine years old and my time has come.’” He begged her to say kaddish – the Jewish prayer for the dead – on his behalf. “Remember this day, this date. Remember my name.’”
“I felt a cold wave of panic pass through my spine, “ she recalls. “I did not know what date it was, nor the day. I would forget Schmuel, his memory, his suffering, his eyes, his life, lost and anonymous among the bodies piled in that room by the hospital.” So she looked at the number tattooed on her arm. “This will be your kaddish,” she told him before he vanished.
She rolls up her sleeve to show me the number, faint but legible on her pale skin. When I ask her where Schmuel came from, she pauses and her doleful green eyes gaze into the far away. “Actually,” she says, returning to the moment, “he spoke Hungarian to me. He must have been Hungarian. I have never given it thought.” Another chink of remembrance is ­dislodged in my presence. She travels back to the cold, bare barracks in an instant. “I remember vividly how it happened. I was standing ­facing that way,” she points as she reimagines the scene. Oscar Schwartz tells me later that this happened often during their afternoons together.
Her memoir opens with the pre-war ­frivolity of a girl in love with her best light-blue organza dress and the warmth of her family’s three-storey apartment overlooking gardens where swish young Bratislavans met for coffee and strudel. She was playing with her silver figurines on the dining table when the German army, “rigid with rifles”, marched through the streets. She conveys the creeping sense of dread drawn from adult conversation, her parents’ intense whispering, the cold-shouldering by friends she’d played with in the park weeks ­earlier, until the carefree lightness of childhood’s distractions disappear altogether. Almost overnight little Eva becomes a mature woman, playing for keeps in a perilous hell.
She assumed responsibilities for her grand­parents, her siblings and her parents. She washed, cleaned, ran errands, walked miles for food, alert to the risk of capture and the threat of persecution, as increasingly grotesque rules and curfews curbed her family’s freedom; she hid inside the Jewish ghetto, confined to a tiny flat with 18 others in the spring of 1943; when her father fanned his children out to sympathetic contacts she and Marta were sent to the town of Nitra, 75km away. Here she was captured and tortured before the two girls were herded onto a cattle train to Auschwitz.
The students outside the room where we sit gather around an exhibition of historical photos. There are mass graves, and a terrified young boy with his hands above his head at gunpoint in the Warsaw ghetto – images that survivors like Eva carry with them always. I lean forward so as not to miss a word she says. She saw these things with her own eyes and there is nothing black and white or sepia-toned about her quiet accounting of the madness and mayhem.
Most members of her immediate family resettled happily in Australia but the suffering, loss and terror of a time “when lives were saved and lost in minutes” claws and scratches through the comfortable security of their suburban existence. Even though 70 years of freedom separates the here and now from all that happened then, reminders leap from the shadows to dog her peace of mind. Even now she sleeps with the hall light on and the bedroom door locked. Even now she often wakes around 4am to the sound of boots on concrete as if she’ll be hauled out of bed for the interrogations and beatings at Nitra detention centre or the pre-dawn roll calls of Auschwitz. She still carries food in her pockets or her bag whenever she leaves her house because the ravenous hunger that gnawed at her might strike again. The sardines she eats every evening satisfy a craving that stems from the concentration camp, when non-Jewish prisoners feasted on these oily delicacies from their Red Cross food parcels. They would flick the tails up to the ceiling. At night little Eva climbed up on the windowsills to peel them off for nourishment.
Even now she can’t abide the sound of children crying for it reminds her of the starving toddlers separated from their mothers in camp. She shudders as she describes the sound of the women’s anguish, their shrill cries as they banged on the door of the barracks screaming for the tiny offspring who whimpered and wept incessantly until death muzzled them. If she hears a child crying in a supermarket aisle or walking along the street she can’t help herself. “I go and play with it. When my babies cried, Ben used to stop me picking them up immediately. He’d say, ‘Let them cry for a little bit’.”
Eva’s daughter Aviva recalls taking her twin boys to crèche over a decade ago in the company of her mother. “One of them clung to me crying and howling so that the staff had to peel him out of my arms. My mum ran out of the room. When I got into the car she said to me: ‘Don’t ever do that to me again’. She lives constantly with the emotional scars. They manifest themselves on a daily basis,” Aviva says.
Sometimes the simplest things rear at her out of nowhere: a pair of black leather boots Aviva used to wear reminded Eva of the Gestapo; the sight of the twins playing on a stairwell, peering through the bannister rails, would startle her composure. Once, when the twins were young, Eva sat sobbing at a Sabbath dinner with gratitude and grief, remembering how she and her sister Marta had been mistaken for twins in Auschwitz. This quirk of fate spared them.
“To be a twin in Auschwitz meant to stay alive, but at a cost,” she writes of their removal to a barracks that was “dark, dirty, crowded – except that those inside were pregnant women, twins and people with genetic disabilities”. Here Dr Josef Mengele would stroll past the bunks. “His gaze was almost paternal, perversely caring, but it was cold.” He would order the children to gather in a circle for a game of “the farmer wants a wife”. Once he’d chosen a farmer, that child had to select a wife. “Whoever the farmer chose was taken away for medical experiments, and usually never returned… We saw things together that no human being should ever see. And we watched in silence, never sharing a word.”
Both Eva and Marta were given injections by Mengele. They have no idea for what purpose but each sister would go on to suffer multiple miscarriages. Eva bore five children. She vowed in Auschwitz to nurture as many as she could.
Marta lives in Israel, where she leads tours to Auschwitz. “We’ve never really talked about what happened,” Eva says. “I went with her once but I didn’t interrupt or question her.” The ­sisters talk weekly. “But when it comes to the Holocaust it’s like we’re ashamed of it somehow. I was often dependent on her and she was dependent on me. Maybe the fact that we were humiliated together affects us.”
This inability to talk about the Holocaust is something that afflicted survivors throughout Melbourne’s Jewish community. “It was unspeakable,” Eva writes. “Unutterable. Too vivid. It was as if to mention it was to confirm that it was over – and perhaps it wasn’t. And so my experiences and emotions played themselves out in my head at night. They tormented me and isolated me from my parents, even from Marta. We couldn’t communicate even though we had shared so much. Our tongues were bound in a shameful silence, heavy with some sort of guilt or remorse… But the silence resolved nothing; it only made things worse.”
Eva and Marta attended early meetings of a child survivors’ group that formed in 1990. Founding member Nina Stone says: “We each told a story. Some people walked out. Some people were crying. Up until then we held it inside us. Children didn’t hear, they didn’t see, they didn’t feel, [or so] our parents thought.”
Melbourne woman Sarah Saaroni did not reveal her experience for 40 years. She began by making clay sculptures of scenes imprinted on her soul. They are on show at the museum. Also exhibited is a picture book created by the child of a mechanic who brought home a cassette recording of Eva’s story that he’d found when he was fixing her car. In May, survivors will seal a time capsule with testimonies and memorabilia for opening in 2065.
Trauma thickens like the roots of a tree pushing upwards until cracks split the ground above. Psychologist Paul Valent, who interviewed Eva for his 1994 book Child Survivors of the Holocaust, says new stories are always emerging as people grasp the chance before they die. “Many in their 70s and 80s are speaking for the first time. The more they have ­fulfilled their lives, the longer they have survived the threat of annihilation, the safer they feel, then they can start to talk.” Eva felt the same haste to publish while still fit and well.
One story begets another, loosening tongues. Former Vietnam veteran Clarrie Rule rarely ­discusses the atrocities of that conflict but on meeting Eva for the first time he spoke with a candour that his son Richard had not heard before. “These things leave a terrible mark,” Richard says. “And listening to the two of them, it was as if they both wear that mark.”
Eva says she’s felt freer to explore the ­Holocaust with her grandchildren than with her children, as the younger generation takes another step clear. Her granddaughter Jess ­introduced her boyfriend Oscar Schwartz to the project. Oscar had heard Eva speak at his school. “We had Holocaust studies shoved down our throat but I was too immature then,” he admits. “It made me not want to engage at all.” His grandfather, Andor Schwartz, had fled Romania in 1942. His grandmother survived Auschwitz. He knows the geography of trauma. His grandfather’s memoir is full of sorrow at losing every member of his extended family.
Holocaust memoirs offer grim portraits of inhumanity. Why midwife another? “I was close enough to Eva to feel comfortable but far enough away to be objective,” Oscar says. “I didn’t really have anything to do with older people other than my grandparents but we got on really, really well. We have similar interests. We both love ­literature, we found a lot to talk about.”
He’d record their conversation then finesse the narrative. “When we were talking I’d direct my questions towards ‘Who were you with? What did you hear? What did you see? What time of year was this?’ ” He was aware at times that his gentle prodding spun her into the very place she’d escaped from but the childlike innocence of the 13-year-old whose voice we hear makes this memoir compelling. “She would become detached, right back in the moment, but she was incredibly stoic, occasionally humorous, mostly matter-of-fact and driven of purpose. I wanted her story to come out through the facts but it took time for us to choose impressions and memories that illustrate the wider experience.”
He would always leave Eva’s study in a dark mood. “Sometimes I was like, ‘I don’t understand how you can live with this trauma’.”
“It’s there all the time but sometimes it comes to the fore,” she acknowledges. “I have pain but no anger. To talk about it and perpetuate the memory of it is more important than anger. That little boy who asked with his last breath to be remembered,” she says of Schmuel, and her eyes flash with a fierce determination to honour the vow she made: “To tell the world so this will never happen again.”
When she leaves this Earth the number inked into her flesh will vanish from our sight but the things she bore witness to have been remembered and inscribed so that we never forget.

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