domingo, 28 de junio de 2015

Auschwitz, memory and truth: how trauma passes down the generations

Alison Pick: 'My family had repressed the horror of the gas chambers.
The unfelt grief had been passed from my grandmother
to my father to me, like an heirloom.

I was a Christian child. I went to Sunday school. In the cool church basement, I drew pictures of Jesus and his disciples. Then one day, in the playground, another child approached me. “Your dad is Jewish,” he said. “No he’s not,” I replied instinctively. But deep down, in some profoundly buried part of myself, I knew this was true.

I knew it was true while at the same time not understanding what it meant. Jewish was something that belonged to my friend Jordan – the one who had accused me – but what did it mean to be Jewish? Jordan brought matzah (unleavened bread) to school on Passover, and went to Hebrew school. He was studying for something called a barmitzvah. That was all I knew.
The year passed. Despite the fact I was almost 13, the Easter bunny still came. My younger sister and I hunted for eggs in the rooms of our suburban home.
Easter, I knew, meant rebirth. It meant dying and coming back to life. I felt, deep down, that rebirth could happen to me too.
I came to know the truth about my family’s history slowly. I first learned the facts – my great-grandparents died in Auschwitz; my grandparents came to Canada and hid their true identities. They had been assimilated, non-practising Jews and Canada in the 1940s was hugely antisemitic. They wanted no part of it.
Later, as a teenager, I understood this more profoundly – what it meant to hide who you are. The effort that had gone into their charade, and the sacrifice.
Even later, I came to understand it on a bodily level, deep in my cells below my rational mind. I suffer from depression. My family had repressed the horror of the gas chambers. The unfelt grief had been passed from my grandmother to my father to me, like an heirloom.
Intergenerational trauma can be difficult to make sense of. It is like saying that, 80 years ago, my grandmother tripped on an apple core and now my ankle is sprained as a result. This transmission of trauma has been corroborated with research. The legacy of the Holocaust was influencing – three generations later – my daily experience of being alive.
I set about to reclaim what had been lost. Judaism resonated for me at a profound level, and I studied to convert. As Judaism is matrilineal and my mother isn’t Jewish, I had to take a year-long intensive class and meet monthly with my sponsoring rabbi.
For me, this was frustrating and challenging. My relatives died in Auschwitz. Shouldn’t I already be accepted as Jewish?
But I was pleased to do this. I wanted to belong.
Both were true.
Every family story has a thousand other stories contained within it, like an unending series of nesting dolls. I set about learning more about my ancestors, and who they had been. I have a cousin, a historian, who I respect deeply. She is a decade older than me; 10 years of extra conversations with our grandparents. I told her how drawn I was feeling to our family’s lost Judaism. She empathised, and told me she had gone through something similar. We talked about my grandfather; she remembered, she told me, that he used to hate Christmas. “He looked so sad and despondent among all the presents,” she said.
This made sense to me. Our grandfather was Jewish. There must have been part of him that resented pretending otherwise, even if he believed it was for the safety of his family. Later, though, my cousin changed her mind. She had been thinking and had revised her opinion. “He loved Christmas,” she said. And, when she said it, I realised this was true too. We have pictures of our grandfather not despondent, but laughing beside the Christmas tree. And though I was just a child when he died – not yet batmitzvah age – I remember this too.
I had a deep desire to settle on one version of the story. As a writer, I had a semi-conscious hope that by organising it into a consistent narrative, I could finally heal my pain. But the problem with words is that they are fixed in time, in a way that history and memory are not.
A family story varies wildly between members. I knew this. What it took me time to understand was the multiplicity of stories that existed within me.
The depression I suffer from has always felt pre-formed, ancient, like it was given to me in its entirety at birth. My father experiences something similar. He calls it “the bad blood” as though there is a faucet deep within him; when the faucet is turned on it floods his body with weight. His mother, my granny, was melancholic too. When I was a child we spent our summers with her. I remember her crying at the end of August when we loaded up our family car and said goodbye. She told me she hated being alone.
Later in life, she took Prozac, which helped. But Granny had been exceptionally close to her own mother, Marianne. We have pictures of the two of them skiing in Europe before the war, their arms thrown around each other like sisters. Marianne was murdered in Auschwitz. How could Granny not be depressed? My cousin objected to this depiction of Granny too – and, again, she was right. I went back, remembering again. Granny was the life of any party. Dripping in jewels, she was feminine and strong. A flirt, a worthy opponent on the tennis court, an excellent conversationalist for anyone on any topic.
She loved being alive.
This was true too.
To wrestle with a family story is to be humbled as a writer and as a person. You cannot include everyone’s versions. Sometimes you cannot even nail down the truth as it exists within yourself.
More years have passed. I have converted to the Judaism of my father’s family. I have a five-year-old daughter who I take to synagogue on Saturdays. In the basement of the shul – so much like the basement of the church where I grew up – there is a miniature ark stuffed with toy Torahs. The leader asks, “Who can help me open the ark?”
My daughter rushes forward. She prises the door open and chooses the biggest stuffed Torah she can find. With the other small “Israelites” she parades it around the basement proudly. She has done this for years, and every time I cry. I see myself in her; I see my cousin, who I love dearly, and my granny, who was changeable and full of human contradiction. I see my great-grandmother Marianne, who I never knew, who died in the gas chamber.
A long line of women bent low with history’s weight; a line of joyous women celebrating their stories. Both are true. And nothing can change that.

Survivor returns 70 years after internment

Holocaust survivor Sol Lurie and Laurie Gang in the lobby of the Elephant Hotel in Weimar, known as Hitler’s favorite hotel, where visiting Jewish survivors and their guests stayed while attending the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Buchenwald.     
Photos courtesy Laurie Gang

On his 15th birthday in 1945, left Buchenwald, the sixth Nazi concentration camp in which he was imprisoned.
To mark his 85th birthday, he went back to Buchenwald, joining other former prisoners and their families, German leaders, and schoolchildren to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the German camp’s liberation by American troops.
“I was also at the 65th anniversary, and I’ll be back for the 75th,” Lurie vowed in a phone conversation from his home in Monroe after his return. “Germany has really changed so much. I find there’s less anti-Semitism there than any place in Europe.”
The Lithuanian native was accompanied to the ceremony by Laurie Gang of Monroe, a member of the Henry Riklis Holocaust Memorial Committee.
“I’ve been sort of looking out for him since his wife, Raja, died in January, so when his children couldn’t come he asked me,” said Gang. “He was much stronger than I thought he was. In fact, all the survivors I met were so full of life and had such stories to tell. We even met one survivor from Austria who was 102 years old, and he looked great.”
Lurie, who frequently speaks at schools about his experiences, said he tries to teach students respect for others.
“I teach the kids to love, not hate,” said Lurie. “That’s the most important thing. My payment is getting a letter from a child. That’s enough for me.”
Lurie said he could trace his family roots in Lithuania to 1492, when his ancestors fled the Spanish Inquisition. At the start of the war, he was living with his parents and three older brothers in the town of Kovno. 
Gang said each of the 70 returning survivors was assigned a student volunteer by the German organizing committee to escort them during their April 9-13 stay. Lurie’s student arranged for him and Gang to have a private tour of Buchenwald and for members of the press to meet them there.
Gang said his interview was seen on the TV news in Germany. “It was like he was coming back as royalty.”
Also impressive were the accommodations at the Elephant Hotel in Weimar, which Gang described as “the most beautiful five-star hotel” — and where Hitler kept a suite.
“Can you imagine it was Hitler’s favorite hotel, and it was so thrilling to see all these Jews taking it over while Hitler turned in his grave,” she recalled.
“It was just such an amazing experience,” said Gang. “Sol ran into people he knew from the camp who he remembered because many of them went together to live at an orphanage in France after the war.”
Among the 522 boys taken to the orphanage was author Elie Wiesel, who was in Lurie’s bloc at Buchenwald. The Nobel Prize winner did not attend the commemoration.
“Oh sure, I knew him,” said Lurie, who carries with him a photo showing him in the group with Wiesel at the time of liberation.
Gang said commemoration events included a program involving some of the survivors, including Lurie, who was paired with a former American soldier who refused to call himself a liberator because he “stumbled” on the camp after its gates were open. Although the program was in German, guests were provided with a listening device translating it into a variety of languages.
“What I found fascinating was that it was primarily a young crowd, many of whom had traveled from other parts of Germany,” said Gang. 
Lurie’s father and three brothers survived Dachau; his mother was killed two days before liberation. However, the surviving family members returned to Lithuania and got trapped behind the Iron Curtain.
When asked at the orphanage if he had any relatives in America, Lurie recalled he had an uncle living there, and a cousin later saw his name on a list.
“They asked me if I wanted to come to America, so I came in 1947 to the greatest country in the world,” said Lurie. 
He didn’t see his father again until 1969, when Lurie was able to get a six-month visa for him to visit, although he had to leave the rest of the family behind to ensure his return. One of Lurie’s brothers was murdered in 1952. Another brother immigrated to Israel in 1973, the other in 1976.
“In my mother’s family of eight brothers and sisters not one survived,” said Lurie. “My father’s siblings were shot at the beginning of the war.”
Lurie settled in Brooklyn and had a career doing home repairs, plumbing, and electrical work before retiring to Monroe. He has three children and several grand- and step-grandchildren. 

miércoles, 10 de junio de 2015

Germany's oldest student, 102, gets PhD denied by Nazis

A 102-year-old German woman has become the world's oldest person to be awarded a doctorate on Tuesday, almost 80 years after the Nazis prevented her from sitting her final exam.

Ingeborg Rapoport (then Syllm) finished her medical studies in 1937 and wrote her doctoral thesis on diphtheria - a serious problem in Germany at the time. 
But because of Nazi oppression she has had to wait almost eight decades before being awarded her PhD.

Her mother was a Jewish pianist.
So, under Adolf Hitler's anti-Semitic race laws, Ingeborg was refused entry to the final oral exam. She had written confirmation from Hamburg University that she would have received her doctorate "if the applicable laws did not prohibit Ms Syllm's admission to the doctoral exam due to her ancestry". 

'For the victims'

Now the university has set right that wrong. 
Three professors from Hamburg University's medical faculty travelled last month to Ingeborg's sitting room in east Berlin to test her on the work she carried out in pre-war Germany.
They were impressed and a special ceremony took place at Hamburg University Medical Centre on Tuesday, in which she finally received the PhD that the Nazis stole from her. 
"It was about the principle," she said. "I didn't want to defend my thesis for my own sake. After all, at the age of 102 all of this wasn't exactly easy for me. I did it for the victims [of the Nazis]."
To prepare for last month's exam, Ingeborg enlisted friends to help her research online what developments there had been in the field of diphtheria over the last 80 years. 
"The university wanted to correct an injustice. They were very patient with me. And for that I'm grateful," she told Der Tagesspiegel newspaper.
Grey line

A life in medicine

1912 - Born in Cameroon (Germany colony) 
1938 - After studying medicine in Hamburg, prevented by Nazis from defending PhD thesis on diphtheria
1938 - Emigrates to US, meets Mitja Rapoport 
1952 - Moves to East Berlin with family
1958 - Qualifies as paediatrician, becoming professor in 1964
1973 - Retires but continues her work as scientist into her eighties
Grey line
In 1938, as Germany became an increasingly dangerous place for Jews, Ingeborg fled to the US where she went back to university, finally to qualify as a doctor. 
Within a few years she met her husband, the biochemist Samuel Mitja Rapoport, who was himself a Jewish refugee from Vienna.

Infant mortality

But, by the 1950s, Ingeborg suddenly found herself once again on the wrong side of the authorities. 
The McCarthy anti-communist trials meant that Ingeborg and her husband were at risk because of their left-wing views. So they fled again - back to Germany. 
This time Ingeborg Rapoport went to communist East Berlin, where she worked as a paediatrician.
Eventually she became a paediatrics professor, holding Europe's first chair in neonatal medicine, at the renowned Charite hospital in East Berlin.
She was given a national prize for her work in dramatically reducing infant mortality in East Germany.
But for all her achievements, winning back at the age of 102 the doctorate stolen from her by the Nazis must rank among her most impressive.

lunes, 8 de junio de 2015

We were the youngest survivors

Priska with Hana

They were three Jewish women carrying one big secret. Priska Lowenbeinova, Rachel Friedman and Anka Nathanova never met but they all shared one thing in common: they were pregnant when they were captured by the Nazis.

All marched past the Auschwitz II-Birkenau gates without their husbands. They each concealed their secret under baggy clothes, hiding the small mounds on their five-stone frames. They were all sent to a German slave labour camp to make components for the Luftwaffe, before being taken on a 17-day train journey to the Mauthausen death camp in Austria, from which they were liberated by the US army in May 1945 - 70 years ago this month. 
The consequences of discovery would have been horrific. At Birkenau, they eluded Dr Josef Mengele - the SS "Angel of Death" who took sadistic delight in performing torturous experiments on twins, dwarfs and pregnant women before sending them to the gas chambers. 
When he caught one pregnant woman who had tried to fool him, he allowed her to give birth before strapping her down next to her new-born. For five days, she watched her baby starve, before being allowed to administer morphine to the child.
Anka with Eva
Now, Priska, Rachel and Anka's story has been told in a new book by journalist Wendy Holden. They respectively gave birth to Hana, Mark and Eva - the "miracle babies" and believed to be the youngest survivors of the Holocaust. The three babies, now grandparents, were born within weeks of each other and yet they met only five years ago.
The launch of Born Survivors in Mauthausen this month on the 70th anniversary of the liberation, was "emotional" for Holden. She says that watching the "babies" stand beside international dignitaries at the event "was incredible. I could not help but imagine, 'what would Hitler have thought?'" 
Holden has spent the past 18 months researching the mothers' stories. During that time, she has visited the graves of all three. She says: "It was very important to me that I did that. I collected stones from my beach in Suffolk and I took them there. I cried every time. 
"When I went to the mothers' graves I did say one thing to each of them. I asked the mothers for their blessing to tell their stories. These were three remarkable women - and this is a remarkable story. I have not stopped crying throughout writing this book. What saved it for me, weeping as I wrote, was knowing that there was a happy ending. This was a story of courage and defiance. 
"All the mothers and babies would say it was luck that they were not singled out by the SS guards, luck they were not tripped up on the march, luck that they didn't cut or hurt themselves and get something that could have killed them. They would say it was luck that they were given huge baggy clothing to cover themselves.
"I am very interested in war and history yet nothing has ever been written about the babies who were born in the Holocaust. I consider them to be the voices of the voiceless - they were exceptional women for their era.
"What I did not expect was how close I would become to the babies and how close they would become themselves. They have called themselves siblings of the heart and I am the honorary sibling." 
Mark, who was born in an open wagon en route to Mauthausen, says it was a "huge surprise" to discover others had survived similar circumstances. 
He says: "We never knew that there were other babies that had survived such circumstances. 
"My mother would talk about her experiences in the concentration camp and she would start crying. The hardest part for her was talking about her brothers and sisters who did not survive. She was one of nine, and five survived. The five were old enough to be of an age where they were strong enough to work. 
"For me, this is not a story about survival over adversity - it was just that we managed to survive. But my mother did not give herself enough credit. Even after the war, she never dwelt on how bad her knees were, or having open-heart surgery; she was always saying that others had it worse. 
"If anyone suggested that she survived the war and was able to bring out a baby alive because she was strong, she would say that the difference between the people who survived the war and the people who died, was luck. A big part in her thinking was that my natural father was the strongest person she knew. She just thought if anyone could have survived the Holocaust, it would have been him." 
Sadly, however none of the fathers survived - and the mothers had no other children.
As for going back to Europe, Mark says: "It is still difficult when I get to Mauthausen, or any of the specific sites where bad things happened. I can picture the people who would have been part of my world and family if it were not for what had happened." 
Mark, a doctor, grew up in Munich before moving to Israel, and then America. But ask the German speaker if he considers himself to be German, and he answers: "No. I am as far from being a German as possible. When I was 10, they asked me what I wanted to be. I said I wanted to be a soldier so I could kill as many Germans as possible.
''As soon as my mother got a sense that I was growing up with a visceral hatred of Germans, she spent a lot of time talking me down. Her big message was: if you turn into a person who wants revenge, then they have taken your soul. It took me a long time to accept that.
"The first I learnt of my mother's story, was that I was born on a train. I did not recognise that as being too horrible. But I had no idea how horrendous the situation was. I did not picture it until I had to deliver a baby - it was difficult to think about she went through," he says, regretting that Mengele was never captured like Adolf Eichmann.
"When I think about what Mengele did, I have to consciously drive it away from my mind. " 
Eva has committed to telling her story in schools across the globe in a bid to boost Holocaust education. She says: "None of us had another sibling and the coincidence with our stories are just so remarkable. My mother was always able to talk about what happened to her. I knew all about it from a very young age, I was like a sponge - always asking questions.
"I think being pregnant had a lot to do with my mother's survival. She always felt she would survive despite being surrounded by death. A lot of people committed suicide after the war, but I gave her something to live for. She had no family but she had me, and had to get on with it." 
During her speaking engagements, she has had a couple of hostile experiences. She recalls: "On the whole, people want to hear my mother's story. People can identify with one family's story - they cannot identify with six million. 
"But I once spoke at the history society in Oxford University, and one man said there were no gas chambers outside of Poland. I said: 'Yes there were, I was almost killed in one'. 
"At another school, a sixth-former would not hear me speak. His family were members of a far-right group. 
"I just take it on the chin and carry on. My mother would sometimes get upset while we watched the news. She asked if I was making a difference. I said, 'that is not a reason not to try'."
Hana, the third miracle baby, hopes readers take the book's strong messages: "We all must remember the horrors of hatred against a difference of beliefs, and that it is possible to survive even the worst… The most important message I got was to not squander my opportunities in life, as I must prove myself worthy of survival."
Working on the book with Holden was "emotional… my mother has not portrayed herself as a victim, but as a survivor."
She continues: "My mother spoke occasionally about her experiences: hunger, cold, fear, beating. She spoke about her older sister and parents, and her young husband, my father.
"The two things that kept my mother alive was the wish to be a mother and to see her love, my father again. The latter, alas, did not happen."

Jewish Violinist Finishes Father's Piece That Nazis Broke Up

 In 1933, the promising young Jewish-German violinist Ernest Drucker left the stage midway through a Brahms concerto in Cologne at the behest of Nazi officials, in one of the first anti-Semitic acts of the new regime.
Now, more than 80 years later, his son, Grammy Award-winning American violinist Eugene Drucker, has completed his father's interrupted work. With tears in his eyes, Drucker performed an emotional rendition of the Brahms Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 77, over the weekend with the Raanana Symphonette Orchestra.
"I think he would feel a sense of completion. I think in some ways many aspects of my career served that purpose for him," the 63-year-old Drucker said of his father, who passed away in 1993. "There is all this emotional energy and intensity loaded into my associations to this piece."
Thursday's concert, and a second performance Sunday night, commemorated the Judischer Kulturbund — a federation of Jewish musicians in Nazi Germany who were segregated so as not to "sully" Aryan culture.
After the humiliation in Cologne, the elder Drucker became a central player in the Kulturbund, a unique historical phenomenon with a mixed legacy.
On one hand, it gave Jews the opportunity to carry on with their cultural lives and maintain a sense — some would say the illusion — of normalcy in the midst of growing discrimination against them. On the other, it served a Nazi propaganda machine eager to portray a moderate face to the world. It was a prototype for the "Judenrat" system in which relatively privileged Jews naively operated under Nazi auspices all the way down the road to destruction.
Long before the Nazis placed Jews in ghettos and gassed them to death in concentration camps, they were mostly preoccupied with "purifying" German institutions with racist laws and street justice. Jews were fired from their government jobs, excluded from almost all organizations and public events and harassed into emigrating.
For the largely assimilated German Jews, who had a deep connection to the country's culture and history, the Kulturbund offered a much-needed creative outlet as their world was crumbling.
"They wanted to show the Germans why it was important to preserve us and why we were better than they thought we were. There was this delusional sense that this may alter their fate," said Orit Fogel-Shafran, general manager of the Raanana Symphonette Orchestra. "This was their mistake. They thought this gave them some sort of immunity."
Initially, the Nazi culture ministry granted the Kulturbund relative freedom, so long as its performers and audiences were exclusively Jewish.
At its height, thousands of musicians, theater actors and other performers took part, including some of Germany's most notable artists, at dozens of venues across the country. As the years progressed, however, and the Nazi ideology took deeper root, greater restrictions were imposed until eventually they could only perform Jewish works, with Bach and Beethoven off-limits.
The Kulturbund was reduced significantly after the pogroms of Kristallnacht in 1938 — when Nazi-incited riots marked the start of the campaign to destroy European Jewry. Musicians went underground or fled, like Drucker's father, who went to America.
Many found their way to the Holy Land where they helped establish what would later become the world-renowned Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. Most of those who stayed until the end in 1941 were sent to concentration camps.
Hillel Zori, a cellist and artistic director of the Raanana symphonette who initiated the event after much research, said he had mixed feelings. By organizing themselves, he says the Jews offered the Nazis a blueprint for "unwitting self-destruction." Still, he said he was in awe of the way they preserved their humanistic values through Germany's descent into genocide.
"They felt 'we are preserving our culture. We belong to the German culture,'" he said.
In many ways, Ernest Drucker's experience was a watershed moment that made the Kulturbund necessary. As a top student at the Cologne conservatory of music, he was scheduled to play the entire Brahms concerto at his graduation ceremony in the summer of 1933.
Shortly before the event, he noticed his name had been crossed off the program. His teacher threatened to resign if Drucker's name was not reinstated, and a compromise was reached with the school's newly installed Nazi administrators whereby Drucker could perform the first movement only before being replaced by a non-Jew. Drucker played in front of rows of Nazi Stormtroopers before being whisked offstage and ultimately into the refuge of the Kulturbund.
"This showed the writing on the wall. The bells were ringing at full volume," said Fogel-Shafran, who traces her own family history in Germany back several generations. "But the German Jews didn't want to believe it."
Drucker fled Germany in 1938 and moved to the U.S., where his son was born. The younger Drucker said the incident in Cologne was a "dramatic experience" for his father that stayed with him for years. "Music was practically everything to my father," he said.
Drucker, a founding member of the nine-time Grammy winning Emerson String Quartette, said he was not willing to criticize those who clung to their German culture in those difficult times.
"It may have lulled some people there into thinking that they had more security existentially than they really had," he said. "But it was an organization that kept the Jews culturally alive through the 1930s when they were increasingly segregated and kept out of most areas of personal fulfillment in the Third Reich."
Thursday's performance in the central Israeli city of Raanana was preceded by a panel discussing just such dilemmas, as well as a musical rendition of the Jewish prayer Kol Nidre, with archival black-and-white footage of the Kulturbund showing in the background along with its logo of a flame inside a Jewish Star of David.
Drucker said he didn't know if it was "my place to correct a history wrong." But backstage, after the performance, he was clearly moved.
"As a musician I feel like the circle is never completely closed," he said. "But I was standing there at one point ... and I really did start to think about my father."