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."