[I haven’t had the chance to think this busy weekend, let alone blog. For some reason, though, I can’t get out of my head the WWII stories of a few people I met, long after the war, when they were old and gray. I’m therefore resurrecting this post because I think it tells a story that shouldn’t be forgotten.]
While the Holocaust is an uneraseable blot on human history, it certainly revealed the character, not only of the bad guys, but also of the good. Longtime readers of my blog will recognize this post, which I first did a little over a year ago. It’s a story, I think, that can’t be told too often, so forgive me for publishing it again.
Harry was one of the best people I ever knew. He wasn’t witty or educated or wise — indeed, many considered him a bit of a buffoon — but he was an unusually kind, ethical man. Not only that, through one of those quirks of fate, his honorable life intersected with that of Miriam, a woman of rare bravery and resourcefulness. (I’ve changed all names but for Harry’s, to protect the privacy of those still alive, but the story is true, word for word.) Although their lives didn’t touch until long after the war, I’ve used Harry as my starting point for both their stories.
Harry and his sister Esther were born to a Jewish shopkeeping family in Berlin sometime during or immediately after World War I. They lived an ordinary middle class life until 1933, when their world ended. The family tried to keep going for a while, but in 1935 they could no longer pretend to normalcy. It was in that year that Harry was attacked by some Brown Shirts and beaten around the head so badly he suffered permanent neurological damage. When I met him forty plus years later, the left side of his face drooped, and he had some speech difficulties. Additionally, he had an endearing goofiness that drew people to him, coupled with a complete lack of cynicism. Luckily, his parents were able (God knows how) to send Harry to England and Esther to what-was-then Palestine (now Israel).
Unfortunately, Harry and Esther’s parents couldn’t get themselves out of German. They remained there and were eventually rounded up by the Nazis and taken to Dachau. I think they must have been very good and nice people, because their German shop girl, Gretel, followed them to Dachau. That is, she didn’t immure herself in the camp with them, but she moved into the town and bent all her energies to keeping them alive — something she did at great risk to herself. Sadly, she failed, and Harry and Esther’s parents were two more people destroyed by the Holocaust.
After the war, Harry, who had served with distinction in the British military despite the handicaps caused by the beating he received, came back to Germany looking for his parents. He learned that they had died in a concentration camp, but he also learned about Gretel’s efforts to keep them alive. He then went looking for Gretel, and discovered her living in great destitution. Although he barely remembered her from his childhood — and she was much older than he was — Harry offered to marry her and care for her for the rest of her life. She accepted.
Either naturally, or as a result of her war experiences, Gretel was a sickly woman, and Harry knew that marriage to Gretel would not be easy — and it wasn’t. Nevertheless, as I can attest, Harry was a devoted and loving husband until the day Gretel died, more than thirty years later.
Meanwhile, in Palestine, Harry’s sister, Esther, met and married Alex, one of my parents’ friends. Alex and his brother, Max, had spent the war years in the British military. After the war, Max met Miriam, a Holocaust survivor. Miriam’s story is a book in itself.
Miriam was from a middle-class Jewish family in a suburb of Prague, in Czechoslovakia. When the Germans came, she and her family were rounded up. Indeed, Miriam’s entire school was rounded up. She once showed me a picture of her first or second grade class at school, 35 sweet, round-faced children, and told me she was the only survivor.
The Nazis immediately killed her father, but Miriam, her mother and her sister were sent to Therezienstadt. From there, the three of them were shipped to Auschwitz.
On their arrival at Auschwitz, Miriam and her family were put in line to pass Mengele’s review. Miriam, all of 14 years old, immediately noted that the old, the very young, and the sick, were sent off to Mengele’s left, while the healthy went to his right. When she reached Mengele, he told her sister and mother to go right. He then looked at Miriam, who is very sallow, pronounced the word “jaundice,” and directed her to the left. Miriam spoke up: “Dr. Mengele, I’m healthy. Look at the whites of my eye — they’re not yellow. I can work.” Mengele looked her over again, saw that she was indeed capable of working, and redirected her to the right.
By the time Miriam got out of the line for the gas chamber, however, she’d lost her mother and her sister. As you may or may not know, Auschwitz was enormous — it was a huge complex of death and labor. For the next two years, Miriam, a young teen, survived alone in Auschwitz, without ever finding her family. As the war was wrapping up, though, Miriam was transferred to Bergen-Belsen.
Bergen-Belsen, while it did not have gas chambers, was in many ways worse than Auschwitz. Auschwitz was hell, but at least it had organizing principles that gave people something to hang onto. Bergen-Belsen was pure chaos — a stinkhole of mud, death and disease (it was here that Anne Frank actually died).
Surprisingly, in the midst of this Dante-esque Hell, Miriam was reunited with her mother and sister. Miriam eventually ended up in Israel, where she met Max (whose brother Alex married Esther, who is the sister of Harry, the man about who started this post).
Fast forward to the 1980s. Harry and Gretel lived in Germany; Miriam and Max lived in Israel; Alex and Esther lived in America. None had children. At the beginning of the 1980s, Alex (Miriam’s brother) died, and Esther (Harry’s sister) died less than two weeks later.
Alex and Esther had written reciprocal wills, each leaving his (or her) half of the marital estate to the other, with the survivor of the two leaving his (or her) combined estate to his (or her) sibling. This meant that when Alex died, everything went to Esther. And when Esther died less than two weeks later, everything went to Harry. Harry, however, thought this wasn’t fair. He knew that, had Esther lived long enough to change her will, she would have left half of her estate to Alex’s brother and his wife (Max and Miriam). So Harry did something unheard of: he announced that he was, as he said, “done with beating through the bushes” and he was going to give half the estate to Max and Miriam. The estate lawyers were agog. They had never heard of something like this before, and did not even believe it could be done as a matter of law.
With pressure from Harry, and the cooperation of the Probate Court, however, it was done, and Max and Miriam duly inherited half the estate. My family lost contact with Harry years ago, and I’m sure he’s died. However, whenever I think of a righteous man, Harry — who married an older woman he didn’t know or love, because he owed a debt to her, and who gave up half of a valuable estate because it was the right thing to do — springs to mind. And when I think of someone who survived the inferno of the Holocaust, my mind always goes to his sister-in-law Miriam, the the young girl who faced down Dr. Mengele. (She, by the way, is still alive, although she is by now completely infirm because of injuries she suffered in the camps.)