Voices from the dead — first contact stories from those who survived the Holocaust

Auschwitz survivorsAt the end of 1945, my mother, who spent the war years in a Japanese concentration camp in Indonesia, was repatriated to her former home in Palestine at the end of 1945. (Her story is here.) Once her health recovered, she joined the Haganah and was assigned the job of helping to bypass the British blockade stopping Holocaust survivors from coming to the renewed Jewish homeland that the British had promised them.

Some of these survivors were utterly alone in the world. Others had family that had already arrived in Palestine, either before or after the war. My mother’s job was to deliver this second class of survivor to those relatives.

Mom, who had spent almost four years witnessing and experiencing Japanese atrocities, was left utterly shattered by one of these encounters. She knew that she was taking a young Polish man to his mother. Because of the language barrier, however, my mother did not know that the man’s mother, like her son, was herself a camp survivor who had arrived in Palestine only a short time before. This woman therefore fully understood what happened in the camps, and had resigned herself to the fact that she would never again see her family. Had Mom had this information, she might have been able to soften the impact that seeing her living son had on the woman.

In the deep of night, Mom and the young man crept stealthily past British sentries and police to reach the woman’s door. A quick knock, the door opened, and the woman saw her son, whom she’d last seen years before as they were separated in the camps and who she was certain was dead.  And yet therefore her stood her living son.

The woman knew she couldn’t scream, lest she bring the British hear, but she was so overwhelmed by her emotions that she had to do something — and what she did was to pull her hair out by the roots, bringing the flesh with it. Despite her own war-time experiences, Mom had never seen such an overwhelming physical expression of extreme emotion. There the woman stood, mouth silently agape, blood dripping down her face, huge raw patches on her head, and clumps of hair and skin in her hands, completely undone by seeing her son return from the dead.

I thought of that when I read about a project that Yad Vashem has undertaken, called First Letters:

Researchers at Yad Vashem have embarked on an unprecedented project called “First Letters,” examining the very first dispatches sent by Holocaust survivors in the days, weeks, and months after liberation to let their loved ones know they were alive.

There is of course no shortage of books, films, and millions of words devoted to the Holocaust and those who lived through it. Yet most personal accounts emerged only years and even decades after the war, when survivors were finally ready to revisit their horrifying memories through the mollifying filter of time. “First Letters” is unparalleled in that its messages reveal the very real and complex emotions of Holocaust victims who were just coming to terms with the atrocities they faced. In essence, these letters represent the most original source Holocaust scholars have ever had.

The fact that there are letters is another reminder of why Jews stand as a living indictment of evil. Other people have been murdered en masse, the world over. The Muslims committed a slow-mo genocide in India that probably accounted for the death and enslavement of tens of millions of Hindus over the century. Mao obliterated perhaps 70,000,000 of his own people in China, while Stalin killed millions of Kulaks in Soviet lands. The Leftist killing spree continues unabated in North Korea. Meanwhile, the Muslim killing spree also continues unabated from Africa throughout the Middle East.

None of the people who died, however, have been People of the Book. Their deaths are the deaths of nameless, faceless masses. When they died, nothing was left by which to remember them.  Evil had successfully obliterated them.

Jews, however, because of the literacy that is a hallmark of Jewish people at all times and in all places, were able to individualize each loss. The dead left their testaments behind, and the living wrote, and wrote, and wrote, making sure the world not only remembered the Holocaust, but remembered the individual dead. Through this fierce literacy, they handily defeated Stalin’s quip that “one death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” Because of the Jews’ literacy, each death was a tragedy.