I knew the program would be emotionally exhausting. But never could I anticipate Paul and Leah.
Paul Fryberg is an 86-year-old survivor of Auschwitz-Birkenau who made the 20-hour trip from Australia with his daughter Yvonne. He’s a large man with rapid speech and a thick Aussie accent. He had survived hell and ended up an orphan on the other side of the world.
Yet now, on our way to his birthplace of Lodz, he said, “I’m scared.” Like most survivors, Paul said he never return to Poland, but the Lodz Ghetto Judenrat kept burial records and, after 67 years, he’d located his father’s grave in the medieval Lodz cemetery and returned to give him a funeral.
He was a teenager when the Nazis herded his family into the ghetto. When his father's legs became too swollen to work, a German soldier shot him in the head; they showed Paul the picture they took for evidence. His mother and sister were burned, he believes, at Chelmno. Paul was shipped to Auschwitz-Birkenau, the main extermination camp.
Paul looked disoriented as we entered Birkenau, but quickly he remembered Dr. Mengele, silently waiting for the new arrivals off the trains, using just a one finger to indicate left or right: immediate death or slave labor.
The next day, we walked among the astounding headstones of the Lodz cemetery that told a story of this once thriving community of some 223,000 Jews before WWII. But Paul never forgot the taunts of the local Polish kids who made throat-slicing gestures and called out “Zhid, Zhid.”
I was worried sick: how would Paul handle this? We found the grave. Paul was trembling, but in control. But when we began to recite kaddish, this gentle old man collapsed over the flat gravestone, calling for his father and sobbing like the lost child he was.
Later, Paul confided he was afraid he’d be alone with his daughter at the grave site. How happy he was when he wiped his tears and saw dozens of us, Jews from all over the world, now his congregation.
A week later, we gathered in Israel’s Safra Square for our march to the Kotel to celebrate Israel’s Independence Day. Music and dancing, flags of Panama, France, Brazil, the UK, Australia, the United States, Argentina, and more-- all signaling we survived, we prospered. Everyone cried as Paul lead his contingent, carrying the Australian flag to the Western Wall.
Birkenau death camp is a huge, sprawling complex of primitive wood barracks with guard towers everywhere and feeder railroad tracks the Nazis added to expedite the transport of Jews for slaughter. It seems endless. This day, it was raining and miserable. (We had been surprised at how less ominous Auschwitz I* appeared, with its neat brick buildings, trees in bloom and small grassy yards.)
We walked into a women's barracks, not far from Mengele's house of horrors. There were windows here and there, but unless you were right in front of one, you couldn’t see much. The group stopped and I couldn’t move forward or see. We were all wet and cold. Then I heard one of our South African leaders, Tali, translating in English for Leah Herman, a tiny elderly woman from Israel who had returned to the very barracks she had survived. She, too, came to hold a funeral service for her lost family.
Leah, a Hungarian Jew, was grabbed by the Nazis when she was only 12. She was small for her age. They stripped and shaved her, part of the dehumanization process. They handed her a huge cotton dress, way too large for her tiny body, and wooden shoes. Nothing else.
She remembered how they were forced to stand in their thin cotton rags in the freezing snow for hours during "roll call." If anyone was missing, they’d all have to stand until the escapee was caught, even if it took all night. In the meantime, the Nazis would randomly shoot prisoners. Others just froze to death or dropped from disease or hunger.
When the siren blared, you had to run into your barracks immediately or you would be shot.
One day, the siren went off, but Leah wasn’t close to her barracks; terrified, she ran into the nearest one. She was amazed to find her aunt there, the only family member left.
The aunt had learned the Nazis would be collecting women for a work force: it was a chance. Auntie stood Leah on some bricks in a back row and pinched her cheeks to make her appear healthier.
Leah was selected. They walked two miles to work and two miles back, everyday, even in freezing winds. They were given two slices of moldy bread each day. Nothing else. They were dying of starvation, disease, and cold.
The sleeping bunks were merely rough wooden slats in layers of three, with room for two or three people in each. The Nazis forced in six to eight. (More could fit as their bodies wasted away.) Leah remembered how everyone wanted a top bunk because, as people died above, their body fluids would spill onto you.
When the Nazis learned that the Allies were approaching, they took Leah’s group on a 4-day death march to Bergen-Belsen which Leah said was even worse than Birkenau. At Birkenau at least she saw workers. Bergen-Belsen had only corpses.
They marched with no food, no water, no toilets. They ate dirt along the road. Later, the lice covered her body so thickly that when she flicked them with a finger, they’d fall off in clumps. She contracted typhus and tuberculosis. The child was a living skeleton when the Russians came.
After two years in a Swiss hospital, she ended up in Israel. One granddaughter, Kim, accompanied Leah on the March; this was the first time she’d heard her grandmother’s story. The two women clung to one another and wept.
As Leah softly told her story, I kept my hand on one slat of a middle bunk. I was reaching out to ghosts, but it was all I had.
The rain came hard so we held the ceremony inside the miserable dark barracks. Leah wiped her tears, and, like Paul, turned to see dozens of us reciting kaddish with her.
The warm yellow of the collective candle flames shined brighter than chemistry should allow.
Even in Poland, splattered with so much evidence of human venality, you can understand the Holocaust only a piece at a time. This was one piece: As we were leaving, someone commented that Auschwitz didn’t look as ominous as it does in the Liberation photos; here were lots of blooming trees and grass. Someone else answered, “That’s because it’s April now. When they were liberated, it was winter; the snow probably covered the grass back then.”
“No,” Paul said, “There was no grass. We ate it.”
* This is the Roman numeral one “I”
June S. Neal
Delray Beach FL Florida and West Hartford, CT
June Neal is a free lance writer, editor and former feature writer for Northeast Magazine and has contributed to the Jewish Ledger and other publications. She is an activist for Israel and a member of Connecticut's PRIMER (Promoting Responsibility in Middle East Reporting).