The following is an excerpt from an interview of a Holocaust Survivor I conducted years ago…
My fondest memories as a child were centered on my grandmother taking me to Paris, and showing me all the sights of the city. She had this marvelous love affair with the city, and she referred to it as the
City of Lights, I thought to myself that she was its’ brightest light. The cafes, the music, the walk through the Bois de Bologne were always treats followed by sumptuous meals that would occur in one of Grandmas favorite restaurants. Life was truly enchanting in those days and my mother was always quite amused at the joy I felt before one of my many trips with Grandma. I thought to myself that this wonderful experience would never end, and when I had children of my own, Grandma would surely accompany us to Paris, and I would regale the children with my childhood adventures. The memories of those untroubled times seems so distant, and I wonder in light of what happened ,as to whether they actually happened ,or had I created them to block out the memories that transpired.
My grandfather had been a professor at the University with a national reputation for scholarship. I remember him as a stately man that was forever reading a book or writing a manuscript in the garden. He was not foreboding in his demeanor, but the rules were clear that we should be quiet when he was in residence, and any playing or frolicking was to be done with grandma, far from his presence. The days of his prominence reached the pinnacle in the early 1930s, and he was awarded a permanent Chair of Honor at the University. As the clouds of war began to cover Europe he toyed with the idea of leaving Germany for a prestigious post at Cambridge, but the thought of leaving his beloved Germany prevented any further action. Surely the academic world which had so honored him would stand by his side through this temporary turbulence. He was truly in mind and spirit German to the core ,and he never believed for one moment that all that he had been and contributed would mean nothing when the hounds of hell came for him and his family.
His denial to all the events that were surrounding us was total, and he buried himself in the library living in a past that offered privilege and comfort. The sounds of the prisoner’s chains fell on deaf ears until the final summons of the relocation. Even then he believed that a man of culture and influence would be able to shelter himself and his loved ones from the tales of horror. He was a man of intellect, imbued with the goodness of traditional values that had so long lived in the persuasive world of dialogue that he believed that reason could overcome the worst of circumstances.
I can still see us as we made our way to the railroad station dressed in our finest, being led by the patriarch who had in his possession letters of praise and commendation from prominent German officials. He held fast that these words of the privileged would inoculate us from the realities of this horrid war. Forced to give up the meager suitcases that we were allowed to take to the station, we were filed into waiting rooms that once were filled with happy tourists and travelers. Today they were jam packed like sardines with Jews from every walk of life. There was no status or rank in this room, it made no difference who you were or what position you held. We were all Jews beginning a nomad’s journey into unknown places. We were leaving the place of our origin, and about to embark on a path of death and destruction. Grandfather attempted to have one of the officers understand who he was, and he presented his letters of introduction. The officer took the documents and much to grandfather’s amazement, threw them to the ground, turned and walked away. Grandfather scurried to pick them up while grandmother told us stories of train rides that she had taken for years. She refused to be the fainting female in the group and her spirit made the best of a frightening set of circumstances. I snuggled close to her, and put my head in her lap and she gently stroked my hair and whispered in my ear that when this was all over we were going to leave Germany and move to Paris. Even in that wasteland of the railroad station, my heart leapt and the thoughts of all those trips cascaded into my mind, and I believed that it would happen.
Living in my fantasy world was short lived as the doors opened and we were summarily ushered onto the loading platform of a train that seemed to have no end. The platform was filled with German soldiers shouting orders at all of us, and in the back of these soldiers were a group of other soldiers with fierce looking shepherd dogs. The dogs were barking and attempting to get at those that were being loaded onto the trains. Grandmother held my hand and said “Don’t be afraid liebchin, Grandma will protect you.” Her words were overcome by the barking and we quickly walked up a gangplank onto a cattle car. There were no seats, and we were stuffed as through we were sardines in a can. I could hardly breathe, and I felt the panic of wanting to run away, but there was no place to run. I was pressed against grandma and the warmth of her body soaked up my tears as I began to cry. Why are they doing this to us? I am only a child and I didn’t do anything bad. How can they be so mean to us, and why must we go away? There were no answers, and as the train began to move out of the station, the cold wind coming through the slats was an icy reminder that the world as I had known it was now only a memory, and a only barometer by which to measure the awful future that awaited us.
It was not long before the depravity of the conditions began to take over. There were no provisions, no water, no food and nowhere to relieve yourself. Even though it was cold, the human smells began to permeate the car, and there were people vomiting and relieving themselves as we traveled. I felt bouts of nausea from the constantly jerking of the train as it made its way round the sharp turns. I fought the impulses of my bladder for hours and finally gave way to the impulse that had burned within me. I felt shame as though I was a little baby as the urine flowed down my leg and onto the floor. I was wet, cold, ashamed and terrified. I closed my eyes and I could barely breathe, but the comfort of Grandma’s body shrouded me as I drifted into periodic sleep. In and out of my stupor I was overwhelmed by the silence of the people in the car. The temperature had dropped in the middle of the night, and we had passed through snow that had made its way into the car. Some of the people tried to gather it so that we would have something to wet our lips, but many were not even interested. I could not fully see my parents or my grandfather, and I glanced up on the second day to see the face of my grandmother. She was pale and her eyes seemed swollen and red. I thought she had been crying, and did not realize that something was terribly wrong with her. I nodded off time and time again, and tried to block the pulsations that were coming from my stomach. I had not eaten in two days and the hunger was so new to me that I didn’t know what to do. I was trying to be brave, but all I could think of were the countless times when Grandmother and I would feast on all of the wonderful food that she would cook. I nuzzled closer to her, but she didn’t seem to be able to receive me the way she did on the beginning of the trip. Her body seemed stiff and motionless. I called to her, but there was no answer. Contorting my neck so that I could get a view of her face, she had a grimace on her face and there was spittle on her chin. She was a color that I had never seen, and I closed my eyes not wishing to see her like that again. The rest of the journey was with my eyes closed and I knew that if I ever opened them, the lifeless body of my grandmother would be next to me. Has any child ever seen his grandparent die in worse circumstances? I am too cold and hungry to cry, but how will I tell my grandfather when we get there?