Thoughts on Yom Hashoah

by Lillian Rappaport

As Yom Hashoah approaches in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic, we find ourselves living in such strange and unsettling times.

I am writing this article in early spring. Normally, I would be busy preparing for our community's Yom Hashoah observances---the observance at the Holocaust Monument where Rabbi Cytryn would have presided and where Abby Smith would have shared the Holocaust experiences of her beloved grandparents. We would have heard the Schwab Holocaust essay read by its award winning student writer.  The following evening would have seen us at Temple Beth Shalom with Rabbi Choper greeting us at the Reading of Names observance.  Students from throughout the Jewish community would have been leading us in poetry and prose in its opening ceremony.  I would have been assigning parts and rehearsing with the students now. Many hundreds of  people would have signed up to read names during the 24-hour observance. Governor Wolf had scheduled his annual Civic Holocaust Observance at the capitol that same week. 

I am deeply saddened that these commemorations will not take place in 2020 due to health precautions required by the current pandemic.  

However, we can take pause and remember who and what we have lost.  Some thoughts as Yom Hashoah approaches.....

Several years ago, I took part in a “70 days for 70 years” initiative sponsored by Chisuk Emuna Congregation to memorialize the Holocaust . It was a remarkable 70 days for me even though I originally had reservations about the project.  For some reason, I didn’t think reading a daily essay would be a particularly meaningful way for me to commemorate the Holocaust…but, still, I agreed to participate.

The concept was quite simple. We were tasked with reading essays, most of which were Holocaust-related, each day for 70 days, marking the then 70 years (now 75 years) since the liberation of the concentration camps. We were also sent a card with the name of one of the kedoshim, a person who perished during the Holocaust, in whose memory we were to read the essays. 

Right away, I knew that I needed to make some modifications to make the project more personal for me.  Rather than study in memory of the person whose card I had been given, I decided to study in memory of my own loved ones, and in particular, my father’s (z”l), family, who had all perished in the Shoah.  The problem was, however, that I knew so little about them since most were children when they died. Since no pictures of them survived the war, I didn’t even know what they looked like. So, for my entire life, the family members I had lost in the Shoah have had an unreal quality about them.  And, my father (z”l), the only survivor of his family, was so emotionally traumatized by his Holocaust experiences that he could never really speak about them---and now was no longer here for me to ask.

But I knew that, for the project to resonate for me, it had to involve my murdered grandparents, aunts, and uncles.  So, I sat down with myself and began to think…and try to remember conversations I had had with my father about them.  Slowly, it all started to become more real to me. For the first time in my life, rather than think of my grandparents in relation to my father, “my father’s father, or my father’s mother,” I began to think of my grandparents in terms of me.

In my mind, I began to connect with them as “bubby and zayde,” names I would have called them had I known them. I knew the names of my father’s siblings—his brothers Mendel and Herschel; his sisters Frimid and Esther---and tried to remember whatever my father had told me about them.  Mendel was the smart one; Herschel the handsome one; Frimid, a lovely girl on the verge of young womanhood; and Esther, the youngest upon whom they all doted. 

So I read the essays each night, and each night made a connection with one of my grandparents, or one of my aunts or uncles—and the experience became profound and filled with meaning. 

Some background on the Shoah:  Many concentration camp survivors spoke of the struggle to remain human in a place that was specifically designed to strip you of your humanity. When prisoners first arrived at the camps, they were immediately segregated by sex, followed by an initial selection.

Those to live went to the left, and the others marked for death, to the right. In a matter of moments, most, if not all, of their closest relatives were beyond their reach. From there they were stripped of any remaining belongings, their hair, and their names. The inmates were suddenly reduced to a number, naked alongside other women-- and among male guards and prisoners, being searched in every crevice of their bodies.

When they were finally given clothes to wear, the dresses were ill-fitting and didn’t belong to them. They ended up in an overcrowded barracks without any personal space, a bucket for a toilet shared among hundreds of women, if they were lucky enough to have access to any facilities at all, and given what was called food but lacked any real nourishment. They were even denied a source of water for drinking purposes much less to use to clean themselves. Standing at roll calls, hard labor, and minimal sleep followed.

Anything prisoners were able to do to preserve their humanity was an act of resistance, from washing their faces so they looked human-- to bonding with other prisoners for their emotional, spiritual, and physical well-being. Something as simple as holding hands took on new meaning because human beings thrive on physical contact.

Jewish women helped support and sustain each other through the concentration camp ordeal.  This has become known as “camp-sister” relationships or “lagerschwestern”. Often the lagerschwestern were bound by familial relationship or friendship prior to deportation, and from the start, the elder of the group took it upon herself to look after and protect the younger one(s). These lagerschwestern physically cared for one another, shared any extra food, and nursed each other when they became ill. Camp sisters boosted each other’s morale and motivated each other to continue living when all around them seemed hopeless.

My own mother (z”l) was fortunate in that she was together with her two actual sisters for the entire time they were in the camps.  When Mom would address why or how she survived her imprisonment, she would state luck or chance as the primary or only possible reason. However, in the next sentence, Mom would talk about her eldest sister, Etta, without whose companionship, aid, and support both she and her other sister, Chaya Sarah, would have died.

Another personal note--I lived in New York for 15 years and, for much of that time, taught French and Spanish at the Yeshiva of Flatbush High School in Brooklyn.  The rosh Yeshiva (head of school) was Rabbi David Eliach.  His wife, Yaffa Eliach (z”l) was a professor and well-known Holocaust scholar.  I had the privilege of meeting Professor Eliach often during my tenure at the school.

The excerpted essay below, entitled “A Girl Called Esterke,” was written by Yaffa Eliach. Of all the essays I read, this one was most meaningful to me.  Perhaps it was because of the name of the child involved, Esterke.  I read it in loving memory of my 11 year old aunt, Esther, z"l.

It was spring of 1944, when Ida and her family were ordered to the train station with the rest of the Jewish community of their Czechoslovakian town. More than 80 people were squeezed into a single wagon. On the eve of the holiday of Shavuot, Ida and her family arrived in Auschwitz.

As they stood on the Auschwitz platform, Ida was separated from her father, mother, young sisters, and brothers. Ida and her older married sister passed the selection and were put to work as slave laborers. Ida sorted the clothes of the gassed, folded them neatly, and placed them in piles according to size and quality, ready for shipment to Germany to be used by the German people. 

One night, it was especially difficult to fall asleep in the barracks. Heartbreaking screams were piercing the night, mingled with the wailing of children and mothers as they were torn away from each other. Slowly, the screams subsided and gave way to the usual deadly sounds of the Auschwitz night. Shortly afterwards, a sound was heard under Ida's bunk bed, where 36 girls slept packed together like sardines.  Certain that they were hearing a rat under the bed, Ida went to look and, instead, found a little girl curled up like a frightened porcupine. The girl told them that when the children's Aktion began, she managed to run away and hide in the latrine among the piles of chlorine cans. When it became dark, she ran into their barracks and hid under the bed.

The girl's name was Esterke. She had big, blue frightened eyes, beautiful blond curls, and two deep dimples. Ida became instantly attached to the child but the blockhova, the block leader, told Ida that she must give up the child, otherwise she, her sister, and maybe all the girls in the barracks would pay with their lives for harboring a little criminal. Ida stood there clutching the child. "I will never give her up," she said with determination. Ida knew the blockhova had a Jewish boyfriend. So she blackmailed her and convinced her to keep Esterke in her private room during the day while the prisoners were at work. Ida had won her first battle for Esterke's life. Ida loved the child. All her thoughts focused on Esterke. To save that child became her obsession and purpose for living.

In early 1945, Ida and Esterke arrived in Bergen Belsen, after having managed to survive a blisteringly cold death march. Conditions there were even more difficult than in Auschwitz. Filth, lice, starvation, and epidemics made living almost impossible. Ida managed to find a job cleaning latrines, for which she was given a piece of bread and a warm drink that they insisted on calling coffee.

On April 15, 1945, Bergen Belsen was liberated by the British Army. Ida’s older sister had also survived and the two sisters and Esterke made their way back home to Czechoslovakia, together with throngs of other refugees. They were all trying to go home, all hoping that perhaps other relatives had also survived and families could be reunited.

After finding a temporary shelter in Prague, the three set out in different directions to search for other surviving members of their families. Esterke traveled to Bratislava hoping that her father, mother, or some of her eight brothers and sisters had survived. Ida and her sister left with similar hopes for their family. The parting was painful for Ida. She and Esterke had not been separated since that fateful night in Auschwitz. The three agreed to meet in Prague in two weeks, no matter what the outcome of their search might be.

Two weeks passed and Ida and her sister returned to Prague as planned. But Esterke failed to return. They waited and waited but there was no trace of her. After months of searching for Esterke, Ida finally gave up. She eventually met and married a young man, a survivor like herself. Her sister was fortunate too, for her husband had also managed to survive the camps. The sisters parted once more. Ida and her husband went to America. Her sister, her husband, and their newly born baby became part of the illegal immigration to Israel.

In the early 1950s, Ida traveled to the young state of Israel to visit her sister. One very hot day, Ida fainted on the street. Two young Israeli soldiers, who happened to pass by, picked her up from the pavement and took her in their jeep to the nearest hospital. The following day, the soldiers came in to see how their patient was doing. A friendship developed between Ida and the two soldiers, who continued to visit her daily.

As Ida was about to be discharged from the hospital, she asked the two young men how she could repay their kindness. The taller of the two, Yossi, told Ida that he was getting married in a few days. The biggest reward would be if she would come to his wedding.

It was a beautiful dusk in Jerusalem when the wedding took place. "The bride is coming," someone near her said so Ida made her way to the front so she could see the bride whom Yossi had described so lovingly. The door opened, the bride walked in. It was none other than her own long-lost Esterke!

Under the bright stars shining above the eternal city and the Judean hills, Ida stepped forward and led her beloved Esterke to the bridal canopy.

"Whoever saves a single soul, it is as if she saves an entire universe."

May the memories of those whom we lost in the Shoah be for a blessing and may they rest in peace.