By Shira Leibowitz-Schmidt
In her talk at the Association of Americans and Canadians in Netanya this week, Livia Bitton Jackson recounted her initiation into Auschwitz and selection for life by Dr. Josef Mengele:
“Sometime on May 31, 1944, during the fourth night of the train ride from the ghetto, the train comes to a halt. A huge sign catches my eye: Auschwitz. An officer in a gray SS uniform stands facing the lines.
“He says, ‘Everyone stand on line. Women and children over here.’ He looks at me with friendly eyes. ‘Goldene Haar!’ he exclaims and takes one of my long braids into his hand. Did he just say ‘golden hair’ about my braids?
“ ‘Bist du Judein?’ (Are you Jewish?)
“ ‘Yes, I am Jewish.’
“ ‘How old are you?’
“ ‘You are tall for your age. Is this your mother?’
“With his riding stick he shoves Mommy and me to the group going to the right. ‘Go. And remember, from now on you’re 16.’ ”
Mengele sent her to the “16 and over” group to the right, rather than with her peers to the left.
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The 85-year-old survivor has spoken to non-Jewish audiences that have ranged from U.S. Air Force personnel in Omaha to townspeople in the Slovakian village where she was born in 1931 and wrenched from by the Nazis in 1944. Jewish audiences have included children, youth, and adults in the U.S. and Israel. She has reached still more people through her book in English, I Have Lived a Thousand Years. One teacher, Sandy Roberts, in the tiny Tennessee town of Whitwell, was so inspired by the book that she undertook the famous “Paperclips” Holocaust memorial project resulting in the film by the same name.
In her talk at the AACI, she announced that now English-speaking grandparents can be “on the same page” as their Hebrew-speaking grandchildren, because just before Passover the book came out in a Hebrew edition, via Gefen Publishers, under the title Chayitti Elef Shanim.
While there is a plethora of Holocaust memoirs available, there are not many in parallel English and Hebrew editions. Another unusual feature is that Livia survived with her mother. The latter became weakened because one of the tiered wooden beds in the camp fell on her, so Livia took on the role of mother-protector of her wounded parent.
The hunger is ever present in the chronologically-organized memoir. The bread is not very appetizing. It took getting used to the first days in Auschwitz.
“This is bread? It looks like a cake of mud. How can you eat this?” The answer comes: “You must. There is nothing else.” Mommy takes a bite and promptly throws up.
I begin to eat. The dry, mud-like lump turns into wet sand particles in my mouth. The others have eaten it. I swallow. The first food in Auschwitz. To survive.
It is explained to Livia that the inmates have to drink from “the lake,” a euphemism for a large hollow in the ground filled with murky water with an unpleasant odor.
To drink from this? It’s putrefied! It’s filthy! It stinks! I raise a palmful of swampy water to my lips.
The smell makes my stomach heave. But I have no urge to vomit. My stomach has been empty for a long time.
I could never drink from that smelly swamp. I close my eyes and hold my nose. I quickly slurp. The smell does not matter. The water quenches and revives.
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Another unusual feature of Livia Jackson’s memoir is that it recounts her experiences as a religious teenager in concentration and slave-labor camps. Several months after Auschwitz, Livia and her mother are “lucky” to sneak into a slave labor group.
It is the fifth day of Passover. I am terribly hungry.
Mommy and I had decided that one of us will observe Passover, by not eating the bread ration. The other would compensate for the bread by sharing her ration of the cooked meal at noon and in the evening. I had volunteered to be the one to give up the bread ration.
Mommy had agreed because she was in far worse physical shape than I. Now on the fifth day I am feeling faint. My leg wound starts to hurt. I find it difficult to stand. Some of us are tottering but dare not collapse.
Hope springs eternal, especially for adolescents.
Even in the most gruesome circumstances, Livia imagines that she will be free sometime in the future and prepares accordingly. If she is going to be tattooed, let it be as small and inconspicuous as possible. Teen vanity.
We are handed slips of paper with a number. We are lined up to have the numbers tattooed on our arms.
I notice that the tattoos on one line are smaller and neater than the rest. I drag Mommy to the end of that line. A longer one. Poor Mommy. We languish hour after hour on that line. I support her while she holds her emaciated arm for tattooing. Then the number is tattooed on my arm. A new dimension has been added to our identity. I am no longer anonymous. I have a name. It is A-17360.
Thousands have benefited because A-17360 has taken the trouble to record her memories and experiences in English, and has seen to it that her book was translated into French, Italian, German, Slovak, Hungarian, and even Japanese. Now Hebrew readers can also partake. Thank-you, Livia Bitton-Jackson. (JPost.com)
Shira Leibowitz-Schmidt is an author and translator who lives in Netanya.