By Esther M. Schonfeld, Esq.
“For the dead and the living, we must bear witness.”
My parents and grandparents witnessed one of the most horrendous tragedies to which humankind is heir. While the world turned a blind eye, the Nazis systematically murdered almost all of Europe’s Jews and millions of others. I am a proud descendant of brave men and women, all of whom suffered through the Holocaust. Their experiences differ, ranging from being killed in concentration camps to being attacked trying to walk across borders and escape the Nazi regime to hiding in German convents and forging identification papers to help save others. One thing that their horrific life stories have in common is how greatly they affected the way I was brought up and continue to live my life today.
Growing up around the stories is one thing, but feeling the paths of your ancestors under your feet is another. It has always surprised me the extent to which the world today, 70 years since the end of World War II, is detached from the brutality of the Holocaust. I wanted to visit Auschwitz and Birkenau, arguably some of the most infamous and horrific centers of death the world has known, to reconnect with my family’s memories and to connect with the family I never knew, all of whom made great sacrifices during the Holocaust. While the images in the minds of most, myself included, when thinking about the atrocities of the Holocaust, include pictures of emaciated skeletal prisoners and children standing behind barbed-wire fences, awaiting death in the many different concentration camps, this was only part of the horrific genocide.
This past week I walked in my family’s footsteps and bore witness to a fraction of the horrors that the Jewish people endured during World War II. I attended an amazing and life-changing mission to Poland by Project Mesorah, led by Rabbi Paysach Krohn, visiting many sites in Poland where European Jews had lived until they were rounded up, tortured, and murdered for no reason other than their Jewish identities. On the flight to Poland, I couldn’t help but feel guilty that I was traveling on a luxury jet to Poland for a vacation knowing that others traveled by cattle car to Poland to their death.
Finally seeing the sign “Arbeit Macht Frei” and the gas chambers at the Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps in person was the first time it really hit me that I was there, at the place where so many innocent people, young and old, were tortured and exterminated. Nothing could have prepared me for my visit.
While the resilience of the Jewish people is undeniable, walking through concentration camps this past week, I couldn’t help but think about the six million lives that were lost; they were bakers, clerks, physicians, and teachers; they were infants, children, parents, and grandparents. They were living people. Visiting the concentration camps also reminds us of the children who were never born, the technology and medicines never invented, the knowledge never imparted. We lost the impact they would have made. They did not only take away a six-year-old child, but what that six-year-old child would have been. At the 70th anniversary of the camp’s liberation, a 93-year-old survivor of Auschwitz and three other concentration camps, Marcel Tuchman, reflecting on the atrocities committed by the Nazis, commented, “The overwhelming statistics are not the stories to be told. The stories could only be told by the victims; unfortunately their voices were silenced by gas and the crematoria, so we are here, the survivors, to speak for them and honor the memory of their suffering.”
Among the reasons why I went on this trip was to mourn. For this, civilization ought to be in an inconsolable state of bereavement. Perpetrated as it was by a powerful and prestigious European nation, the Holocaust should burn every day and every night in the minds of all who live in this time and should inflict on us a sense of gaping loss. The Holocaust should permanently undermine the confidence we might otherwise have in humankind and human institutions. It tells us that the trappings and traditions of civilized life–the language, the music, the art, the libraries, legislature, colleges, and courts–do not protect us from the side of the human spirit, bare, naked, and primitive, that revels in torture and longs to harm.
I was always fascinated by the ability of Holocaust survivors to seemingly move on in their lives. The story that affected me most strongly was first told to me at the b’ritmilah of my firstborn son. Late in 1939, two brothers, Paul and Kurt, ages three and four, were happy little boys living in Vienna, Austria. One day, the Gestapo burst into their home and forcibly dragged them from their mother’s arms. When their father returned home that day, his house was empty–his wife and children were gone. His search to find his family proved futile. Witnesses told him that they saw his family taken away by the Nazis. He never saw them again. That man was my grandfather, Moritz Weldler. Years later, I learned that his wife and two sons, Pinchus and Aaron, died in the gas chambers of Auschwitz, along with the families of so many others. So it was especially moving to me that at the gas chambers in Auschwitz, we paid tribute to two beautiful and innocent children, Pinchus and Aaron, whose lives were stolen by an evil force.
One stop on my trip that was especially moving and horrific and which shed some light on the evolution of the Holocaust was a mass grave in Tornow, Poland. At this burial site lay 700-800 orphaned children who were mass murdered on a hill in Tornow by the Nazis. The parents of these innocent children were taken away from them at the beginning of the war and brought to concentration camps and into slave labor. Not knowing what to do with these children who were left in an orphanage, the Nazis brought the children up onto a hill in order to mass murder them. This task of rounding up 700—800 children proved difficult for the Nazis as the children were crying and flailing and there was no one there to console them. Even by the end of the Nazis’ task, the mound of bodies was still moving. As a result of this failed effort by the Nazis to separate parents from their children, from that point on, the Nazis usually kept the children with their mothers and sent them to their deaths together.
For this reason, my grandfather’s two sons stayed with their mother during the Holocaust, through the concentration camps, and they ultimately died together. While the fact of their death and the way that they were killed is impossible to digest and comprehend, the fact that they were never separated brought my grandfather some comfort when I discovered this fact many years after the war.
I witnessed another example at the concentration camp in Majdanek. Unlike the camps in Auschwitz and Birkenau, which were mostly destroyed after the war and currently more museum-like, Majdanek was preserved in most of its original state. It is one of the best-preserved concentration camps from the Holocaust. The camp, which operated from October 1941, making it one of the first camps, was captured nearly intact, largely because the rapid advance of the Soviet Red Army which prevented the Nazis from destroying most of its infrastructure. Unlike other similar camps in Nazi-occupied Poland, Majdanek was located within the boundaries of a major city. Because of the camp’s proximity to Lublin, prisoners were able to communicate with the outside world through letters smuggled out by civilian workers who entered the camp. This was not the only problem with the camp. Another unfortunate lesson that the Nazis learned there was the logistics and efficiency of how to run these terror zones. For example, in Majdanek, the gas chamber was very far from the incinerator. This proved difficult for the Nazis. Unfortunately, by the end of the war, they had nearly “perfected” their torture devices. Visiting this camp, with the horrors so well-preserved, and hearing the stories of the evolution of concentration camps, was a chilling and emotional experience. There, despite our many tears, we honored the lost lives by saying Kaddish and singing Ani Ma’amin. This was another moment that I will never forget. v
Please look for the next installment of this article in next week’s issue of 5TJT.
Esther Schonfeld is an attorney and partner in Schonfeld & Goldring, a law practice specializing in matrimonial and divorce law. She wishes to thank Alexandra Schonfeld, Esq., and Drew Berman for their invaluable research and assistance with this article.