Remembrance. Bearing witness. Story-telling. Commemoration. Resistance.
These terms have been sharpening my mind in the days leading up to today, the 27th of January. Today marks the 70th anniversary of the Russian liberation of the site of so much death and suffering, a name that resides in historical memory as one of the most infamous place names in our lexicon: Auschwitz-Birkenau, the most remembered of a myriad number of Nazi death and work camps, and the final point of departure for over a million souls.
Today has also been a day that has been spent in communion with my beautiful mate, Wendy, and my mother and father, as we visited with my Dad, a man lying abed, likely eyeing the last weeks, possibly months of his life. He is dying in his eighty-fifth year, coming to the end of what he calls “a good life” in which he has been an exemplary teacher and scholar, a marvelous husband and father, and to some of those closest and most affected by his counsel, a “Rebbe.”
For those of you who do not know the term “Rebbe,” it is a short form of Rabbi, or teacher, although our family is not Jewish. Dad was dubbed Rebbe by a dear friend of mine, Jay Gold, a complicated but compassionate man, who has always held my gentle father in the highest esteem.
“Jeffrey,” counseled Jay earlier this afternoon from his home in the Lower Mainland: “I want you to tell the Rebbe that I love him. I want you to kiss him on the cheek for me, and don’t forget to tell him that I love him. He is as deep and wise as any Rabbi I ever confided in. He understands how to listen to people, and he knows how to understand their suffering...”
Thus spake Jay.
And I did as I was bid.
I walked into my Dad’s room and relayed to Dad everything Jay told me. And Dad smiled, tiredly, and raised a thin arm to beckon me closer to his side, his fine fingers curling in a gesture to draw me near. “Jeffrey,” Dad whispered, “You tell Jay that I love him and that he is a good man. And tell him not to forget...”
Ours has been a family of story-tellers, my Dad chief among them. From earliest childhood it has been the orally-transmitted accounts of my parents’ time spent in Stalinist Russia, and the stories of our people, the Mennonites, that have fired my imagination with wonder, joy, humour, and at times horror.
Life, for my parents living in Russia from the early Thirties to 1943 was difficult at times. Living restrained by the stranglehold of Stalinist authoritarianism brought with it a variety of indignities and privations; and the murder of my Mum’s father and the murders of my Dad’s father and grandfather. But their people, the Mennonites, were never targeted for genocide like European Jewry was. They were, in fact, lucky to escape their oppressive homeland by virtue of the Nazis penetrating into their part of German-speaking Ukraine, where so many of our people came to live over the years.
But the reach of the Nazis into Soviet Ukraine had devastating consequences for so many, some of them schoolmates of my parents.
My Dad again today related one of his foundational memories from a childhood in Miropol, or Friedensfeld as it was called by his people living on the lush prairies near the Black Sea.
“I remember my Oma Loewen,” Dad told me today. “She was sick like me and in bed when she called me to her bedside and said, “Harry, we are so grateful to be liberated by the Germans here now; but nothing good will come of the way they are treating our Jewish friends.”"
And sure enough, it was not long after that stories began circulating in the absence of so many Jews and local communists from their midst, of the shootings into a ditch taking place not far away on the outskirts of Miropol. One of my Dad’s school chums was among them with the rest of his family, exterminated by fascist Ukrainian “Einsatzgruppen” formed under the leadership of the occupying forces of the German SS.
As the German occupation weakened, however, German-speaking Mennonites and other so-called “Volksdeutschen” would make the long trek to the West, eventually to find freedom on North American shores like my parents did.
But along the way, my history-witnessing father and his brother John, “Hans,” spent about 14 months starting in the Fall of 1943 in a Polish residential school situated on the outskirts of Litzmannstadt, or Lódz as the Poles called it. Lódz, of course, was the infamous site of the Lódz Ghetto, originally intended to be an urban gathering ground for the Nazis to park their captured Jews (and other undesirables) prior to dispatching them to the death camps of Auschwitz and Chelmno.
My father’s words:
“Jeffrey, it was just awful,” the pain of memory furrowing his beautiful forehead. “Every Friday after school, John and I would take the streetcar from our school and into Litzmannstadt to be with our sister Lena and Mutti for the weekend. And on the way, we had to travel right through the heart of the Ghetto. There were barbed wire barricades on either side of the street. And on our side of the wire we saw the SS men in their impressive uniforms and their cold eyes and their shouting and their shiny boots and their dogs. Jeffrey even the dogs looked frightening... And on either side of us, behind the wire, there they were. There were so many of them. We knew they were Jews, even though nobody dared to talk about it. You could see the stars of David on their coats. And they were frightened, and thin. They looked so afraid and so hungry.”
And so today we remembered, Dad and the rest of us, the horrors of the Holocaust. It is a memory that we hold dear, that we will tell to every successive generation that comes after us. And together we are so grateful that the Nazis did not succeed in their death-glorifying ends, that there are people who survived to tell the tale, that friends like Jay Gold are here to enliven us, and to give us comfort too during difficult times.
The best lesson to learn is to remember the beautiful Jewish philosopher, Emil Fackenheim, who survived the would-be destruction of European Jewry and came to educate so many of us here in Canada in the post-war years. In the mid ‘60s Fackenheim would mint a new commandment not listed in the Torah: "not to despair of God and not to despair of man." Instead, the imperative became for the Jewish people to bear witness to their past and to survive, thereby denying Hitler a posthumous victory.
In the end, we, Jews and non-Jews alike, are called, in Fackenheim’s poignant articulation, “to mend the World.” To resist fascism every time it mounts a comeback; and, above all, to remember that this is Life, that this is our history and that the symbol of the gates to Auschwitz is our inheritance for our collective consciousness.
Instead we embrace Life as we remember, and with the children and grandchildren of those who survived, we say “L’chaim” (To Life)!
West Kelowna/ 27. January 2015