Hell They Lived Through Built the Hell They Live Through
The Holocaust stole the lives of eleven million innocent victims, an incomprehensible number. Eleven million dead, but how many survived these same horrors? Thousands of men, women and children would have welcomed death, but were instead, forced to live through the hell of the ghettos, camps, and hatred in the "outside world" after they were liberated. Jacob Biber told the story of a dear friend in an interview on April 25, 1994. After watching her sister's murder, she thanked God as she entered the gas chamber that would finally bring her own death. A Nazi guard overheard her prayer of gratitude and pulled her out of the chamber, beat her, and tortured her by forcing her to survive. Two weeks later the camp was liberated and this woman still lives, mourning her sister. Stories of this sort are not the exception to the rule. When the liberators entered the camps and freed the prisoners, they were encountered with horrifying scenes and stories such as this one, but perhaps the worst part of surviving to see the liberation was the guilt of the prisoners felt then and for years to come. Forty-nine years after their liberation, Holocaust survivors still fight with God and themselves over why they survived while so many did not.
There were over four thousand camps in Europe during the Holocaust. They were the factories in an entire industry established for the sole purpose of murdering innocent victims, with the ultimate product--ashes (CAJE, VIII-2). Millions of people passed through these factories. At Auschwitz, Lagerfuhrer Fritsch liked to tell newcomers: "You have come to a concentration camp, not a sanitorium and there is only one way out -- through the chimney. Anyone who does not like it can try hanging himself on a wire," suicide by electrified barbed wire carrying 6000 volts that surrounded the camp. "If there are Jews in this shipment they have no right to live longer than a fortnight; if there are priests, their period is one month -- the rest, three months" (CAJE VIII-7). This timetable was kept almost all of the time. Prisoners were treated as slaves with almost no food or drink. There were torture chambers, shooting walls, and gallows, all of which were used for punishing prisoners for crimes that ranged from stealing extra food to trying to escape. It was common practice for the prisoners to be forced to watch as one more innocent victim was hanged. For days the body would be left hanging as a reminder of what would happen if a rule was broken.
Conditions of this sort were not accidental. They were determined by doctors and other professionals in order to dehumanize the victims. It worked. As Lee Potanski, a survivor of seven camps, points out, the only way to survive was to save your own life, not to worry about saving someone else's. He tells of a boy who would not share his one raw potato with his starving father. Another time, Potanski's tattoo number was called, which meant that he was to be taken to the gas chambers. When he hid, someone else was taken in his place. He says now, "Even today that is not a very pleasant thought" (Monagle, 12). The guilt felt by survivors is probably the final punishment that Hitler carried out on them.
In the past fifty years, the guilt felt by each survivor has surfaced in thousands of different ways. Three fairly common ways are nightmares, giving up on life, and keeping that period of their lives a secret. Irene Zisblatt told of her own nightmare while revisiting Birkenau on the March of the Living in 1994. In her dream, it is Passover and her entire family, who perished in the camps, is sitting around the Sedar table. Her brother is asking the four questions, but when she tries to find a chair for herself at the table, there is none. Everyone at the table explains to her that before she may sit with them, she must earn her chair. Now she realizes that in order for her to deserve her seat, she must first teach children about the Holocaust. The reason she feels that it is the children she must educate, is her own feeling of guilt for surviving as a child, while so many children did not (Zisblatt 4/8/94). Other survivors have horrifying dreams of what they saw while they were in the camps. One survivor kept dreaming of seeing a baby being torn apart by a Nazi and never understood why. It was not until May of 1994 that she realized that she had witnessed the incident during her internment at Birkenau (Zisblatt 5/24/94).
Some have the ability to mentally handle what they experienced. Many cannot. It is those people who lose their hope and finally their will to live. Jacob Rauchwerger blamed himself for his wife's, son's and the rest of the family's imprisonment and ultimate death. After his liberation, he discovered that no one in his family had survived, and refusing all medication and food, he died in an American hospital, finally joining his wife and son again (Sendyk 227-229). In other cases, Holocaust victims simply tell one of their past. It was not until Deborah Sussman was ten years old that her father revealed his horrifying childhood to his children. Her father later explained to her in a letter the reason he had for keeping his secret. "I didn't think that you should be burdened with it when you were little, and were just beginning to form a concept of what the world is all about." Once he told his story to his children, he made them promise not to tell anyone. When Deborah was sixteen, he finally really began to tell her everything (Sussman 20-21). As one Schindler Jew says, "What we tell is not even ten percent. The rest is either too painful or too incomprehensible."
The victims of the Holocaust were real people. What they went through was real Hell. The way they have dealt and will continue to deal with life after the Holocaust is just as real. As Peter Sussman said, "There was very little besides death, disease, filth and hopelessness. There was no beauty of any kind" (Sussman 21). The emotional trauma that the surviving victims have experienced and will continue to experience can be described in the same way.
Biber, Jacob. Personal interview 25 April 1994.
Central Agency for Jewish Education (CAJE). March of the Living Study Guide
Monagle, Kate and Karen N. Peart. "Life in the Darkness"
Sendyk, Helen. The End of Days. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992.
Sussman, Deborah. "My Father's Shadow." Scholastic Update. April 12, 1993: 20-21
Zisblatt, Irene. Address Given at Birkenau. 8 April 1994
Zisblatt, Irene. Personal Interview. 24 May 1994.
The opinions, comments, and sentiments expressed by
the participants are not necessarily those of