A Survivor's Story
Posted: Saturday, June 4, 2005
By Linda E. Edwards
Most teenagers get a tattoo despite their parents' objections, and some girls get them in places that cause you to wonder what they were thinking, and what the relationship between them and the tattooist was. When this teenager got his tattoo, he did not have a say in where it went, or what was written. It sits on the inner forearm of his left hand, and has been there for more than sixty years. It is a number. He is a survivor of Auschwitz, and he told his story on Thursday, June 2, to a group of teachers in Houston, Texas.
He was a thirteen year old when his family was made to wear the yellow patch on their arms to tell all who wanted to harass them that they were Jews; this, in a small town in Poland. Later the barricades came around the ghetto in which they lived, locked in at night from the rest of the population of the town; where doctors, and priests and educators lived, who were not bothered by what was happening. It was not happening to them, you see. The Jews were others, ethnically the same. Different religion.
Then came the day of the round up. Entire families carted off by the Nazis, but before that, one more horror. All the little children were shot. Babes in arms were held up by their parents, forcibly, and shot out of their arms. Children under a certain height were automatically killed. His father saved him by making him stand on a brick to look taller. A family friend stood on the other side to complete the deception. Then the rest of the people, bloodied and grieving, were put into train cars for a three day journey, packed like sardines in a can, without food or water or the means of preserving hygiene and dignity of body functions. (In my minds eye, I see the coffles of slaves, chained now, in the bottom of ships sailing to unknown horrors in the Americas, grieving, afraid, defecating, vomiting. Unable to move to prevent contamination by others body wastes.)
He goes on. They arrive at the concentration camp, and again are separated into groups. The women are taken away, he knows not where. The men are stripped of their filthy rags. Those who look emaciated are put aside for death, he did not know this then, but he and his father are picked in a group of eight hundred to work in a factory. From the eight hundred, they select the youngest boys. His father pushed him forward, believing that they were not going to select them at this stage, just to kill them. He is given the job of peeling potatoes and cleaning other vegetables in the kitchen. He will exist for the next few years by scraping the food pot in the kitchen, to get the bits of nutrients clinging there from the meat. He manages to sneak food to his father by mashing a potato, squeezing out the water, and concealing the paste in a rag around his body, so that in the pat down searches, it will feel just like an ordinary wet rag, part of his sweaty clothes.
The entire "factory" smells of burnt meat, the burnt flesh of humans. He will learn to live with that smell for years, long after he left the camp. As soon as the eight hundred are chosen, the others are sent to take a shower. There is no water, only poison gas. They die. Before they are burnt, small boys are given a pair of pliers and a bucket of soapy water. They walk among the carcasses and remove the rings from their fingers, sometimes by cutting off the finger. They yank the gold and silver out of their mouths, and save all this wealth for the Nazis. (Some of this wealth, I later pointed out, ended up in the Bank of New York, and this was revealed a few years ago when survivors began tracing their lost loot. He did not know this. He knew much of it was in Switzerland).
Scenes of unimaginable horror are recalled. The latrine pit was a long trench, over which prisoners squatted, holding on to a series of poles planted on the edge. The trench was six feet deep, filled with chemicals and human waste. Sometimes for fun, the guards would bash a prisoner relieving himself, with his rifle but, causing him to lose control and fall backwards into the ditch, where he slowly drowned in chemicals and filth. The screams could be heard all over the camp.
Later, he was transferred to another camp where the chemical showers and roasting ovens were no longer in working order. There the bodies of the dead were stacked up like cords of wood. The ground was too hard to dig trench graves by hand.
Memory floods in. As a young wife, I had taken possession of a four-volume set: A Pictorial History of WW 11. I had seen those stacks of bones, pictures taken by the Allies after the liberation of the camps. They looked like skeletal mountains. There were living humans in the pictures, that you could not pick out from the dead.
He pauses, overcome by weeping. When the SS Guards ran away just before the Americans came, he and his friend who also worked in the kitchen, stole food, and dragged his father who was too weak to walk, about two miles through the forest to an autobahn. A series of tanks were coming, flying the American flag. He walked out into the road and stopped them. His father did not survive long after this. His mother, whom he located, died also, never having recovered from the shock of seeing her baby daughter, aged four, shot out of her arms.
For the last fifteen years, Walter Case has been going to schools and other groups in the Houston area, telling this story. Pointing out the dangers of hate, the dangers of trying to create a "pure race" from what is already a pure race, the human race. Hitler and his henchmen killed off all short people, all children, all homosexuals, all Jehovah's Witnesses, all gypsies, that they came in contact with. Most of the world watched and knew and did nothing until it was too late.
He said he does not hate them. He tells the story to show what evil triumphs when good people do not act. I think of Cambodia under Pol Pot, Chile under Pinochet, the massacres in Rwanda, and Bosnia, and in the Shatilla Refugee camp in Palestine. I think of the mass graves uncovered in Central American countries that are trading partners of the Land of The Free. I think of the current situation in Darfur in Western Sudan. I remember reading in the Truth and Reconciliation Hearings in South Africa, of the five policemen barbecuing a "Freedom Fighter" in on one spit, and their dinner on the other, then throwing his bones in the ocean, to erase all traces of him; and of the grief that family felt at not being able to recover anything to bury, to bring peace to his soul I realize that the world has learnt nothing from the Holocaust under Hitler, and I weep with him. We had said never again, but over and over, supposedly civilized people, supposedly caring people, world leaders of religion and politics, have stood by, and sometimes assisted, in the massacres, and then gone home to have dinner with their families, as if nothing had happened to the family of man.
I look in a magazine I have, at a picture of a classroom in Rwanda convent where some girls had taken refuge, before the nun opened the door to let the murders of her ethnic group in, to hack the children to death. I read the testimony of a British soldier who entered a house in Bosnia that had been firebombed by Christians, and on the stairs leading up from the basement, he finds the roasted twisted bodies of fourteen members of a Moslem family, that had tried to escape, first to the basement, and then, back through the fire. I think of East Timor, and the scored earth policy of its former oppressors. I touch Mr. Case's hand as I leave the group; my eyes clouded with tears shed and unshed.
And I think of political people in Trinidad and Tobago who loosely compare our country to Nazi Germany, and ask the world to look; and I ask myself if it is their will that by so naming it, they would want our country to descend into that final horrible madness.
On one wall is a poster of three hearts, used as an ad by United Colors of Bennetton.
They say Black, Pink and Yellow, but the hearts, real photographs of the human hearts, are identical. Hearts that hate and hearts that love are also identical. It is the education in home, church, mosque, temple, school and society that twists them into poisonous things.
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