Social Issues: Surviving the Holocaust

I didn’t want to talk about the Holocaust. In fact, I’ve avoided it for a few days now. The attempt however, is both unfair and futile. How does one avoid one of the greatest blights in human history?

You can’t, because as George Santayana said, ”Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.”

According the Michael Abramson, the chairman of the North Carolina Council on the Holocaust (part of the NC Department of Public Instruction), the Holocaust was:

The Holocaust was the state-sponsored, systematic persecution and annihilation of European Jewry by Nazi Germany and its collaborators between 1933 and 1945.  Jews were the primary victims – six million were murdered; Gypsies, the handicapped, and Poles were also targeted for destruction or decimation for racial, ethnic, or national reasons.  Millions more, including homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Soviet prisoners of war, and political dissidents, also suffered grievous oppression and death under Nazi tyranny.

My Mentor, Michael J. Solender, put me in contact with Mr. Abramson because this man not only teaches North Carolina children about the Holocaust, his mother is a survivor and teacher as well.

Gizella Abramson: “I’m here because of you young people. I made myself survive, so I could tell the world the preciousness of freedom.” Photo by UNC Pembroke

After a few email exchanges with Mr. Abramson, he shared with me a timeline of his mother’s ordeal during the Holocaust. I will share this amazing journey with you here.

  • Lived in eastern Poland, in a farming community near Tarnopol
  • Grandparents (her mother’s parents) lived with her and her grandmother taught her German – grandmother only spoke to her in German;  grandmother ensured that Gizella spoke German fluently.
  • Father was a farmer who owned his own land
  • In September of 1939, Germans attacked western Poland and occupied western half of Poland;  Russians invaded Poland from the east and occupied eastern half of Poland;  Gizella’s house was taken over by the Russians and her family was expelled;  the Russians took all family possessions
  • From September of 1939 to the summer of 1941, Gizella and her family lived in the family’s apartment in the Polish city of Shemesh (about 25 miles west of her family farm);  she learned to speak and write Russian
  • Russians did not discriminate by religion or race; Russians focused on socio-economic class distinctions; Russians collected everyone’s property and material things in the village and community (regardless of religion)
  • Germans attacked eastern Poland in the summer of 1941 after losing “Battle of Britain”
  • Germans looked for Jews in all captured territory; someone told the Germans that her family was Jewish and her family was sent to the Lodj Ghetto
  • Gizella’s brother was killed in the Lodj Ghetto – “open your mouth for candy….” – he was shot in the mouth by the Gestapo;  children were starving and dying in the street
  • Gizella snuck out of the Ghetto at night with other kids to beg and trade for bread  – she does not get caught
  • Gizella’s parents received the “liquidation letter” from the Germans – her father told her to escape at night and to meet her uncle;  that was the last time Gizella saw her parents
  • Gizella escaped the Lodj Ghetto at night and met up with her uncle who was hiding in a safe house owned by a Czech family;  Gizella’s uncle was a physician who took care of many Czechs in Poland;  the Czechs, in turn, took care of Gizella’s uncle and his family
  • Gizella’s uncle told Gizella to take her two younger cousins, Emil and Genie, to a Czech farmer;  the Czech farmer was to hid hide Emil and Genie in his barn
  • Gizella took Emil and Genie to the farmer during the day in front of the Nazis (Gizella, Emil and Genie had false papers and were not wearing the Jewish star)
  • After Emil and Genie were dropped off with the farmer, Gizella began walking to another Czech farmer who was going to hide her
  • During the walk, Gizella witnessed “killing fields” of mass murder;  truck loads of Jews were taken from the Lodj Ghetto and were machine-gunned to death in ditches and trenches – took days for Gizella to process what was going on and what she saw
  • Gizella stumbled around deep in the forest and walked into a Russian/Polish resistance group;  she was babbling incoherently in Russian and German
  • Russian commander of the group realized she knew how to speak both German and Russian;  he contacted the leader of a Russian spy ring operating in eastern Poland
  • A Russian “handler” took Gizella to a farm where Gizella was given false papers and was told to pretend to be a granddaughter of the owner of the farm;  a German general was living on the farm and the general used the farm for his division headquarters
  • Gizella was to overhear and remember all German spoken – she was not to let anyone know that she spoke and understood German;  Gizella was to play the “simple Polish farm girl”;  Gizella also emptied the trash at night and collected all the scrap and discarded paper;  Gizella also memorized the insignias of the different German military units who visited the farm to met the German general
  • Twice a week, Gizella walked to the Farmer’s Market during the day to meet her Russian handler;  Gizella handed over the scrap and discarded paper she had collected since the last time she had met the handler; Gizella told the handler all the conversations she had heard, and drew for the handler the insignia of the different German uniforms she had seen
  • After six months, the Russian handler brought her to the city of Lodj for another assignment;  she received new false papers and an apartment in the city;  she was to walk to the main Gestapo headquarters in the middle of the city and apply for a job as a maid – she got the job;  everyday on her way to work, she walked right by the Ghetto where she and her family once were interned;  Gizella thinks about her mother and father – what happened to them?
  • Gizella’s job was to empty the trash and collect all the scrap and discarded paper at the Gestapo headquarters;  Gizella also memorized the insignia of the different German military units and remembered all German conversations she overheard;  Gizella was never to let the Germans know that she spoke German;  again, Gizella was to play the simple Polish farm girl working as a cleaning custodian
  • Gizella met with the same Russian handler twice a week at night
  • An ammunition dump was set up behind the Gestapo headquarters in Lodj;  Gizella was told by her Russian handler to watch what kind of weapons were kept there and to report to the handler;  Gizella drew a picture of a mobile rocket launcher and rockets and gave the picture to the Russian handler
  • Gizella was told to steal a key to one of the gates of the arms depot and to make an imprint in something like silly putty;  she stole the key, made the imprint, put the key back without anyone realizing it had been missing, and brought the imprint of the key to the Russian handler
  • A few days later, Gizella is awakened at night with a huge explosion – the arm depot had been blown up
  • That same night of the explosion, the Russian handler frantically entered her apartment and told her to leave immediately with him – the handler believed the Gestapo had been following him (the Gestapo “was on to them”);  Gizella never saw the Russian handler so scared
  • Gizella and the Russian handler were stopped at a checkpoint outside of Lodj and their papers were found to be frauds;  both were taken the to the police headquarters
  • Gizella waited in a jail cell the entire night and heard the Russian handler being tortured and screaming;  finally, around dawn, it got quiet and Gizella knew the Russian was dead
  • Later that morning, Gizella was taken out of jail and Gestapo lightning bolts were branded onto her left upper arm
  • Gizella was sent to the Lodj Ghetto with no medical treatment
  • Gizella was put on a train to the Mjdanek death camp a day or so later; she had not eaten for days
  • People were dying on the train to Mjdanek; no air or water;  bucket on the floor to go to the bathroom spills in transit – people vomit and die;  dark and terrible smells;  cattle car rolling back and forth – nauseating.
  • Gizella is yanked off the train at Mjdanek and is “selected” to work; children separated from mothers fathers;  men and women separated;  screaming, crying, shooting and beatings getting off the train
  • Most of her day at Mjdanek was standing at roll call at attention;  she broke rocks and dug holes and then filled in the holes;  people beaten and shot and hung all day long
  • Breakfast was coffee-colored thin watery soup that tasted terrible – never hot, maybe somewhat warmed; maybe a spoiled vegetable in the soup;  if lucky, maybe a dead insect in the soup;  no lunch;  dinner is the same soup and maybe a piece of bread with saw dust;  holes in soup spoons
  • People were stacked in cubbies at night;  in order to turn, everyone had to turn at the same time;  lice and bed bugs ate at them all the time, especially at night
  • People were dirty, sick and stunk
  • Concept of collective punishment if a Jew tried to escape – hundreds killed
  • Translations:  typically, a Russian POW officer already tortured brought in;  one eye may have burned out; bloody and was screaming…Nazi behind POW with a whip and a Nazi behind Gizella with a whip….German to Russian and then Russian to German – could go on for hours
  • Torture for Gizella if she refused to translate: she is locked in a small dark closet with large hungry rats the size of Guinea pigs and then thrown into bright light; Jews lined up and shot if she doesn’t translate
  • Twice Gizella remembers being sent to the gas chambers to be killed and twice being pulled from the line to be gassed to translate
  • Gas Chamber: Zyclon B pellets (the size of moth balls) dropped from ceiling and hits heads, shoulders and bodies before landing on floor;  pellets turn to heavy gas and people vomit and shake and suffocate;  piles of bodies at each corner of the chamber as strongest try to climb the pile to get any clean air at the top of the ceiling before dying
  • Gizella was left for dead when Germans pull out of Mjdanek;  Russian soldier sat on dead bodies and pile moves…it’s Gizella – time is May of 1945
  • Russians took care of Gizella until war ended a week later;  Russians handed over Gizella to Americans
  • Gizella stayed in DP (“displaced persons”) camp in Germany from May of 1945 through November of 1946; she learned English;  she immigrated to the US in November of 1946 to live with Regina

These events speak for themselves as a testament to the horrors our species is capable of. The Jews in this case (as they and other have in the past) were scapegoats for a German nation that believed the treaty which ended The Great War had treated them unfairly. Soon, the Jews became a target for their indignation, magnified by the policies of political up-start, Adolf Hitler. He could have been stopped at any point, but evil was permitted to live simply because for too long, good men did nothing and in the end, six million people died.

The faith of many Jews wavered and in some cases, broke into pieces during this time. Can you blame them? We take for granted our daily “tests of faith” and so easily cast it aside as soon as a challenge presents itself. What about those Jews who didn’t give up, who didn’t allow the hatred of others destroy their faith? Hope and faith are what helped those who survived carry on to form what is now the state of Israel. Hope and faith are what drives a POW to survive just one more day in order to reunite with their family. Hope and faith are the antidote to the internal rot of despair. The survivors of the Holocaust are models of the limits of human endurance.

Because of events like slavery in Egypt, mistreatment during the Diaspora, and the Holocaust, the Jewish community as a whole is very sensitive to human rights issues. Experience, it seems, is the best teacher. The question is, do we always need such a lesson to drive us for good? When will hatred in all of its formed fade away as a spectre of the past? When will we evolve to such heights?

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  • Michael Solender

    And yet, or perhaps in spite, of this unimaginable horror, this woman never lost hope, never lost her dignity and never stopped believing she would survive. Not only did she survive but she went on to become the matriarch of her extended family, such that was left, and raise a wonderful family of her own. To this day she relives the horrors in talks to school children around the state and places herself back in time to recall the unthinkable so we will never ever forget. Yet unspeakable crimes against humanity go on to this day in China, Iraq, Iran, Somalia and anywhere where totalitarian rulers reign..Thank you for sharing ‘Zs story. I have the pleasure of knowing her and seeing firsthand the incredible resolve she has. A truly remarkable woman.