Stat Counter

View My Stats

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Crimes Without Punishment

I don’t like to watch crime shows. Too much like my day job. My son has been trying to get me to watch "The Wire" or "Homicide" or any number of crime films. I demur. But on Thursday night I went out to see a movie about the most horrendous crimes in history.

The film was called "Swimming in Auschwitz." It was about six teenage girls who survived the horror to tell the story more than 60 years later. Each is now in her 80's, having spent useful, "normal" lives raising families, living in the Los Angeles area. I happen to know one of them.

Rena Drexler is the mother of a close friend, David Drexler, and grandmother of his kids, Jonathan and Justin. I’ve known them for many years. Rena celebrated her 82nd birthday on May 8, the day of the showing, and the anniversary of the date of her liberation from Auschwitz after three years of terror.

Many of those who survived what is inaccurately called "The Holocaust" (the first use of the word was to describe and unintended tragedy like a forest fire), have been reluctant to talk about their experiences, especially to their children. Many children of survivors have carried unresolved burdens of transferred guilt (and perhaps shame) as a result.

My in-laws, Morris and Esther, avoided extermination by escaping to Russia, returning to Poland after the war to find that most of their relatives were dead. Only later in their lives, under my intense cross-examination spurred by my curiosity, did they relate details that their daughters had never heard. The revelations encouraged them to join a group of children of survivors who shared their common demons.

Rena Drexler has not been reluctant to tell her story. On the contrary, she’s made it her life’s work to bear witness to the events she survived. She speaks at junior and senior high schools. What must these American teens, to whom tragedy is using up the minutes on their cell phones, think of Rena’s teen years spent in forced labor, yards and maybe days from starvation and murder? Rena promises to keep telling the story as long as she has the voice to do it.

During 1974 and 1975, Bijou and I traveled around the world. We spent a month in Israel, where we spent time with relatives and friends of her parents. I kept a journal of our time there and these are some of the entries.

17 September 1974 Tuesday Tel Aviv:
... Binem and Anja Cukier took us in with them. Binem and Bea’s father Morris were boyhood friends in Radom, Poland. In 1935, Binem, then 21, emigrated to Palestine where he had relatives. Morris stayed until the Nazis chased him to Russia. After the war, they corresponded and did so for 30 years until Morris visited Israel three years ago. Now the elderly Cukiers, though eking by in semi-retirement on inflation-slashed pensions still offer what little they have to us. Yaakov has not called today. We are being fed to the point of being stuffed on heavy Jewish food. It is impossible to say no to a woman who cooks all day for you.

Anja is a real Jewish mother, a little dynamo of energy, cooking, cleaning, always urging food on us and always with a smile, a laugh and a friendly warm heart.

On her forearm are the numbers of Auschwitz. She was a young girl when the Nazis marched into Radom. She was taken with others to be a servant for the Nazi commander. For years, she washed, cleaned, and kept her eyes open. She heard and saw unspeakable things. Later, she was taken to Auschwitz. For three months, she waited her turn for the gas chamber. But she was strong and was kept barely alive to work in the arms factory. Just when it seemed it was over, the Swedish Red Cross was allowed to take a few thousand of the sickest to Sweden by some Nazi officer who knew that judgment would come and hoped to make a gesture.

When the war ended, Binem found she was alive and said she was his wife to get her to Israel. Now she is a frail old lady with hard black eyes that peer through her thick glasses and a stomach that rejects food she cannot be sure is safe.

Two years ago she was taken to Germany to testify at the trial of the Radom Nazi commander. He had ordered 30,000 deaths. She is proud of her strength and memory.
He was sentenced to seven years in prison.

30 September Monday Jerusalem:
... We went to Yad Vashem, a memorial built as a reminder of the genocide, what the Israelis call "The Holocaust." We decided it is not an apt designation. It connotes to me a natural, rather than man made, disaster. But perhaps it is meant to be ironic.

Through my own family’s experiences, I’ve lived with the telling and retelling of the stories of that period, complete with films of the camp victims dead and barely alive, told by survivors I have known (tattoos burned into arms and hearts as proof) and have thought much about it from many angles until it became, at times, an annoying cliche, just another means for the imposition of "Jewish guilt."

Yet, walking slowly through the "museum" viewing the display of documents proving the incomprehensible, the photos, the testimony, the "tombstone" with its numbing numbers: "children: 1,500,000" ... and the familiar names: "Kirshbaum, Greenberg ..." The effect of sadness created is overwhelming and real.

It is odd but it moved me to tears as the visions of misery in Calcutta did not. Certainly that "live" experience was more "real" and perhaps more relevant because it goes on today. But somehow I felt detached from it, while this is more a part of my being. The parallel of inhumanity caused by men is there, but maybe it is unrealistic to throw them together.

As we walked out, Bea said: "My God, they really planned to kill all the Jews!" It was a shocking emotional reaction to a historical fact known but not until now felt and understood. She also observed angrily that the memorial should be in Burbank, not Israel, if it is to have impact. As usual, she hits it on the head.

When I returned to Tel Aviv in 1999, Binem was a very old man. Anja had passed the year before and he was saddened to learn that Bea had also died. We made a video of his words to bring home to his boyhood friend, Morris. As I left his little apartment, I felt low, ideas of loss and survival all mixed up in my heart.

Those thoughts resurfaced as I watched the movie, tried to imagine the elderly ladies as they might have been as teenage girls, the hours before they were tumbled into an abyss.

My thoughts get all mixed up again with ideas of loss and survival and the limits of life and memory.

1 comment: