Irene, you are on my mind constantly, even as we move to Chełmno tomorrow and Sobibor, Lublin, Włodawa the next few days. I will especially remember Płaszów, where your mother and sister worked and were saved by Schindler.
I have been offering a quiet prayer at every site. I will say a prayer in particular for Toska and her family at Belzec.
I read your book The Choice. What I find most devastating is how plain and simple your words are. Trying to understand the Holocaust is like trying to fill a cup of water from underneath Niagara Falls. If I venture beyond the edges, I surely will be washed away. The only safe place is the fringes, where I hope to catch a few droplets from the secondary and tertiary streams. Your book guides me through your world with no embellishment and no fanfare, only the quiet realization that now I can begin to view these vast spaces, to touch the enormity they embody, through you. These are no longer just abstract and nameless places of evil; you inhabit them all. How I wish you were here to guide me and to tell me your stories all over again every step of the way!
Irene Eber, born Geminder, was nine when the Germans destroyed the Jewish quarters of her native Mielec in 1939. In early 1942 the Mielec Jewish community was among the first to be shipped to the newly constructed death camps at Bełzec; others were sent to Auschwitz. In her book The Choice she talks about her choice to run away from her family to save herself. Two Polish families saved her by hiding her under a chicken coop.
Irene is now the Louis Frieberg Professor of East Asian Studies Emerita at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She’s been a close friend of mine for more than 20 years. Together we organized an international conference in Jerusalem and jointly edited a book.
Irene’s letter of 8/8/11
The itinerary sounds very good, and if you have my Choice you will recognize a few places I mention there.
1. You will go to Płaszów, the concentration camp near Krakow. My mother worked there as a typist in the murderer Goeth’s office. My sister came to Płaszów, and both got on Schindler’s list.
2. You will be shown Schindler’s “Emalie” factory and told that he was a great hero. I think he was rather a shrewd cookie, realizing by 1944 that the game was up and the only way he would be saved was if he saved Jews. Thus Brunlitz and the famous list. Still, he did save Jews this way.
3. Stutthof is on your list. This is the place where my aunt and two cousins were killed in 1945 by being driven into the ocean. Those who didn’t drown immediately were shot.
4. Lublin, Sobibór, Włodawa are all in the same area. We were deported from Mielec to the Lublin district and were force-marched to Sosnowice, a small village, a sort of waiting station for Sobibór to be ready for killing. Włodawa was larger than Sosnowice, and large numbers of Mielec Jews ended up there also waiting for Sobibór. That’s where they found their end.
5. I see Bełzec on your list. One of the earliest extermination camps. My most cherished childhood friend, Toska, was killed there with her family.
Wish I were on your tour. Be sure to dress warmly. Poland can get awfully cold.
We went to Bełzec today. A large memorial is now built into the burial mound. With my hand on the granite, I offered a tearful prayer for Toska. It is a cold, dark place, deep in the belly of this killing place.
Yesterday, we came by bus from Warsaw to Lublin via Sobibór. The train station is still there, with two original rusting signs to bear silent witness to horrors unimaginable. To my surprise, a small community still lives around the station, only yards from the entrance of the camp, as if nothing had happened. A small dog from one of these houses came running after us, barking ferociously. How eerily appropriate, I thought.
We go to Majdanek tomorrow, Christmas Day, on our way to Krakow. Then Auschwitz-Birkenau and Płaszów the day after Christmas.
As always, thinking of you, Irene, wishing you were by my side, but knowing you are more than you realize,
Irene’s letter of 12/24/11
When you go to Auschwitz-Birkenau, please remember that for some reason the Schindler women ended up in Birkenau. That is where my sister and mother had their heads shaved and where my sister was dreadfully ill. But because illness meant certain death, my mother and friend Regina held her up during the long hours of “Appell,” when the prisoners were counted.
When I was in Birkenau in 1980, Polish peasants were cutting hay between the barracks.
Most interesting what you write about Sobibor. But then, why not? After all, it was only Jews who were killed there. Thank you for the Bełzec prayer.
Thinking very much of you in Poland and your very memorable Christmas,
Irene’s letter of 12/25/11
Are you already on your way to Auschwitz? It’s not far from Mielec.
My father, Aunt Feige, and Esther were killed in Cyranka-Berdechow labor camp, which was in the vicinity of Mielec.
“I learned recently that in this camp were three brothers (or was it only one?) named Kaplan, who were Gestapo informers. They were free to come and go as they pleased, using their freedom not only to betray Jews sheltered by Poles in the vicinity of Mielec, but also to give away anyone who had come into the camp illegally. I don’t know if they did it to ingratiate themselves with the Germans, hoping thereby to save their own skins. Was it malice, or personal grudges against people from Mielec that they had known? Whatever the reason, it was a Kaplan who informed the Germans about the three tired fugitives in the barracks. Father, Aunt Feige, and Cousin Esther were apparently shot in the camp but not made to dig their graves. The bodies of the three were left to lie where they had fallen for all to see when they returned from their day of hard labor. Later they were buried in the forest surrounding the camp. To this day somewhere in a forest near Mielec in an unmarked grave are the remains, as are the bones of many other victims of the Kaplans and the Germans” (The Choice, 130).
Almost like I am on this trip with you and your group,
This morning we were in Majdanek. An enormous place. Modern buildings have grown up around the camp. I always wonder what those who live within earshot and sight of these camps are thinking. Do they remain willfully ignorant now as then?
The weather was foul: The wind and rain made for a grey, sorrowful Christmas morning. Nothing was open, of course, save a few barracks. And the crematorium and the gas chambers. Behind glass were neatly stacked, shinny canisters of Zyklon B.
It is an evil place.
Irene’s letter of 12/26/11
Read your blog and was very much taken by the thoughtful and emotional responses of everyone. How could they participate? I keep asking myself this same question. Have you read Browning, “Ordinary Men”?
There is one other question that we never talked about and that has occupied me very much in recent years, and that is the immediate postwar period. How to find one’s way back without becoming a professional victim, and how to deal with this incomprehensible cruelty of other human beings.
Is that awful sculpture still standing at the entrance to Płaszów?
We went to Auschwitz-Birkenau today. We had been prepared by the other sites, of course, but the sheer size of the camps, especially Birkenau, and the systematic nature of the killing still took me by surprise. Standing on the train station in Birkenau, I imagined myself one of your Mielec neighbors being pushed along by others toward the doctor, desperate to read which way his thumb would point ….
The shoes, the children’s toys and clothing, the two tons of human hair, and other relics behind glass cases might overwhelm our senses, but it is the vast and windswept train station, with the acrid smell of burning coal hanging in the air and the countless shadows crowding its emptiness still, that haunts me the most.
With my hand on the cold wall of the gas chamber in Auschwitz, I offered a prayer for the Mielec inhabitants. Before the monument to the futile ruins of Birkenau, I prayed for all the women of Mielec who perished there.
We went to Płaszów this morning. Yes, the sculpture is still there, and there is a small memorial and some sweet-smelling lavender, but not much else. No traces of the camp. No traces of Göth. We were told that some skinheads had sprayed the tiresome anti-Jewish behind some bramble, but that’s been covered up.
Then we drove straight to Wrocław. The old synagogue has been beautifully restored, and the courtyard where the Jews were rounded up retains its generous grandness. A small plaque commemorating the event is visible on the wall with a citation from Psalm 130, “Out of the deep I cry to you, O Lord….” A number of the children of the Holocaust met us and told us very moving stories of their ordeals and survivals.
Thank you, Irene, for being with me throughout this trip. We have a few more sites remaining on our trip, but I have already accomplished my goal of traveling with you through places and memories that have shaped your childhood and made you who you are.