Conversations are often difficult here. And I don’t mean so much in terms of a deep or serious nature, but just in a very practical way due to the language barrier. Right now I am sitting next to a gentleman I’ve sat next to and met in passing many times. He never smiles. Ever. I always give him a warm smile, which he returns with a short, firm nod. I would love to talk to him. But that requires an interpreter and the right timing. Our interpreters are amazing and always willing to help us bridge the communication gap. But they are very busy and it has to be exhausting doing that all day long. Honestly, I’m not even sure how I would start a conversation with him. Anyway, I was able to have three meaningful conversations with Survivors yesterday. If you’re interested, read the paragraphs that follow. If not (or you don’t have time for my long-windedness) I’ll just ask you to pray for the team from Savannah that is headed back home tomorrow. Also, tomorrow is the last full day for Survivors to be here. Kazik will give his final talk, in which he will remove the veil and clearly present the gospel. Please pray for God to prepare their hearts and move in a powerful way. Read my post “Shalom” from 2012 if you’re wondering why the message would have been veiled at all until now.
My first conversation was with Olga. We were riding on the bus to Stutthof and she sat in the long back seat of the bus right between mean and Tanya (one of our incredible Ukrainian interpreters). I looked for an opportunity and then ask Tanya to tell her that I would like to get to know her better. She is younger (mid 60’s) and said she is privileged to come with this group since she is not a Holocaust or Ghetto Survivor. She walks with a cane, and I learned this is because she had polio as a child. She became a believer as an adult. I asked about her family – if they are believers. She said that all of her family is except her husband. She shared some other details about their relationship, which isn’t good. Would you please join me in praying for Olga’s husband?
At Stutthof Concentration Camp, I was able to talk a little with Geula. She speaks English and was concerned about Anna and Lidia seeing the camp. I told her that we had prayed and talked long about whether or not to bring them, but decided that they were old enough and mature enough to handle it if we used good judgement about what displays they really saw and read. Both girls wanted to come, knowing fully what they were going to see, although we did guide them away from the worst of it. She told me that there is a huge hole in her heart because her mother would never talk about the Holocaust. She said she knows nothing about her extended family other than that they were destroyed. She has begged and pleaded with her, saying that she knows it is horrible, but she still wants to know. Her mother just will not talk about it. This is true for many. I know that most of the people here have memories and experiences they could share from that time, but they have no interest in doing so. Who can blame them?
Finally, I was able to spend a few minutes talking with my friend, Erika. If you’ve followed this blog through our previous trips, you’ve heard me mention her before. She is a retired teacher and now spends her time traveling and sharing in several countries about the Holocaust (she speaks six languages!). Erika spent time at the concentration camp at Therensienstadt. You can read her story here. She said that she has had many conversations that have lead her to believe that another Holocaust will happen. Her words made me tear up, and expressed to her how much I just didn’t understand that kind of hatred. It was a good talk. It is clear that she has lived a lifetime of hatred, prejudice and persecution. I told her I loved her and we hugged until she let go first. I know it can’t take away the hate of the past, but I pray God will use it to give some hope for the future.
As we visited Stutthof yesterday, we learned that it was the very concentration camp where one of our friend’s mother and sister were. It was an especially emotional journey for him. Many of those with us spent time in concentration camps, but not this particular one.
It is hard to describe the Survivors as we walk through the camp. Although some of them do shed tears, most are simply very somber. As Sonya (one of the short term workers from Savannah) pointed out, their physical demeanor changes and you can feel the grief among them. This gentleman was no exception. I never saw an actual tear, but he was clearly wrestling with a lot of emotion. Later, after our final session, he met with the American teams to tell his story. He spoke for an hour and half and I’m certain he could have continued all night. I won’t be able to share all that he told us, but I’ll do my best to give you a summary of his story. I can’t promise this is a perfectly accurate account, as there are many factors that can compromise the communication of details, but this is what I took from his dialogue. It will be long, but I hope some may have the endurance to read it. It is so important that we are educated about what happened, remember those who were lost, and make sure this never happens again.
He was 14 years old when the Nazis invaded. He spoke of seeing streets covered in bodies and Jews being forced to go clean them up. “Those people never came back” he said. He talked about being ordered to wear the Star of David to identify him as a Jew, not being allowed to use the sidewalk, and signs posted forbidding Jews and dogs from being on the beach. He remembers being moved from his home with his family to the Ghetto and the beginning of systematic killings that constantly reduced their numbers. His father was an artist and was bold enough to ask the Germans for a job when his family was starving. They didn’t believe that Jews were capable of much of anything, so they mockingly told him to paint the room to prove his skills. When he painted a beautiful mural they were impressed enough that they gave him a jar of soup and papers that would allow him to come and go from the Ghetto. He recalls on day when his father started tearing bed sheets into small pieces, and his mother thought he was going crazy. But his father painted lovely flowers on the pieces and made them into ladies’ scarves, which they could sell or trade for food. (He had a picture of one that is framed in his house, which he passed it around. So beautiful. I wish I could show it to you). His father taught him and his siblings to draw, thinking it might be a skill that could help keep them alive.
He said the people were killed everyday, and the Ghetto was constantly getting smaller. He remembers Germans pulling children out of hiding places with big hooks. Eventually, his family was moved from the Ghetto and sent to separate destinations – his mother and sister to Stutthof and he was with his brothers on their way somewhere else. He said it is hard to describe how it felt to be on a train car for cattle – hot, tired, hungry and afraid. Soldiers with guns and dogs forced them to lie down. They started choosing children to take away, including his 12-year-old brother. He felt he couldn’t handle knowing his younger brother was all alone, so he said goodbye to his father and his older brother and found where they were keeping the younger children in the night. His brother pleaded with him to go back, knowing they were going to die, but he refused to leave.
The children were taken to Dachau by truck. When they arrived, they were told to undress to get a bath. The children cried out that they knew it would be gas and they were going to be killed. The German soldiers undressed as well, trying to prove to the children that they were really getting a bath, but there became so much disturbance that they just put the children in barracks and left them there for two weeks. As the one of the oldest of the group, he started teaching the children some discipline – how to stand at attention, march, turn left, turn right. He thought this might help them avoid beatings and torture. They were later transported to Auschwitz in train cars. He organized the children into rows and marched them past the soldiers as they arrived. The Germans were impressed and allowed them to live as an example to the other prisoners of how to behave.
He and his brother received their prisoner number tattoos, which he showed us. They lived on a daily bread portion the size of their hand and “soup”, which was basically water and cow feed. Once a week they got a “real meal”, which was a thick sort of porridge. One boy would carry his bread portion around with him offering it to anyone who could help save him because he knew that the number on his arm meant that he would eventually be killed.
After some time, he was separated from his brother and moved to a work camp. There he worked in a factory. One day US aircraft started flying over and bombing the factory. He hid under the rail storage by the train tracks and prayed aloud to God. His friends laid down in front of him to protect him, and escaped with his life and a little shrapnel in his leg.
Eventually, the war was over. He and the other prisoners left the camp on foot. There were several instances in which he had to pretend he wasn’t a Jew to say alive, even after the war had ended. He would hide the number on his arm and bathe with snow because undressing would reveal that he was a Jew. He would sleep on cans to lift him off of the frozen ground and snow, and steal food whenever he could. Eventually, he came to an abandoned town and spent some time sleeping in an empty apartment. He wrote letters to his old address and, after several attempts, he heard back from someone living there that his parents had survived. (I’m not entirely clear on his point, since I had previously heard that his mother died at Stutthof as well as his sister.) He worked as a translator and entered a technical school, where he graduated with honors. He later was accepted to college under a Lithuanian name. But when it was discovered that he was a Jew, he was rejected. The college said they already had their 7% quota of Jews. He said it didn’t matter that he had an honors degree then.
Our friend grew weary in his talk and brought it to an end, thought I’m sure there were many more stories to share. As I listened to him, I just kept thinking that there were so very many times when his life was spared. I don’t know where his faith stands, but I believe that there is a reason he survived the war. Please pray with me for him and his family.
Many of you know that God has gifted Ben with artistic talents. He often sketches in his journal, which is as effective as note-taking to him. Here is a picture of a drawing he did of this precious dear gentleman and Kazik as they walked together through the concentration camp.