May 18, 2011
Entering through the front door of the neat red and white brick house, we find ourselves in a spacious room with bright white walls. Upon white pedestals sit magnificent bronze sculptures, each approximately 18” – 24’’ tall.
Intricately detailed, these sculptures portray people engaged in various activities. But alas, they are not images of people working in gardens, or busy at a desk, or of children reading a book or chasing butterflies. Neither are they sculptures of a grandmother rocking a baby, or of young couples walking hand in hand in the cool spring breeze. No, these are sculptures of anguish; testaments of evil. Instead of youthful faces awash with laughter and excitement, the faces have become canvases for the portrayal of fear, fatigue, horror, and hunger.
Imprisoned here in the medium of bronze are the memories of the sculptor. Unwanted and unsolicited, these agonizing memories have nonetheless been indelibly carved into his psyche. They now find expression in the sculptures sitting atop white pedestals in a small museum in Ariel, Israel. They capture the faces of desperation, of confusion, of fear, and even of madness. They chronicle a place and a time. The place- Treblinka, the Polish death camp of the Nazis. The time – the 1940s. The sculptor – Shmule (SHMOO-leee) – a prisoner at Treblinka. His crime – a crime so terrible, so unforgiveable, that the most cruel and horrific torture and death heretofore not even imagined by man had been deemed appropriate. Shmule, along with countless more like him, had dared … to be… Jewish.
It is Holocaust Remembrance Week and we have come to visit the Holocaust Remembrance Museum (Bayt Zichron), here in Ariel. Ronnit and Kuba, owners/curators of this museum, and themselves holocaust survivors, live upstairs. It is their lifework, this chronicling of the “Shoa.” Collected through their own efforts and with their own money, it bears witness to a very personal time in their lives and the lives of so many others. Today they are our hosts and take us on a journey we will never forget. Dror (pronounced “drawer” – which means liberty), our History of Israel teacher, is here as translator. As Ronnit moves from pedestal to pedestal, she and Dror describe for us the scene the artist, Shmule, has captured in bronze.
On the first pedestal stands a carefully detailed sculpture of an old man stooping to remove the shoelaces from the shoes of a little boy. The old man’s face is etched with weariness. The young boy appears frightened and confused.
Ronnit points to the artist’s rendition of Treblinka which hangs on the wall. She explains that after arriving in cattle cars following long days of travel without food or water, bathroom facilities, or even being able to sit, the prisoners were herded into the camp and ordered to undress. Anything that would be useful to the Nazis was collected. Shoestrings were on that list. An old man and a young child. In but a few minutes from the scene captured here in bronze, they would be marched naked to another building into which they and others would be herded, and there would breathe their last agonizing breaths. Though many would spend their last seconds begging to be spared, their captors would somehow be able to look into the eyes of a young boy and an old man and turn a deaf ear to their pleas for mercy. But at this moment, the one captured in the sculpture, they did not yet know what was to come.
On the second pedestal, a beautiful young lady sits on a stool. Her long hair has fallen to the floor to be collected for the Nazis who miss no opportunity to profit from their finely tuned killing machine. Half of her head has already been shorn, while on the other side, her beautiful hair tumbles gently across her right shoulder and dangles almost to her waist. Shmule, who was the barber, remembers the girl’s name- Ruth Dorfman. He is not supposed to know it at all, as they are forbidden to speak. But with the German guard down at the other end of the long room, Ruth seizes the opportunity and introduces herself. She tells Shmule where she is from and where she has already been during this horrific journey. She relates that she is 20 and had just finished her high school exams before she and her family were taken to the ghetto. Now, two long and agonizing years later, she has been transferred here. With no family left, she is convinced that this stop on her journey will be her last, and she will soon be escorted into the “showers” from which she, like so many others, will not emerge alive. She asks Shmule a question. It is a tragically relevant question and one which surely has tortured his own pain- wearied heart as well. Although it is a brave query, its answer is one that Shmule does not even wish to consider. As her beautiful hair tumbles to the floor, Ruth whispers to this stranger, that which is foremost in her thoughts. “Will I suffer terribly?”
Surely Shmule’s breath must have caught in his throat. Ruth Dorfmann had just voiced the fear that most have tried to chase from their consciousness. Alas, Shmule cannot tell Ruth that she will not suffer terribly. Nor can he pretend that he will not. Two young people, who by all rights should be at school or sitting on a park bench sharing a quiet afternoon, instead speak in whispers. Dressed in the gray and black stripes of a prisoner, they talk not of school studies or of an upcoming picnic, as should have been the case, but of imminent murders – their own.
The next sculpture portrays a young lady in odd apparel. A scarf around her head seems to flutter in a breeze. She wears a strange tattered blouse and a beautiful flowing skirt and high heels, which Shmule recalls were bright red. Her hands clutch “something” in front of her. Her eyes are wild, her cheeks sunken. She has gone mad. What does she clutch in her hands? What is this “something” so infinitely important to hang onto that it has driven her mad? The treasure she clutches – a small piece of hard, dry bread. Hunger. One of the most vivid and haunting memories of the surviving prisoners, we are told. Hunger day and night. Terrible, gnawing, never satisfied….hunger.
Next, an old man pushes a wooden cart filled to overflowing with various items. It is his job to collect these items from alongside the train track. It is quite diabolically ingenious, actually. The Nazis have instructed the Jews that they can bring one suitcase of their valuables with them, as they are “about to be relocated to a nicer place.” However, as the doors to the cattle cars are finally slid open upon their arrival to this nicer place, they are immediately confronted with barking dogs and German guards brandishing whips and guns. They are dragged, thrown, and beaten out of the train cars; their suitcases and valuables dropped or knocked from their hands. Babies are ripped from the arms of screaming mothers and flung to the ground. Weary, hungry, thirsty, and now torn from families, they are confused and frightened. Their precious treasures lay scattered alongside the train track.
But this scattering of their treasures presents a problem for the Nazis, although definitely not an insurmountable one. You see, another trainload of prisoners will soon be arriving at this “Final Solution” camp and the Nazis do not want the passengers on that next train to be “forewarned” as they arrive at Treblinka, of something sinister afoot. So between one arrival and the next, this old man will push his cart alongside the tracks, filling it with the discarded belongings of his fellow Jews. The cargo will then be divided into categories. Things the Nazis can make use of or sell, including mountains of candlesticks, money, and clothing, will be kept for later use. The prisoners, after all, will never have need of these things again. Yes, the Nazis miss no opportunity, even methodically extracting the gold teeth of their victims either before or after their deaths.
Appearing larger than the rest, on the next pedestal stands the towering image of a large man, a whip raised in his right hand, his feet planted widely apart, and his mouth open in what appears to be an angry shout. A large clock hangs from a chain around his neck. This is Yulian, the bathroom guard. To further mock the Jews, Yulian stands at the filthy, foul smelling latrines, dressed in robes designed to mimic those of Israel’s High Priest. It is Yulian’s job to make certain that no prisoner sits for more than a minute in the latrine. That’s right….a minute. Anyone still sitting at 61 seconds is beaten mercilessly. But it is not that Yulian is without a heart. Yulian, himself a prisoner, is desperate. In exchange for his work as the latrine guard, Yulian is awarded the possibility of living longer. He receives perhaps a bit more than the starvation diet of a bowl of “gray water soup” with a chunk of potato and a piece of bread allotted to the regular prisoners each day; a diet that guarantees that the prisoners will be too weak to resist. Still Yulian’s deeply sunken eyes belie the truth. Yulian himself is also near starvation.
Along with the beatings meted out by Yulian, Shmule also remembers the kindnesses. He recalls that when the German guards were out of sight, Yulian would forget the clock and allow the prisoners to sit for awhile. Realizing that this was the only time they were out of sight of the German guards, he would allow them these few minutes alone. It would be their only chance to rest during the day, and to think. It was a tiny sliver of time for themselves, albeit there in the stinking latrines. Yulian would give them the incredible gift of time. Ronnit relays to us Shmule’s testimony of a time that Yulian allowed him to sit for 30 minutes. It was an unbelievable gift, and one that Shmule has never forgotten. In fact, this gift of 30 minutes alone seems to have outweighed the beatings meted out by the bathroom guard at other times. Thirty minutes to sit in peace – in a stinking, often overflowing latrine.
Beside Yulian sits a large sculpture of the “camp orchestra” with eyes sunken, cheeks hollow, but oddly dressed in formal tails. As I looked at this sculpture I was reminded of Psalms 137
By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea we wept when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. For there, they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us, required of us mirth saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion. How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?
The last sculpture is perhaps the largest, and portrays a section of fence with bodies draped across it. Shmule remembers that most who tried to escape from Treblinka were shot by guards, their bodies draped across this fence. He also remembers that he himself escaped by walking across these corpses.
It is a lot to take in, this hate, torture, death, sculpted in bronze by one of the victims. I feel as though I need to sit for a few moments and digest the information, and allow my brain to catch up with my heart, which is only now beginning to grasp the very personal realities of this terrible period in history.
As we prepare to enter the next room, my mind is reeling. It is, to me, utterly impossible to comprehend how any human can do thus to another. Though I have not met Shmule in person, I feel I have met him through his art. The emotion he has been able to translate from his memories into bronze is palpable and has been now transferred to me. I fight tears even now, as I attempt to transfer the powerful emotion which has made the improbable journey along the train tracks of minds and hearts from Shmule, to bronze, to me, and now hopefully into this writing, and to you. It is important, I believe, that we allow ourselves to experience even some small measure of the pain and fear of the Ruth Dorfmans, the Shmules, and the Yulians, so that it will be absolutely unthinkable that such an atrocity would be allowed ever again.
I pause as I follow the others to the next room, not knowing if I am brave enough to enter. The walls are covered from floor to ceiling with pictures. Pictures from the various ghettos and death camps. Images of filthy, squalid conditions and of people in various stages of starvation. Children sit dying in the streets. A mother cradles an emaciated child. The images are so devastating that I thought not to share them here. But they are important. And it is truth.
Naked people, hardly recognizable as human, so thin are they. Bodies stacked like rag dolls with gaping eyes and sunken cheeks. People being shot, their bodies falling into mass graves. You could spend hours in this one room and not see all the pictures…if your stomach, your mind, and your heart could withstand it.
Next we are ushered down a flight of stairs into a room where hand written letters cover partitions set up down the center of the long, narrow room. Many are letters written from the ghettos with coded messages warning that all is not well, as is being portrayed by the German propaganda machine. Along the walls, tables are spread with Nazi emblems; arm bands, yellow stars, etc.
After spending just a few minutes here, we are taken into another room where we are introduced to Kuba (Jacob), who is in now in his eighties. Kuba was eleven when his parents took him and his older brother to the house of a friend where they were concealed beneath the floorboards in a grave-like ditch for several months. They were not allowed to come out night or day, for fear of being discovered. Later they were placed into an underground bunker-like room where at least they could stand. Each night, someone would come, open the hatch, and pass down to them food and water, and exchange their used “toilet” can for a fresh one. This is how Kuba and his brother survived through the war. The rest of their family, he relates – did not survive.
Through our interpreter, Dror, Kuba answers our questions before showing us a video consisting mostly of actual film footage of life in the ghettos and in the camps. One of the most striking images I recall from this video was of men rolling a cart down a street, picking up naked bodies and tossing them onto the cart like rag dolls or like so many plucked hens. As they repeat this grim task again and again and the small cart becomes loaded with a mountain of corpses, bodies roll off and tumble to the ground. The cart stops, and the body is plucked from the street once more, like so much rubbish, and tossed onto the cart for a second time. And the morbid journey continues.
How much pain and death, I wonder? How much dehumanizing must the human heart endure before it is seared to this degree? At what tipping point does it become possible for these men to handle the bodies of their families, friends and neighbors in this manner without any show of emotion? How long until death no longer moves you? How long until dying is preferable to living? The Nazis had truly succeeded, to some degree, in reducing their victims to mere impersonal tattooed numbers on emaciated arms.
As the video ends, we sit for a moment in silence. What words, after all, are adequate? We sit speechless for a time before we are finally able to begin conversing with Kuba.
Kuba looks at us, quizzically searching each of our faces, before saying through Dror, that he really is so pleasantly surprised. He had not known, he relates, that people like us existed. By “people like us,” Kuba means non-Jewish people who truly care about Israel and the Jewish people. Now remember, Kuba is well into his eighties and it has been seventy plus years since WWII ended. Many, many people come through his museum each year. How, then, can it be possible that he is surprised to meet “people like us?”
Somehow, my friends, we have not done a good job of letting Israel and the Jewish people know that we care about them and that we stand with them. I am sorry to say that Kuba is not the only person with whom we have come in contact here in the Land, that is genuinely surprised to see that we love Israel and the Jewish people. They are shocked that we love them and have no intention of trying to change them. They find it curious that we have come not merely to tour, but to come alongside them. Our Hebrew teacher, Rivka, shared with me that she, too, is still surprised. She tells me that she also did not know that such people existed. It seems that, because they are aware of the Western media bias against Israel, they cannot understand why we would believe them and love them.
It is not preaching that Israel needs from us, other than the preaching we do with our lives. In the world in which we live today, there are holocaust deniers and there are nations and groups dedicated to pushing Israel into the sea. In their own words, they are dedicated to “wiping Israel off the map” and “finishing what Hitler began.” What the chosen people of Elohim Most High need, is for people of faith to come alongside and tell them something we assumed they already knew – “Of course we believe you. We are horrified that this happened to you, and we will NEVER allow this to happen to you again. We will stand behind you and beside you. With our voices, with our votes, and with our actions we will say “Israel, we have your back.”
For Kuba and for Ronnit; for Yulian and for the camp orchestra; for Ruth Dorfman and for Shmule; for the children and the aged; and for the countless millions of babies and grandparents, mothers, fathers, disabled and those who would dare to help Israel, and for the many others who were slaughtered in this indescribably horrific war, we will never forget and we will remain on guard. We will not stand by and let the enemies of God’s chosen people, “finish the job.”
In writing or reading on a subject such as this, it would be so very easy to fall into despair and utter discouragement. But alas, let us never forget that, through it all, many held tight to their faith in the One Most High, and He was/is worthy of that faith. Many came out of the Shoa with a determination to counter this horrendous hate with overwhelming love and inexplicable kindness. There were Yulians and Oscar Schindlers and The Tenboom Families multiplied. There were the Meips of Anne Frank’s family and many others whose names we do not even know and whose stories of great heroism we have not yet heard. Alongside the almost unbelievable atrocities, were seemingly superhuman kindnesses and sacrifices.
I do not know if I would ever have the inner strength to be a Yulian, putting my own life at risk in order to gift a teenage boy 30 minutes out of the sight of the enemy, but I pray that I would. I do not know if I would have the strength and bravery of Oscar Schindler or the Tenboom family, righteous Gentiles who put their lives on the line, and indeed in many cases lost their lives to protect the innocent and to do what was right. But then, must I wait until I am tested in that way in order to begin in some small way to act?
Oh, that I would have the sensitivity tomorrow to not only notice the pain of someone else ,but to respond with kindness. May I remember that there are hurting souls who need a Yulian to simply provide a way for them to rest from their pain and lighten their load. Perhaps I will never be a Corrie Tenboom or an Oscar Schindler. Perhaps there will never be a Schmule who reacts by casting my tiny act in bronze, but it isn’t about that anyway, is it?
Tomorrow, may someone show you a kindness and may you pass that on to another. And may we notice and appreciate the thoughtful acts of others, no matter how seemingly small. As I have listened to the testimony of holocaust survivors, I notice that they take nothing for granted. May it be so with us as well.
As I scroll back through these terrible images, may I always remember that –
There but for the grace of God go I. Until later, may you be given the blessing of being a blessing . And, lest we forget – PRAY FOR THE PEACE OF JERUSALEM!