Op-eds

Those children who died could have been ours

  • MaryKluk
With the number of Holocaust survivors alive today dwindling, the poignancy of having more than 100 Auschwitz survivors and their families under the same roof will remain with me always. This was at the formal commemoration ceremony at Auschwitz in Poland of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the camp on 27 January.
by MARY KLUK | Jan 30, 2020

The courage of these extraordinary men and women, all with a number tattooed on their arms, is a source of constant inspiration. But the reality of life beyond them, a time when there will be no more witnesses, was brought home sharply by what survivor Marian Turski said at the start of his address, “I will not live to see another jubilee here, so apologies for my emotions.”

The responsibility to uphold the memory and enduring lessons of the Shoah rests with the generations to come.

No matter how many times I have visited various concentration camps, I’m somehow changed by the time I leave. The enormity of the experience can’t be overstated and, of course, each visit is influenced by one’s life circumstances at the time.

Since my last visit to Auschwitz, we have been blessed with two gorgeous grandsons, Leo and Jàçob, who were at the forefront of my imagination as we walked once more through this factory of death.

In his keynote address at the commemoration, Ronald Lauder, the president of the World Jewish Congress, referred to the tragic testimony of a survivor at the Adolf Eichmann trial, who described how the fading sight of the “little girl in the red coat worn by his daughter” was the last image he had of his wife and young child as they were selected for immediate death.

On Monday morning, when I walked on the slippery stone paths into barracks which now house stomach-churning exhibits of spectacles, suitcases, shoes, and huge mounds of human hair, the sight of a little girl’s plait made me nauseous as all I could visualise was our gorgeous Jàçob recently having his first hair cut (opshering) at the Kotel.

Another survivor spoke of how hurt she was by the loss of her hair, saying, “My crown was taken away from me, and I became a pitiful creature. Who would think that our hair would be used for mattresses! What they were really after was depriving me of myself.”

More than a million Jews were brutally murdered at Auschwitz. Words like gas chambers, mass graves, pits, corpses, crematoria rolled off the tongue of our guide. Along with elderly people, children had the lowest rate of survival. People over fifty years of age, pregnant women, and young children were immediately sent to the gas chambers. Of the almost one million Jewish children in 1939 Poland, only about 5 000 survived. Most of them only by being in hiding.

During an intimate memorial service at crematoria 4, my colleague and friend, Menachem Rosensaft, read this heart-wrenching poem he wrote about his murdered brother:

A Refusal to Forgive the Death, by Gas, of a Child in Birkenau

whom should I forgive?

why should I forgive?

how can I forgive?

children

hundreds

of children

thousands

thousands upon thousands

of children

hundreds of thousands

of children

more than one million children

starved

beaten

typhus-ridden

shot

hung

gassed

but I see

one child

only one child

always one child

always the same child

a five-and-a-half-year-old boy

Benjamin

my mother’s son

my mother’s child

his ashes diffused

toward the stars

almost three years

before I was born

once upon a time

my brother

used to laugh

used to play

used to sing

used to have

tomorrows

but that was before

before the train

before arrival

at a place

with a German name

before one last hug

one last kiss

before he went

with his father

and grandparents

into a blackness

without end

whom should I forgive?

why should I forgive?

how can I forgive?

And my mind wandered to our precious Leo, who at the same age as Benjamin started Grade 1 last week.

I returned to the bus and switched on my phone. The first message I opened was from my son, a beautiful photograph of the “36-week scan” of PG, our next precious grandchild, due next month. In my joy, my thoughts drifted to the incomprehensible fact that 1.5 million children’s lives were brutally cut short by hatred.

May the memory of the victims live eternally.

  • Mary Kluk is the president of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, and the director of the Durban Holocaust and Genocide Centre.

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