Survivor: My Father’s Ghosts-Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust
Survivor: My Father’s Ghosts is on view until August 20, 2018 at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust. Please come visit the museum at the Grove and see what the museum is going to further Holocaust education.
I made my first sojourn to Auschwitz in 2013 and I have been haunted by the images I saw ever since. Yet I have also found Auschwitz to be a place of contemplation – an invitation to meditation. Photography has always kept me from forgetting, so camera in hand, I return to this place of killing of innocent souls hoping to honor the nameless and faceless. I can’t help but wonder if evil can’t be overcome by looking it square in the face.
Visiting Auschwitz required me to not forget the significance of its’ past, while simultaneously being forced to remember it. I read many books about the Holocaust throughout my entire life -beginning with Escape from Warsaw when I was in grade school and throughout my teens. I continued to devour similar culturally and historically relevant books when I started a project on my father’s journey from his hometown of Bedzin, Poland to many forced labor camps in Markstädt, Klettendorf, Hundsfeld , Hirschberg, Bad Warmbrunn and Ermannsdorf. He was sent to Hirschberg twice before he was liberated from Dernau on May 8, 1945. Even with such emotional proximity to this history, I still wasn’t prepared for seeing tools designed to kill people in person. Fences, barbed wire, barracks, crematorium. The controversial historian Ernst Nolte refers to the Holocaust as “a past that will not pass away.” Indeed, I have always felt the more I study the Holocaust, the less I understand about humanity.
I felt an existential delirium being in Auschwitz. Standing in line with people for the tour felt too confining, so as I have always done, I got out of line and went off on my own. Getting out of line is what saved my father’s life at the very end of his stay in those forced labor camps. He was told to get in line with all the other remaining inmates at Dernau. My father’s angels, (as he called them) or his intuition ( how I refer to his knowing), was always marvelous whether it came to people or situations. So when it told him to get out of line, he did and went immediately into the barracks. Had he not listened to that subconscious nudge, he would have ended upon a death walk with everyone else in that line. They were forced to dig their own graves before they were machine gunned down. Because my father broke the rules and got out of line, he was liberated by the Soviet armed forces one day later.
In some places, the pulse beats more than others. Poland is one of those places for me. I’ve heard people say that they could never visit Auschwitz but perhaps if they had a father that survived eight forced labor camps they would feel differently. I can’t imagine not wanting to see the labor, concentration and killing centers ** in person. Duality; making others wrong, is always judgment. I needed to see this place to help me keep remembering.
The Talmud describes the difference between remembering and not forgetting. Forgetting first occurs in the heart. It’s not cognitive. It’s the natural course of events that dispossess us from the event and then tragically, we are left devoid of the reason it was ever important to us to begin with. Remembering, on the other hand, is to engage in activities that promote remembrance.
My father found a way to make something out of nothing, so that he could survive. He created life out of a world of darkness. As a second generation Holocaust survivor, I feel it is my duty to not forget and to present the upside of my heavy heritage so it can be a catalyst, and not a yoke.
I kept mostly to myself in school almost as if I was still hiding. One side of me was a happy girl that loved to laugh; the other side was a girl with sadness so overwhelming, I could never understand where it stemmed from. As a second generation Holocaust survivor, I understand that my father’s unprocessed grief and sadness was handed down, and it’s up to me, to transform that sadness into understanding the carefully orchestrated plan of genocide because the Jews believe, “He who saves one life, saves the entire world. ” I think it’s dangerous that the suffering and struggle of my ancestors will be forgotten with the passage of time. I must tell and retell the stories of our past, so that we will remain free, in the future.
** death camp is too vague, since taken literally it evokes the image of a place in which a large number of people died, such as the footage of dead bodies taken in Dachau and Buchenwald, which misleadingly, are often shown as backdrop in documentaries on the Holocaust. “Death camp” could in theory apply to most concentration camps, many labor camps, and, in the winter of 1941/1942, virtually all camps for Soviet POWs. We prefer killing center because it denotes exactly and explicitly what the facility was established to achieve–to kill human beings as quickly and as efficiently as possible.
As the sirens begin to wail and continue for two full minutes, I witness people getting off their bikes, stopping in their tracks while cars and buses also halt wherever they are. People bow their heads and I find the space to feel the loss of my father, a Holocaust survivor of eight Nazi forced labor camps, who recently died. I am in Israel. So while some may view Israel, a country bordered by Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt as a place of violence and terror, I see nothing but beauty in a land that was created for displaced Jews. I murmur a prayer for the dead, for my father who made survival his art.
Nine days after my father left his physical body, I booked a trip to Israel to rejuvenate and Poland to seek out my heritage, to visit my ancestral shtetl. I want to see where my father lived with his seven siblings, mother and father in a one-bedroom apartment in Bedzin, Poland in my quest as a redemption narrative, going beyond what I know.
My sojourn began in a suburb called Ramat Hasharon to be with my mother’s brothers’ family. I spent the morning swimming with my cousin in a outdoor sea water swimming pool in the Sharon Hotel in Herzliya overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, which revitalized me from the jet lag I was in.
Now I am part of a day to memorialize the tragedies of the Holocaust. We stand in remembrance for our families and for those we never knew. The Knesset in Israel made Yom Hashoah a national public holiday in nineteen fifty nine and a law was passed in nineteen sixty one that closed all public entertainment on this day.
As Neo-Nazis have once again been legalized in Europe, openly sitting in parliaments, I, along with the people next to me, bow my head in silence as the tears run down my face. I needed this experience to help me feel and clear out the sadness from losing my father.
And now the best part of returning to Israel, a mission to find the best hummus. My uncle brought us to a local favorite restaurant that is on the border of Ramat Hasharon and Tel Aviv called Dagim 206. Their hummus gets a ten. Goiked!
“I will not say, do not weep, for not all tears are an evil.”
― J.R.R. Tolkien
My father is a Holocaust survivor. He was never a victim. His unresolved grief and sadness became a catalyst for ambition. His parents were Orthodox Jews who in my fathers’ words “never had money in the bank and lived hand to mouth.” One of eight children, he is the only one to survive in his entire family including his parents and grandparents. His education stopped at the seventh grade when he was taken away from his home by the Germans. They came for his father but my dad talked them out of taking the grandfather I never knew and to take him instead. He was in nine work camps in Poland from the age of fifteen to twenty and suffered from Tuberculosis because of the conditions he was forced to live under.
On the day the Russians came in he heard in Yiddish, “the Russians are coming, the Russians are coming”.When Dernau, the final camp he was in was liberated May 8, 1945, he collapsed at sixty-five pounds.He spent a year in a sanitorium called Marin House, a place mainly for people for Tuberculosis. He would suffer from Asthma and Bronchitis his entire life.I remember when we were driving he’d frequently have to pull over to open his driver’s door, lean his head out and spit.
A self made man, at one time he had eleven homes in the San Fernando Valley. He never spent money he didn’t have. He was street smart and knew how to talk to people. He worked as an aircraft inspector for Hughes Aircraft for thirty years but he always sold something on the side. At lunch time at work guys would line up for leather coats and porn, which he sold out of the trunk of his car. He also went to downtown Los Angeles on his lunch hour where he bought thousands of pairs of seconds of jeans and shirts.When most people were eating lunch, this hour became another way for my father to make money. All his children knew not to call him at work for this reason.I remember him telling us not to call him at work on his lunch hour. We spent the eighties working the swap meets on Saturday and Sundays selling the clothing. I learned how to sell from watching him.
My father married twice. After his second wife died from a brain tumor when he was eighty years old, he sold his home in Los Angeles and moved to Las Vegas, a city he always loved. He has a full time, live in caretaker.
He is a proud, resilient man. Even though he suffered a stroke and a heart attack, he continues. He has a spiritual outlook on life and believed it was because of G-d that he survived the work camps. He told me recently that he thinks he has ten years left.
My photos show him at home, in casinos and at dinner. His capacity to go on is unlike any person I have ever known. I remember when I was a little girl and my mother went into intensive care.He said “Hannah, you have to control your emotions and not let them control you”. He is an inspiration to me to keep going especially when my emotions get the best of me.