Six Million Stories: All Different, All the Same

Journey Through the Inferno

by Adam Boren, with an introduction by Menachem S. Rosensaft
Washington: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum,
2004, vii + 200 pp., $8.95.

Yesterday: My Story

by Hadassah Rosensaft, with an introduction by Elie Wiesel.
Washington: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum,
2004, x + 207 pp., $15.95.

Where did so much hatred come from? The Jews, by and large, were law-abiding and non-violent citizens. The Nazis hated the Jews enough to want to eradicate them from the world. They also wanted to be as vicious as possible to those they killed. They wanted to dehumanize the Jews.

Every living human being is unique; the dead, however, are all the same. Auschwitz was a factory designed to kill. Most of its victims were gassed at once upon arrival, but others were to be used as slaves before being killed. In Auschwitz, the living, like the dead, were made to be all the same. Their names were taken away and replaced by numbers tattooed on their arms. Their hair was shaved. Clothing and shoes were given out without regard to the size of the wearer. Yet when we read these memoirs by Adam Boren and Hadassah Rosensaft, we learn that even at Auschwitz, each person was different and special.

Their books are different as well. Rosensaft, in roughly 200 pages, tells us about her whole life, before, during, and after Auschwitz. Boren, also in 200 pages, tells us about the period from September 1, 1939, to December 20, 1946 — from the start of World War II until his arrival in America after the war. Boren describes horror after horror in detail, describing his own feelings of terror and grief. Rosensaft narrates her awful experiences quickly, referring to her emotions in very few words. The wrenching tragedy of her family's arrival at Birkenau — the subcamp of Auschwitz used for killing — and the selection that saved her and doomed her husband and her five-and-a-half-year-old son is just six sentences:

"Something that will haunt me to the end of my days occurred during those first moments. As we were separated, my son turned to me and asked, 'Mommy, are we going to live or die?' I didn't answer the question. I didn't know how. First, we didn't know what would happen, and second, how do you answer a child in Birkenau?" (p. 27)

We know Rosensaft's age; she was born on August 26, 1912. We can calculate Boren's age by knowing that he was 13 in 1942 and so probably born in 1929. We learn this only when we are told that in order to protect a girl he had never met, he signed a fictitious wedding certificate claiming he was 18 when he was in fact 13. (p. 83) When the war broke out, he was probably a child of 10.

Even before Boren gets into his story, we know something unusual about him. He tells us about his mother, "She never nagged me to eat like other mothers did." (p. 2) I immediately felt a sense of kinship with him. My own mother never made me eat. All other mothers inflicted a bad habit upon their children, which followed them through their lives even if they became overweight: they finished all the food on their plates. Boren's mother must have been as intelligent and original as my own mother. His appreciation of his mother's originality made him my friend.

For the rest of Boren's book, of course, cleaning one's plate is not the problem; starvation is. Once the war started, even before the German army reached Warsaw, Boren's home, there was no food. On one occasion, four Polish cavalry soldiers were standing in front of the house where the Borens lived. A horse was killed by shrapnel. The soldiers cut it up. "They shared the meat with the other tenants of the building, asking only that we cook it for them. That evening, Mother prepared the meat for us and the four soldiers." (p. 7) The question of kashrut did not arise.

Once the Nazis arrived, the type of cooperation shown here by the Polish soldiers and the Jewish residents became invisible. "Jew-hating Polish hooligans were having a field day. Under the amused laughs of the Germans, they identified Jews who stood for hours in the breadlines, pulled them out, and beat them; four or five of them would jump one elderly, bearded Jew, hitting him with bats until he fell to the ground bleeding." (p. 8)

For some inexplicable reason, the family decided that the men and boys should try to get out of the German-occupied half of Poland, but that the women be safer if they stayed. Adam Boren, his father, and his older brother Mietek managed to escape to the Soviet zone. For a while, they lived with a family of Jewish farmers. It was Adam's first experience in a totalitarian state. "We expressed our thoughts among ourselves with great caution; otherwise, the farmer told us, it would be a straight ticket for the whole family to the gulag in Siberia." (p. 22) The Borens couldn't have known that if they had been sent to Siberia, all three of them might have survived the war instead of just Adam.

They moved from place to place, winding up in a town called Krzemieniec when it was in Poland and Kremenets when it became part of the Soviet Union. Today it is in Ukraine. In June 1941 Germany invaded the Soviet Union. When the Nazis arrived, "bands of Ukrainians, mostly teenagers in groups of three or four, ran into Jewish homes and dragged out whomever they could find, cursing and beating them all the while. ... The older Jews, who could not run, were dragged by their hands or feet down the street, with their heads banging on the fieldstones." (p. 42)

Adam's experiences in Nazi-occupied Ukraine introduce us into an aspect of horror that antedates the death camps and is less well known. Many Europeans, particularly those — Ukrainians, Croats, and Slovaks, who felt their countries were occupied by alien Russians, Serbs, and Czechs — looked upon the Nazis as potential liberators and engaged in vicious attacks against their Jewish neighbors. They didn't have to. They could have welcomed the German army without adopting Nazi brutality. Eventually, of course, all these peoples learned that the Germans were not their liberators at all. As for the Poles, they knew this from the beginning. Adam wonders "how any Pole could, in the face of the enemy, attack his fellow citizens or just stand by without reacting to it. Were not the Germans our common enemy?" (p. 9)

The Borens decided to leave Krzemieniec and return to Warsaw in order to reunite their family. They took off the yellow patches that identified them as Jews and went to the railroad station. Removing the patches was a capital offense. An SS officer ordered, "Drop your pants. Let's see if you are a Pole or a Jew." (p. 52) The family was taken to a jail and forced to labor on a starvation diet. They were permitted to urinate into a bucket at certain hours. The bucket was inadequate, and the prisoners begged to be allowed to empty it. Adam goes into the details of this form of torture. All stories of the Holocaust include desriptions of how the Nazis denied their victims access to toilets.

The Borens had committed the capital offense of not wearing their yellow patches. All the prisoners in their jail were taken to be hanged. Somehow, Adam saw a door to an empty shed and ducked into it. He heard the prisoners, including his father and brother Mietek, say the Sh'ma before being hanged. (p. 58) Miraculously, he escaped and eventually made his way back to Warsaw, where he was reunited with his mother but learned that his sister had died of typhoid. Adam lied to his mother and said his father and brother were still alive and in Krzemieniec. His mother died during the Warsaw Ghetto uprising without ever learning the truth.

"I asked myself why, after escaping execution, I returned to hell in the Warsaw ghetto," Adam wondered. (p. 82) Does one survive hell? Adam miraculously survived the roundups, the uprising, and the destruction of the ghetto. He was taken to Majdanek. Dante, in his Inferno, describes descending from one circle of hell to another. Majdanek was more hellish than the Warsaw Ghetto. I already knew from other works on the Holocaust that his head would be shaved and he would be given clothing that didn't fit. I learned a new detail from Adam's account. There were prisoners awaiting the new arrivals who "shaved the heads and the pubic areas of the naked men standing in front of them." (p. 119)

The prisoners were worked beyond their strength, fed next to nothing, and frequently beaten. If that weren't enough, there was a last straw: "What made it unbearable was the constant screaming of the Kapos and the SS, who yelled at us to work faster, faster, faster." (p. 127)

Shouldn't the Nazis have felt that killing most of the Jews on arrival and working the rest to death was cruel enough? Why did they need to inflict ever more cruelty on their victims? My guess is that they needed to maintain their level of hatred. If the Nazis had stopped screaming, a few of them might have started thinking and maybe would have understood that their victims were human, even if they were Jewish.

Part of the inhumanity of the Nazis was their creation of the category of Kapo, the prisoner who was forced to be brutal to the other prisoners. Making some of the Jews bully other Jews was an extra form of torture, both to the Kapos and their victims. Furthermore, seeing that the Jews could be terrified and pressured to act like Nazis made it easier for the Nazis to think that Jews were evil.

Nevertheless, there was a Kapo who did a good deed to Adam. When Adam couldn't work any more and said, "You can kill me," the Kapo punched him, spat at him, and chased him into a toolshed. "Don't make a move or a sound, and I'll let you stay here," said the Kapo. Adam was allowed to spend the rest of the day in the toolshed. (pp. 138-39)

This event happened after Adam was sent to Auschwitz, an even deeper circle of hell. But on January 18, 1945, Auschwitz was evacuated. After a horrible march with no water, the prisoners were put on a train that went through Czechoslovakia. Czech citizens tried to give the prisoners food and water, and succeeded. Adam tells us of a Czech woman who "lifted a metal cup of water in one hand and a chunk of bread in the other" and told him to pass it down because there was enough for all. "She was crying openly." (p. 164)

The war was ending. American soldiers brought Adam and other prisoners Red Cross boxes filled with food. "Chocolate chip tuna fish, powdered coffee and salmon, yum, all those foods together. It didn't take long before my stomach revolted. I had to drop everything and run to the toilet. ... Other, weaker prisoners who had voraciously eaten the contents of the Red Cross food box were not so lucky. Several had their weakened stomachs burst and they died." (p. 183) Would the tragedies never end?

For Adam, the tragedies did end. He landed in New York, on the first transport of orphaned children to arrive in the United States, on December 20, 1946. "It was the first day of my new life." (p. 200) He hadn't been dehumanized.

Hadassah Rosensaft, nee Bimko, born 17 years before Adam Boren, starts her story years before the war. She was a member of a well-connected family. Her parents owned a gold refinery and sold equipment for dentists. Famous people came to the factory to buy gold products, including Esther Rachel Kaminska, the first lady of the Yiddish theater. (p. 6) Hadassah describes her parents as simultaneously Orthodox and very much involved in the culture of the secular world. About her father, she says, "Although he was a Hasid, he was very open-minded and progressive." As for her mother, "She was a very progressive person although she always kept a kosher home." (p. 5) According to what my father told me about his family in Cracow, the same combination of Jewish observance and secular openness was not uncommon. One of my aunts, who was killed during the Holocaust, had hoped to be a pianist. Nowadays it is hard to imagine a child of a Hasidic family with such ambitions.

Hadassah tells us she was called Hudzia, which was the name of a relative of mine in America, the only Hudzia I knew. I immediately felt a connection. Her son, who died at the age of five and a half, was just a bit younger than I was at the time. Tragedy, one would think, connects all human beings. The world, unfortunately, remained distant from the atrocities of the Nazis. We see a similar distance today from the slaughters that have taken place in Darfur, Rwanda, and elsewhere.

Hadassah describes a varied and vibrant Jewish society. Her parents made products for dentists; she would be a dentist herself. She went to Nancy, in France, where she earned her degree. It was there that she came across the distance that some West European Jews felt towards East European Jews. When she went to the rabbi and asked for help in preparing a seder that all the Jewish students could attend, he said, illogically, he couldn't be of assistance because he was a Frenchman first and a Jew second. (p. 10)

Being a dentist saved Hadassah. Dentists have a certain amount of medical training, and Josef Mengele, notorious for his sadistic experiments on twins, let her work as a doctor in the Jewish infirmary. (p. 32) It seems unimaginable that a death camp would have an infirmary, but the Nazis did try to exploit some of their Jewish victims before the day when they hoped the Final Solution would finally arrive.

Hsadassah went directly to the innermost circle of hell — Auschwitz — when she and her family were rounded up. Mengele then assigned her to another camp, Bergen-Belsen — colder, sicker, filthier than Auschwitz. "Whatever was bad in Auschwitz was worse in Bergen-Belsen, except that there were no gas chambers." (p.43) The exception was extremely important. When children arrived at the camp, they weren't killed right away. Hadassah and the other Jews working with her were "given the opportunity to take care of these abandoned Jewish children, and we gave them all the love and whatever strength was left within us." (p. 44) It was the beginning of Hadassah's career, a career of working to rebuild her own life by rebuilding Jewish life.

Liberation came to Bergen-Belsen on April 15, 1945. The survivors had no friends, no homes, no families, no place to go. "We were alive, yes," writes Hadassah. "We were liberated from death, from the fear of death, but the fear of life started." (p. 52) "I started to chain-smoke right after liberation." (p. 59) Hadassah may have had no place to go, but she had something to do. The British Chief Medical Officer, H. L. Glyn Hughes, arrived at the camp and she showed him around. "General Glyn Hughes decided to transform these buildings into a hospital for 17,000 patients and living quarters for our Jewish orphans and the other inmates of Belsen who had miraculously survived." (p. 53) Hadassah, through her family, had had a connection to Jewish actors before the war; after the war, she had a much more important connection to British officialdom. Her medical duties were gradually replaced by organizational duties.

Not long after liberation, Josef Rosensaft, called Yossel, entered the story. The first thing we learn about him is an account he narrates about a pious rabbi, the Rabbi of Zawierce, who called God a liar when he saw Jews being driven to the gas chambers. "If God were to look down on us now and see what was happening, He would say, 'I did not do this,' and that would be a lie." (p. 62) We are not told explicitly what Yossel thought of the rabbi's remark; the lack of a comment by Yossel tells us, implicitly, that he agreed with the rabbi.

Yossel and Hadassah worked together to organize the Jews of Belsen. "We were determined to be recognized not as displaced persons but as Jews, and we were committed to support the Yishuv, the Jewish community in Palestine, in its struggle for independence." (p. 75) The Nazis had killed the Jews for being Jews. The survivors wanted to live and be able to defend themselves as Jews. Easier said than done. When a ship called the President Garfield, renamed the Exodus, was about to sail to Palestine, the passengers were removed and taken to camps in Germany. The Belsen DP camp, where the son of Hadassah and Yossel, Menachem Rosensaft, was born in 1948, did not close until September 6, 1950. (p. 122)

In 1980, Congress passed a law establishing the United States Holocaust Memorial Council. Hadassah was appointed to the Council by President Carter and reappointed eight years later by President Reagan. (p. 187)

Awareness of the history of the Holocaust, a cause Hadassah worked for all of her life after her liberation, is an attempt to provide an antidote to anti-Semitism. To an extent, the antidote has worked; nevertheless, there are still Holocaust deniers, who are in effect are saying that although the Holocaust did not take place, it should have. Another problem has been growing exponentially: anti-Zionism.

The Holocaust happened during my lifetime. Now, still during my lifetime but a generation or two later, we are faced with the threat of anti-Zionism. What is anti-Zionism today? Words may change their meanings over time. Anti-Zionism no longer means believing that Jews needn't worry about building their own state, as it did in the 1930s. It doesn't mean opposition to the policies of this or that Israeli leader. Today, what it means is a call for the destruction of Israel and its people.

Former President Ali Akhbar Rafsanjani of Iran, in the annual Al-Quds (Jerusalem) sermon given on December 14, 2001, said that if one day the world of Islam comes to possess nuclear weapons, Israel could be destroyed. Rafsanjani said that the use of a nuclear bomb against Israel would leave nothing standing, but that retaliation, no matter how severe, would damage but not wipe out the world of Islam (reported in MEMRI Special Dispatch Series No. 325). Rafsanjani doesn't care how much his own side suffers, as long as they hurt Israel. He is not interested in the fate of the Palestinians. The Arab world has consistently mistreated the Palestinians. It has kept them in refugee camps since 1948. Jordan massacred them at Black September, in 1970. Kuwait expelled them in 1991.

The International Court of Justice, followed by the General Assembly of the United Nations and the European Union, has condemned the fence being built by Israel. These groups don't care that the fence has prevented suicide bombers from succeeding. They don't realize that the fence is an indication of a possible retreat from much of the West Bank. The international court, which has never ruled on the genocide taking place in Sudan or the famine resulting from government policies in North Korea, is merely jumping on the anti-Israel bandwagon.

If Israel continues to build the fence, the hatred against Israel will grow. If Israel decides to tear down the fence, the hatred against Israel will grow. If Israel does nothing at all, the hatred will grow. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was a hawk and Prime Minister Ehud Barak was a dove, but their opposing policies both led to hatred. Anti-Zionism is probably the most powerful political force on earth.

Let me go back to my original question: Where did so much hatred come from?

This review appeared in the March/April 2005 issue of Midstream.