JERUSALEM – 2
(Israel’s Official Memorial to the Jewish Victims of the Holocaust)
While visiting Jerusalem, my traveling companions (Jane and Philip) and I, along with our guide, Dara, taxied to the foot of Mount Herzl, where in 1953 Israel established Yad Vashem, a complex of museums, archives, monuments and sculptures interlocked by a series of walkways designed to commemorate those who died in the Nazi Holocaust. Separately, we had visited this memorial on previous Holy Lands trips and found it to be a deeply moving experience, but never before had the three of us met a Holocaust survivor. On this day we would hear a Jewish grandmother—once an Amsterdam friend of Anne Frank, with whom she had spent part of her teen years in a Nazi concentration camp—tell her story.
We arrived at Yad Vashem early, and used the time before the lecture to reacquaint ourselves with the sprawling campus. While walking through various outdoor commemorative sites, we came across Janusz Korczak Square, where our eyes locked onto a statue of Dr. Henrik Goldschmidt (better known by his pen name Janusz Korczak), the Polish-Jewish children’s author, humanitarian, pediatrician, and pedagogue.
In this statue Korczak stands in the middle of a group of desolate children, embracing them with strong, outstretched arms, which conveys his powerful resolve to protect the children at any cost. The bronze sculpture by Boris Saktsier is called Janusz Korczak and the Children and was donated by Mila Brenner and Yakov Meridor.
Dara gave us some background: In 1940, when the Nazis established the Warsaw Ghetto, the Krochmalna Street orphanage, in which Korczak worked, was ordered into the ghetto.
Although offered sanctuary among Warsaw’s Aryans, Korczak refused, saying simply that he would not abandon his children. Resolutely, he moved into the ghetto with them. On August 5, 1942, the Nazis raided the ghetto, rounding up the orphans for the grizzly one-way trip to Treblinka, a notorious Nazi death camp. Again, Korczak was offered a way out, but again, he declined, saying only that he would go where the children went. For the journey to Treblinka, he dressed the little ones in their finest, and each carried a rucksack, containing a favorite book or toy.
A legend holds that at the point of deportation, an SS officer recognized Korczak as the author of one of his favorite childhood books and tendered an offer for ‘special treatment’—perhaps at a camp-ghetto like Theresienstadt, where prominent Jews with international reputations were occasionally sent. Once again Korczak is said to have refused. With head held high, along with his nearly 200 children, he stepped onto the train and into oblivion. No one ever heard from him again. A few children survived, and as adults attended memorials honoring their benefactor.
Our Yad Vashem guest lecturer, Hannah Pick-Goslar,* (known in Anne Frank’s diary by the German/Dutch name of ‘Lies’ [diminutive of Elisabeth and pronounced LEES]) whospoke fluent but accented English, described growing up in Amsterdam’s Jewish community.
One day word went around their neighborhood that the Franks had escaped to Switzerland. A sense of relief swept across those who had not been so lucky—that at least a few of their brethren had reached safety. Those left behind carried on bravely, until they, too, were herded together by Nazi guards and deported—in the case of our speaker, to Bergen Belsen concentration camp.
Once in the camp, Hannah learned through the grapevine that Anne Frank was incarcerated there as well. “This can’t be!” Hannah cried in disbelief. “She’s in Switzerland.” But later that night, under intense search light scrutiny, Hannah crept to a predetermined site along a barbed wire fence and saw for herself that her childhood friend, Anne Frank, now an emaciated apparition, was indeed a fellow Bergen Belsen inmate.
*Hannah-Pick Goslar’s full story is told in the book Memories of Anne Frank: Reflections of a Childhood Friend by Alison Leslie Gold.
“How is it that you’re here?” Hannah wailed at the shrunken figure before her. “We thought you’d escaped to Switzerland.”
Anne explained that she and her family had gone into hiding, and, as cover, let word go out that they had made their way to safety.
Anne appeared at death’s door. Still, wanting to lend a hand—however feeble—to her old friend, now a shell of a human being, Hannah told Anne that over the course of the next day she would scrounge together a few scraps of food and bring them to her on the next night.
At great personal risk, Hannah once again trekked to the appointed place, and after making voice contact with her friend, Hannah threw a small package of rations over the fence to Anne, hoping that this gesture would somehow prolong her life. But before Anne could grab the provisions, a stronger prisoner, hovering nearby, snatched them from midair. On the next night Hannah again made her way to the appointed site. This time, she successfully threw a few morsels over the fence and into Anne’s hands. From her voice, Hannah could tell that Anne was joyous. A third reunion was out of the question. Nazi patrols were relentless; punishments brutal. Tragically, soon thereafter Hannah heard that Anne had died of typhus.
Obviously, Hannah survived the ordeal of being reduced to naked subsistence. Anne Frank’s father, Otto Frank, survived too. After the war he helped this teenager make her way to Palestine (eventually Israel), where she was educated and married, building a productive new life. Now she described her life as that of a devoted grandmother, who occasionally gives public testimonials lest we forget.
The afternoon had been harrowing—a tortuous reminder of man’s capacity for hatred, juxtaposed with powerful examples of human goodness. On the way back to our hotel, I thought about how some people were able to withstand death camp horrors and others, sadly, not. Were there any kernels of truth in Nietzsche’s famous quote:
“He who has a why to live can bear almost any how”?
The Viennese psychiatrist and Auschwitz survivor Viktor E. Frankl thinks there were.
In his acclaimed book Man’s Search for Meaning, he describes how love became his lifeline. Specifically, it was the love for his wife that sustained him. Personally, he had been stripped naked. He had lost every possession. He was cold, hungry, living with the possibility of death at any moment. He didn’t even know if his beloved were still alive—they had long ago been separated within the Nazi system of segregation—but through his suffering he came to understand that we can be robbed of everything, except our freedom to choose how we think about a particular situation.
Frankl’s riches lay in his mind and spirit. He could still think. He could still feel. He could still remember. He could still love. And love he did—dreaming, hoping, and praying for an eventual reunion with his beloved.
Sadly, when he was liberated he learned that his wife had long ago succumbed. But even in death she had empowered him through the bond of love.