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May 22, 2012

the long road from the shetetls of Eastern Europe to the good life in America and the UK….via Auschwitz

Filed under: Holocaust — Tags: , , , — furtherglory @ 10:27 am

A house in the shetetl of Tykocin in Poland

When I made my first trip to Poland in October 1998, I wanted to see the death camps and the gas chambers.  Before I left on my trip, I made arrangements for a tour guide through a company in New York City.  I wanted to make sure that I had a guide who spoke English.  Before taking me to see the camps, my guide told me that I had to first see a shetetl so I could see what it was like for the Jews who were living in Eastern Europe during World War II.  I couldn’t even pronounce the word shetetl and I didn’t understand why I had to waste time seeing a village where Jews no longer lived.

A log house with a tin roof in the village of Tykocin in Poland

Many of the houses in Tykocin look like barns, with what appears to be a hayloft in the attic space, but you can tell they are dwellings because they are right next to the sidewalk and have curtains in the windows.

The German name for the shtetel Jews was Dorfjuden, or village Jews in English. A few of these villages had a population that was 100% Jewish, but in most of them, the Jews lived side by side with the Polish Catholics. The town of Tykocin was divided down the middle into the Jewish district on the west side and the Christian district on the east side.

The weathered gray wooden house shown at the top of this page appears to have shutters on the two doors which are closed and barred. On the top of the house is a window which looks like an opening into a hayloft. To prove that these buildings are not barns, I took a picture of a barn in the back yard of the house, which is shown in the photo below.

Shetetl house on the left with a barn in the background

If these barn-like houses look familiar, it may be because you have seen houses just like them in the movie Fiddler on the Roof.

When these houses were last inhabited by shtetel Jews, most of them did not have indoor plumbing. According to historian Martin Gilbert, there were whole villages in Poland, as late as 1945, that did not have running water, indoor toilets or a sewer system. There was no industry in Tykocin then and, according to my tour guide, the inhabitants were engaged in farming, including the Jews.

House in Tykocin, a former Jewish shetetl

After Poland was partitioned for the third time in 1795, Tykocin was located in the section that came under the control of Russia. Between 1835 and 1917, Tykocin was included in the Pale of Settlement, the reservation where the Jews were forced to live by decree of Russian Czar Nicholas I. The movie Fiddler on the Roof depicts the life of the Jews in the Pale and ends with the start of their expulsion in 1881 after the assassination of Czar Nicholas I during the revolutionary activity, that was just beginning, which finally culminated in the overthrow of Czar Nicholas II by the Communists in 1917.

Two million Jews were expelled from the Russian sector of the former country of Poland between 1881 and the start of World War I in 1914. Most of the Jews from the Pale of Settlement came to America, but some settled in Germany or the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In 1917, some of the Jews from the Pale of Settlement, who had emigrated to America, returned to fight in the Communist Revolution.

In October 1998, when I visited the Auschwitz II camp, aka Birkenau, it was a rainy day and I was not able to take as many photos as I wanted to take.  When I told my Jewish tour guide that I wanted to come back at a later date, so I could take more photos, she said, “Don’t come during the March of the Living.”  When I asked why, she said that the March of the Living was held once a year to celebrate the victory of the Jews over the Nazis and it was not safe for a person, like me, who looked German, to be in Auschwitz at that time.  (The guide appeared to be Jewish, but she claimed that she was not a Jew because, as I learned when she was verbally attacked in Krakow, Poland was not safe for Jews in 1998.)

This morning, I was reading about three Auschwitz survivors, who now live in South Florida.  They were on this year’s March of the Living.  You can read the article here and see a video about their trip here. The March of the Living also goes to the Maidanek (Majdanek) camp, where the people on the march can see gas chambers and a reconstructed crematorium.

What impressed me about the story of the three Auschwitz survivors on the March of the Living is how lucky they were to have survived their ordeal in a death camp and to have been able to come to America where they could live the good life.

This quote is from the news article:

As the trio travels back to Auschwitz in Poland, each tells a terrifying story about being ripped from their homes and loaded onto crowded trains, with no idea where they were going or what would happen to them once they arrived.

Standing on the train platform at the Birkenau extermination camp, part of Auschwitz, Mermelstein remember the being greeted by the infamous Dr. Joseph Mengele, the man who performed cruel medical experiments on children and adults being held by the Nazis. “He looked at you, had on white gloves and a little stick and just motioned right or left.” Mermelstein is explaining what became known as “the selection process.”  In that split second, people where chosen for life or immediate death in the gas chamber.  No one realized at the time what was happening.  “The people went to right went this way, people who went to left, right behind the fence there, there’s a walk way, they walked about a half a mile to where the gas chambers,” recalls Mermelstein.

The photos below show some of the survivors of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the people who were sent to the right during the selection process, and they survived.

Child survivors of Auschwitz-Birkenau

Old woman walking with a cane as survivors leave Birkenau

Child survivors walking out of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp

June 10, 2011

“… there is a Hitler in every human being!”

Filed under: Holocaust — Tags: , , , — furtherglory @ 9:06 am

“If you would only know that there is a Hitler in every human being!”

These words were spoken to Dr. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross by a Holocaust survivor whom she met, as a young girl from Switzerland, on a visit to the site of the Majdanek (Maidanek) death camp in Poland in 1945. The former Majdanek camp was turned into a museum by the Soviet Union very soon after it was liberated in July 1944.  I didn’t know that young girls from Switzerland were brought there for tours in 1945 — but I learn something new every day.

Dr. Kübler-Ross told about her visit to Maidanek in an interview conducted by Dr. Daniel Redwood, which you can read in full here.

This quote is from Dr. Redwood’s interview with Dr. Kübler-Ross:

This young woman had lost all her brothers and sisters, parents and grandparents in a gas chamber. She was the last one they tried to squash in, and there wasn’t room for one more person, so they pulled her out. What she didn’t understand was that she had already been crossed off the list of the living. They never got back to her. She spent the rest of the war years in this concentration camp swearing that she would stay alive to tell the world about all the atrocities that she witnessed.

When the people came to liberate the camp, she said to herself, “Oh my God, if I spend the rest of my life telling about all these horrible things, I would not be any better than Hitler himself. I would plant seeds of hate and negativity.” She made at that moment a promise to whoever she talked to, God presumably, that she would stay in the concentration camp until she could learn to forgive even a Hitler. When she had learned that lesson, then she would be worthy of leaving. Do you understand that?


That was the beginning of my journey. When I went back to Switzerland, I said I’m going to study medicine, and I’m going to understand why people, from beautiful, innocent, gorgeous children, turn into Nazi monsters.

I have read about other Holocaust survivors who were saved when they were thrown out of a gas chamber because the room was too full, but I didn’t know until now why they were not taken to the gas chamber again on another day.  According to this survivor of the Majdanek camp, it was because names were crossed off the death list when the victims were taken to the gas chamber and when someone was thrown out of the gas chamber at the last minute, the “Nazi monsters” never got back to them.   The gas chamber lists were never found when the camps were liberated; all the gas chamber records were apparently destroyed and the names of the Jews who were gassed are unknown.

Here is another quote from the very beginning of the interview:

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross Interview

DR: What has led you to devote so much of your time, skill and attention to issues of death and dying?

ELISABETH KUBLER-ROSS: It started in Maidanek, in a concentration camp, where I tried to see how children had gone into the gas chambers after having lost their families, their homes, their schools and everything. The walls in the camp were filled with pictures of butterflies, drawn by these children.

It was incomprehensible to me. Thousands of children going into the gas chamber, and this is the message they leave behind–a butterfly. That was really the beginning.

In this concentration camp there was a Jewish girl, and she watched me. I hope you understand, I was a very young kid naturally, who hadn’t gone through any windstorms in life. When you grow up in Switzerland, there is no race problem, no poverty, no unemployment, no slums, no nothing. And I went right into the nightmare of postwar Europe.

So I asked her, how can men and women, like you and I, kill hundreds and thousands of innocent children, and the same day they do that, day after day, they worry about their own child at home who has chicken pox. It just didn’t compute in my brain, you know, being very innocent and ignorant.

When I visited the Memorial Site at the former Majdanek camp, I was surprised to see all the artwork on display; there were sculptures and lots of other artwork that had been done by the prisoners in the camp. I remember a rosary that had been fashioned out of bits of bread that had been wadded up and left to dry to make the beads. I did not see the butterfly pictures, but perhaps they had been taken to another Holocaust Museum in America or Israel for display.

The children in the Theresienstadt (Terezin) concentration camp were allowed to do artwork and they were even given lessons in drawing and painting by an adult teacher.  Some of their pictures were on display at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC when I visited there years ago.

But to get back to the “Nazi monsters.”  Hitler was an artist himself.  Is that why he allowed the children to draw or paint butterflies before they were killed in the gas chamber?  Hitler may have thought that he was being kind to the innocent children by allowing them to paint butterflies before dying, but I think this was unnecessarily cruel.  It gave the children hope, when there was none.

This quote from the interview shows how Dr. Kübler-Ross finally realized that there is a Hitler in all of us:

And I thought, “She is crazy, I don’t have a Hitler in me.” A few days later, I hitchhiked back to Switzerland, because I was very sick. I was near death. I never made it. They found me unconscious in a forest in Germany, with typhoid. But before I ended up in a hospital (I was picked up half dead in a forest, unconscious), I had been so hungry. I had no food in my stomach for three days and three nights. I suddenly realized in the midst of this hike, that if a small child would walk by me with a piece of bread in its hands, I would steal that piece of bread from that child’s hand.

Typhoid is caused by drinking contaminated water.  When I visited Poland, I was advised to drink only bottled water.  Not wanting to take any chances, I even brushed by teeth with the bottled water that was supplied in my hotel room.  Did young girls from Switzerland throw all caution to the wind by drinking tap water in Poland in 1945?  Probably.  Keep in mind that, as a young girl, Dr. Kübler-Ross tried to HITCH-HIKE back to Switzerland from the Majdanek camp, which is in the city of Lublin near the Eastern border of Poland. That was a very foolish thing to do in 1945.  Why did a tour leader allow that?  Or did she go to Poland, which was behind “the Iron Curtain,” by herself in 1945?

In any case, this experience helped her to understand Hitler.  She would have stolen bread from a child when she got hungry while walking through a forest in Germany if she had been given the chance.  Hitler was blinded by mustard gas when he was a soldier in World War I. Was that how he got the idea of gassing little children, after first allowing them to draw butterflies?

In doing a search to find the obituary of Dr. Kübler-Ross, I came across this website which has a conversation between the doctor and John Harricharan who knew her personally.  I learned that Dr. Kübler-Ross died at the age of 78 in 2004.  That means that she was born in 1926; she was one of triplets. She told Harricharan that she left home at the age of 15 with nothing but a backpack.  She said that she was from a wealthy family, but nevertheless, her parents allowed her to leave home at this young age.  Or did she run away from home during war-time?

Here is the exact quote from her interview with John Harricharan:

At the age of 15 I left home to find myself. World War II was raging and the Nazis were leaving millions of people dead or dying in their wake. Cities were being destroyed, people were starving, children separated from their parents–an unimaginable horror of man’s inhumanity to man. I wanted to help, to heal, feed and clothe the less fortunate. So, with others, I did what I could, I was led from those experiences to what I am doing today.
All I had was my backpack and a few personal possessions. Even though I was born relatively well-off and had a very comfortable life, I gave it all up for the sake of being with those who needed help.

Remember, I was still a young girl when all this happened. I saw refugees from Germany trying to get over to Switzerland mowed down by machine guns. Traveling through Europe, I did all I could to help feed people. I love relief work! I helped rebuild villages in France, moved on to Belgium and hitchhiked to Poland.

Note that she hitchhiked TO Poland.  I thought that she went on a tour and hitchhiked BACK to Switzerland. Note also that she saw refugees trying to get into Switzerland and being mowed down by machine guns.  Who was manning these machine guns — German or Swiss citizens?  Germany had lost the war and was then occupied.  It must have been the Swiss that were mowing down refugees.

Then she tells the story again about how she met a Holocaust survivor whose whole family had been gassed.  I had assumed that this woman was Jewish, but in her talk with John Harricharan, Dr. Kübler-Ross indicated that the woman was a Polish non-Jew.  Dr. Kübler-Ross explained that she had met this woman when the survivor walked three days through the Polish countryside to find her so that she could cure her one remaining child who had typhoid.   Elizabeth Kübler was a young girl at that time, not yet a medical doctor.

Dr. Kübler-Ross walked with the woman and her child to a place that served as a clinic.  This quote explains what happened then:

There was nothing I could do. We had no antibiotics, no medicine, no anything. I told the woman it was hopeless and that her child would die. She pleaded with me saying, “This is the last of my 13 children. You must save him!” “It is easy to say that,” I replied, “but there is very little I can do. What happened to the others?” With a quivering voice she told me how all her other children, her brothers and sisters, father, mother and grandparents were wiped out in a concentration camp. She ended by saying, “So you see, Mrs. Doctor, (that’s what they called me), you must save this last one.”

The child recovered and the mother came back to find Elizabeth Kübler, who told Harricharan that she always slept in a cemetery, which she considered the only safe place to sleep back then.  Then one day, she was awakened by the mother and her child.

This quote continues the story:

As I opened my eyes I noticed a handkerchief with something in it and a piece of paper. Inside was some black soil and a note written in pencil which read, “Mrs. Doctor, this is blessed Polish soil from Mrs. W. whose last of 13 children you saved.”

This woman must have walked days to the hospital, found her child alive, walked back to her village for the soil, then to the priest to have him bless it, and finally, back to me at the camp. The whole trip must have taken almost a week of walking, It was the best gift I’ve ever received in my entire life. I never saw the woman again but that incident is as clear as ever in my mind, and it had a profound effect on my future.

Note that the woman had soil from her village blessed by a priest.  This indicates that she was probably not Jewish.  Yet, her whole family had been gassed and she had survived only because the gas chamber was full that day.

It is not clear, from this interview with Harricharan, which gas chamber the woman was talking about.  As the interview continues, Dr. Kübler-Ross starts talking about Auschwitz.

This quote from the interview with Harricharan mentions Auschwitz:

Later I went to visit the concentration camps. I saw trainloads of children’s shoes. They were the shoes of the children who were sent to the gas chambers. I remember standing there wondering how we could kill each other, destroy so much, and still worry about whether our children have chicken pox or a toothache? It was difficult for me to understand. So I asked a woman who was standing next to me and she said, ” You too, are capable of doing that.” I disagreed vehemently.

Then I started thinking: if the Nazis were raised in Switzerland, they might have been different, and if I had been raised in Germany, I too could have been like them. Who was I to judge anyone? I realized that there is a Hitler in all of us, but if we seek out and find that Hitler and get rid of him, we can become a Mother Theresa.

And I wanted to know more about these children. I found messages from them scratched into the walls with their fingernails. Messages to their moms and dads. But they also drew pictures of butterflies. There were no butterflies at Auschwitz and I always wondered what made these children draw butterflies and then fearlessly walk into the gas chambers. The woman I met there taught me forgiveness. Boy, did I learn a lot from her! She had hated the Germans but turned around and forgave them.

Note that she went to visit “the concentration camps (plural).”  There are shoes on display at both Majdanek and Auchwitz.  It is clear that these shoes have been exposed to Zyklon-B because they are deteriorating.  The leather suitcases at Auschwitz are not deteriorating.

Dr. Kübler-Ross mentioned that “There were no butterflies at Auschwitz.”  Butterflies are attracted by certain kinds of flowers.  There were flowers at Auschwitz, according to my Jewish tour guide who told me this when I visited the camp in 1998, but roses don’t attract butterflies.

Note that she said, “they also drew pictures of butterflies.”  This leads me to believe that she saw some of the pictures drawn by the children at Theresienstadt who were later sent to Auschwitz.  She also said that she “found messages from them scratched into the walls with their fingernails.”  The walls of what?  I think she is referring to the scratches on the walls of the gas chamber, not the barracks.  I have read stories on other web sites about scratches on the walls of the gas chamber at Majdanek, but I didn’t see them when I was there in 1998.

Note that she said, “if the Nazis were raised in Switzerland, they might have been different, and if I had been raised in Germany, I too could have been like them.”  So at least, she does not think that the Germans carry bad genes, as some people allege.  Presumably, the ethnic Germans in Switzerland are alright.  So who was machine-gunning those refugees?