On Tuesday, October 21, I had the amazing opportunity to meet with two Holocaust survivors and have lunch with them. My whole AP U.S History class went on this trip to the local Jewish Community Center, where we were shown a room filled with round tables covered with table clothes; it was three students to a table, and then when the survivors walked in, they sat at a table at random. Technically I met three survivors, but I heard only two stories, those of two men, Jakub (whose last name I unfortunately did not catch) and Benjamin Guberman. It was stressed to my classmates and me many times that the WWII and Holocaust generation is dying out, and our current generation is probably one of the last who will ever get the chance to meet with those of that generation – one of the gentlemen I spoke with will be turning 89 in February, and another man a classmate of mine spoke to is ninety-five years old (and he swims for forty-five minutes almost everyday at the community center)!
The men and women we spoke to were open about their experiences, and wanted their stories to be known and remembered. They value education highly and I feel that that value was a common theme throughout the day and all the tales of horror and survival, even though some of the experiences could be rather very different from each other. This idea of education and remembrance touched me, and I determined that I needed to write down their stories, to fulfill the survivors' desire for their trials to be heard and not forgotten. I will start with Benjamin.
Benjamin Guberman was eighteen years old when the Germans came to his tiny Polish village and enclosed the Jews in a ghetto, complete with ten-foot-tall poles and barbed wire. After some time, the Germans took some of their prisoners and simply shot them, all in a row, like ducks in a carnival shooting game. Then the rest were shipped to concentration camps; Benjamin survived four of them over the course of two years, including Auschwitz and Mauthasen, or the "mad house" where grotesque experiments on children, pregnant women, and twins were conducted. Benjamin's family included his parents, two sisters, and a brother; his parents and younger sister were lost to the flames of the crematoriums, but his two other siblings, like himself, survived and made it to the United States, though now they have also passed away, both from cancer.
When the Russians began advancing into Germany from the east, the Nazis, hellbent on making Europe Jew-free even if they lost the war, continually moved their prisoners farther and farther westward, away from the liberating army, even as the British, French, and Americans advanced from the west. Benjamin was part of one of the death marches from Auschwitz, where prisoners had to walk hundreds and hundreds of miles, and those who stumbled or fell behind were immediately shot. Obviously it was a horrifying and agonizing ordeal, more horrible than words can describe, but Benjamin survived until the winter of 1945, when the American army liberated his camp. The soldiers weighed each prisoner, and Benjamin was found to weigh only 86 lbs. Immediately, the Americans set up kitchens and cooked, non-stop, for three days and three nights; Benjamin told me that they could never cook enough, because all the prisoners were just too hungry, and sometimes the former inmates died from over-eating, after their bodies had been starved for so long.
Benjamin had nothing but praise for the American army, and he describes his adopted country as the best one in the world. "The Americans took good care of us," he told me. After the liberation of the camps, Benjamin found himself on a boat to Boston; he was advised to find cigarettes, as many as he could. Not only was he a smoker and they would provide relief for him, but oftentimes in those days, cigarettes were used as currency, to buy little things like chocolate. After Boston, he got a bus ticket to Philadelphia, and thus began his new life in America. He married a fellow survivor, and together they have two adult children, who have masters degrees both, and of whom he could not be prouder.
Jakub's story is similar to Benjamin's only in that it is horrible, shocking, and beastly, and that it also took place in Poland. I was unable to hear all of Jakub's story, but what I did hear, I shall record as faithfully as I can. His story begins in his home village of Staw, a small and rather isolated settlement. These people had no idea what was coming for them when the Nazis rounded them up and sent them to concentration camps. By chance, Jakub was able to stay with his father and cousin. One time, Jakub tried to escape, but was caught, and due to be executed; by that time he was truly uncaring towards his fate. As the story goes, however, when asked why he ran away, Jakub replied that it was because he had not been given his ration of bread; somehow because of this, his life was spared.
That was not the last time Jakub tried fleeing his prison; his second escape attempt, with his cousin, was successful, after his father managed to get scissors and cut the fence. Jakub and his cousin ran and ran, and hid in the forest for a while before approaching a house. Two Polish women lived there, and they were brave enough to aid the two, allowing them to stay with them and giving them food; it was, of course, illegal for people to help Jews, especially concentration camp escapees. At one point, Jakub had to hide in the backyard, half-buried in the dirt and by other things; it was a terrible moment when it seemed he had been discovered — but to Jakub's amazement, it was his father who found him. "How did you know it was me?" Jakub asked, and his father replied, "I just knew."
Unfortunately, the two kind Polish women were deported, and Jakub and his father (I'm afraid I don't know what happened to the cousin) were forced into the woods by the Nazis, who would surround the woods and shoot into the trees; this was how Jakub's father died. Jakub spent a lot of time in these woods; though another family moved into the house and the mother would give Jakub food, her husband and son did not know of his existence. During the winter, he was caught in the woods when it snowed — and, as Jakub told me, when it snows in Poland, it snows — living on only potatoes, tearing into the brown flesh like they were apples.
This is where my knowledge of Jakub's story ends; eventually, somehow managing to survive long enough, he was rescued and made his way to the United States. He is also married to a fellow survivor, and is the father of two children. He and his wife are good friends of the Gubermans, and they often go to the Jewish Community Center where I met them.
I am fortunate to have had this experience; I admire the strength of the people I talked to, and am shocked and horrified at the situations that required that strength. I hope I have made good on my promise to remember them and their stories, and I pray that the events of the Holocaust, nor any other genocide such as the Rwandan Genocide, will never be forgotten, allowed to be forgotten, or brushed off as insignificant.