Holocaust stories told, plans for memorial discussed
by Joseph Gresser
HARDWICK — Three Vermont daughters of holocaust survivors explained their plans here last week for creating a permanent traveling memorial to the victims of Nazi atrocities.
They also shared family stories and discussed plans for the memorial with a small group that met at the Jeudevine Memorial Library Tuesday evening, November 14.
Miriam Rosenbloom, a Hyde Park resident, opened the meeting and shared the credo of the group she formed with Debora Steinerman and K. Heidi Fishman.
“We believe in humankind,” she said. “We are all the same.”
Ms. Rosenbloom provided a quick overview of the events that, from 1933 to 1945, resulted in the deliberate murder of 11 million civilians. She was careful to note that, in addition to the six million Jews killed by the Nazis, five million other people were caught up in the holocaust.
All, she said, were members of groups the Nazis, under the leadership of Adolf Hitler, did not think deserving of life. They included people with both mental and physical disabilities, the Romani people, political opponents, gay and lesbian people, freemasons, Slavs, Poles, and Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Before World War II the Jewish population of Europe numbered around nine million. At its end only three million survived. Only one out of three survived, Ms. Rosenbloom noted.
She explained Hitler’s goal of totally exterminating Jews, and outlined the increasingly draconian laws that preceded the death camps.
Those included laws banning Jews from schools attended by non-Jews, prohibiting intermarriage between Jews and gentiles, and excluding Jews from a range of professions.
Rules for determining who was Jewish were based on race, not on religious belief. Like African Americans in the U.S. during the Jim Crow era, a person who had even a single Jewish grandparent was seen as Jewish by the Nazis.
To make sure everyone could tell who was Jewish, the government marked their identity cards with a large J and required Jews to wear a badge the shape of a yellow star of David.
On the night of November 8 to 9, 1938, the German members of the paramilitary wing of the Nazi party and civilians attacked and burned Jewish places of worship throughout the country and smashed up Jewish-owned businesses. More than 91 people were killing in what came to be known as Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass.
Soon afterwards 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and sent to concentration camps.
“If life in Germany was so difficult, why didn’t they just get out?” Ms. Rosenbloom asked.
The answer to that question resonates today, she said. “No one wanted Jews. No one wanted refugees.”
Even the U.S. had laws that set quotas on what groups could be admitted, and few Jews were accepted.
Among those who were lucky enough to survive, and luck played an immense part for anyone who escaped the holocaust, were Ms. Steinerman’s mother, Ms. Rosenbloom’s father, and Ms. Fishman’s mother and her immediate family.
Ms. Fishman wrote Tutti’s Promise, a young adult novel, to tell how her grandfather kept his family together. She shared her tale with the Jeudevine audience.
The Tutti of the book’s title is Ruth Lichtenstern, who was born in Cologne, Germany, in 1936. Tutti was her family nickname.
Her father was an international commodities trader specializing in nonprecious metals.
As the situation in Germany worsened, his boss moved the commodities business to Amsterdam in the Netherlands, where he thought things would be safe.
They were until 1940 when the German army occupied the Netherlands and initially imposed a milder version of the Nazi’s racial laws, Ms. Fishman said. Jews had to register their bicycles, cars, and radios, but they were allowed to continue living relatively normal lives.
That changed, though, and eventually Jews had to give up cars, radios, and bicycles. They also were forced to wear the yellow star.
Ms. Fishman’s family was forced to leave its comfortable home in an elegant part of the city and move to an area the Nazis had set up as the city’s Jewish quarter.
Her grandfather could see what was coming and prepared by giving all his extra cash to a friend, Egbert de Jong, who served as a minister in the Dutch government. Ms. Fishman said her grandfather told his friend he could use the money to help others, but he’d like whatever was left when conditions allowed.
By that time the Germans were taking 90 percent of a family’s possessions as payment to allow them to leave their territory, assuming they had someplace to go.
Ms. Fishman said her mother remembers seeing the Germans come into her neighborhood to round up Jews. As she stood by a window watching the hubbub and holding a pink doll, a woman snatched her away so the soldiers wouldn’t see her.
Tutti’s father decided the family should go into hiding so she, her mother, father, and little brother all crammed into an attic room. They thought they were safe, but conditions were so cramped and unpleasant Ms. Fishman’s grandfather thought it better to turn themselves in rather than live that way.
He heard it was possible to get a false passport from the Paraguayan counsel in Switzerland, and arranged for one.
The family left the attic and was immediately arrested. Ms. Fishman’s father produced the passport to show he was a Paraguayan citizen, but the document failed to impress the Germans.
They were sent to the Jewish theater in Amsterdam, which was a perfect holding place, as it had no outside windows. The family was then transferred to the Westerbork transit camp in the northeastern part of the Netherlands.
Ms. Fishman, who traveled extensively to do research for her book, showed a photograph of the camp, a bleak dirt street lined with tents. She pointed out a pile of scrap metal that turned out to be her family’s salvation.
As an expert in metals, Ms. Fishman’s grandfather was put in charge of sorting out the pile of scrap. He recruited camp residents to assist, and the number of people who worked recycling metal rose from five to 1,200 as he organized the work.
Ms. Fishman said Dutch resistance fighters got involved in the process. They stole the sorted metal, mixed it back up, and returned it to the camp to keep the Jews busy so the Nazis would find them too useful to kill, Ms. Fishman said.
She compared their work to that of Penelope in Homer’s Odyssey, who tore out her day’s weaving every night to avoid having to marry one of her many suitors.
Ms. Fishman said her grandfather was given an office in Amsterdam so he could round up more metal for the camp, and he spent several days there and the rest of his time in the camp.
According to Ms. Fishman, an argument was going on between two high ranking Nazis. Adolf Eichmann, who was responsible for moving Jews to death camps, wanted to ship the population of Westerbork east to Poland or Czechoslovakia.
Albert Speer, who had charge of the German armaments industries, wanted the Jews to stay and provide material for guns and bombs.
In the end, she said, Eichmann won the argument, and her grandparents, her mother, and her uncle were shipped to Theresienstadt, a concentration camp in Czechoslovakia.
Ms. Fishman said the Germans used Theresienstadt to fool organizations like the Red Cross into thinking their camps were not inhumane. Nevertheless, conditions were dreadful, and many people died of disease or starvation. The camp, though, was not one of those that had gas chambers.
Ms. Fishman said her family struggled to keep clean and avoid illness, and her grandfather was lucky enough to get a job sorting vegetables in a root cellar.
Ordinarily the work involved putting good vegetables into a pile for German consumption, while rotten vegetables were reserved for camp inmates.
One guard would occasionally say that he had to go for a break. Ms. Fishman’s grandfather knew that was a signal that he should fill his trousers with vegetables for himself.
According to a story Ms. Fishman heard, but could not confirm, the guard had once been a waiter at a restaurant her grandfather patronized. He had been a generous tipper, and the guard returned the favor.
Ms. Fishman said her grandfather always said he would have testified on that guard’s behalf if he had the chance.
Eventually the Germans announced that Jewish men would be shipped to Auschwitz aboard a train. Ms. Fishman’s grandfather bid his daughter a tearful farewell and walked to the train.
But someone reminded him that he still had the false passport.
“It didn’t work,” her grandfather said.
“Why not try it again, what do you have to lose?” his acquaintance said.
He showed it to a guard, and amazingly this time it produced the desired effect. Ms. Fishman’s grandfather was told he would not go to Auschwitz.
Not long after, the Russian army liberated the camp. Ms. Fishman’s family was sent west and eventually settled again in Amsterdam.
They struggled at first, but her grandfather got his job back. Although some people he had given money refused to return it, Mr. de Jong kept his word and returned most of what he’d been given.
The family prospered and eventually moved to Brazil and then the U.S.
Today Ms. Fishman’s mother lives in Connecticut and spends some of her time telling her story to students and citizens around the state.
Ms. Fishman and Ms. Rosenbloom said they hope their work will start conversations and get people thinking about what lessons the holocaust has to teach people, especially younger people, today.
Ms. Rosenbloom said, “The only reason my family survived is people helped them. The only reason we’re here is someone helped.”
She showed a slide. On it was a triangle. Its center was labeled “victims.” One angle was labeled “rescuers, upstanders.” One said “bystanders,” and the last read “perpetrators.”
Ms. Rosenbloom said it’s important for young people to learn the necessity of standing up for people who are being hurt. She gave the example of a child whom others bully.
If the memorial project is successful, she said, more students will realize the necessity of protecting those others attack only because they are somehow different.
She said the goal of the project is to institute a program of holocaust studies in middle schools around the state, to promote workshops for teachers, and to create a permanent traveling exhibit.
“We want to share stories with friends to keep them alive,” she said.