June 2024

I Deliver Meals to One of
“The Boys of Buchenwald.”
He’s Helped Me to Never Forget

Marc Bloom

My friend Sol is a 94-year-old Holocaust survivor. He turned 94 on April
11, the same day on which he was liberated from Buchenwald, on his 15th birthday, in 1945.

A few years ago, on my weekly Meals-on-Wheels route, when Sol told me he was a survivor he sat me down on a chair in his driveway, pulled up his sleeve and showed me his tattoo from Auschwitz. Originally from Lithuania, Sol had been imprisoned in a number of camps before Buchenwald.

With his five-digit branding an emblem of the barbaric atrocities we are still grappling with today, Sol began to unravel stories of the camps, painting scenes that defied belief, describing the gas chambers and his day-to-day subsistence on a piece of bread made of flour and sawdust.

When I asked him how he wound up at Buchenwald, Sol told me of the infamous Death March from Auschwitz. With Soviet troops closing in, the Nazis evacuated tens of thousands of prisoners from Auschwitz and its sub-camps during the brutal Polish winter—January, 1945—on a days-long march into German territory to board transport for other camps like Buchenwald. It was at least a one-hundred-mile trek. Thousands, clad only in their camp “pajamas,” perished in the below-zero weather, or were shot for being too weak to go on.

Somehow, Sol was one who made it out alive. Elie Weisel, the future Nobel peace laureate, was another.

Sol’s stories were not conveyed to evoke pity but, in a curious way, gratitude. Aware that I was Jewish, I think Sol wanted me to know that, with it all, “this little Jew,” as he called himself, had had the wits, courage and faith to survive. In his own way, he was saying, they couldn’t kill us all.

Then, as though lecturing from a bimah, Sol spoke about God and fate, life’s twists and turns, in plain language, unadorned by liturgy. I listened intently, holding back tears.

Jews weeping: it comes with the territory. We wept over Pittsburgh. We wept over Oct. 7. In light of Gaza, we weep now, in a blizzard of confusion over where our greatest sorrows lay, what will become, what it means to be Jewish in a threatening world.

After the unspeakable brutality perpetrated by Hamas on Oct. 7, the language of the Holocaust—“gas chambers,” “death camps,” “crematoria,” “mass graves,” “Zyklon B,” “Kristallnacht,” “Babi Yar,” and all the rest—has drifted much closer.

Until then, we could try and avert our eyes when confronting the catastrophe, as when the iconic photos of emaciated camp prisoners pop up again and again, signaling a hopelessness that cries out for an answer to whether good can conquer evil.

In the last eight months, the Holocaust, to me and so many others, has felt like a haunting shadow, the devil’s work again at our front door.

While I have often immersed myself in Holocaust memory—reading numerous volumes, visiting the remains of European ghettos, attending services at historic synagogues, viewing Holocaust memorials and museums worldwide, even making what I would call a “pilgrimage” to Auschwitz itself—the tragedy of the six million always seemed out of reach, a history on the edges of reality, too traumatic to bear without a personal connection that would humanize it for me.

I knew the trauma would always be there, lurking. Now, at least, I could put a face on it. Sol touched me with the intimacy I needed. He gave me a stake in our history.

The conflict over emotional proximity—to be close enough to fulfill a “duty” but at the same time far enough away for some “protection”—was explored by the scholar Daniel Mendelsohn, in his brilliant work, “The Lost,” in which he investigated the deaths of six relatives who perished in the War.

In a quest that took him to Israel, central Europe and even Australia, seeking shards of knowledge from survivors, Mendelsohn observed that the Holocaust was so “gigantic” that it was easy to think of as “mechanical”; however, posed Mendelsohn, everything that happened did so because, one by one, “somebody made a decision.”

Mendelsohn acquired an intimacy with the family he never knew but went to “find,” learning heart-breaking details that satisfied his intellectual rigor but took him far out of his comfort zone. Since the Holocaust presents the unanswerable, Mendelsohn attempted to find some biblical coherence straight out of ancient texts.

I have had my own version of “survivor’s guilt”: mourning the Holocaust victims while reciting Kaddish in something of a ritualistic vacuum. Sol’s embrace has allowed me permission, if you will, to take on a bit of “ownership” in which, perhaps perversely so, I could share as witness to the Jewish tragedy.

As with Mendelsohn, I wanted my connection to what happened to be more authentic. Not just in books and old cemeteries, not just in the bracing sterility of the Auschwitz crematoria and the encased displays of victims’ eyeglasses, but in a person who was there, who went through it, the little Jew who could testify.

My friend Sol.

To this day, I am not aware of any personal family member lost to the War, or one who survived the camps. I grew up in the nineteen-fifties. The events of the Holocaust, merely a decade old, were barely whispered in my household: they were too raw to touch, too shameful to admit, too catastrophic to accept. Better left unspoken. All I heard was that my mother’s best friend’s family “was wiped out.”

My fears and bewilderment of being kept in the dark were baked into my tender childhood psyche one year on the High Holy Days when I accompanied my maternal grandfather--who’d come from Poland and spoke only Yiddish--up the stairs to a walk-up shul in Boro Park to daven with his congregation. It was there that I witnessed my first inkling of the grief conferred by my heritage—old, haggard men, swaying mournfully in prayer, with numbers visible on their arms.

One day I was rejoicing over the Dodgers’ first World Series win against the Yankees, the next I was shaken as a witness to the symbol of hell endured by my forebears, a hell that seemed to mandate a lifetime of wrenching sorrow.

Like others, I worry that the Holocaust has become commodified, and the camps trivialized like theme parks. When I visited Auschwitz years ago, I was disturbed by what I considered the vulgarity of a shop outside the premises selling photo albums and other souvenirs.

Auschwitz! Auschwitz! Get your Auschwitz tchotchkes! Never forget!

Is renewal possible if one never forgets?

In Vasily Grossman’s World War II masterpiece, “Life And Fate,” about Hitler’s fight against Stalin’s Russia, and the concomitant Holocaust, Grossman depicted kindness and grace in the midst of cruelty, holding fast to the “stubborn beauty” of man--paradoxically perhaps--to overcome the inhumanity of man. Grossman wrote:

“Human history is a battle fought by great evil struggling to crush a small kernel of human kindness.”

As always, I took Sol out to lunch on his birthday. Physically, he can still get around. He is twice widowed and lives with a daughter (Sol has two daughters, a son, one grandchild and five step-grandchildren) in New Jersey. When I see him weekly, Sol likes to joke around about “chasing girls” in his community. He pronounces girls “goyls.”

Who knows what torment still stirs his heart? Better to try and laugh than remember images of innocents shot to death and thrown into vast pits, the earth moving for days after.

Originally from the city of Kovno (now Kaunas), once the Lithuanian capital, Sol is a member of an exclusive club, known as “The Boys of Buchenwald.” These were the young male Jews numbering about one-thousand who survived the horrors of Buchenwald and were liberated by U.S. troops that April day of 1945.

After liberation, Sol, along with Elie Weisel, were among more than 400 boys from Buchenwald taken to a Jewish humanitarian organization in the north of France, Oeuvre de Secours Aux Enfants, essentially an orphanage. The center was in the Normandy region where the D-Day battle between the allies and Germans had been fought a year earlier.

During the War, ninety-six percent of Lithuania’s Jews, or 212,000 out of 220,000, died at the hands of the Nazis. After liberation, Sol learned that his mother had perished in an allied bombing and that his father along with his brothers had survived a Death March of their own from the Dachau camp.

As though to bear witness in my own way—reconciling closeness with distance—I keep scrapbooks of news clippings with obituaries of survivors and rescuers, as a collective document of testimony and honor, Kaddish on newsprint, photos included, so to speak.

One survivor story in particular is close to home—that of the cantor David Wisnia, the father of our former rabbi at the synagogue where my wife and I are members. Titled “Lovers in Auschwitz, Reunited,” the piece, from The New York Times, told of Wisnia’s clandestine rendezvous with a female inmate within steps of the crematoria, and has since been expanded into a recently published book.

In 1947, while still in France, Sol was contacted by an older cousin in the U.S., who made arrangements for his passage on a ship to New York, a two-week journey.

In 1950, Sol joined the U.S. army, serving during the Korean War. In 1952, while stationed in Germany, Sol, then five years in America, received his U.S. citizenship, in Frankfort of all places. Before the War, there were 30,000 Jews in Frankfort, the largest Jewish community in all of Germany. After the War, about 100 were left.

Amid today’s far-right historical revisionism, and with the survivor population passing on, it remains for people of conscience to keep Holocaust memory alive.

Most studies find that as many as two-thirds of Americans know little to nothing about the Holocaust. Holocaust books are being banned by boards of education in many states and, a few years ago a Wisconsin Republican state representative offered that the teaching of the Holocaust should include “the perspective of the German soldier.”

Immersive perspectives of the perpetrators of evil reveal that it was not only the German military and Nazis that murdered Jews, but that many “ordinary Germans” were complicit in “eliminationist” crimes, spelled out in copious detail by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen in his landmark work, “Hitler’s Willing Executioners.”

Today, perspective is being toyed with by Holocaust-deniers, granted legitimacy by dark interests and amplified by media hijackers, especially in the aftermath of Oct. 7.

“Memory without history,” Timothy Snyder wrote in “Bloodlands,” his colossal work about the War’s mass murders, “fades into forgetfulness.”

Sol’s family roots in Lithuania go back to the Spanish Inquisition of the 15th century, under the rein of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand. Jews fled under threat of death—and many were executed—to other parts of Europe, Africa and the Middle East.

In Kovno, Sol told me, there was antisemitism, “but everybody got along.”


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Marc Bloom is a former magazine editor-in-chief, frequent contributor to The New York Times and other publications and the author of ten books. He has received more than two dozen journalism and lifetime achievement awards.

©2024 Marc Bloom
©2024 Publication Scene4 Magazine




June 2024

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