Thursday, June 15, 2006

Holocaust Memories

My wife's father, Henry (Henrich) lost his first family, a wife and son, at Dachau. Although not officially classified as a death camp, per se, the few stories he told of it certainly do not diminish the horrors there. His identification tattoo is visible in many snap shots made of him when Susan, my wife, was a young woman.

An innkeeper by trade, he owned and operated a relatively successful roadside inn and restaurant near the Czech, German and Polish borders before the war. After the invasion of Poland, Nazis forced Henry and his family, like so many others, to the Warsaw Ghetto. He recalled that many of life's basic necessities were in short supply in the ghetto and that cloth, fresh produce, meat, shoes and butter were just a few of the things that were held to be very precious and incredibly hard to obtain.

At some point in time, a pair of good shoes was traded with a German guard for a large block of butter. For some reason or another, the shoes were not needed by any of his family members and the butter would not only be appreciated, savored but divided up and used to trade for other things as well. Bartering was the primary method of goods exchange since cash was virtually useless in the ghetto.

When the family brought the delicacy home, they quickly discovered that what appeared to be a solid block was actually a small pasteboard box covered with a thin layer of butter. They were devastated at the deception and had no recourse but to accept the cruel trick and carry on. He bitterly recalled this specific instance because it was then, I believe, that he abandoned all hope and his faith. It seemed that he had lost everything at that point and could not envision any chance of survival. Ironically, he was one of only a few of his family (brothers, cousins, etc.) that did survive the war.

After being liberated by Allied forces, he met Susan's mother, Hilda, who had lost her husband in the war. Her husband was a German soldier, killed in battle on the Russian front, well before the end of the war. She had a young son, Peter, who recalls a few details about meeting American soldiers, some of them from a black regiment. He had never seen a person of color before that time and innocently thought that the dark color was some sort of military camouflage which could be washed or rubbed off. The African-American soldiers politely obliged the child's curiosity until they demonstrated the color's permanence and he realized his misunderstanding. He recalls being delighted as this discovery as he thought being dark would be an advantage for hiding in the night from the German enemy.

Another of Peter's interesting memories was of the time the Americans gave him a chocolate bar which through sign language and the GI's pigeon-German he came to understand was a special treat. Since he had never seen a wrapped candy bar before he began to eat the bar, wrapper and all. The Americans gently teased him and laughed which greatly embarrassed him. His feelings of shame are still vividly recalled.

Hilda converted to Judaism (she was raised a Lutheran) and married Henry who raised Peter as his own. In 1953, they were able to immigrate to Cleveland, where Susan was conceived and born.

Susan recalls being raised in a home that contained an amalgam of cultures, Jewish and Christian, German and Mid-West American, sometimes celebrating holidays for both faiths and eating foods from both parts of the world. Her maternal grandmother, solid German stock fresh from the old country, helped to raise her when she was an infant. This naturally resulted in the infant Susan speaking German before learning English some time later.

Even today, we celebrate a secular Christmas (from my side of the equation) and a couple of Jewish holidays and practices; the lighting of Yahrziet candles, for instance. Though she is a self-described non-observant Jew, her Jewish-ness is always there, like a soft hum or an underscored chorus. In turn, there is a deep appreciation for things Jewish. Yiddish is spoken with an American twang and latkes are sometimes served with salsa.

Last fall, we traveled to Washington, DC for work and like any well-planed boondoggle, were able to tack on a few personal days to the trip. With much anticipation we took this opportunity to visit the Holocaust Museum and spent most of the day there. "Visit" isn't the right word. "Pilgrimage" I think is more appropriate. Among other things, we wanted to list Susan's father in their survivor registry.

So many emotional moments occurred during the visit but most significant was when we examined the Warsaw Ghetto exhibit. The exhibit featured various striking photographs and artifacts including a section of cobblestone street that was traversed to access the exhibit. The stones were from one of the main thoroughfares in the Ghetto. As we read the sign telling about the stones, Susan crouched down, gently touched the stones and said very quietly, "Daddy walked on these..." and softly wept. I joined in her tears and answered, "He very likely did, sweetheart."

The heartache and grief that is experienced when one considers the Holocaust extends to much more than just the camps. The effect on Henry was profound as he began to drink more and more with each passing day. Henry and Hilda were separated many times as Susan was growing up. His relationship with Peter and Susan was always strained, never satisfying.

The tears that fell on those smooth stones were for the pain felt by her father as well for lost parts of her childhood when his actions and words reflected the devastation and hopelessness that perhaps never went away completely and certainly was never fully healed.

Henry died about 20 years ago with Hilda following soon thereafter. Susan's understanding of her father, of what he was and what he was not, has improved since then though she freely admits that she could only begin to grasp the even the most basic aspects and effects the Holocaust had on him and in a real sense had and has on her.

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