The SS, with their whips and dogs and jackboots, have marched for 38 years through the death-camp nightmares of Mike Jacobs.
Now 57 and the owner of a scrap metal business in Dallas, Jacobs was 16 years old in Ostroweic, Poland, when he was forced to carry babies to the roof of a building where German soldiers threw them to the sidewalk for sport. He was 18 when a guard at Birkenau sliced open his face with a whip, and, fearing the gas chambers that awaited those who appeared weak, he fashioned six aluminum clamps to hold his face together. He was 19 1/2 years old, a 70-pound man-child whose parents and five brothers and sisters were all killed, when American soldiers liberated him near Mauthausen, Austria, on May 5, 1945.
In his dreams, the SS soldiers try again and again to kill him.
"They take me outside, whipping and kicking me all over," says Jacobs. "They beat me and torture me, but I always come out the winner and never let them kill me. I stand up to them. I wake up in a sweat with a smile on my face. I won."
Jacobs is one of the thousands of European-born American Jews who won, who survived the Holocaust, and who will be in Washington this week to commemorate their victory over Adolf Hitler's attempt to annihilate what he called "the Jewish race in Europe."
By normal standards, they are strangers to each other. Their homes are scattered across the United States and Canada. They are middle-aged and elderly Jewish immigrants from Germany, Poland, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Denmark, Latvia, Lithuania and other war-scarred European countries. They are of different classes and many have fallen away from the Jewish religion.
But as they come here to record their names and Holocaust histories in a computer registry and attempt to find lost relatives and friends, they bring memories that bind them in a fraternity of witnesses.
"Those who have not lived through the experience will never know; those who have will never tell; not really, not completely," writes Elie Wiesel, a survivor, theologian and keynote speaker for the gathering. "The survivor knows. He and no one else."
By their numbers and the very fact that they are alive while the Third Reich is dead, they have come to Washington in shared triumph.
"It is 40 years later, Hitler is dead and we are here," says Herman Taube, a survivor, poet and local organizer of the gathering.
The writer Cynthia Ozick, in a recent short story, wrote that Holocaust survivors have three separate lives: "the life before, the life during, the life after." For decades in the United States, survivors have themselves censored the "during" from their own lives. It was too gruesome for nonsurvivors to hear or believe, too painful for many survivors to share with their own children.
The gathering of Jewish holocaust survivors was planned, in part, for survivors to exorcise the "during," to share their long-private torment and draw comfort from the select and dwindling few whose strength and luck permitted them to live while millions around them were killed.
"Even to find someone who sat on the same bench in a concentration camp means something," says Taube.
Most of the survivors who have come here this week, organizers say, are strong people, such as Jacobs, the Dallas scrap dealer. Like Jacobs, they are now capable of discussing the atrocities that were visited upon them and their families.
An estimated 100,000 to 200,000 survivors of the Holocaust came to the United States after World War II. Of the 45,000 who are known to be still alive, Holocaust scholars say there are thousands who still cannot discuss what happened to them, who have burdened their children with guilt, who are upset that other survivors would gather to commemorate the unspeakable.
In the Washington area, for example, there is a Polish-born survivor who is outraged that Jews would commemorate their own destruction. For years, this man, who escaped a death camp in Poland shortly before his parents were killed, ordered his children not to laugh or sing in his Bethesda home. He will not attend.
In Silver Spring there is another Polish American who will not attend. At Auschwitz, at the train ramp where SS doctors separated those who would live from those who would die, this man's wife refused to give up her baby. She and the baby were sent to the right, to the gas chambers. He was sent to the left, to a work camp. He often wakes up in the night screaming his wife's name.
In a Maryland mental hospital, there is a Latvian survivor of the Kaiserwald and Stutthof camps. He was beaten by the SS and his family was murdered. He came to Washington in the late 1940s, established a successful roofing business and was active in Washington-area survivor organizations. But he often told friends he "didn't deserve" to be happy. He divorced two wives, gave up his business and committed himself to the hospital.
For five of the families who will be at the gathering, however, there has been a different experience. These survivors have made successful lives for themselves in the United States. They all say they are happy. They have lived for years with horrible nightmares, though for some the nightmares have stopped.
Few of them can yet muster the strength to tell their children an unabridged version of the atrocities they saw. They talk most easily to fellow survivors. They are attempting, sometimes without much success, to remember the Holocaust and and the same time to get on with their lives.
These survivors, some of whom are speaking for the first time, say they are telling their stories because they want no one to deny or forget what happened to them. The Taubes
In 1947, the year Herman and Susan Taube arrived in Baltimore, they were invited to speak about the Holocaust at a Hanukah party.
"I started talking," remembers Taube, "and shared with them our life and this woman said to me, 'Come on, we can live without hearing that, more music. Start the music.' The orchestra played and they began to dance. My wife went home in tears."
Taube was not discouraged. He has gone on speaking, writing (five novels, three books of poetry) and organizing survivors ever since. During the war, he served as a medic in the Polish army and, after liberation, treated death-camp survivors. He met and fell in love with his wife, a survivor of many camps, when she was emaciated and ill. Now an official with the United Jewish Appeal of Greater Washington, Taube, 65, says his obsession with the Holocaust is "a religious calling."
Susan (Strauss) Taube, 57, did not speak at that Hanukah party back in Baltimore. Until last week, she has said very little about the Holocaust. She says her husband sometimes talks too much. "When I talk," she says, "I see pictures."
When she was 7 years old in Vacha, Germany, the Nazi brownshirts began to break windows of Jewish homes. "I was sleeping with my little sister and they throw stones through the windows and we slept in glass. All night long we slept in glass."
As a German Jew, Susan's "pictures" of the Holocaust span from 1933 when the Nazis forced a boycott of her father's clothing store until 1945 when the Russians liberated her in a barn in Poland. Her father escaped to America in 1938, but could not get his wife or two daughters out. Her mother and sister were killed in Polish death camps. When the Russians liberated the barn, they raped all those who were strong enough to run outside. Susan, 19 years old, a veteran of 12 years of violence, was too weak to run. She was not raped.
The Taubes moved to Baltimore after the war because Susan's father was there. They moved in with him. She does not know if her father, now dead, felt guilty that he escaped while his family suffered. "I don't know what he felt," says Susan, "I never talked to him; he never asked."
The Taubes, who now live in Aspen Hill, have five children and seven grandchildren. Their closest friends over the years have been survivors.
"We never feel so much at home as when we are with survivors," says Herman, who helped start survivors' clubs in Baltimore and Washington. "We sit for five minutes and we start talking about the camps." The Godins
Jack Godin, 61, a Silver Spring glazier whose parents were killed by Nazis in Poland, does not speak of the Holocaust. His wife, Nesse, 55, does all the talking
"I talk and he keeps quiet. It hurts him too much," says Godin, who speaks to church groups, schools, anyone who asks for her story. Sitting at her dining room table recently, interrupting her Passover cooking, Nesse Godin talked.
She was 13 years old, "a little schnook," when the Germans in 1941 occupied her hometown of Siauliai, Lithuania. They herded 1,000 Jewish men outside town to dig trenches in the forest called Bubiai. "They were made to get undressed naked and shot," said Godin. In the same way, a short time later, 3,500 Jews, including orphans and the elderly, were taken outside Siauliai and shot.
"We still did not face realities," Godin said. "Would you believe I would stand up now and go in my kitchen and come with a gun and kill you? Would you believe me that? In modern times, people should kill people for no reason whatsoever?"
Nazis forced all the Jews older than 15 into a camp, a ghetto, on the outskirts of Siauliai. Godin's mother bribed a local woman to smuggle her underage daughter into the camp. Thus began four years in concentration and death camps.
Her father was taken to Auschwitz and gassed in 1943. Godin was taken the next year in a cattle car to Poland, separated from her mother and forced to dig tank-trap trenches. At Stutthof camp, she sorted shoes of the dead and stuffed mattresses with human hair. She was protected by an older woman, a stranger who at night hid Godin's bread between her breasts to keep it from thieves. On a "death march" to the Baltic Sea, Godin was hit in the face with the butt of a rifle. She remains scarred with what she calls a "beauty mark."
"I have a sense of humor, see. I never cry, but I have a sense of humor."
After liberation, she met Jack Godin in a displaced persons camp ("a nice young man hanging around with us with nobody in the world"). They were married immediately and came to Washington in 1950. Jack got a job as a glazier; Nesse, for 23 years, was a dressmaker. They have three children and Nesse speaks proudly of "my happy life in the beautiful United States." Her mother and her two brothers also survived.
"I am a fortunate woman," said Godin. "My mother lived, survived the Holocaust, came to this country, saw me get married, saw me have children. She got sick and she died at the age of 69. She lived a normal cycle. She is buried on Adelphi Road in a cemetery. She has a nice beautiful stone there. I can come, I can say, 'My dear mother, God took you, you died, nobody killed you.'
"For my father, nothing. For my grandparents, for my aunts, my uncles, my husband's family . . . nothing." The Masters
Peter Arany (he later took the name Masters) escaped Vienna and Alice Eberstarkova escaped her Czechoslovakian village before the killing began.
The Nazis took control of Vienna in March 1938, when Peter was 15 years old. The son of a jeweler, he was a cosmopolitan young man who loved Verdi and van Gogh and kept a dairy. In it, he recorded what he saw as Nazi crimes. Well-dressed Jews were ordered to scrub streets on their hands and knees. Elderly Jews who lined up for soup were forced to do calisthenics. A newspaper ran a photo of a "mixed race" baby with the caption: "Note particularly the evil look in the eyes of the baby."
"You see how mild it sounds compared to subsequent atrocities, but at the time it was absolutely unbelievable," says Masters, 61. "We were too cultured and far too civilized . . . . "
In the summer of 1939, when hundreds of Viennese Jewish intellectuals committed suicide, Masters, along with his mother and sister, obtained passage on a train out of Austria.
In London, after hearing that his grandfather was killed at Auschwitz, Masters joined a unit of British commandos. He fought in the invasion of Normandy and across France to the Rhine. At his enlistment, he said: "Sir, they killed my grandfather. I believe part of the action is mine."
Alice Eberstarkova and her two sisters are the only Jewish survivors of the Tatra Mountain village of Trstena. Her parents, after spending most of their savings on three passports, loaded them on a train that left Bratislava in July 1939. Her mother, sobbing with indecision, took Alice's 10-year-old sister off the train twice. When the train finally pulled away, she lifted the little girl aboard. Alice's parents and grandparents were taken in 1942 to Auschwitz and killed.
"There is never a day when I don't think about it," says Alice Masters, 57, who does not talk to friends about the Holocaust. "I never take a shower without thinking about the showers, the gas. I never go to the kitchen to peel a potato, without saying to myself, 'What those people would have given to eat these peels."
The Masters, who came to Washington in 1948, live in Bethesda. He is a graphic designer; she recently retired from the International Monetary Fund. They have three children. Their daughter Kim, when she was 14, wrote a poem about the Nazis and grandparents she could never know. It concluded: "Creators of hell on earth. I curse you with all my being for this robbery." The Diaments
Stefan and Henrietta Diament, who live now in Memphis where they own the Diamond Printing Company, were engaged to be married in 1939 when the German army occupied Lodz, Poland.
Thinking that Warsaw would be safer, Henrietta Leszczynski, the daughter of a wealthy textile manufactuer, and her fiance, a skilled printer, drove a truck north to the Polish capital. They were married, and, within weeks, were confined inside the Warsaw ghetto. There, they began six years of "organizing"--the survivors' term for trading, lying and stealing to stay alive.
For four years they remained in the ghetto, moving constantly, sometimes crawling out windows in the night, as 400,000 other Jews were sent away, most of them to the gas chambers of Treblinka. After the Jewish uprising of April 1943, Nazis set the ghetto afire. "We were fortunate to be deported to the camps instead of being shot there," says Henrietta.
At Maidanek concentration camp, they were separated. Stefan was sent to work in aircraft plants in Poland and Germany. "I found out printer they don't need, so I told them I was mechanic," says Stefan. He ate relatively well and worked inside. Working conditions were tense. "When a man drilled a hole in a wrong place, they hanged him right there in the factory . . . . If someone ran away, they lined us all up in a circle and shoot every 10th person."
Henrietta was sent to farming camps near Radom and in 1944, en route to Auschwitz, she tried to escape by jumping off a train. "I was lucky they didn't shoot me. They just whip me," she says. "They shot others who tried."
Their luck held to liberation. They were reunited in Belgium. Stefan showed up at a prearranged meeting place where Henrietta had waited for three weeks. "I was the one who opened the door," says Henrietta, "and we lived happily since, which is the truth."
The Diaments have two sons, one a doctor, the other an engineer who recently has come to work in the family printing business in Memphis. Neither Stefan nor Henrietta talks to their sons about the Holocaust.
"We never really sat down and told them because there is no way to explain this," says Henrietta. "Whatever they asked, they got straight answers. They were afraid to ask too much. Our sons are achievers.
"People are surprised how healthy mentally we are. We have a straight and sensible attitude toward life. We nurture our families. They are very precious to us. I realized that I don't have to be afraid that anyone will take my sons away from me." Mike Jacobs
Mike Jacobs was an "organizer" from the time he was 12 years old in the ghetto in Ostrowiec. "I didn't look Jewish," he says, so he could move in and out of the ghetto, trading pants and shirts made by his three brothers--all tailors--for eggs and bread.
When the Nazis made a "selection" he said he had a "feeling" he should not go to the "big square" with his family. He sneaked off to a side street. His family was sent to Treblinka and the gas chambers.
While he was "organizing" to stay alive, Jacobs said he had no idea there were gas chambers at Treblinka or anywhere else. He didn't find out until, at age 18, he arrived at Auschwitz in 1944.
"It was a very nice day when we stepped down off the train," remembers Jacobs. "An orchestra of Jewish musicians was playing. I said to my friend, 'It looks like a paradise and it is so clean . . . .' I saw the four chimneys of the crematoria . I thought they were baking a lot of bread for all the workers. I decided that when they asked my occupation, I would say baker. But they never asked me.
"I came closer to the chimneys. I said to my friend, 'You know what? That aroma is not bread. It is a different smell.' It smelled like hides. They are killing so many horses; they are burning hides."
At Birkenau, the camp that adjoined Auschwitz, Jacobs found out what they were burning. Within weeks, he was trading with Poles who lived nearby, exchanging gold teeth, jewels and money--taken from the dead--for bread.
When he was liberated, Jacobs made his way west and went to work in an American army kitchen in Germany. "Where the food was," he says. He came to Dallas in 1951, sponsored by the Jewish Welfare Federation.
Teaching physical fitness in a Jewish community center, he met his wife, a native Texan. They have four children: a married daughter and three sons--a lawyer, a college student and one who works with his father at the Jacobs Iron and Metal Company.
"At the moment my children could understand," Jacobs says, "I was explaining what I come from, what I came through, what I am.
"I am not a bitter person. I do not hate. I am normal. I am healthy and I am happy . . . . I am the lucky one. I can be here and tell the world that six million died because they were Jews."