Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the name of a building on the campus of the Charles E. Smith Life Communities in Rockville. It is the Hebrew Home, not the Hebrew House. This version has been corrected.
The Salisbury steak special? Now that’s a good topic. Or that gentle pharmacist at the CVS in Rockville? What a nice man, they’ll say.
But they don’t often talk about what they had to do to survive one of the most terrifying events of the 20th century — or any century for that matter.
The two women who once shared a plank for a bed in the squalid bunkers of Auschwitz and now, miraculously, live down the path from each other at the same senior complex would rather talk about their doctor’s appointments than the unimaginable experience they endured.
Retelling the story of jumping from a train to avoid a hail of Nazi gunfire, or surviving in the Siberian tundra for three years with nothing but an ax, or dying your black hair red to look like a Dutch family’s 6-year-old son when the Nazi soldiers came?
“Nah, some of them just want their peace — they deserve their peace,” said Henry Blumenstein, 76, who is one of about 50Holocaust survivors living on the campus of the Charles E. Smith Life Communities in Rockville.
There are only a few hundred thousand Holocaust survivors left in the world. Israeli historians estimate that 32 survivors die every day in their country.
As they age, the memories become more gauzy. And sometimes, the resolve to leave the worst memories behind wins.
The fear, of course, is that as the survivors age and die, the palpable, very human retelling of that tragedy dies with them.
Blumenstein is one of the talkers. “I find talking about it is more healing,” he told me before we settled into comfortable chairs for the story.
It’s draining and emotional still, but give him a couple of hours and he will take you on his boat trip to Cuba as a 4-year-old, he’ll show you the picture of his little hand waving a handkerchief to his father below on land, where the passengers weren’t allowed to disembark.
He’ll take you back to Europe, where his ship had to return after two perilous journeys living in the stern’s lowest levels among the rats and the vegetables. And he’ll make you cry as he tells you his mother’s final words to him, when she left him to live with poor, Dutch farmers, who promised to hide him among their eight children.
“You’re not coming with me,” she told him, unlocking their embrace, gone forever.
“Gassed in Auschwitz,” the registry told him when he finally, 40 years later, learned her fate.
Not all of the survivors will tell it all. Some tell it reluctantly.
Gisella Simon, now 88, and her friend Sara Weich slept on lice-infested straw in their Auschwitz bunk, bracing against the freezing wind that tore through the shed. They existed on thin vegetable soup and worked all day, amid fear and outbursts of violence, they told Emily Tipermas, who works for the assisted living facility and is compiling the stories of survivors.
When they arrived in cattle cars at the concentration camp, there were 800 prisoners. They were among 200 left when the camp was finally liberated. The two women eventually came to the United States and stayed in touch, through children, moves and cancer. They both decided to move to the Rockville campus, which has Hebrew Home and a kosher kitchen and halvah sweets at the snack bar.
It’s a lovely place, with highly polished, dark wood furniture and fancy gold mirrors on the walls. Walkers glide easily on the smooth carpet as they pass others like them and wonder: “Dachau? Auschwitz? Cuba? Who lived? Who did they lose?”
And they speak no more of it, continuing on to bingo. Other times, they ease themselves down on a sofa and talk about all of it for hours, a secret, unique pain that few others can relate to.
About 40 of the survivors at the home gathered for a brunch the other day at the behest of Rockville’s Progress Club, a clinking of china cups and cloth napkins to pay tribute to the shrinking numbers of people who can give testimony to incredible survival.
To get the conversation going, the organizers put a young student at each table. And they grabbed Blumenstein, as he rolled into the banquet room with his walker, to speak. No one else would be a keynote speaker.
So he stood and told a little bit of his incredible story.
With him was Sjoukje Dykstra, the granddaughter of the Dutch farmer who hid Blumenstein. She visits him yearly, and he goes back to the Netherlands to stay with her.
“Hans is part of our family. He can’t go away, and I won’t go away,” Dykstra said. She still calls him Hans, the fake name he was given when they took him in. “We were poor. But my grandfather said, ‘Where eight children can eat, also 10 children can eat.’ ” The family hid a second Jewish boy shortly after Blumenstein arrived.
After the war, Blumenstein was reunited with his father in New York. When he grew up, he became a social worker specializing in Holocaust survivors. He became an expert in coaxing the stories out of them, helping them repair themselves from the inside.
“They had a lot of problems, as you could imagine,” he said.
In that work, he learned how they established a hierarchy among themselves. Who’d been at the worst camps? How many camps had they been to? Did they have a number tattoo?
Often, those who fled or were hidden by others didn’t even consider themselves survivors. They were crippled with survivor’s guilt and constantly replaying that lightning-strike moment — hidden in a closet when the Nazis came and took grandma, told to turn left getting off the train when those who went right were gassed, and so forth — that made them part of the very small numbers of survivors.
“I made it, they didn’t. What’s wrong with me?” is what the survivors would tell Blumenstein. And what Blumenstein often wondered himself.
“It takes a lot of courage to talk. And it’s powerful,” he said. And the talking must be done for the next generation. “Or it’ll all disappear. Like a fart. It’ll go out the window, like a bad smell that just disappears.”
A few of the folks at that brunch, eating their cantaloupe cubes and listening to the stories of the others, didn’t contribute much to the conversation.
“That 91-year-old at the table. No. She did not want to go there, at all,” Dykstra told me as I took notes. “Don’t write her name!” she waved her hands in front of my face.
But Sara Weich, sitting in a wheelchair surrounded by bagels and half-eaten pastries on the white linen table, told the young woman sitting next to her a little bit about Auschwitz, about clinging to that hard piece of bread all day, so there was something to eat at night.
Blanche Juris, 98, eventually told some of her story — the SS mobile killing squad that entered her town of Eishyshok, Lithuania, and massacred nearly everyone in sight. Most of her friends and family are the faces shown in that huge tower of victims inside the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, three stories of lost faces.
One of the few survivors of that bloodbath, Juris then survived a Siberian labor camp.
Adjusting her spectacles and the pretty blue and red silk scarf tied into a pouf at her neck, she put her hands back in her lap.
Tomorrow, it’ll probably be back to talking about the meatloaf.