By Jack Kinsella
I received a wonderful surprise in the mail in the form of a book that my friend Don Weitz sent to me. Don is a friend of mine whom I met when he was working in public relations for Zion Oil.
If his name seems familiar, its because Don is the one who first suggested the Israel Tour and helped me plan the itinerary. It was Don who convinced me that the tour should begin, not in Israel, but in Poland.
The surprise gift was a book, written by Don’s mother, Sonia, called, “I Promised I Would Tell.” It arrived at about noon. I opened it to give it a glance — when I finished ‘glancing’ at the last page, I looked up and it was after four.
I also realized I had a stiff neck, I was thirsty and had to go to the bathroom.
Don’s mother was just eleven years old when the Nazis invaded Poland. Sonia had been born in Krakow, only miles from the death camps at Auschwitz and Birkenau where she was eventually interned.
In all, Don’s mother survived the ghettos and five separate concentration camps; Auschwitz-Birkenau, Plaszow, Venusburg, Mauthausen and Bergen-Belson.
“I was twelve and a half in March, 1941 when my family was forced into the ghetto. I remained there for two years.” During her time in the ghetto, little Sonia’s job was to scrub latrines in the German barracks. She describes vividly the humiliation, writing, “At night, as we returned to the ghetto, the soldiers forced us to sing “Roll Out the Barrel” for their amusement. They laughed at the humiliation we faced in singing a cheerful tune after a day of cleaning up their filth.”
In 1942, Sonia’s mother, Adela became sick with meningitis. It is hard to imagine what hell it must have been to be sick with meningitis while shivering in a cramped, unheated room shared with three other families. No medicine, no doctors…Sonia captured the hopelessness in a way nobody who hadn’t endured it could have.
I literally wept as I read of that day in October, 1942 when the dreaded knock came on the Schreiber’s door:
“We waited. Each moment seemed like an eternity. Somewhere, a clock struck midnight. Suddenly, there were heavy footsteps, and we heard the dreaded pounding on the door. Two men in uniform forced the door open and entered the room. “Adela Schreiber,” one voice said. “Get dressed. Immediately!”
I froze. My mother sat up on the edge of the bed and slowly started putting on her stockings and her shoes. She put a scarf on her head. “Dress warmly,” the voice continued. “You’re going on a long journey.”
Sonia writes that her mother fainted while getting ready. The two Nazis left to get a stretcher. While they were gone, the family had a few more precious moments together.
“I came into the room. My mother was lying on the floor. Although she had fainted, her eyes were now wide open. Absent-mindedly, she was smoothing out her hair. I heard my father cry, “Oh child, oh child.” I came up to him. He was weeping. Something inside of me died. I too wanted to cry but I could not. I wanted to speak, to comfort him. I wanted to . . . I do not know what I wanted.
By now, my mother had stood up. Once again, she began getting dressed. Slowly, deliberately, she put on her dress, her sweater, a coat. How carefully she dressed. Calmly, and with great care, as if she were getting ready to go to a cinema, she combed her hair. Then she took a bag from the closet. From the cupboard, she took a piece of dry bread and put it into the bag. Dry bread, how terrible! All the time, I stood there, watching her in horror. . . .
She took something from her bag, some money. She put it into my hand. “I know you will need this. It may help.” She put her arms around me and whispered, “Remember, I love you.” The world was spinning in front of my eyes. As if from afar, I heard her last words, “And remember to tell the world.”
Sonia writes that as the police were taking her mother away, somehow, her father and sister managed to create a diversion and somehow spirit her away and hide her in a locked shed.
The SS were rounding up Jews in the nearby courtyard so Sonia and her father were forced to hide in a cellar until the coast was clear lest they too, should be rounded up for resettlement.
It is impossible to picture the scene:
“We jumped into a basement…with horror, I listened to the sounds coming from the street. Gunfire…one after another…Terrifying screams, and then quiet and the sound of heavy boots. The blood-curdling screams of children. Those screams surely reached the heavens…or did they?”
All that night and all the next day, the Jews were rounded up.
“Through the crack in the window, I saw feet. Thousands of feet. Some were clad in boots; some in once-elegant high-heeled shoes. Some were marching; others stumbled. Then I saw a tiny foot, tripping on a stone. The little girl, perhaps four years old, was crying as she fell. The next thing I heard was a gunshot. The crying stopped…”
Sonia and her father hid in the basement all that night, all that next day, venturing out at sunset to sneak back to the shed and rescue her mother.
“By now, I was so numb that the scene before me did not penetrate my consciousness. It was too horrible to confront. The doors to the shed had been ripped open by an axe or a rifle butt. My mother was gone. On the floor lay a crumpled blanket…“
If you saw the movie, “Schindler’s List” the camp commandant, Amon Goeth, was played by actor Ralph Fiennes.
There is a scene in the movie where Goeth would take up a rifle and, from his perch on his front porch, randomly select one of the Jews in the courtyard and shoot him.
It was into Goeth’s camp at Plaszow that Sonia was next transferred. Sonia describes a harrowing few moments when she was on a work detail, smashing old Jewish tombstones with a sledgehammer to make gravel.
Goeth came up behind Sonia and her sister, Blanca, as they were working.
“Blanca whispered in my ear, “Work, Sonia, work.” She repeated urgently, “Work. If he should kill me, if he should shoot me, you must be very quiet and keep working. Otherwise, he will kill you as well.”
Sonia says that Goeth was distracted by an old woman who wasn’t working as hard as he felt she could. He beat her to death with her own sledgehammer while Sonia and her sister continued working feverishly only a few feet away.
It is beyond comprehension. But it is true.
Sonia’s narrative takes us inside Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, Venusburg and Mauthausen as the Nazis fleeing the Allied advance transferred the Jews to camps deeper inside the Third Reich. She was transferred from Auschwitz in January, 1945, only ten days before that camp was liberated.
Over the next four months, she stayed just one step ahead of the Allies and freedom, until finally, she was liberated at Mauthausen by the Americans on May 5, 1945.
Of the eighty-four members of Sonia’s family who lived in Poland on September 1, 1939, only Sonia and her sister were still alive on May 5, 1945.
Sonia’s story is the reason that the Omega Letter Tour began in Poland, at Auschwitz, before moving on to Israel. We’ve just skimmed a few highlights of Sonia’s story — believe me, there are more gut-wrenching scenes in her book than those I shared with you — but without an understanding of the Holocaust, how can anyone truly understand what makes Israel tick?
Israel was reborn on May 14, 1948, midwifed by survivors of the horrors described by Sonia Schreiber Weitz, under the rallying cry of “Never Again.” Never again will the Jews allow themselves to be helpless and stateless.
During the war, thousands upon thousands of Jews managed to escape Nazi Germany, only to be turned away by other countries and sent back to Germany for the slaughter.
The S.S. St. Louis left Germany on May 13, 1939. Its Jewish passengers, most of them from Germany, had expensive documents – some bogus – for entry into Cuba. When the ship arrived, however, Havana – and the US – refused to admit them. The St. Louis sat in the harbor for days.
Desperate relatives packed motorboats and approached the anchored liner, shouting messages to loved ones. All awaited the outcome of frantic international negotiations to allow the refugees to disembark. Ultimately, only 29 passengers were permitted to land in Havana. America refused to accept a single Jew.
Then the ship was ordered to leave – maneuvering slowly and tantalizingly near the coast of Florida before turning back to Europe where more than half perished in the Holocaust.
Former undersecretary of State Stuart Eizenstat published a report on the US role during the Holocaust. Eizenstat noted that the United States accepted only 21,000 refugees from Europe and did not significantly raise or even fill its restrictive quotas, accepting far fewer Jews per capita than many of the neutral European countries and fewer in absolute terms than Switzerland.
“No country, including the United States, did as much as it might have or should have done to save innocent victims of Nazi persecution – Jews, Gypsies, political opponents and others,” Eizenstat said in an earlier report in May 1997.
“Restrictive US immigration policies kept hundreds of thousands of refugees from finding safety in the United States, most tragically exemplified by our refusal to allow the St. Louis to dock with its cargo of refugees – many of whom perished when the ship was forced to return to Europe.”
When it came to saving the lives of innocent Jews, even the Americans let them down. The State of Israel was reborn as a safe haven for the world’s Jews. That’s why we’re going to Poland first.
For Sonia. For her eighty-two murdered family members. For the six million murdered innocents. To see Israel (at least vicariously) as the Jews see her — not just as their country but as their deliverance.
I have a new appreciation for the traditional Israeli toast: “L’chaim!”
It means, “to life.”
This Letter was written by Jack Kinsella on July 31, 2008.