Iconic gate at Auschwitz

Iconic gate at Auschwitz

Today (6/24/15) we headed out for Auschwitz I. On the way, Alex Kor shared more about his parents. Since we had heard from Eva, he wanted to share about his dad’s life. His dad Mickey was the youngest of four brothers. He was born in Riga, Latvia, where he had difficult experiences with anti-Semitism. One of the first was with his brother who was in the Latvian army. While out on a ship, he was thrown over board when his shipmates found out he was Jewish. A while later, his father was shot in the street. His mother and the three remaining brothers were put in the Latvian ghetto. Eventually, they were taken to Rumbula, Latvia. After a while in the ghetto, they were marched out and formed into two lines: One with women and younger children; One with older boys. Mickey wanted to go with his mother. At the last minute, his mom pushed him into the line with his two brothers. Mickey hadn’t known what would happen, but all the women and children were taken out and shot. His mother had unwittingly saved his life.

Eva and Alex Kor at Liberation site, Auschwitz

Eva and Alex Kor at Liberation site, Auschwitz

Another of Mickey’s brothers experienced a scene like in Unbroken where prisoners were forced to carry a log and if they put it down, they’d be killed.  If they made it to a point and back, they’d be killed then.  Mickey’s brother carried the log, came back, hit the Nazi guard knocking him out, and escaped. Mickey himself was sent on the death march. At one point, he ran zig zag from the Nazis and hid in a hole in the ground. The next day, Americans bombed the area. Mickey stayed hidden for three to five hours.  Then, he heard a language he didn’t recognize and took a chance and came out with his hands up. It was the American army.  The commander (Neff) gave him a coke, which he would thereafter associate with freedom. Later, they used Mickey as a navigator since he knew the area. When the war was over, he wrote letter to Neff looking for place to live. Neff found him a place in his hometown of Terre Haute, Indiana, where Mickey could finish high school (He was as 17 at the time.)  Mickey wanted to become a pharmacist, so he went to ISU. John Wooden became his gym teacher and Basketball coach. He taught Mickey a hook shot shot–the same shot he taught Kareem Abdul Jabbar. To this day, Mickey still loves basketball. He then went to Purdue, and is still a loyal fan. When Mickey went to Israel to visit his brother, everything would change.  He met Eva and married her a short time later, though they didn’t speak the same language. (Eva jokes that Mickey thought she was quiet–he didn’t realize they just couldn’t communicate!)

Eva at the same spot she was 71 years ago in the liberation photos

Eva at the same spot she was 71 years ago in the liberation photos

The Neff family became adopted grandparents to the couple’s two children. Mickey, though, didn’t really talk about his experiences in the Holocaust until Eva opened the CANDLES museum. He used to tell Alex he played ping pong against the Nazis. Finally, a man from town came in with his class. He asked Mickey where Eva was because he wanted Eva to speak to his class.  He didn’t know Mickey was a survivor. Mickey shared the coke story of his escape from the Nazis. Later, the kids from the class brought him a six pack of coke.  That six pack is still on display at the Museum.  When the museum was fire bombed, the same students brought him another six pack.

Alex is often asked what it is like to be a child of holocaust survivors. (He mentioned this is his fourth trip to Auschwitz in eleven months. And he has been here 14-15 times.)  He shared that he had a normal childhood for the most part. But, growing up, Terre Haute had very few if any Jews and  no Holocaust survivors. Alex learned how to blend in with Gentiles and his relatives in Israel, so being Jewish didn’t really affect him until about 5-6 grade.  He loved sports as a child, and one day his class was doing a swimming event. Afterwards, Alex was taking a shower, and a few kids started hitting him with towels in the shower. They called him dirty Jew. It was the first time he’d experienced Antisemitism personally.  His Mom called principal who punished the boys, but for the first time, Alex became aware that not all people like Jews.

Eva indicates her Auschwitz tatoo

Eva indicates her Auschwitz tatoo

Then, on Halloween, it was a normal event for kids to throw corn at people’s doors and run away.  His dad ignored it, but to Eva, it was reminiscent of the bullying the Nazis used to do, and it also made her angry because her dad had also ignored the bullying she experienced. Eva used to hide behind trees and chase the  kids down. This only increased the antisemitism.  People started painting swastikas on their house. His mom called the parents of the kids, and the parents excused the behavior, saying the boys were just having fun.  No one really knew any Holocaust survivors. Finally, Eva decided to give a lecture to the 5-6 grades. She wasn’t as eloquent as she is now, and it was pretty rough.  She had hoped to make a difference, but things didn’t change. In 7th grade, things were bad enough that Eva had the idea to move, but instead, she decided to go to Israel in October to ignore the Halloween issue.  She did this every year for several years until things quieted down for the family.

Eva pictured far right (Miriam is cut out of this shot)

Eva pictured far right (Miriam is cut out of this shot)

As a 7/8 grader, Alex hated his parents because he wanted them to be like other kids’ parents. He asked questions about what had happened. His dad made jokes, but his mom answered his questions. He knew why she was affected like she was, but he still didn’t understand why she couldn’t just turn it off. Then, in ninth grade, his class was watching a video for Holocaust Remembrance Day.  Eva recognized her sister in the children photos (Interestingly, she initially saw Miriam before herself because she didn’t know what she had looked like at the time, but was used to looking at Miriam.) Then, in 1978, a local station ran a Holocaust series. Someone at the Television station asked Eva to be there for the beginning and bring the family for the end. At end of series was footage of a  little boy playing with soccer. When he saw it, Mickey started bawling.  It was at this time Alex realized that his dad didn’t talk about what happened because it affected him so badly.

When Alex came to Auschwitz for the first time in 1985, it was not so much that he was affected by what his mom went through here, but more that he’s proud of what his mom and dad have done with their lives despite the fact that everyone made fun of them.  Their story impacted his own in a more powerful way in 1987.

Infirmary where twins were measured and compared.

Infirmary where twins were measured and compared.

The year after Alex started podiatrist school, he started feeling sick. He wondered if he might have a hernia. When he saw his parents’ doctor, the doctor thought Alex had cancer and recommended for him to see urologist. It took a while, but Alex finally went. He had surgery and found out he had testicular cancer. The cancer had gone to his lungs as well.  He was stage 2. His mom sat him down and said, “Look, Dad’s a survivor, I’m a survivor, and you’re going to be a survivor too.”  This advice helped him handle the experience.

When we arrived at Auschwitz I, Eva shared that she used to walk the hour trek from Birkenau to Auschwitz three times a week. In all the time in the camp, she never noticed the words above the gate–they were too high. We started out our time in the camp with the opportunity to walk with Eva through the place where the iconic liberation photo was taken.  She rejoices in the opportunity to recall that she has defeated Dr. Mengele and his henchmen for not only surviving, but returning to share her victory with others.  Eva then took us to the infirmary where the twins were tested.  She explained to us that this was so degrading, that she mentally checked out when she was here, so she didn’t have much memory of evens in this building.

Two prisoners:  one smiles, one scowls

Two prisoners: one smiles, one scowls

After an amazing lunch at Art Deco, we returned to tour the camp with Symon.  He also started us at the gate, explaining that musicians played when prisoners marched in and out. It set a rhythm for the prisoners and allowed the guards to more easily count them.  One women said when she hears Strauss, she has to turn it off immediately because it takes her back to Auschwitz.

We then walked through a building that explained the typical living conditions in Auschwitz.  Auschwitz became largest death camp. At least 1.3 million people were deported to Auschwitz, and 1.1 million died here.  One of the things that most fascinated me in this area was the hundreds of prisoner “mug shots.”

Two prisoners:  One with a black eye;  one defiant

Two prisoners: One with a black eye; one defiant

I was captivated by the eyes of the prisoners and took the opportunity to look at each one in the eyes.  The differences were incredible.  Each photograph told the name of the person and their fate, but the eyes were what was most interesting.  Some were scared, some solemn, others lifeless, a few angry or defiant.  Some looked off camera while a rare few had a trace of a smile.  What were they thinking in those moments?  Some already bore traces of abuse–black eyes, like the man pictured right or bloody head wounds.  Each one with a story we will never fully know.  For me, this exhibit made the Holocaust a lot more personal.

Lilly Jacob photo:  Prisoner and new arrival in conversation

Lilly Jacob photo: Prisoner and new arrival in conversation

Another photograph that captured our attention was one of the Lilly Jacob photos.  Lilly was initially in Auschwitz, but on the day of her liberation, she had a small miracle.  In the Dora Concentration Camp, she found a photo album in an abandoned SS building.  The photo album contained not only a photograph of her family as they arrived on the selection platform, but around 208 other photographs of events in the camp. Many of these are displayed around Auschwitz and Birkenau.  But, in the corner of one of the pictures is an interesting detail that caught my imagination.  On the platform, you can see a prisoner and a new arrival in close conversation.  Maybe they knew each other, maybe not, but I wonder what they were talking about all the same.  Did he try to warn her of what was about to take place?  I know we’ll never know–another moment of humanity that will remain a mystery.

From here, we went to another area which had proof of the crimes committed during the Holocaust.  These are the iconic photos I had been waiting to see in real life–the piles of shoes, eye glasses, and other items from “Canada” that were found by the Soviet army.  Despite having seen photographs, I was in no way prepared for the magnanimity of the items.

Prosthetics from Canada I

Prosthetics from Canada I

There were two tons of human hair–the shavings of 50, 000 people. The sheer size of this was astronomical.  And this was only a portion.  Additionally, there were 40,000 pairs of shoes. But, one thing that really made it personal was a conversation I had with Linda from our team.  Linda has cerebral palsy.  While she has to use a walker and has difficulty speaking and hearing, she chose to come on this trip to learn about how Hitler treated the handicapped.  After visiting this area, I went outside and noticed Linda sitting in the golf cart (waiting for Eva).  Since we were all waiting, I went to talk to her.  I asked if she had gone up to see things because there were three flights of stairs in the building.  She said that she had because this is what she came to see.  She too was struggling to understand this aspect of the war that was very personal to her.  Tearfully, she asked,  “What did we ever do to them to make them do this to us?” It’s a fair question.  Another emotional area was the items belonging to small children.  Truly impossible to understand.

Shooting Wall

Shooting Wall

In the next area, we saw a barracks that was divided into 28 rooms. In here, Nazis experimented with different methods of torture. There was a standing room, a starvation room, and a room where they tested Zyklon B before using it on the prisoners. They selected 800 prisoners and sent them to the basement in September 1941. The windows were used to throw in the Zykoln B. In the morning, a few were still alive, so they repeated the process.  Another form of torture was starvation.  Sometimes, the SS selected 10 prisoners to go to the starvation cell. Maximillian Kolbe, a Catholic priest, sacrificed his life as a substitute for another prisoner.  Just outside is the shooting wall.  Germans falsified documents of those they shot here, calling it a heart attack. Two prisoners were chained to wall. Then, the Germans shot them in head. If something happened on outside, like a resistance or someone got away, other prisoners would pay the price.  There were also posts where prisoners hands were tied behind their backs and strung up to a post.

Gallows

Gallows

Finally, there was a gallows where they hung escapees to teach a lesson to the others.  Symon told the story of two prisoners who were called outside the camp to fix a piano.  The SS had escorted them in, but by the time they were finished, the SS had left. The Polish prisoners had to decide whether to run or not. Symon asked what we would do.  Most of us said we’d run.  He explained the guards chose not to escape. One of them tried to start talking about it, but the other interrupted. “If you escape, I’ll be murdered. If we escape, they’ll find my sister and kill her.”  This was one of the things prisoners had to consider, and why the prisoners chose to go back.  He then told the story of four guys who escaped. (This story is in Auschwitz Escape as well)  There were three Poles and one Ukrainian. They managed to steal the commandant’s car, SS uniforms, and various other supplies. Because one of them spoke fluent German, they were able to drive right out of the camp.  They escaped in 1943, and still had to hide out til the war was over.  Even then, their mothers were found and sent to Auschwitz instead, where they would be killed.  Ironically, Rudolf Hess, the commandant whose car they had stolen, changed name and lived as farmer after the war.  He was later recognized and was tried in Nuremberg. Then, he was sent to Poland, where he would be executed on this same gallows.

Gas chamber and Cremetorium

Gas chamber and Crematorium

Finally, we made our way to the Gas chamber and Crematorium.  The Crematorium was opened before gas chamber because prior to The Final Solution, the Germans merely needed a way to dispose of prisoners who had died in the camp. After testing Zyklon B, this was exclusively what they used in the Gas chambers.

As we were leaving, two Jewish men and a class of students came into the crematorium where they sang a song in Hebrew.  The students were so affected that one girl started sobbing uncontrollably.  It is truly a dark and horrific place.

But, like Eva before us, we were able to walk out of the camp.  We will return on Friday to experience more of both Birkenau and Auschwitz I.

Galacia Jewish Museum

Galacia Jewish Museum

We ended our evening with dinner and music at the Galacia Jewish Museum.  Here, I had the opportunity to sit with Eva and discuss all manners of subjects.  One interesting story she shared with us was of how she spent free time in the camp.  In addition to shaping knitting needles out of barbed wire, she told about the games the lady in charge of them used to make them play, which were songs that bullied members of their group.  While the girl twins had it rough, Eva shared the story of Zvi Speigal, known as the Twins’ Father.  He was in charge of the twin boys and somehow, he convinced Dr. Mengele to let him give them more food.  In addition to that, he also made them learn each others’ names, taught them arithmetic and geography in their bunks, made them a soccer ball out of rags, and told them he would adopt them all if they survived the camp.  Interestingly enough, they did–and surprisingly, he did.  He truly cared for these boys.  Eva said she wished he could have adopted her too, but she wasn’t really aware of him at them time.  Even in Auschwitz, there are stories of kindness and hope–proof that our circumstances don’t have to shape the kind of people we become.

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