Survivor

“Will I ever see you again?”

As I turned around I saw that these words were not meant for me. They were directed at the stones of the Kotel, the Western Wall of the destroyed Jewish temple, in the heart of Jerusalem.

Hanna Marx had tears in her eyes as she told me: “The last time I was in Israel I would never have imagined that I would be able to come back here again. That I would live this long, be strong enough. This is the greatest place on earth. Thank you for bringing me here.”

Hanna came to Israel with her friend of many years, Gerhard Maschkowski. Gerhard and Hanna are both survivors. He survived Auschwitz. She survived two concentration camps and a two and half month long death march. The fact that they are alive today is a miracle (or maybe, to be more accurate, countless small miracles).

Lenny and I spent a weekend with Hanna (86 years old) and Gerhard (89). They stayed at the Dead Sea, for the unique health benefits of the location. Although both had been to Israel before, Lenny could not bear the thought of them not visiting any other place in the country so he decided to take them to Jerusalem and the Kotel before they flew home to the USA.

Hanna Marx & Gerhard Maschkowski in Jerusalem Sept 20th, 2014
Hanna Marx & Gerhard Maschkowski in Jerusalem Sept 20th, 2014

I had not imagined that the brief time at the Kotel would be so moving to Hanna. (Please read more about Gerhard at https://forestrain.wordpress.com/2013/05/14/a-sign-upon-your-arm/ an article I wrote after his previous trip to Israel).

Survivor. What a small word for something so huge. Survival. Triumph. Overcoming the most unspeakable horrors…

From now on, when I hear the word “survivor” Hanna’s image will come to my mind.  An iron lady, even at 86 years of age, it seems like nothing can stop her. After what she endured as a teenager, what could stop her?

Hanna (like Gerhard) is unusual in that she is able to talk freely about her experiences during the Holocaust while not showing signs of bitterness or hate. She has smile lines and a joy for life. She magnetizes people to her and, when she can, teaches them.

Many survivors refuse to talk, saying they don’t want to burden the younger generations with the horrors of the past. Others do articulate their memories but are also trapped by them, stuck in bitterness. Some have difficulty connecting with their families, difficulty showing emotion, afraid to love because everything they once loved was ripped from them.

Hanna said that for many years she did not tell her children about her experiences. They heard about them in a roundabout way and then began asking questions. After that she began telling her story in front of school children, teaching them about the Holocaust.

Candidly Hanna told me that her beloved husband (also a survivor, now deceased), did not like it when she gave talks about her experiences because on the nights after she’d spoken she would cry and sometimes scream in her sleep and he’d have to hold her until she could stop shaking.

Calm, pleasant and articulate in the day, the horrors she remembered haunted her at night.

Although she didn’t tell me much of her story, some of the experiences Hanna described gave me nightmares too. I can’t imagine how it is possible to survive such experiences. How is it possible to smile, be happy and loving? How is it possible to trust other people?!

I asked Hanna about the death march. For two and a half months she and some 5-6 thousand were forced to march. They weren’t given any food. They had no shelter or even warm clothes (I wonder how many had decent shoes?). Anyone who collapsed or lay down was shot and left on the side of the road. They ate snow. How can you survive on snow? How can you have enough strength to walk mile after mile? They slept at night on the side of the road and in the morning, those that were still alive were forced to get up and march.

She said that sometimes farmers had piles of food outside in the field, vegetables meant for their animals to eat. When they could, Jews that saw this ran in to the fields and grabbed whatever there was and ate it – raw, dirty, it didn’t matter. Often they would be shot for running in to the field but they didn’t care. People that died on the way had their clothes taken by the freezing, starving survivors.

By the end of the march only some 300 hundred Jews were still alive.

I asked Hanna if, during the march she believed she would survive. She said no.

I asked, if she thought she was going to die, what made her keep getting up in the morning, keep walking? It would have been easy enough to lay down and die.

Her answer was that she didn’t know why. Something in her made her keep moving. Something in her tells her that despite the horrors she endured, God was with her, watching over her.

Two miracles helped Hanna through the Holocaust.

The first was when a German officer made a decision that saved Hanna’s mother and allowed mother and daughter to remain together. At the beginning of the war there were 58 people in Hanna’s family. At the end, 4 remained. Hanna lost her father and brothers but remained with her mother until they were both liberated.

The second miracle came at the end of the death march when German soldiers sent with grenades to blow up a hanger that housed the Jews that survived the march, changed their minds. The Russians were coming and the soldiers were supposed to act quickly. Instead of committing mass murder they decided to simply walk away.

Hanna’s mother spoke to the soldiers and her perfect German made them see her as a human being (most of the other survivors of the march were Polish and Latvian). She did not match the anti-Semitic caricatures of Jews prevalent in Nazi propaganda, she was a proper German lady. One of the soldiers said to the other: “I was raised in church and was taught that if I have to fight to protect myself that is ok but I must not kill innocent people and I am not going to kill these people.” He left and the other soldier followed him.

A few hours later the Russians liberated the surviving Jews.

Even in the darkest places, the most horrible times, there is still hope.

Hanna has attained “Jewish revenge” the ultimate “davka” – although she was subjected to unspeakable horrors, she has survived and more. She has thrived! Although her family was ripped from her, she created her own family, married and lived many happy years with the love of her life. They had children, grandchildren and now there are even great grandchildren! Each member of her family is happy and successful in their own right, leaving her free from worries about their future.

Hanna’s message to the world is one of acceptance, tolerance and kindness:

“Be good to people and it will come back to you”.

“If you are discriminated against, prove that you are better. They will respect you later.”

“Survivor” means so much more than the one little word can convey… After Hanna’s example how can I say: “I’m dying of hunger” or “I’m dying for a drink”? How many of us feel we can’t survive without that vacation, new car, pair of jeans, shoes or whatever? How many of us waste time whining, complaining, taking for granted, wallowing in misery, giving up… We are all so spoiled and we don’t even realize it.

The world we are living in today is shaped by our attitudes. It’s not about what happens to you, it’s about what you create out of what happens to you!

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms –
to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
~ “Man’s Search for Meaning”, Victor E. Frankl


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