My cousin John died this past weekend in London. He was a short, quiet, unassuming man, a research chemist by training. He never married and had no children. His British English had a tinge of an almost undetectable accent. To those poised to notice such things, he dismissed it as acquired during frequent business trips over many years to Norway, a bleeding of Norwegian into his university-trained English. In reality, his accent was from the residual Polish of his childhood, a childhood stolen from him, and one he worked hard to forget.
John was not his real name. He was born Isaac in Lodz about 1928. He remembered the Polish boycott of Jews in the 1930s, which received official government approval in 1937, and was known as the “cold pogrom.” Of course, it was anything but cold and incited real pogroms of terror, brutality, and death. His father was out of work and his family almost starved. Those were the good years.
Lodz fell to the Germans in 1939 without a fight. Poland had already been defeated. Lodz contained the second largest Jewish population in all of Europe. The Germans’ brutality, sadism, and savagery during the Lodz ghetto period are well-known and documented in over ten thousand pages of manuscripts written in four languages and indefatigably translated by thirteen translators. Two Jewish photographers took thousands of pictures of the ghetto; the Germans themselves inadvertently added to the collection, loving to document their sadism, some of it in color photography. The Germans had made color film commercially viable in 1936 and cherished using it.
For a long time, I knew little of John’s life in the ghetto or during the Holocaust. He spoke of the Holocaust as “the war” when he did speak of it. Bits and pieces came out here and there by accident. For sixteen years, I gently tried to speak to him directly of his experiences. He had no interest, and I did not pursue it. Information occasionally oozed out like puss and blood from a wound that would not heal but was well-bandaged. When he finally opened up, it was as if he had opened a vein and let the blood flow freely, and it was I who was psychologically unprepared for the event.
He and his twin brother, Michael, were eventually among the 130,000 shipped out from the Lodz ghetto to death camps. They were in their early teens and fit for labor. They survived the selection process. Their parents did not. For some unfathomable reason, they were not identified as twins and not selected for Josef Mengele’s medical experiments on live subjects. They were sent to carve tunnels out of mountains in Silesia, or he thought it was Silesia but was not quite sure, to hide German rockets from allied bombs. The work was torturous and unending, the food barely sustained life, but they survived.
As the Russians approached, the camp commandant wanted the laborers to go into the tunnels. The inmates knew the plan was to blow the tunnels and leave them to die. When the order came, the inmates screamed in one voice: “Nein.” He himself was shocked by his own resistance, but more so were the Germans. For the first time, he saw fear on the faces of his enslavers. Most of all, the camp commander’s shock at the resistance invigorated the slave laborers’ refusal to go into the tunnels and be buried alive. It was one of John’s strongest memories. It gave him a sense of power that he had not known. The Germans decided not to attempt to force the slave laborers into the tunnels, and moved them to Austria as the Red Army approached.
Many died during the brutal transport where inmates were treated worse than livestock, but John and his brother survived. They ended up at the notorious Mauthausen concentration camp, the bone crusher, as the Germans called it, where Nazi policies of working people to death were cruelly implemented. Figures from Mauthausen in late March of 1945 show a dramatic increase of teenagers, mostly slave laborers from other camps. John and Michael were among the 3,500 Jewish teenagers in the camp at the time of its liberation.
As John and Michael were being transported to Mauthausen, their cousin — my uncle Sid, a sergeant in the American Army — was preparing to cross the Rhine into Germany. Sid was a forward artillery observer, and one day in France he and a brother in arms had taken up a location in a barn and were calling in strikes on a German position. The strikes became increasingly accurate and devastating, and Sid had the presence of mind to realize that the Germans would soon figure out where their observation perch was. Sid told his fellow soldier that he had a bad feeling and that they should flee the barn. They got about 100 yards from the barn when it erupted from an artillery barrage. Sid and the other soldier got hit with pieces of wood, but were otherwise uninjured. Sid’s survival would have a dramatic impact on John and Michael’s story.
John and Michael survived Mauthausen and were assisted by the Red Cross in writing letters to their family in Chicago. The family then wrote to Sid, who as fate would have it was stationed in Austria not far from the complex of refugee camps where John and Michael were located. Having been born in Europe, Sid had a passable knowledge of German, and as German prisoners were surrendering he was recruited as a translator and was promoted and transferred, which was how he ended up in Austria.
Sid’s commanding officer let him take a jeep to look for the twins in the set of camps where they were thought to be, but he gave him a strict deadline for returning to base. After a long day, the search was beginning to prove futile and Sid was calculating how much longer he could look and still return to base on time. The driver who accompanied him was getting anxious and wanted to turn around. Sid insisted on continuing. In the next camp, Sid described the twins to several people. One man volunteered that he knew the twins. They had a cart with a donkey, played endlessly with it, and were about a half-mile up the road.
Minutes later, Sid found John and Michael. He later bought them airplane tickets and had them flown to live with another cousin in Manchester, England.
They were seventeen when they arrived in England. They had no high school education and did not speak English, although they were literate in Polish, Yiddish, and Hebrew. After a year of schooling, both twins passed the examinations for admission to college. John received a degree in chemistry, and in later life would get a master’s degree in engineering. Michael became a psychiatrist and moved to America, doing a residency in Chicago, and later settled in Canada.
What would have happened to the twins if Sid had not found them? Would they have been repatriated to Poland to die in one of the brutal pogroms launched after the war by Poles who did not want their Jews back? Would they have been smuggled into Palestine as tough fighters to battle for Israel’s independence in a world that still closed most of its doors to Jewish immigration?
Fortunately, by sheer happenstance after incredible suffering, John and Michael were given a chance at a semblance of a normal life. Michael died of a heart attack in October of 2012, and John followed him by nine months, also of a heart attack.
The Holocaust left its scars on both of them, and that is a less pleasant and less hopeful story and one perhaps for another time.
Today, Israel and the Palestinians negotiate peace. The Palestinians are led by Mahmoud Abbas, a man who received his doctorate from a Russian university and wrote a dissertation denying the Holocaust. Hitler’s Mein Kampf is a best seller in Arabic, as is The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The grand mufti of Jerusalem, Hitler’s personal guest in Berlin during the war years, created a Croatian, Muslim, Nazi militia and vowed to continue the denied Holocaust after the war in Mandate Palestine. He had earlier been successful in fomenting the Farhud, the pogrom against the Jews of Baghdad.
As the Johns and Michaels pass from among us, we should not forget those who caused their suffering and those who promise to recreate it. We owe that to their memory.