Behind the thick glass panes of the counter-high display case were remnants and relics, the detritus of one of mankind’s darkest hours. A tin can with the burned remains of a prisoner. A blue-striped camp uniform, three cloth shoes that might have been ballet slippers, a faded yellow Star of David, its inscription the identifying word Jude.
“Now if you just go like this at Auschwitz,” said Fania Fénelon, lightly scraping the carpeted floor with one foot, “you’ll find shoes just like those.”
It was in 1979 that we were at the Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies in Los Angeles in a room filled with dark reminders of the unspeakably ignoble atrocities perpetrated on human beings by Nazi Germany. The extermination of European Jewry—two-thirds of that population was eliminated—was an evil so unprecedented that the word “genocide” had to be coined to describe it.
“The shoes—they’re just under the surface,” she added.
Miss Fénelon spent seventeen months wearing the yellow badge as a prisoner at Auschwitz-Birkenau. The French-born teenager, taken on January 22, 1944, from her Parisian home, had musical skills that allowed her to perform with the all-female orchestra conducted by Alma Rose (a niece of composer Gustav Mahler), to entertain the SS officers and provide accompaniment to those prisoners being marched to the gas chambers.
She detailed her story in her 1976 memoir, Playing for Time. (A 1980 CBS television adaptation of the book was controversial over its casting Vanessa Redgrave, an avowed supporter of the PLO and an anti-Zionist, as Miss Fénelon.)
Transferred to Bergen-Belsen, Miss Fénelon was liberated by Allied forces in the spring of 1945.
But there was no liberation from the memories of the fear, the faces, the screams, and the smells of the gas ovens and the burning flesh that left scars more deeply etched on her psyche than the tattooed identification number on her forearm.
AS HE REACHED FOR THE SALT across the table in a quiet dining room at the Beverly Hills Hotel, the sleeve of his white, French-cuffed linen shirt rose up his arm, revealing the tattoo that had once reduced his name and identity to a number.
Samuel Pisar recited his haftorah for his bar mitzvah in the winter of 1941 inside an apartment in the Nazi-established Jewish ghetto of Bialystock, Poland, his birthplace. A few months later his father was executed on the street outside their home, and the thirteen-year-old Samuel was transported in a cattle car to Majdanek, the first of six German concentration camps he would call home until his escape from a death march headed to Dachau four years later.
His mother and younger sister were transported elsewhere for extermination.
His life, detailed in his 1980 book, Of Blood and Hope, was a saga of the nearly unspeakable, of survival and self-recovery. Pisar became an international attorney and diplomat. With earned doctorates from Harvard and the Sorbonne, he served as an adviser to President John F. Kennedy and French president Valery Giscard d’ Estaing, and counted among his friends and clients Artur Rubenstein, Marc Chagall and Elizabeth Tayor.
He dined at fine restaurants and remembered the “gray” bread they ate for sustenance in the camps.
“A feral child still lived haunted within him, mocking all his fitted suits, lovely furnishings and worldly renown,” noted the New York Times upon his death in 2015.
He told me over the course of our 1980 lunch that “the gnawing starvation that sucks the will out of two-thirds of mankind and subjects whole continents to political and social convulsions is no abstraction to one like me.”
In measured language he expressed concern that “well-meaning but desperate majorities [could be tempted] to surrender political power to totalitarian leaders.”
Effective leadership is what is desired by the electorate, he said, noting that “effective” is not necessarily a shared value.
“That’s something that is not understood about Hitler. He was not just a wild man who took over. He was man who offered solutions to the people and was elected to office.”
The fact is, of course, that Hitler’s solutions suggested a finality outlined in his writings and enforced in policy that led to the methodical murder of millions of Jews—as well as Romany, Poles, Russians, homosexuals and the physically and mentally infirm—in Nazi Germany. The sordid, unspeakably cruel and vicious details of the extermination of Jews in such concentration camps as Dachau, Buchenwald and Auschwitz has been amply documented many times over.
Saturday, January 27, marks the 73rd anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. In 2005 the United Nations proclaimed the date as Holocaust Memorial Day as a time to learn the lessons of the past and to recognize that genocide does not just take place on its own; it’s a steady process which can begin if discrimination, racism and hatred are not checked and prevented. We need only to look at the more recent examples of Cambodia or Bosnia or Rwanda or Darfur.
That same message is delivered in the Holocaust Remembrance Day (April 23-24, 2018), the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
We are asked to “never forget” what happened in those dark hours.
I fear that we might be forgetting.
A 2013 poll published in the Boston Globe suggested that the Holocaust may become “ordinary” history as it fades from common knowledge. Only 54 percent of 53,000 adult respondents in 101 countries had ever heard of the Holocaust. Of those who had, one-third believe it is either a myth or has been greatly exaggerated.
“After the war,” Elie Wiesel, the Nobel Laureate French author and Auschwitz survivor, said, “we reassured ourselves that it would be enough to relate a single night in Treblinka . . . to shake humanity out of its indifference and keep the torturer from torturing ever again.”
But it wasn’t. Wiesel was mistaken. Accounts of what was done in Treblinka or in the dozens of camps scattered across Eastern Europe has not prevented mass murder. Holocaust remembrance has not inoculated us from the horrors of human suffering. Nor has it prevented it.
And for some it has demanded that we question and evaluate our relationship to God, whose very name was on the lips of those walking to the ovens.
For 5,000 years Jews accepted that our first duty was to have “no other god before me” and to worship “only God.” And then, in the middle of the last century, we asked if we had been betrayed by Him. If there is a God, then why this?
Samuel Pisar became great friends with Leonard Bernstein, the renowned conductor and composer. He wrote a narration, based on his experiences and his anger at God, for Bernstein’s Symphony No.3 (“Kaddish”). Traditionally a prayer for the dead, Pisar’s Dialogue with God questioned His very being and expressed his concern for the future of mankind.
Lord, today I reach out to you with the same visceral voice, and the same clenched fist I once raised against you blasphemously, as a skeletal kid with shave head and hollow eyes, trembling in the shadow of a Birkenau gas chamber…Why do you abandon us?
As one of the last survivors of the greatest catastrophe ever perpetrated by man against man, my life is no longer entirely my own. Those who perished also live within me. And my memory is the only tomb they have. I must honor their legacy and warn the living—of every race, color and creed—against the catastrophes that may still lie ahead for the unthinkable is again becoming possible.
It goes without saying that “Never Forget” remains a moral imperative. The Holocaust is a personal affront and will always be for me, a Jew. But the world, I fear, will not remember the worst crime in history.
Photography by Courtney A. Liska