It was 72 years ago today that the Red Army liberated Auschwitz concentration camp. On November 1st 2005, the UN set this date as International Holocaust Memorial Day.
I want to dedicate this post to the memory of my beloved grandmother - Barbara (Dvora) Greenbaum (Zinger), RIP, who survived the horrors of the Holocaust and the hell called Auschwitz.
My grandmother didn't have a degree from a prestigious university. She wasn't CEO of a company. She also wasn't a member of any political party, and hadn't put herself forward for any election. But if you were to ask me who my woman of the year is - she’d win.
Even today, a year and a half after she passed away at the age of 97.
I decided to write my blog to commemorate my grandparents. (There will be three other posts.) Actually, maybe I should have chosen her birthday (September 1st, 1918) or the date of her death (June 28th, 2015), but I’ve chosen International Holocaust Memorial Day. Despite the fact that the events of the Holocaust accounted for nearly one-hundredth of her life (she was born in Hungary and, therefore, sent to the camps only toward the end of World War II), this period in her life defined her and all of us more than anything else. As someone who doesn't have a first-degree relative who is a Holocaust survivor, it’s hard to explain how it is that this day, which commemorates the Holocaust, is still the center of our being as a family even more than 70 years later. (Incidentally, my grandfather, Barbara's husband, was also a Holocaust survivor, and he will get his own commemoration post next year.)
My grandmother was born in Budapest, Hungary, on September 1st, 1918, to Imre and Ethel Zinger. Until the age of 16, she lived mostly with her grandmother in Budapest, and after her grandmother’s death, she returned to live with her parents in Sekeshfehervar. After graduating, she studied and worked as a seamstress.
(The pictures were given to my grandmother after the war)
Hungarian Jews suffered restrictions and various decrees before the outbreak of World War II, due to the close relationship between the Prime Minister of Hungary and the Nazi government, but since Nazi Germany didn't invade Hungary, Hungarian Jews were not concentrated in ghettos and camps like Jews in other countries occupied by Nazi Germany during the war. When Hungary was occupied by the Nazis in March 1944, the Hungarian Jews were rapidly drawn into the process that Jews from other countries were suffering.
My grandmother, like all Hungarian Jews, had to sew a yellow star to her clothes to symbolize the fact that she was Jewish. Like all other Jews, she could no longer walk on the sidewalk, but had to take the road, intended for horses. In those days, she worked in the Radu Salon, which belonged to Jews. It was closed shortly after the Nazis took over Sekeshfehervar, when all Jews were concentrated in one street, where the gypsies used to live.
In June 1944, about 2000 Jews of Sekeshfehervar - including my grandmother - were gathered in the brick factory, just next to the train station. After a selection process during which their valuables, such as jewelry, were taken from them, the Jews were told to stock up on food and clothes for two weeks. For days, they stayed there with no shelter, exposed to the rain and the cold without a proper place to sleep. The guards abused them and constantly sought additional assets to plunder. All the while, the rest of the townspeople knew very well where the Jews of the city were - people who, only a few weeks earlier, were their neighbors, their partners and their co-workers - and they did nothing.
On June 14th, 1944, my grandmother arrived at Auschwitz after a train journey lasting a week, packed in with about 100 other passengers in a cattle wagon. While the train traveled toward Poland, she had heard the sound of Allied shelling in the area of Budapest, but she was already on her way to hell.
When she arrived at Auschwitz and got off the train, she went through the first selection. The guards separated the young people from the older adults, who had to take the small children with them straight to the gas chambers. My grandmother did not know where they were going. At this point, she saw her parents for the last time since they moved directly from the train to the gas chambers.
She then underwent a process of disinfection, the shaving of heads and the distribution of prisoner uniforms. She was obviously scared. The whole situation was alarming because no one knew what awaited them at the other end of the process, but she met up with four relatives, so they were always five at each prisoner count (zal appell). For several weeks, they waited there, doing nothing. From five in the morning until the evening, they had to wait outside the block until they were allowed to go to sleep. Each received one slice of bread a day and they had to share a daily bowl of soup together.
Unlike Auschwitz prisoners designated for work, who had their number tattooed on their hand, my grandmother didn't get a tattoo number. I guess (and so she was told by the guards at the beginning) that she and her friends were designated for work outside Auschwitz, but after the long wait they were sent to the gas chambers. My grandmother and her friends were stripped of their clothes and put into a large room with overhead pipes with shower heads. They sat on the cold steps and waited for water. After a long wait, water began to flow from the showerheads, the guards hastened them out and threw their clothes back to them.
I must say, I’ve heard about malfunctions of the gas chambers at Auschwitz before. Two or three other Holocaust survivors gave similar descriptions: a long and unclear wait, until water poured onto them. Unfortunately, I never asked my grandmother whether they knew that they were going to the gas chambers, but she did tell me that she remembered seeing the crematoria. She said they looked like ovens for baking bread, alongside stacks of boxes with the sign of poison. Unlike other people entering the gas chamber, who were usually sent straight to the gas chamber from the railway station, she had already spent some time in Auschwitz.
She never returned to the gas chambers, nor to the block. The guards sent them back to the train wagon and to a West German town named Lippstadt, where my grandmother was prisoner number 370 until the end of the war.
(My grandmother at the age of 93 - she kept her prisoner tag in her purse)
After being released by the Americans, she met my grandfather, Yehuda Greenbaum, a 36-year-old Polish widower who had lost his wife and daughters at Treblinka. They married, and in 1948, their first daughter, Sarah, was born in Germany.
The State of Israel was founded in 1948 and, a year later, Yehuda and Barbara decided to leave Germany and set up home in the young State of Israel. After the many hardships they had been through, my grandmother was determined to go and live in the Jewish state. They gathered their few possessions and two-year-old Sarah, and took a one-week journey by boat from the coast of France to the port of Haifa. When my grandmother arrived, she was given a fresh loaf of bread. She remembered its taste until her death. "It was the most delicious pastry I ever ate," she told me once, "and when I ate the bread, I knew I had come home."
In 1951, Adina, my mother, was born. She is the first Sabra (Israeli born in Israel) in the family.
In 1956, the family moved to Ramat Gan (the city where I’ve lived since I was born) to the apartment where Barbara lived until her death in June 2015.
In her small apartment in Ramat Gan, Barbara and Yehuda raised their two daughters with modesty, love, and mostly the strong concern and worry so typical of Holocaust survivors. Barbara was a woman of many talents: a polished cook and baker, she sewed and knitted with amazing talent. For Purim (Jewish Halloween), we never had to buy any costumes. We always dressed up in the most amazing costumes - all her handiwork. Nor did we ever have to buy sweaters, as she knitted sweaters and vests for all of us with her skilled hands. But don’t be fooled into thinking that Barbara was a woman who hid behind her cooking and her knitting. She was an opinionated woman who ran the family with an iron fist right up to her death. She was resourceful and wise, qualities that saved her from death. Thanks to these characteristics, she managed to sneak food to her friends in Auschwitz, and also to switch to a different column of girls right under Dr. Mengele's nose.
Enjoy a very partial handmade costumes slide show:
I don't know if there’s a study about it, but I’m surrounded by - or at least I was surrounded by - survivors whose longevity was far beyond normal life expectancy. I don't think it's coincidental that people who survived the Holocaust went on to live long lives. There is (or, maybe I should say was, because the survivors are now fewer and fewer among us) an extraordinary will to survival in these people. I’ve no idea how they managed to survive these atrocities. I wonder if I would have survived. But after surviving, despite everything, every achievement, even the smallest, was a "revenge" against the Nazis. Especially each newborn. And, at some point, many years passed - too many, unfortunately - before many Holocaust survivors, among them my grandparents, were able to tell their experiences. The goal was to commemorate the Holocaust. And since my grandmother died, this burden of Holocaust remembrance lies with me and not let me rest.
(My grandmother at the age of 88- surrounded by her great grandchildren, since the picture was taken she had five more and had the great joy to hug them all before her death)
I hope this post will ease some of this burden I carry.
I dedicate this post to my great-grandparents Imre and Ethel Zinger, who were murdered by the Nazis at Auschwitz in June 1944.
I also want to thank dear Imelad Largo, who took care of my grandma in her last years.