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The Jewish People Lives

April 29, 2019 | by Jody Berkel

There is no greater victory over the enemies of the Jewish people than living as proud, strong and connected Jews.

It was the best double date of my life. Two women, 96 and 91 years old, sitting together and exchanging numbers. They weren’t telephone numbers; they were the faded tattooed numbers on their arms given by the Nazis during the Holocaust.

I sat there wide-eyed listening to them talk. “What city are you from? What street did you live on in the Warsaw Ghetto? Were you there for the Ghetto uprising? When did you get transported to Majdanek? How long were you in Majdanek? When did you arrive in Auschwitz? Did you have siblings, how many?” It was the most painful connect the dots I’ve ever witnessed.

I had just returned from a life-changing trip to Poland and Israel. My dear friend and trip leader Eve Levy and I, both granddaughters of Holocaust survivors, thought that it would be special to introduce our survivor grandmothers to each other. What ensued was a miracle I will never forget.

Our grandmothers Genia Choleva and Gutta Fleising. Their numbers are only 911 apart.

Both women lived in Warsaw before the war. Both were moved into the Warsaw Ghetto with their families. Both witnessed the Ghetto uprising during Passover 1943 and were then transported to Madjanek concentration camp for three months. Both were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau for two years. Both were sent on the death march in January 1945. Both were liberated in May 1945.

Genia Choleva: prisoner 49560. Gutta Fleising: prisoner 48649. Their numbers were only 911 digits apart which means it is more than likely that these two women were on the same transport from Madjanek and arrived at Auschwitz together. Two women with the same heart-wrenching, historic journey, being brought together by their granddaughters. It was nothing short of a miracle and we were there to witness it.

Bubby, what are those numbers on your arm?

As a young child I was enthralled watching my bubby cook; scrubbing chickens for soup, making honey cake, matzo balls, gefilte fish, all classic Ashkenazi food. And then I noticed something I hadn't noticed before. She rolled up her sleeve and I saw something on her arm. “Bubby, what are those numbers on your arm?”

“It’s my phone number, so I won’t forget.”

I believed her. I mean, why wouldn't I; Bubby always tell the truth.

Jody Berkel, Eve levy and our grandmothers

Growing up, the Holocaust wasn't spoken about in my family. It was a painful part of our history that no one wanted to talk about. All I knew was that my maternal Zaidy (who I never had the chance to meet), and my Bubby were both survivors of the Holocaust. In 1994, when I heard about Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation which was established to record testimonies in video format of survivors and other witnesses of the Shoah, I knew this was my opportunity to finally hear my Bubby’s story. The trouble was, how do you convince someone who has never spoken about their experience to open up to a complete stranger and share their most painful memories in life?

I came up against a lot of pushback from my parents and aunts and uncles; they were adamant that she not go through reliving the pain of her heart-breaking past. I knew in my gut that I had to make this happen, for our family and for posterity. I am the oldest grandchild, so with tremendous persuasion and a little Jewish guilt thrown in, she said yes. The interviewer, having gone through extensive training and research in order to properly conduct these most sensitive interviews, was in awe of my grandmother’s razor sharp memory. She shared her story, giving intimate details with the exact historical dates when everything happened, from the beginning of the war until she was liberated in May 1945.

Many moments of her painful story are etched into my heart. She spoke about her family’s 3-hour transport to Majdanek, with 100 people standing in an over-crowded cattle car, packed like sardines with no room to even move. She spoke about her arrival in Majdanek, witnessing chaos beyond description; children crying and screaming, their eyes filled with fear, dogs growling and barking, German soldiers yelling, ripping children from their mother’s arms. With trembling hands she spoke of holding her mother tightly, begging her in Yiddish, “Stay, stay, don’t go with my little sister and brother…leave them and stay with me.” It was the last time she ever saw her siblings.

Another mind-numbing experience was her testimony of the last selection in Auschwitz, before being sent on the death march. She described the last time she saw her mother. From their first moments in Auschwitz together, standing in line holding each other close as their turn to face Dr. Joseph Mengele approached. “Sister or mother?” Mengele asked. Life or death? “Sister,” my Bubby said, and they were told to go right, to life. The two had managed to stay together for two years since their arrival.

“As we stood there half naked in the freezing cold in January 1945, Dr. Mengele took away my mother.” As her mother was being taken away, she ran up to Mengele and banged on the table demanding to go with her. Mengele, gesturing with his hand, said “We don't want you.” Through tears, my Bubby repeated, “Mengele took away my mother.”

A Trip to Poland

Growing up knowing that I was the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors has been of great significance to my Jewish identity but a trip to Poland was never on my radar.

Going through this Poland/Israel journey was not easy, parts were incredibly painful, but I am walking away strengthened like never before. You have to look back in order to know where you are going. We are not defined by what happens to us but by how we respond. We are not a broken people; we didn't respond with revenge, with anger, with hate. We are resilient. We built families, communities, and with God’s help revived our land and brought goodness into the world wherever we found ourselves. That is how we responded and that is how I will go forward as a Jew.

Both my husband and I didn't grow up observant, but later in life we began together to reconnect with Judaism, strengthen our Jewish identity and live a life of Torah and mitzvot. Every step we took to live a more Jewish life felt to us like a victory against Hitler. What greater victory to the Holocaust and to the enemies of the Jewish people can there be than to live as proud, strong and connected Jews!

The author standing in Block 25, The Death Block, in Birkenau

Before I left Auschwitz-Birkenau, I took an Israeli flag and stood on the tracks at the entrance of Birkenau. As I stood on those tracks, I thought about my fear of facing the sheer magnitude of the devastation that occurred here. But as I stood on those tracks, I was not broken; I stood so powerfully on those tracks. I felt that this is not the end of the story. I am the continuation of this story; all of us are a continuation of this story.

Every year on Yom HaShaoh we say "Never forget". Never forget that it is an honor, privilege and responsibility to be a link in the chain of Jewish history and the Jewish future. We are all survivors of that terrible tragedy, and it is incumbent on each of us to rebuild, one Jewish soul at a time. One of my most treasured quotes whose author is unknown is, "They tried to bury us, but they didn't know we were seeds."

We have the opportunity to plant seeds every day, with our families and with the larger Jewish community. Take time to think about the seeds you hold. Where is your soil? For me, my passion is to inspire, connect and educate others Jews about the beauty and meaning of their heritage. By each one of us doing our part to plant seeds and watering them with a healthy sense of pride in who we are as Jews, we slowly rebuild and can shout with joy and confidence “Am Israel Chai, the Jewish People lives!”

Dedicated to the health and well being of my Bubby Genia Choleva and Gutta Fleising. And to the memory of my Zaidy Israel Choleva, Zaidy Felix and Bubby Regina Opatowski. Please pray for my Bubby, Genedal Bas Leah, that she have complete and speedy recovery.

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