Tag Archives: holocaust

David Bergman, of blessed memory,

When I met David Bergman, before I even began to interview him to include his story in This Jewish Life, he said me, “Never refer to me or anyone else who was in a concentration camp as a “prisoner.”  A prisoner has been incarcerated for breaking the law. We were not prisoners; we had done nothing wrong.  We were captives. We were held captive.”

Mr. Bergman survived what he called a “Ring of Fire” and for as long as I knew him, he was eternally on a quest, as you will read in his story, to understand why he survived.  Why had he lived, time and again, when others had not?

I do not know that Mr. Bergman ever found the answer that stilled his inner quest. For me, because he survived, I have been able to study and learn from  his son, Rabbi Aaron Bergman. So have my children and my husband. Martin and I took classes with Rabbi Bergman’s wife, Ruth, who in her own right is a superb teacher. Ruth and Aaron have four beautiful daughters whom I can only assume have brought joy and naches (Yiddish for the kind of pride that makes you burst with delight from the inside out) to everyone who knows them.  May his memory be for a blessing

It is in Mr. Bergman’s memory that I post his story here.


RING OF FIRE                                                                                                                                                   the story of David Bergman

When I was about eight years old I asked my rabbi, “What does God look like?” Sixty years later I still remember his answer.

“I cannot tell you what God  looks like,” the rabbi said, “but when you take your last breath, you will see God.  You will  see a ring of fire and there you will see God in the middle of it.”  As a child, I visualized God’s ring of fire being about as big around as the wooden rain barrel we kept outside the doorway between the garden and the back entry to our home in Bockow, where I lived with my parents, grandparents, sister and brother, in the Carpathian mountains of Czechoslovakia .

I never questioned whether God really existed in a ring of fire.  I visualized the ring of fire even though I couldn’t visualize what God looked like within it.  When you’re that young, you obey your parents; you trust what they tell you.  What they say is emes, the truth, and that’s it.

Five years after that conversation with my rabbi, I was thrown into a ring of fire much larger than our rain barrel.  The ring of fire encircled concentration camps and extermination camps.  The ring of fire encompassed unspeakable cruelty, humiliation, the darkest and most brutal side of humanity imaginable.  It was a ring of death.  And just like my rabbi told me, God was right there in the middle of it.  I am here to tell of it and because I am, I cannot but think that God was there, too.

I have not been so much concerned with the question, “Why did God allow the Holocaust to happen?”  From what I have seen and experienced, I have to say that the urge to kill and the urge to be compassionate are a combination of inborn traits and external environments.  God planted within us the capacity to be cruel or compassionate and  the ability to choose the path we want to take.

The question I have wrestled with all these years is, “Why me? Why did I survive?”  After years of pondering this I have concluded that God doesn’t give us the privilege to know why.  All we are allowed to see are the results.  If you try to answer “Why?” all you can come up with is speculation, a belief, and a guess.  God only allows us to see the results.  Those results can be survival, Israel, or our grandchildren; it’s up to us to see God’s results.  What I am aware of is that the answer to the question, “Why did I survive?” is a series of extended events, one result after another that kept me alive.  “Why did I survive?” is the relationship I forged with God within the Holocaust’s ring of fire.

When the doors to the freight train opened in Auschwitz, my eyes were filled with scenes of beatings.  Of shootings.  Women, children, and old men cut down by bullets and clubs.  It seemed no one was to be spared. In a single moment, everything

I had read and learned in cheder:  following God’s commandments, praying twice a day — all of it went blank, as if it never happened. In its place  a new force of survival took control of my life.  I wasn’t even aware of it.  I had no time to think.  Survival was everything.  I went from having a family to suddenly being thrown into hell; from somewhere deep within me there came a strong desire to live.

In the midst of all the chaos I heard a voice telling me to get out of the children’s line.  It was a silent voice; the words were in my head like when you are hungry and you hear an internal voice saying, “It’s time to eat.” You don’t hear it but it’s a silent signal.  Well, this was the same type of voice signaling me that I was in danger.  “Get out of the children’s line,” it said.  And there in the line I had a conversation with this voice.

“How do I get out of the line?” I asked it.

“The guards are watching you now.  But see how they are beating the children? See the adults trying to go to the children?  When the guards are occupied with them quickly run to the adult side.”

I have no proof that there was a voice.   At the momentI wasn’t even thinking that I was communicating with God.  All I have are the results.  I am here.  Within two hours, those in the children’s line were all dead.

And so I followed the voice’s command, waiting for the guards to be distracted and then making my move to the adult line.  When I did, I found my father.  But don’t think that being in the adult line meant I was safe.  In the adult line it was look and point, look and point.  The Nazi officer quickly appraised us and pointed us to life or death.  With a flick of his hand he wielded a malevolent inversion of God’s power.  When it came to my turn the officer stopped.  “What are you doing in this line?” He growled.  “How old are you?”  As I was about to admit my age, the force inside me suppressed my voice and prevented me from speaking up.

Standing beside me my father sensed something was wrong and told the guard I was fourteen.  I wanted to shout the truth; my father had never lied in his life and there he was lying to a Nazi officer!  I didn’t know then that I was standing between life and death.  The Nazi officer ordered my father and me into the work line.  Shortly afterward, my voice returned.

We were seven days in Auschwitz when an officer entered our barracks and ordered me, my father and fifteen others onto a freight train that would take us to a work camp.  When the door was bolted shut and the train began to move, my father announced to everyone present, “Today my son is bar mitzvah.” I had completely forgotten about it, but my becoming bar mitzvah meant so much to my father that he risked his life, hiding a small bottle of wine in his clothes.  He passed around the bottle of wine.  They all took a sip and made a toast to me in honor of my bar mitzvah.

Three hours later we arrived in the work camp of Plaszov.  We heard that only those who have a trade will survive.  When they asked for tailors my father stepped out of the line.  When they asked for bricklayers the voice returned to me once again, telling me to raise my hand.  And so I did and was put to work as a bricklayer.  I followed what the others did — mixing cement and placing the stones to build walls. Five, ten times a day we walked from where they mined the stones to where we built the walls.  After three months my father and I were separated.  I never saw him again.

By May of 1944 the Russians were getting closer and the Nazis sent me from

Plaszov to Gross Rosen, another extermination camp.  By this time I knew my life depended on convincing the Nazis I was old enough to work. The voice returned to me.  “Tell them you are sixteen.  Look them straight in the eye; tell them you are sixteen and do not break your focus for a moment.”  When you look someone in the eye they have to look back.  I must have convinced him that I was sixteen because he  let me go to the work line.

Was the voice of God helping me to survive?  I know I didn’t do it all on my own.  I have the results.  There I was, thirteen years old, not knowing why I was there, why I was being exposed to such horrible things.  But I didn’t have the luxury to dwell on such thoughts.  There was not time even to give thanks when each time my life was spared.  This was survival.  Do you want to live or do you want to die?  If you want to live, focus on survival.  I wanted to live and that phrase “I want” became the hallmark of my survival, the connection to the voice that kept me out of death’s grasp.

In Gross Rosen and then again in Reichenbach I had close call after close call.  One day I was standing in roll call waiting to be sent to work.  We had strict orders not to move, not to look in any direction.  But when I heard a noise in the sky, I couldn’t hold back.  I looked up to see American bombers streaking through the sky.  I gazed at the sky with envy, just wishing I was in one of those planes.

Suddenly the Nazi officer saw that I have disobeyed a rule.  “Schweinhund!” he bellowed.  “Pigdog!  Why are you disobeying me?”  Club in his hand, ready to beat me to death, he waited for me to answer.  And the voice that had guided me every step of this nightmare said, “Focus on his eyes and stay silent.”  You can imagine the restraint it took not to stammer some excuse, not to plead for mercy.  The entire camp was looking in our direction.

“I’ve got news for you,” he barked.  “You’ll never make it out of this camp alive!”  Still I didn’t answer and the voice inside my head said,  “You will be free again and you will see their mighty country destroyed.”  And all of a sudden the commandant turned around and walked away from me!   No one had ever defied a Nazi officer and lived.  But I had.  I listened to the voice and I survived.  But I knew I was living on borrowed time.

I was not Reichenbach’s only only underage captive.  In an effort to flush out those of us who were under sixteen, the Nazi camp commandant  promised extra food rations to any captive who turned us in.   In this way, I and about fifteen others were  pulled from the work group to be shipped to an extermination camp.  Facing death, I focused as hard as I could on the desire to live and be returned to a work group.  “I want to live.”  “I want to live!” I repeated again and again to myself.  All of a sudden I began feeling pulsations, similar to electrical shocks emanating through my mind like mysterious Morse code messages.

Then someone in a work detail suddenly fainted.  Instead of choosing a captive from the line of replacements, the Nazi camp commandant went from one end of the camp  to the other and stopped right in front of me and ordered, “Heraus!”   “Out!”  He could have taken any of the captives standing nearby.  He could have chosen any one of the youths  from the group I was standing in.  But he didn’t. He came at me with an angry voice.  He seemed to be moving against his will, like someone was forcing him.  And he ordered me back into the work group.

I have wrestled with this issue for decades.  What made the Nazi commandant walk across the entire camp, stop right in front of me and send me in as a replacement for the man who fainted?  Those youth I had been standing with were all gassed.  I got back to work exhilarated, if exhilaration is possible in such a circumstance.  My elation lasted only moments.  I knew this Nazi camp commandant was obsessed with not allowing children my age to survive and I wondered each morning if it would be my last.

From Reichenbach, I and a hundred and fifty others were sent to Dachau.  I escaped the crematoria by yet another miracle.  During that seven-day journey, we received no food.  Why feed those who can no longer work?  I had passed out  and, being taken for dead, was placed on a wooden stretcher bound for the crematoria.  A worker saw my hand move and smuggled me into a barracks where he and other heroic captives shared their meager rations with me so that I could survive.

Two months later I was liberated.  I came to America and during the Korean War was drafted into the Air Force.  I was sent to Germany and just like the voice predicted, I saw with my own eyes the destruction of that once mighty and forever horrible country.

Some people are given the gift of creating art or music.  I was given the gift of survival, the ability to visualize what I wanted.  When my feet were cut and bleeding I saw them whole and healing.  Never once did they become infected. Never once in fourteen months of captivity did I have a cold or develop any of the diseases raging through the camps.  Never once did I have a nosebleed, something that plagued me before the war and after.

In captivity I had the choice of striving for survival or giving up.  God didn’t come and tell me, “Give up or not.”  He left it up to me; he built into me a striving for survival.  The voice is with me to this day.  In the morning I am in pain from arthritis, but I want to walk.  I want to be with my beautiful granddaughters.  And so I walk despite the pain and boom! the pain is gone.  I chose to marry.  I choose to enjoy my grandchildren.  I choose to balance my terrible memories with things that give me pleasure.

After all these years I have concluded that the “I want” element that sustained me is actually the soul and the spirit of our being.  It is the pipeline connecting us to God.  When I was in captivity and said to myself, “I want,” I was actually reaching out to God, asking God to give me whatever it would take to survive.  And sure enough God was always there for me when I reached out to Him.  Within the ring of fire I drew not my last breath, but my next.  Again and again and again.


This Jewish Life, Stories of Discovery Connection and Joy contains 54 stories of transforming Jewish experiences.  Learn more here.

When Survivors Talk, He Listens

I am blessed to know a lot of interesting people who engage me in  thought-provoking conversations throughout the year. I’ve often wondered how to share them with you without turning a social event or conversation after religious services into work for me and awkwardness for them.  So I’ve just decided to recount what my noggin has retained (with my  subjects’ permission, of course).  I aim to keep these occasional cameos short and casual and hope that in the reading, you will glean a ray or two of what drew me in.

I’ve known Dr. Sid Bolkosky for years.  And even that is stretching it.  I know who this brilliant professor is, have heard him speak, have seen him at Shabbat dinners, brunches, and shivas over the years but never sat down for a good and satisfying chat.  Until this past New Year’s Day.  Sid has just become a zayde two times over with the birth of twin grandsons. Our conversation about them segued into talk about his work.

Sid is the Director of the U-M Dearborn Honors Program and is also the Director of the Voice/Vision Holocaust Survivor Oral History Archive. The archive, begun in 1981, now comprises more than 300 interviews, 100 of which are available online.

Over blintzes and fresh fruit Sid shared his latest project — Nicholas Winton and the Power of Good. In December 1938, Nicholas Winton–a British stock-broker on holiday in Prague–recognized the danger posed to the Jewish community by the impending Nazi takeover of Czechoslovakia. Winton helped raise money and secure paperwork for the transport of Jewish children from Czechoslovakia to England eventually securing transport for 669 Jewish children. Sid recently returned from Israel where he was able to interview eleven of those saved by Winton’s heroic efforts.

“Over the years my techniques developed. The most difficult part of it is simply to listen, to sit by quietly while my subjects revisit the worst traumas of their lives. One Survivor told me after our interview, ‘After speaking to you I no longer have nightmares.’ ‘None?’ I asked. ‘Well,’ he relented,’ not so many.’

Sid is a gentle man, slight, white haired. His smile is quick and rueful.  It’s not hard to imagine an interviewee feeling the relief of a nightmare’s power siphoned off after relating a story’s horror to him. “Sometimes,” he told me, “they get to a point in their story where they must leave the room.  I wait for their return, allowing them time to regroup.  Once a subject simply went upstairs and didn’t come down again. Other times they return and we complete the interview.”

One day soon Sid’s grandsons will begin talking. I imagine him with them, quiet and attentive. Perhaps the weight of history that is now a part of his very being will  be balanced by the lighthearted retelling of building Lego towers and fingerpainting, by the recounting of first grade and first dates.   Thank you, Sid for sharing a bit of your life’s work with me.

Johanna Reiss: A Hidden Life

I‘ve always recoiled from the categories: “children’s Holocaust literature” and “Holocaust picture books.” Can’t we leave children alone? Can’t we allow them their innocence without putting our angst upon the heads of those whose skulls have just fused?

Johanna Reiss’ Upstairs Room has won every children’s book award imaginable: Newbery Honor Book, Library of Congress Children’s Books. ALA Notable Children’s Book, School Library Journal Best Book, New York Times, Outstanding Book of the Year, and Jane Addams Book Award Honor Book. I haven’t read it but who am I to argue with the ALA et al? Her book, at least is aimed and readers twelve and up and not those who still need their books read to them.

Ms. Reiss was in town promoting A Hidden Life: A Memoir of August 1969. Promoting seems too crass a word for such a lovely woman who laid bare adult heartbreak with such honesty and wry humor. In August 1969 Reiss had returned to Holland with her husband, Jim, and their two young daughters. The purpose of the trip was to visit with the Dutch couple who had hid Reiss and her sister in an upstairs room, the very room that inspired the award-winning book.

Reiss was on her way to literary stardom happily married, the mother of two lovely young girls. Jim left Holland a few days before his family’s projected return to New York City. In the middle of the night this young wife and mother was awakened to take a phone call from home. Sleep-laden, Reiss didn’t quite catch the point of her brother-in-law’s call. Assuming her husband had been in an accident, she told her brother-in-law, “Tell Jim I’m coming.” “Too late,” he replied. Johanna Reiss took off for New York, leaving her daughters behind with the very couple who had protected her and her sister so many years before. Of this time in her life, Johanna Reiss calls it her second Holocaust.

A Hidden Life is the author’s attempt to make sense of this second cataclysmic tragedy of her life. And page by page she does, discovering that her husband’s mother had been mentally ill. HIs siblings, she reported had,”no recollections of their childhood. None.” Young Jim was the one who kept the household running, the one who tried to bring stability to his mother’s troubled mind. This legacy imprinted upon him a mission to be a saviour. Speaking to us that morning, Reiss mused that upon seeing the tiny room in which she and her sister had been kept, tripped something in his psyche. He had been unable to save his beloved wife. An irrational thought of course. But by then, perhaps, her husband was beyond the rational world. “I think he had a rescue thing,” she mused. “He worked for companies that were always going under. And perhaps I didn’t need rescuing any longer.”

A tiny woman, Reiss told her larger-than-life story with pathos and humor. “I am not a Sad Sack,” she said. “I am positive. I love music and travel. I play stick ball in the park with my grandchildren.” She told us that as she came to the end of the memoir, she began writing more slowly. She understood that once the book was finished, so too would end the years of connection to her husband untangling his suicide had given her. “In the end, he hurt himself more than me. He never got to see his daughters’ weddings. Or their children.”

At some point during the morning’s talk, Johanna Reiss misspoke and referred to her husband’s suicide as “Jim’s Holocaust.” Freudians can do what they wish with that one. In one sense, in this situation, the two words are indeed interchangeable.

The Zookeeper’s Wife

This week’s read kept me turning the pages, except when naturalist Diane Ackerman’s marvelous digressions into botany, linguistics, and Nazi Germany’s monstrous goals to reprogram the entire genome of the planet stopped me in my tracks.

Ackerman recounts the heroism of Jan and Antonina Zabinski, Polish Christian zookeepers who, right under the noses of their Nazi occupiers, turned their zoo in into a veritable ark that saved the lives of over three hundred Jews and resistance fighters. Within the “The House Under a Crazy Star” human Guests received animal names, animals were called by human names and all beings, both two legged and four, co-existed in relative harmony and tenuous safety for the duration of the war.

This spellbinding story of courage and ingenuity in the face of Hitler’s Final Solution is a lyrical and unusual addition to the ever-expanding shelves of Holocaust literature.

Check it out.