Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 27, 2019

We Are Here, Talking with Australia’s Oldest Holocaust Survivors, by Fiona Harari

Holocaust Memorial Day (HMD) is commemorated each year on the 27th January, because that is the day of the liberation of the Nazi extermination and concentration camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1945. As it says on the HMD website:

Holocaust Memorial Day is the day for everyone to remember the millions of people murdered in the Holocaust, under Nazi Persecution, and in the genocides which followed in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, and Darfur.

The theme for HMD 2019, Torn from home, encourages audiences to reflect on how the enforced loss of a safe place to call ‘home’ is part of the trauma faced by anyone experiencing persecution and genocide. ‘Home’ usually means a place of safety, comfort and security. On HMD 2019 we will reflect on what happens when individuals, families and communities are driven out of, or wrenched from their homes, because of persecution or the threat of genocide, alongside the continuing difficulties survivors face as they try to find and build new homes when the genocide is over.

We Are Here, Talking with Australia’s Oldest Holocaust Survivors is, as its title suggests a collection of interviews with Holocaust survivors who were adults at the time.  For Holocaust Memorial Day, I am going to share just one story from this remarkable collection of interviews.

The people interviewed in this book are part of an increasingly rare demographic: survivors of Nazism who have adult memories of the Holocaust.  Born in 1926 or earlier, they were at least eighteen when the war ended.  Percentage-wise, the war consumed a small fraction of their lives.  But its legacy endures in their memories, their outlooks, and increasingly in their dreams. (p.7)

Twins Annetta Able and Stephanie Heller were born in 1924 in Subotica, Yugoslavia.  Their childhoods and education ended when they were torn from home to live and work in an orphanage, while in 1941 their parents were deported to the Łódź ghetto in Poland and were never seen again.  Miraculously, Annetta and Stephanie have shared many experiences:

They survived the Holocaust when their family did not.  They endured most of those harrowing years together.  And they withstood the macabre experiments of the Auschwitz physician Dr Josef Mengele.

But it was only at 92, when they had reached an age that was once seemingly unattainable, that they learned of their inclusion in the Guinness World Records.  While they had been diligently creating the second part of their lives in a quiet corner of Melbourne, the elders of a post-war family spanning four generations, to their great surprise they had been recognised as the world’s oldest co-twins to have survived Mengele’s misdeeds. (p.11)

(I have to say that the word ‘misdeeds’ is an obscenely lame word to describe what Mengele did).

‘Home’ is where we live, with our loved ones, but what does ‘home’ mean when these twins end up living together in Birkenau (Auschwitz II)? At twenty these two young women lived a macabre mix of work and tests. 

At times, they were loading naked corpses onto trucks, a gruesome job for which there was never a change of clothes let alone a piece of soap to cleanse themselves.  At other times, they were being tested by Mengele’s aides, and undergoing countless X-rays, injections, measurements, and gynaecological procedures, until it was clear that they were identical.  Then they were transfused with the blood of Polish male twins they had never met.  (p.13)

The fate of these male twins is not known, but Annetta and Stephanie escaped their planned extermination because the Allies were on the way, and they were sent on one of the notorious death marches during the winter of early 1945.  They were able to walk out to freedom from an unguarded camp in March 1945 and after circuitous journeys they made to way to Melbourne in 1963.

The strength of this book is that after a brief introduction, each witness speaks in his/her own words.  This is Annetta:

We came home with nothing. We had lost most things when we went to Terezin [Theresienstadt].  When we got to Auschwitz we had lost even more.  And when we came out of Auschwitz, we had nothing.  Then when we came home, we found our friend; our mother had put in a suitcase some pictures from our past life, the good times, and left them with her.  That was the biggest gift we could get.  Diamonds you can buy, but not those photographs. (p.15)

[…]

We didn’t know how to accept everything about the normal way of life. It was a nice surprise when I had toilet paper, and I could think about my day and not be burdened with what bad things would happen. Somehow, I was like a bird running out of a cage. (p.16)

This is Stephanie, whose first two marriages did not survive the postwar turmoil.  She felt guilty that she had survived but her mother and sister didn’t.  She also mentions the suitcase with photos, but goes on to say this:

Another neighbour, my mother gave her a new electric iron, and said, ‘Can you look after it?’ When we returned and wanted to have it, she said Mother gave it to her.  She was not pleasant at all.  All of a sudden, she was a stranger.  If I have something from somebody and that somebody has nothing else, for goodness sake I can be without it.  (p.22)

[I still find it astonishing that there were so many cases like this, of refusing to restore property to Holocaust survivors who went back home.  I wonder how such people could live with themselves.]

These two women were determined to follow the advice of their mother who showed her love by telling us what we should do to have a better way of life, and they took strength from one another.  In their very old age, both have transcended the evil that befell them. Annetta tells us that…

I am lucky.  I achieved a lot.  If you take it the right way, it is possible to have a good life.  If my mother saw me now, she would be very happy.  She would be saying, ‘Annetta, you managed well.’

Stephanie says the same thing…

Life turned out nice.  What was bad and sad, we tried to get over and live quite a full and hopeful life.  If somebody asks me, ‘Are you happy?’ Yes I am. (p.25)

This contentment is not representative of others whose stories are told in this book.  There is no ‘representative’ way of coming to terms with horror, and the next interview with an old man called Zygmunt Swistak from the Poland Resistance is sombre.  But all these stories testify to a powerful will to live and to rebuild a life.

Author: Fiona Harari
Title: We Are Here, Talking with Australia’s Oldest Holocaust Survivors
Publisher: Scribe Publications, 2018, 240 pages
ISBN: 9781925322651
Source: Personal library, purchased from Readings, $29.99AUD

Available from Fishpond:We Are Here: Talking with Australia’s Oldest Holocaust Survivors and direct from Scribe Publishing where there are also links to where you can buy it as an eBook.


Responses

  1. Oh yes, Lisa, that word ‘misdeeds’. How awfully inappropriate!

    Like

    • Words are, of course, inadequate, but some are more inadequate than others. I have spared readers here the details of what was to happen to these twins next…

      Like

  2. It never ceases to amaze me the strength and courage shown by Holocaust survivors. Isn’t it something that people wouldn’t return their belongings once they returned. Humans always puzzle me.

    Like

    • It may sound odd, but in a way this is worse than not giving back a house. I mean, someone who has moved into and made themselves comfortable in a house vacated by deported Jews that they don’t ever expect to see again, would find the practicalities of giving it back overwhelming. They should, but they need to pack up and find somewhere else for themselves as well. And if you had children and there was a housing shortage because of the war, well, I can (sort of) understand that panic might make such a person angry and hostile, and in a flood of guilt and shame tell the returning Jew to go away. It’s not forgivable, but it’s not an unlikely reaction.
      But an iron? I mean, you could just go and get it.

      Liked by 1 person


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