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6-After the War & Reflections
After the war, did you experience any anti-Semitism or anti-Jew?
The first job I applied for he told me, "We don't take Jews or Italians." So I walked out.
Where was this?
New York City.
Because the war had ended, did you think the anti-Semitism was going to end as well?
No. I thought New York had so many Jews, why should it have anti-Semitism? But then I started reading. I found out about the Roosevelt administration before the release of classified documents. I found out about Rabbi Steven Weiss, about Supreme Court Justice Frankfurter, who were all friends of Roosevelt's. The motto was, "We don't need more Jews, they cause anti-Semitism." And the State Department was anti-Semitic, so was the Roosevelt administration.
And I really was very hurt by my fellow Jews. That is what hurt the most. They were so callous and so uninformed of what had transpired during the war. Nobody ever asked me, "Where were you, or what did you do?" They didn't want to know, and I never volunteered. When I met my husband, his family—who had left southern Germany before the war, and France, parts of France—said, "We don't need a Polish Jew and we don't need a Jew out of the camps." And that was the last time they talked to me.
How did the war affect your faith?
That's difficult to answer. I was brought up an Orthodox Jew. I can read and write Hebrew. I could speak when I was younger. I can translate Hebrew. My great-grandfather was a Rabbi. My grandmother wore a wig. How did it affect me? I'm not the person that I was before. Because my question is, why did this happen? Why did this happen to the children? And nobody has been able to answer this.
We read in your book that you met your husband at a dinner party and he was the son of a friend of yours from the ghetto?
I knew an elderly couple in the ghetto and they talked about a son who had gone to Cuba, and from Cuba eventually to the US. And, that was it. I mean they only had one child. The name sounded familiar and rather unusual and I asked my host whether his parent's name would have been Julie and Julius. They said yes. Then I knew that this was the son who was in Cuba and in New York.
How did you feel when you found out that it was the son of your friends?
It was difficult because when he found out that I knew his parents he wanted to know, and I couldn't talk. Eventually I did. But only one time. We walked for miles in New York from one area to another and I told him the story and we never talked about it since then.
You saw Maja, the Kapo from Auschwitz, correct?
Yeah, I saw her at Altman's in New York. We were both buying gloves.
How did that experience affect you? Describe the experience.
Well, I recognized her because '47 wasn't that far removed from '44 and Auschwitz. She looked well. She had a good haircut, she had black hair. I was really speechless and all I could blurt out was the word "Maja," and she turned white. She pleaded, she had married one of the German SS. She had managed to come to the States. I just put the gloves down and I ran out of the store. I just didn't want to confront this. I didn't want to go to the FBI. I had arrested forty-two SS. There had to be an end and this was it.
How and when did you tell your husband the extent of your experiences?
Just before we were married we took a long walk and I told him the story, like I'm telling it to you.
And how did you tell your children?
I did not. My children did not find out. When they did find out, they were going away to college. They did not ask any questions. It's a topic that is very difficult to talk about—for the three of us. They both studied history—one has a history degree—they know what transpired. But we don't talk about it.
That's a common occurrence among some survivors in which there is very little discussion with their family about the events. Can you shed some more light, for yourself, why that was and how it transpired?
I have friends who are survivors who told their kids when they were three years old, four years old. And there are a few, like I am, who didn't touch upon the past. If you live in Kensington, I would say that most of your school friends are not Jewish, or the great majority. And while the kids knew they were Jewish, they didn't really know what the war was all about. They knew that their grandparents were killed in a war.
I know that one of the kids was afraid of the dark and we had to keep the light on. And I had to look under the bed if there was a tiger, where there was no tiger. I didn't need to be asked whether there was a German under the bed with a gun. That we didn't talk about it was intentional, it wasn't an oversight.
And we had once a very unpleasant discussion when the Nazi Party wanted to walk through Skokie, Illinois. I made the remark that I don't know what I would do if they would walk down the street here—I would not be responsible. Both kids said the same thing, but by then they were considerably older: "There is such a thing as due process." And that was a very hard thing to swallow. Because when we had a Vietnam War, they did not go by due process. They believed in demonstrations. We all have a different take on these things and different views. And really nobody can understand my past unless they have been there. Neither a student, nor a friend, nor anyone else.
I can't tell you what hunger is like. It is not if you don't eat for a day. Or two days. It's if you don't eat for four years. It is something that is indescribable. What does it look like to look at a German with a drawn gun every day? I can't tell you that. There are no words for it. And the indignities we suffered, there are no words for those either, because we were not treated as human beings. We were treated as numbers, sometimes not even as numbers.
And until recently, guilt was never admitted. Now we hear about German IBM. Well we knew it but nobody ever believed it. And as to reparations, I don't want to address that. I would like to see them, but I've paid a fortune for lawyers. German lawyers. American lawyers. No luck. If I were ever to meet the Chancellor of Germany, he would get an earful. But lower, I wouldn't start.
Do you have any dreams that you had as a child that you still wish to fulfill?
During the time that my father was in prison in Dachau, my mother and I went out one evening to visit someone who had supposedly seen my father. We were not allowed out in the dark. The city was on the war standing —that means no lights in the windows, everything was dark. And behind us we heard footsteps, my mother ran to the right, I ran to the left. I fell, I broke an ankle, and I ended up in a wet gutter. The flashlights and the steps followed me—they walked over me—and they disappeared in the distance. And that dream comes back to haunt me. When I am under stress, when I am upset, that's what I see.
What was the process for you when you wrote your books?
I wrote the first book as little notes for a friend in Berkeley who was a well known poet. She just wanted to know, she asked more questions that I could answer. And when she died, her son and I emptied her desk and she had saved all the notes. I took them back. And then I met somebody from the University at Santa Cruz. She said, "Let's put them in sequence, and I'll ask you a lot of questions. And I think it should be published." We did all that - in the '80s - and I got very nice letters from publishers: "Very interesting, however, it's not a money-making proposition." I think I had about thirty. And then a San Francisco publisher said, "We'll give it a try but we know we'll lose money". And they published it in 1992. I think it's the second best-selling book they've ever had. Whether they made money or not, I don't know. I know that I didn't make money on it, which was fine.
But, the second one was considerably easier, and I assume so would a third one be if I finish it. And they were both translated into German. They got more arguments in Germany than I care to cope with. Questions, counter-questions, prove it, disbelief, and from very educated people. One of the top Holocaust historians, people of museums. I don't have to prove anything. The proof sits in Auschwitz where they took my papers away.
What kinds of things do they disbelieve?
Little things and sometimes big things. For instance, somebody didn't believe me that I knew Rumkowski. Somebody said, "Prove that you knew him." I said there are enough people alive - I know of three - that knew that I knew him and I worked for him. It is just a way of being important. It is a way of putting doubts. The latest statement I got from Dachau. "We have not decided as yet what our position is on the Jewish elders." My response was, "that is not for you to decide because you weren't there, and your opinion is not relevant." And of course, they took offense, which is fine with me. So, they are still reworking the Holocaust sixty-five years later. We are disappearing, and whatever conclusion they come to, whether they're Americans or Germans, I have no control. And I know it. So, you just have to learn to shrug.
Do you still hold hate towards the Germans?
No. You can't live for sixty-years and hate. That's not feasible. But I do not like them, I do not trust them, I do not forgive them, and I do not forget. And they hold that very much against me because I have stated this in the press and publicly. I feel that it's not their place to judge. That's how I feel, and I am entitled to it.
When did you start publicly speaking about your experiences?
Ten years ago.
Probably because the first book got published, it had a lot of publicity here and abroad. It resulted in a lot of questions, and that was the reason, because no one can answer them for me.
You talk about it in your book - you have an amazing memory for detail. Can you talk about how that affects you to have such an incredibly crisp memory? Is that a burden?
No, it's not a burden, it's like some people have a photographic memory, they will read a page, and they will be able to recount it fairly accurately. I have a good memory. However, mistakes are possible. I will never forget when a historian - a young woman - wrote me a letter saying - and she read the manuscript - "You say you started wearing the star in fall of 1940." And she sent me the documents with the official SS regulation that it was 1941 in fall. I was off by a year.
The place where we lived, I called it a condominium. But in the German sense it wasn't a true condominium, it was more like a cooperative, if you want to split real-estate hairs. She caught me on that. But otherwise, the dates and the places are accurate. If I'm not sure of the date I will say "in the fall of 1941" if I don't have the exact date. I could have looked it up - it's available - but that's not what I wanted. I wanted to go by memory as much as I could. The documents are available. My father's tax return from 1922 is available. I wasn't even born yet.
So if somebody tells me today the Holocaust didn't happen, I say, "Go to the German archives, look it up, and then we'll talk, not before." Usually it works, not always, but usually.
Did you want to end on something?
Yes. I've been asking me these past fifty plus years, "What have we learned from the past, as a human race?" And I regret to say that all of us have learned very little. And that I find very disappointing. Because if you look at the world today - at the wars that are going on in Europe, in Africa, in the Middle East - we haven't learned. We probably never will.
Thank you very much.
You're very welcome.