We had a cool experience this week to complement our visit to Yad Vashem (read about that here -it was so great!). A 96 year old Holocaust survivor, Elias Feinzilberg, came to talk to us about his experiences. He was the only Jew during the war to be sent to 9 different concentration camps and still survive. He has outlived the Nazi regime by 68 years.
He was born in Lodz, Poland in 1917. Lodz had a huge, vibrant Jewish community. He came from a religious family. When the Nazis took over Poland he was 22. He remembers his father came home one day soon after the war started with a very bloody face from SS soldiers forcibly shaving his beard (along with skin...). Beards were symbols of being religious Jews, so the SS wanted to humiliate him for it.
About a year later, all Jews were forced to move into a confined area, the Lodz ghetto. It was way too small for the amount of people that lived there, and conditions were terrible. Elias and his family of nine people lived in one small room together. Elias volunteered to go work in Germany to get out of the ghetto and to help his family. The Germans promised they would pay his family for his work (I'm guessing that didn't happen, but he has no way of knowing if if did or not).
He worked in Germany for 2 years building roads. Then he went back to Lodz, where he came home to an empty house. A neighbor told him that his dad had starved to death, and then his mom and 5 siblings had been murdered at the Chelmno death camp (no, the Nazis didn't inform the Jews that they were killing their family and neighbors...but as the war went on Jews knew exactly what was happening).
Elias found out that his entire family was dead in the same instant.
Here's a picture of Elias' family. You can see his parents Yaacov and Golda, his aunt Sarah on the left, his four sisters Reizl, Guena, Rivka, and Hanche, and his brother Avigdor. Elias is standing in the middle in the back.
How sad is it to see this entire family all together in 1934, just a few years before they were obliterated? This picture survived because it had been mailed to his uncle in Guatemala before the war started. Elias brought a big framed version of this picture to show us. I bet there were a lot of Holocaust survivors who had no pictures left of the families they lost, so it's nice that he at least still has this one memory of his family.
Something that stuck out to me was that for Elias' dad to die first meant he must have been sacrificing his (tiny portion of) food to give to his children. I'm guessing that otherwise, a young child would have died without food long before a grown man would have.
During the next three years of the war, Elias was shipped frequently to different concentration camps to work. Not all Jews were murdered immediately (like Elias' family). Some Jews were saved to be slave laborers for the Nazis, especially strong young men like Elias. For years he had to do incredibly hard work (like coal mining, for example) while surviving on only one watery bowl of soup a day.
One horrifying detail he told us was that the prisoners were given soap made out of human flesh to use. It was black (because of the incinerated bodies). Sorry to share that disgusting detail, but I think it's the details like that one that make this whole thing seem real. It's just so hard to imagine that things like this could actually happen.
Some of the camps he was at were Auschwitz, Dachau, Gross-Rosen, and Buchenwald. There were five more too, but I'm not sure if he mentioned any more by name. They kept transferring him to different ones for work, and also because the Jews were taken farther west and closer to Germany as the Russian army was advancing.
Elias also survived a death march where they weren't given food or water for two weeks. Anyone that got caught eating or drinking was shot.
After the war, he met his wife at a refugee camp (she was a Jew from Warsaw) and they got married there. They then moved to Guatemala, where Elias had family, and lived there for around 20 years. In the 60's, he decided to move to Israel. His wife has passed away, but he has children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.
The coolest part about Elias' story is that he made it, and he's a very happy person! Even while talking about these awful experiences, he was making jokes and smiling. And at 96 years old, he takes public transportation every week to attend his yoga class. I love that.
Afterwards someone asked him how he can be happy after what he went through, and his answer was something like "How could I not be happy? I have such a beautiful family!". He also talked about how some Jews lost faith in God because of the Holocaust, but he knows that only God could have gotten him through it.
It was so inspiring to hear his story! I've heard from Holocaust survivors before, but not since middle school, when I didn't fully grasp what happened. Another great and unique experience in Israel :)
(Read about my next meeting with Elias here )
(Read about my next meeting with Elias here )