Wednesday, February 11, 2015

One last glimpse of Abraham

      I thought of my grandfather Abraham last week, and of my mother, as I watched a BBC (British Broadcast Corporation) video tour of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.
      A good friend sent me the link to the video, which was done as part of the recent 70th anniversary of the camp's liberation.
      My mother and father were among those who survived the Holocaust and their time in Auschwitz. My grandfather -- and the rest of my parents' families -- did not survive.
      Tough video to watch, just to see the ruins of the camp -- preserved much the way it was in the early 1940s. One scene was a little extra harrowing.
      When the camera-equipped drone flew over the space (a "courtyard," I think it was called, as if a concentration camp had a courtyard) between Blocks 10 and 11, it brought to mind a story my mother included in her USC Shoah Foundation interview in 1996.
      That space is where she said she last saw her father, where -- as a prisoner in the infamous Block 10 women's medical experimentation block -- she caught a glimpse of him.
      She didn't know, and he didn't know, that soon he would be sent from Auschwitz to Warsaw, Poland, where his life ended.
      "He went to Warsaw and they [the group of men he was with] had to dig ditches," my mother told the Shoah Foundation interviewer. "I heard this after the war from somebody who had come out, who was in the group with him, who had known him before.
      "Then they shot him and they buried him in the ditches."           
Mom's family: her father Abraham, her mother Rachel,
older sister Annie -- and Rose (top right)
      In the records of the Dutch Jewish victims of the Holocaust -- the records at the memorial center in Amsterdam, where all my family lived before World War II, Abraham Lopes-Dias is listed as having died on Dec. 31, 1943. He was 50.
      He was married for 25 years to my paternal grandmother, Rachel (our daughter is named in her honor). Her death is listed as Sept. 10, 1943.
      My mother was 22 at the time. Her sister Anna (called Annie), some two years older, died Sept. 30, 1942, sent to the gas chambers not long after arriving at Auschwitz on the cattle-car train.
      Rozette -- Rose, as everyone knew her -- loved her mother and sister. She adored her father. That is clear from her Shoah Foundation interview and the family history she wrote for us.
      "What do you remember about him most?" the interviewer asked Mom.
      "He was wonderful," Mom replied. "I don't think anybody could have had parents like I had. He was so funny. He was well-liked. ... He was the life of [any] party. He knew all kinds of songs, he would perform, he was just an all-around wonderful man."
       In the family history, she wrote, "Both of my parents had a terrific sense of humor; Daddy really could keep an audience."
       They each loved amateur acting, opera and plays.
       About those songs, the songs Abraham taught his daughters ...
       In her Holocaust interview and her talks to groups over the years, Mom often mentioned that in the years at Auschwitz, she would teach -- or try to teach -- her "camp sisters," as she called them, those songs or would sing them for entertainment or to kill the time.
       They were sung in Dutch, of course. When Elsa and I were kids, we got to hear the great majority of those songs ... when we weren't rolling our eyes or trying to escape the room. Mom wasn't a bad singer (like me), but still ...
       The oldest of seven children in his family, her father began working, Mom said, "when he was 10 years old, went to school until he was 14; that was required by law. He was a self-taught man, [and] was well-educated. In addition to working hard, he gave bridge lessons, and also learned and taught Esperanto, a language designed to be universal."
       Founded by Dr. L.L. Zamenhof in the late 1880s, Esperanto was popular in Europe, but never became what its founders -- and my grandfather -- hoped it would be.
       "He spoke very well," Mom said of her father. "... He learned the language and taught it to other people, and corresponded with people all over the world. We had people from all over Europe who came and stayed with us. This was one of his great hobbies. ... Esperanto was a language formed by different languages; it had some French, some Polish, some German, a mixture. ... We really didn't have a choice, we had to study it a little bit. But as children, I had enough. I said, 'I don't want to do this.' "
       In the 1930s and early 1940s, leading up to and after the Nazi Germany occupation of The Netherlands, my grandfather was the manager of a company that bought and repaired second-hand burlap sacks.
       And he was very interested in politics and labor unions.
       He was, my mother said, "the non-salaried president of a union of manufacturers in Amsterdam -- the 'Factory Labor Union.' He strongly believed in better working conditions for people and in the 40-hour work week; he worked very hard for that.
       "He could debate for hours with people about his favorite labor party."
       He was, Mom said, "a Social Democrat," a member of the board of that party in Amsterdam. "He and my mother both worked very hard on getting [fair] laws for children working. At that time, children would work when they were [as young as] ages 8 or 9. They helped pushed through a law -- and my father wanted this -- that children could nt work until they were 14, and they wanted to limit work (for everyone) to 40 hours a week.
       "When that passed, that was frosting on the cake for him."
       Interviewer: "Did you understand what they were doing?"
       "Oh, yeah, we were very involved," Mom answered. "We were in youth groups as children, the Social Democrat youth group. First of May, there were big celebrations and we had a big red flag -- Social Democratic party -- by our house, and an Esperanto flag. Everyone knew who my father was by his Esperanto flag."
       My grandfather, Mom said, was not a devout Jew.
       "He was not involved in Jewish affairs," she said. "I always said [one of Mom's favorite expressions], as far as that was concerned, he was ahead of his time. He was a reform Jew.
       "Before the war, there was no reform temples in Holland. It was strictly, strictly Orthodox, the men separated from the women ... and he felt hypocritical if he would go to shul and sit there and listen to things he really didn't believe in. Even his father already, he never learned Hebrew. He would go to shul if it was necessary, like for a wedding, or a funeral; he used to kid and said, 'I have a head for funerals and weddings.' "
       That did not matter to the Nazis when the "arrests" began in 1942.
       Abraham continued to work at his job, but Mom said that the company "was taken over ... by the Germans, and they put a Nazi in [charge]." In April 1942, my grandfather "was picked up and sent to a work camp in Holland."
       There is a lot to the story, and Mom details it in her interview. Here's a condensed version:
       My grandmother, with her husband gone, "got very depressed and very scared"; my mother and her sister each married because, with the curfews in place, it was the only way they could see their then-fiances.
       "My husband and my father didn't come home from work," Mom recalled. "We didn't know where they were."
       Abraham was first sent to a labor camp in Holland, then to Westerbork (the "transit" camp the Nazis established in the eastern part of Holland).
       "And then we got a card from him from the labor camp," Mom said. "My husband we didn't know; we never heard from him.
       "Then my sister and my brother-in-law were picked up in July and ... my mother had a nervous breakdown. In August, I was fired [from her sewing job]. All the Jews had to get out."
       Did you hear from your sister and brother-in-law?     
        Do you know if they ever met your husband and your father?
        "I don't know. (softly) I don't know."
       But there was a reunion with her father. When my mother and grandmother were picked up and sent to Westerbork, they saw Abraham again.
       "When we came there, the tracks from the train didn't go right to Westerbork, it went outside of Westerbork to what they called Hooft-Haaren, and my father helped lay down the railroad," Mom said. "Now my father had worked for a Jewish company and one of the bosses, who was hidden later, put money in a factory in Westerbork, in a mattress factory, and he put my father in charge of this mattress factory. That's why he could stay. He had a stamp, we were spared."
        One side story: My grandfather knew friends who were working in the underground and who had gotten papers for my parents to leave the city of Groningen, where they were [at one point], to go into hiding." But my mother said Abraham and Rachel did not want to leave their kids, so the plan never developed.
        My mother's parents were sent to Auschwitz on Sept. 7, 1943.
        "My mother went straight to the gas chambers," Mom said, "and my father was picked out with another group of people. ...I saw him because a week later my husband and I went [to Auschwitz]."
        "I was in Block 10," she said. "I don't know if you've ever been to Block 10 ... on the right side was Block 11; that was for punishment. We had shutters [on that side], although we could see on the street and we could hear on the other side."
        The interviewer asked her to explain that.
        "Between the blocks, they had streets, and this Block 11 was the punishment block," Mom  said. "And we could hear the screams and we could see through the holes in the shutters, and we would see killings, shootings, we could hear them scream.
        "On the other side, between the blocks, was a street, and the group my father went with, before they got sent to Warsaw, they were there and we could see out and I saw my father with this group."
        Interviewer: "Did you have a chance to talk to him (her father)?"
        "No, I don't know if he saw me. I saw him, you know."
        With that, she smiled at the thought. Maybe it was a rueful smile, but maybe -- this is the way I like to think of it -- it was a knowing smile, a smile that remembered "a wonderful man." A man named Abraham.


  1. From Dr. Donald Webb: I'd just read what Sam Caverlee forwarded (NY Times story: "Surviving the Nazis, Only to be Jailed by America), then your blog. My eyes would've been moist at your blog anyway. But now, it's even harder to refrain from shouting, "WHY, God?"
    Thanks, friend. Keep writing.

  2. From Bob Tompkins: You’re a talented writer. You know how to touch hearts.