Sunday, June 28, 2009

Listening to the Liberators

As Americans and as Jews, we come to the Shoah from (at least) two different directions. Identifying with the victims (as we all must and do), we are filled with all the same emotions: horror at the scope of the tragedy, resolution to combat anti-Semitism wherever it rears its head, and resolve never to let the memory of the martyrs be forgotten. But as Americans, we also identify with the liberators, with the bravest of the brave who fought on the ground in Europe and who, in the end, brought Germany to its knees, liberated the camps, and saved the lives of countless others that would have died had the war dragged on for months...or even for years.

I'd like to write to you today specifically about the liberators, whose stories are less often heard than those of the survivors. This, I believe, is unfortunate for several reasons. For one thing, the youngest among the liberators are considerably older than the youngest survivors--there were children among the survivors who were hidden during the war and there were even some few child survivors of the camps. (For example, among the 2,819 individuals liberated at Auschwitz, 180 were children and, of them, 52 were under eight years of age, almost all of them twins kept alive to serve as human guinea pigs in medical experiments as diabolical as they were grotesque and scientifically meaningless.) But the liberators were, by definition, older--the youngest among them would have been 18 in 1945, and many soldiers were in their 20s or considerably older than that. And then there is also the question of perspective and authority to consider: in a world in which holocaust deniers are considered--at least in some quarters--as entitled to their point of view, it serves history well that there are outsiders who saw the camps with their own eyes and who can testify unequivocally to what they encountered and what they heard first-hand from the survivors they met.

I've also been thinking about the liberators for two other reasons. One, because one of them, Herman Horowitz, who was with General Patton's 7th Armor Division and who personally participated in the liberation of Bergen-Belsen and Ohrdruf, is going to be our guest speaker this year on Yom Hashoah. It seems to me that no Shelter Rock family should pass up the chance to take children and grandchildren to meet this man and to hear his story. The war ended 63 years ago. There are no liberators, I don't believe, younger than 80. These people were there. They saw it all...and they met and talked with many among the liberated who died within days or weeks of liberation. Their testimony is priceless...and it will only be available to subsequent generations on audio or videotape. But it is available to us in person...for the sole price of showing up and listening. (For another liberator's account of what the American Army found at Ohrdruf, a satellite camp just north of Buchenwald, look here: The other reason I've been thinking about liberators and liberation is, obviously, because Pesach, "the season of our liberation," is almost upon us. For me personally, the story of the liberation of the Israelite slaves from Egyptian bondage and the accounts of the liberation of the survivors at the end of the war are each other's parallel, each one indicative in its own way of the unique, complex way in which faith, calamity, destiny and redemption intertwine in the context of Jewish history.

As we prepare to sit down at our seder tables, it would behoove us all to resolve not to pass up a single opportunity to hear the stories both of survivors and liberators from their own mouths, thus unadulterated by the insight of (even well-meaning) historians. That, I believe, would be a worthy response to the story we read in the Haggadah...because, although we cannot meet any of the former slaves who fled Egypt and must, therefore, content ourselves with reading about them, we can still meet some of those who liberated the camps and hear their stories first-hand. To find that point unimportant would be to misunderstand the way history teaches its lessons best. And it would also be a way of looking away, of flinching, of refusing to learn from precisely that part of our recent past that has the most to teach us.

I have heard several liberators speak over the years. Of them, the most compelling was an elderly woman I met in Vancouver who had been a nurse traveling with the Red Army when it liberated Auschwitz in January of 1945. She was in her 90s--this was about fifteen years ago--and didn't speak English well at all, but her grandson (himself a man in his 40s) translated her remarks. What stays with me is that he didn't just let her sit on the stage while he told her story, but he let her speak in Russian, then translated her remarks sentence by sentence, clearly understanding the importance of letting us hear her speak...even though almost no one in the room understood Russian. The Germans, she explained, had moved most of the prisoners out of the camp in the weeks before the Red Army arrived, but there were still thousands present, all of them weak and emaciated. These people, she described in detail. And she told how they found warehouses containing three quarters of a million women's outfits and men's suits, and how they came upon warehouses filled with tons upon tons of human hair. All this, this tiny woman explained in her language, pausing after every sentence to let her grandson translate. She described other things too, things I can't even bring myself to write about here...but the experience of meeting her and listening to her story was indelible, something I wish I could share with all of you. It's important not be recoil, not to step back, not to give into the entirely natural inclination not to want to hear, or to know, about tragedy on this scale. I feel that way myself! But sometimes it's crucial to find the courage to exit our own comfort zones and encounter things as they truly are in the world...and that includes hearing stories like the one this former nurse told me years ago. (April 11, 2008)

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