It is precisely 80 years since the Reich’s Kristallnacht Pogrom of November 9 & 10, 1938.
We must take note of that precise moment when the Shoah began in its most lethal form. Of course, German propaganda and its virulent anti-Semitism had been evident for many years and Jewish civil rights had been seriously compromised from the first minute in 1933, that the Nazis achieved power through a democratic “election”. Somehow Jews were stuck with a false sense of security. And even with the Nuremberg Laws, the total destruction of Jewish civil and professional rights in Germany, it had yet to sink in that preparations for the elimination of German Jews had begun.
It was the Reich’s Kristallnacht, the organized burning of Synagogues, the sanctioned murders of Jews in the street, the destruction of Jewish businesses throughout the country, and the massive imprisonment of captured Jews incarcerated in the concentration camps of that time, all in Germany, that signaled the Shoah had begun in full force.
So let us today, as we talk and learn together, give pause to the memory of those monstrous times and also teach our children and grandchildren, from our experiences, to recognize and defeat any signs that signal a repetition.
Watchful paranoia can be helpful.
Yet while remembering those tragic times, we must nevertheless also indulge in celebration of the fact that we are here together for a Gathering, over 30 years after our defining moment – the discovery of us – the children who survived. Let me remind you and our children and grandchildren that we had disappeared for a time, from approximately 1945 – 1985.
One day in Jerusalem, at the World Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors in 1981, everything changed for me.
I had come to the Gathering for many reasons, one very important – the honouring at Yad Vashem of my rescuers, Albert, Violette and Nora Munnik. All three had previously been inscribed Among the Righteous. My dear “Vader” had passed away. But Moeder and my sister Nora were with me in 1981 to plant a tree and to be properly recognized – in Jerusalem.
My parents, Leo and Emmy Krell, who had miraculously survived the war were there, as was my brother, born in Canada in 1956 and fifteen years younger than I, accompanied by his wife.
At one point during the ceremony in the Hall of Remembrance, I looked up during the chanting of El Malei Rachamim and through my tears saw Moeder at my side and my mother standing at the railing opposite. Two mothers – one who gave me into hiding at age two to save my life, the other who accepted me, and thereby did save my life.
One of the opening speeches at the Gathering caught my attention. I am not good at listening to speeches. I drift away.
But then I heard, “My name is Israel Meir Lau, and I am the Chief Rabbi of Netanya. My father, the Rabbi of Piotrowsk was murdered at Treblinka, my mother died of hunger at Ravensbrück. I was the youngest survivor of Buchenwald. I was eight years old.”
It was as if lightning had struck. Rabbi Lau was eight-year old Lulek at liberation! The rabbi had my attention. After all, in 1945 my first cousin Nallie was six, my second cousin Milly eight, and I was five. We were the children who survived the Holocaust, child survivors of the Shoah.
So that is what I discovered. And of course, it is likely that other children somewhere had made a similar discovery but I had not heard of them nor seen any identify themselves as child Holocaust survivors.
The adult survivors were solidly rooted in their identity as Holocaust survivors and of course had been the dynamic force behind the 1981 World Gathering, including such leaders as Ben and Vladka Meed, Ernst Michel, Eli Zborowski, and Dr. Hadassah and Josef Rosensaft amongst others.
And the Second Generation had announced itself with conferences and gatherings in the late 1970’s which also saw the publication of Helen Epstein’s ground breaking book Children of the Holocaust: Conversations with the Sons and Daughters of Survivors. Therefore, the adult survivors had found an identity, as had the Second Generation.
But where were we, the children? Most of us had been in hiding. Very few little ones survived concentration camps, making Rabbi Lau, at age eight, a very rare exception. Of the 1,000 children found at Buchenwald, most were adolescents aged twelve or thirteen and older.
At Ećouis, where 426 of the children were taken by the OSE French Rescue Society, the staff had prepared little beds but they received few little ones.
And these children sent there for their recovery were told many things, some insulting and derogatory. Apparently a psychiatrist or psychologist told the gathered assembly of children that they would never recover and by other doctors that they might not live long, and by officials that they were probably sociopaths. (Who but sociopaths could possibly have survived? Or so they thought). I have been told this by several boys who were there.
But they were also instructed despite the various dire and ominous predictions, to leave the past behind and get on with the future. Fortunately, they had some wonderful and optimistic social workers like Judith Hemmendinger and her assistant Niny Cohen, and teachers like Manfred Reingwitz who tamed them, nurtured them, and salvaged most of them. These camp children included Elie Wiesel, Israel Meir Lau and his brother, Naphtali Lau-Lavie.
What had happened to children saved in hiding? I know of some early interviews of children in the post-war years. Indeed, there were photos in LIFE magazine of some who arrived to America. And many were spirited out of Europe to Israel, then still the British Mandate of Palestine.
Forty-eight such children arrived to Vancouver, Canada as early as 1947. I have talked with many over the years.
What did children in Canada or the United States or Australia or in Israel do? They remained hidden. Hiding was difficult during the war, much easier after. The few who tried to talk did so at great personal risk. They did not wish to reveal themselves as different; as having coped with monstrous experiences, enormous losses, and monumental insecurity. We wanted to look and to be normal.
In any case, few adults, even mental health professionals, especially mental health professionals, did not ask about their experiences and advised them to forget the unforgettable. And worse, children were told that because of their young age, they likely had no memories and therefore, did not suffer.
Before the war, a single childhood trauma was viewed with great alarm and resulted in years of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy but this obvious massive psychological disaster was virtually ignored. Perhaps no one knew what to do with us. We had been immersed in death. 93% of all Jewish children under Nazi domination were murdered.
My memory starts just after my second birthday. The Krells received orders to report on August 19, 1942 at a place from which Jews were sent to Westerbork and onwards to unknown destinations “for resettlement to the east.” The names were unknown to Dutch Jews then, but were later revealed to be Auschwitz or Sobibór.
We fled the house and my memory kicks in. Placed with former neighbours, I remember getting rides on the shoulders of Peter (Pietje), a teenager in the household. Soon after, I was placed with the Munniks when my Moeder came on a visit to these neighbours who were friends of hers. She spotted me, asked about me, and when told that I needed a place to hide, took me home with her. I became Robbie Munnik.
My new sister Nora, who was ten years older, came home after school and played with me, teaching me to read and write. Of course, I had been forbidden to look out the front window for fear of being spotted by Dutch Nazi traitors. I had a mop of curly black hair and I was living in a family of blondes.
As good a sister as Nora was, she almost had all of us killed. She took me out in a buggy. When I asked Nora about the buggy ride, (some thirty years later), an outing so unusual for me that I remember it clearly, she told me that it never happened. Assuming her memory to be far superior to mine at age thirteen or fourteen to my age three or four, I let it go at first. But then I began to fight for my memory which was crystal clear and I told her that I recalled a German soldier coming towards us and I pulled my blanket over my head to hide. He helped us through a rough stretch that was underwater. From that moment I did not remember what happened so I asked, “Nora, where were we going?” She finally relented and said she was taking me to see my mother. “Nora, did we make it?” Yes, we did but that was the day the Gestapo came to inspect my mother’s little apartment where she was living on false papers. She succeeded in talking them out of searching while we cowered under the bed. Of course, had we been caught, so would everyone else.
Over time I forgot my parents, and at liberation when they came for me, I did not want to go because in effect, I was losing my parents a second time. I recall wailing, a cry of anguish. It lasted a long time, for in hiding I had not cried for three years.
And liberation did not turn out to feel liberating for a Jewish child.
I knew somehow that Nallie, Milly and I were not normal. We played as if we were. But how could we be normal? Nallie lost his family. He was an orphan, left by his mother in 1943 in care of the Christians with whom he remained. His mother, my aunt Mania was murdered in Sobibór.
Milly, whose family escaped to Switzerland, returned to Holland to learn that her mother and father’s sisters and brothers had all been murdered.
And my parents, aged 32 and 30, had lost everyone. We were alone. I had no aunts, uncles, grandparents. Death was everywhere.
The few survivors of the 20,000 strong Jewish community of The Hague, slowly returned, many via our home in which I heard their stories, told in Yiddish and ably translated by Milly. Those stories have never gone away.
Sadly, we understood too much because we were elderly children, children who had grown up overnight. And now we elderly children are indeed, growing elderly.
What happened after I discovered child Holocaust survivors for myself? Surely, I was not the only one to do so. But that moment in 1981 crystallized my focus. And in 1982, I had the good fortune of meeting developmental psychologist Sarah Moskovitz who was writing a book on child survivors, Love Despite Hate: Child Survivors of the Holocaust and Their Adult Lives. It was published in 1983 and discussed the lives of 24 infants and children found at Terezín. They were brought to Lingfield, England for their recovery and were looked after by a social worker, Alice Goldberger. Sarah had met her in England, then tracked each and every one of these children about thirty-five years later, and recorded what had happened to them over their lifetime to that date.
Because of her interest in developmental psychology and motivated by knowledge of losses in her own family during the Shoah, Sarah founded a group for child survivors to meet and heal. I attended the first meeting in Los Angeles in 1982. She asked me to come back to Los Angeles in 1983 and speak to the fledgling group about why they should be together. There had been reluctance. But on that day, several child survivors committed themselves to working together and we founded the Child Holocaust Survivors of Los Angeles which grew to a membership of 300, perhaps 500 at one point.
In the meantime, others had begun to do similar things. Frieda Grayzel, an Auschwitz survivor, founded a group in Massachusetts. Judith Kestenberg, a psychoanalyst, had been interviewing child survivors of the Holocaust and this led from her research, to therapy groups formed with the assistance of Eva Fogelman and Ira Brenner, both Second Generation. Stephanie Seltzer, of Philadelphia, organized a meeting at Lancaster, Pennsylvania in 1987. So throughout the 1980’s there were activities leading to the gathering together of children. This momentum resulted in the 1991 World Gathering of Child Holocaust Survivors called the ADL/Hidden Child Conference.
It was a tremendous success. There were 1,600 registered participants of whom the vast majority were child Holocaust survivors. They discovered one another and learned from each other that the stories with which they lived and the occasional disturbing thoughts they experienced, were commonly held. It was decided to have annual Gatherings and since 1991 we have met in many different geographic locations, gathering always a group of stalwarts who attend all conferences and who participate in workshops, both as participants and as facilitators. We have met in such locations as Los Angeles, Houston, Cleveland, Toronto, Montreal, Prague, Warsaw, Berlin, Amsterdam and three times in Jerusalem.
It has been a rocky road. After all, we children, those younger than 16 at liberation in 1945, were largely at the mercy of adults with respect to decisions about our future. Those aged 17 and older, participated in determining what to do next. Whether to make Aliyah, join surviving family, and ultimately, find a home and occupation. Many young adults married in the displaced persons camps and for several years these refugees had the highest birthrate in the world.
The child survivors were scattered around the world, many to Palestine, but also to Australia, Britain, Switzerland, the United States, Canada and South America.
My good fortune was that we emigrated to Vancouver in 1951. It did not take long to see that Canada was a smorgasbord of opportunity, the opportunity to work, earn money, support myself in my studies and that I could largely on my own, forge my path to becoming a medical doctor, psychiatrist and child psychiatrist. Eventually, I became a professor of psychiatry at the University of British Columbia.
However, while preoccupied with my studies for an entire decade, I could not shake off the memories of the Shoah. There were simply too many reminders. For one, the Munnik family remained an integral part of our lives and Moeder and Vader attended my graduation from medical school in 1965 and my wedding to Marilyn in 1971. My sister Nora, who is alive and well at age 88, has recently been to three simchas in our family, including two weddings and a bat mitzvah just last year. My Moeder had a great influence on my life even after the war. She liked to tell me that I was a child saved to help other children. Perhaps my career choices originated with her hopes and expectations.
She was a kind woman, reserved and shy. Yet, at our wedding she spontaneously spoke to the 400 guests in Dutch, a speech which I translated. In essence she said: “I have no understanding of the Holocaust; that is the domain of historians. All I know about the Holocaust is that it must have been G-d’s way to give me a son.”
Moeder always spoke the truth except where it might interfere with my safety. When I asked her one day whether she had thought about my parents being caught, she said, “Of course, then you would have been mine. But because I loved you so much, naturally I prayed for their survival.”
Because of my self-discovery as a child Holocaust survivor and the growing awareness of children who had survived, I felt a special obligation. As a result I have been to the vast majority of these Gatherings, often serving as a keynote speaker prior to the workshops that hopefully, are meaningful to yourselves and to your sons and daughters and grandchildren. That has been a special privilege in my life. I have also written about what makes us unique and want to mention just a couple of themes briefly so that you might discuss them within the framework of your chosen workshops.
One complex matter we share is memory and depending on our age, it is a memory in fragments. Very few of us possess a continuing narrative within our minds as to our precise experiences. I know that it has been helpful for some to put those pieces into a chronologic timeline for that not only strengthens memory but it strengthens our personal identity.
Another major and contentious issue has been the pursuit of faith and spirituality. After all, we were persecuted for being Jews, often not knowing what it was to be a Jew. In fact, some of us had no Jewish education to rely on for our identity and in any case were forbidden to mention it in order to survive. The road back to securing a firm foundation based on Jewish tradition and Jewish identity has been for many a lifelong struggle.
My way back to Judaism was a complicated and slow process. But I have tried and try a little more each year. Marilyn and I are the lucky parents of three daughters, who have all committed to their Judaism and married within the faith. We have nine grandchildren, only the youngest at age two, is not yet in a Jewish day school.
Confronted with adversity after survival, and finding the strength to cope with life’s complexities, we have all somehow reached this stage. What now?
Let us reflect for a moment.
For many of us, our child survivor-hood came into focus in the mid 1980’s, about 40 years after liberation. We now find ourselves having shared nearly 30 years as sisters and brothers united by terrifying early experiences and our subsequent motivation to live a normal life
And we, like the older survivors, have also generated a Second Generation of sons and daughters and grandchildren. Those of you here with us demonstrate readiness to assume the responsibility for continuity, both in memory and in activism.
And what do we tell? Teach? Pass on to the next generations?
Many of you may know that even the passing on of a business or an estate is fraught with complications.
As an example, I have witnessed several successful businessmen, well into their senior years, while stating they remain active for the sake of their children and grandchildren, fail to teach them how to manage their business or holdings. In fact, they maintain a tight, sometimes, secretive grip. Not infrequently, the successors are bereft of knowledge and doomed to squabble with siblings over the inheritance or leadership and ultimately, they may preside over the destruction and loss of what was built.
A similar scenario could occur with us. From the mid-80’s, we have built an organization devoted to memory, education and healing – nearly 40 years of effort inspired by the leadership of dozens of very dedicated people.
Their dedication has built an “Estate”, a reserve of understanding that promotes the power of Holocaust memory on our lives. While we want our children and grandchildren to take it over, it is difficult for some of the leadership to hand it off. After all, it is a creation, painstakingly crafted, emotionally entrenched, making one feel that it is knowledge only a few possess. But aging demands transition. And so, we must inform you of our hopes and wishes, a “Will” of sorts, and you must recognize it is difficult to let go, even though it is our most fervent wish for our, and for your success.
What in fact do we leave to our children and grandchildren, to you who represent the next generations?
For one, we leave our stories, accounts, memoirs – of the most painful chapter in Jewish history. In a long list of painful chapters, the Shoah exceeds the imagination. And yet we must imagine it, in order not to forget, in order not to become complacent.
Boris Zabarko writes of what happened in the Ukraine. In June 1941, 2.7 million Jews lived in Soviet Ukraine. On August 15, 1941 12,000 – 16,000 Jews were shot in Berdychiv. From August 27 – 29th, 1941 in Kamianets-Podilskyi, 23,600 Jews were killed in three days. In Kiev, on September 29 – 30, 33,771 Jews were shot at Babi Yar. These mass murders grew to number one and one half million Jewish men, women and children in the territory of Ukraine. Another 340,000 were brought to Poland to be murdered in Belżec, Auschwitz, Sobibór and Majdanek.
Can we even begin to imagine the terror and pain of each individual Jew, murdered in front of or with their children?
For me, the smiling face of Anne Frank does not obliterate the image of my imagination, the separation from her parents, the humiliation of her deportation, arrival at Auschwitz, and her slow tormented death in Bergen-Belsen of hunger and typhus. Sadly, we must leave you with these images as a reminder.
Albert Londres was a non-Jewish Parisian journalist, who published in 1932 a remarkable book titled The Wandering Jew Has Arrived. He decided in the late 1920’s to familiarize himself with European Jewry, particularly the Jews in Poland, Russia and Romania. Having observed the degrading conditions and circumstances, knowing of the Herzl Initiative to establish a State, and seeing that there was no future for Jews wherever he sought them, Londres virtually predicted the demise of European Jewry. So in this marvelous work of journalistic observation, Londres describes his pilgrimage to Palestine and identifies there Jews who walk upright, with pride and dignity. His obvious conclusion was the need for Jews to return home in order for Jewry to escape its chronic enslavement at the whim of the nations in which they resided.
And so, we also leave you, not only memory but also the re-born State of Israel, the homeland of the Jewish people. Had it been established as promised by the British in the 1917 Balfour Declaration, and subsequently legitimized at the San Remo Conference and by the League of Nations, a sizable number of European Jews might have escaped.
But we were betrayed. 80% of the Mandate was sheared off the potential homeland in 1922 to create Trans-Jordan (Jews not allowed). Then the British White Paper of 1939 prevented Jewish immigration (only Jews). And the Allies had already sealed our fate at the Evian Conference in 1938 in near unanimous agreement to accept NO Jewish refugees.
From Herzl’s vision, a liberation movement had grown for Jews to move to Palestine. But it proved not strong enough to create a State. And post-war Britain continued its blockade of ships with arriving remnants of the catastrophe. Eventually about 100,000 Holocaust survivors did arrive and thousands fought to secure the State in the War of Independence.
Will our children and grandchildren recognize the need for Israel to exist as did Londres in 1932? Will they protect Israel and its soldiers in the face of the power wielded by right-wing nationalist movements that shun Jews and by left-wing movements in which Jews themselves prominently display their antipathy towards the Jewish exercise of power that protects Israel?
Can the latter not envision Babi Yar? It is unlikely. They could not see it in pre-war Germany and Austria, not even Poland. How can we expect that they will do so in France, or North America? We who know and can imagine it, must teach our children, that without Israel in some shape or form still to be precisely determined, their lives are not secure, and personal and professional success will be compromised. Without Israel, and the personal pride that derives from identifying with our homeland, we may perhaps again walk with stooped shoulders in order to ward off the expected blows that accompany anti-Semitism.
And what about remaining Jewish in the face of rapid assimilation? Let us demonstrate the values that come with our traditions, the guidelines to an enriched life.
My family’s religious life was all but shattered by the war. It took years for a Shabbat to reappear. Seders were held in the homes of others, not so profoundly affected pre-war arrivals to Canada.
But bit by bit, we clawed our way back, led by my mother who returned to Shul on Shabbat. And slowly, very slowly, I learned the value of attending a Jewish summer camp, belonging to Habonim, then gradually introduced to some of the observances as well as the brilliant concepts that structure Judaism whether that means having a bar mitzvah or a bat mitzvah, or sitting shiva.
All but one of our nine grandchildren attend Jewish day schools. Number nine starts next year. She is two. It is a rich environment indeed. Six of nine have already been to Israel on several occasions.
So we also leave to you the opportunities we children did not have: a vast network of day schools, summer camps, organizations including NCSY and Young Judaea , Hillel and Birthright, as well as March of the Living. We can only hope you will use it all wisely for your sake and for that of your children.
And we must somehow keep alive the structure of Holocaust education to demonstrate what is possible when laws are perverted, governments become autocratic and professionals are conscripted, bullied or worse, to volunteer to defile their professional codes.
We are the sum total of our experiences and given the richness of those experiences, our observations must be provided to succeeding generations. That is our responsibility. We cannot stand aside and assume that they will learn from our silence. Silence served us at one point. It was the language of the child survivors. But since our emergence, we must share that which we know and that which we feel so passionately. You must be the watchful paranoids because paranoia in our times is not always a sign of mental health problems. By now, we Jews should recognize the signs of danger to our existence and rally to fight it. No Jew can afford to be complacent.
Be thoughtful about your origins. Recognize that you exist because of the incredible tenacity and resiliency of your parents and grandparents.
Examine closely your relationship to Israel. Be less critical of its struggle to exist. The situation is complicated, opinions vary, governments come and go – but its existence must be secured or we will once again live as vulnerable guests in countries where we reside. Never mind that borders and other issues need to be resolved for peace to break out. The fact remains that Israel is under international attack and those who deny its very existence must be fought tooth and nail by our descendants. Israel provides the antidote to being and feeling powerless.
And continue to do good things. Improve upon our generation. Be generous. Support your communities, Jewish and non-Jewish. Cast a wide net. Our values and traditions are valuable to us and to others. Learn them, then teach them. We gave the world laws by which to live civilly. But the rule of law has escaped vast populations who remain mired in conflicts and inflict pain and death on one another.
Elie Wiesel, of blessed memory, said “People will do wonderful things if you tell the right stories”. So let me end with two brief stories that involve young people and may inspire our youngsters.
On September 26, 2017, Canada’s National Holocaust monument was inaugurated in Ottawa, the nation’s capital in the presence of the Prime Minister. Ten years earlier, 18 year old Laura Grosman was upset to discover that of all Allied countries, Canada had no such monument dedicated to the memory of the Holocaust. She lobbied members of parliament and a private member’s bill was introduced in 2007. Very few are voted on. There was a change of government and it disappeared.
The bill was re-introduced by a young Member of Parliament from Alberta, the honourable Tim Uppal, a turban-wearing Sikh who shepherded it along in the Conservative government of Stephen Harper, a great friend of Israel and of Canada’s Jewish community.
Now the story behind the story.
When Tim Uppal visited our Vancouver Holocaust Education Center and announced that the monument would be built, he shared that the Shoah was familiar to him. He understood. How? His wife who is also Sikh, Kivan, had joined her close Jewish friend on the March of the Living when she was a teenager. She retained a strong connection to a Rabbi on the March, and calls him “her Rabbi”. On May 24, 2011, the bill was signed. Only 4 of 448 bills introduced were passed. Daniel Libeskind was the architect.
Young people, a next generation were largely responsible for this massive accomplishment. Have a look at the monument online. Better still, visit it.
One more story.
We vacation near Palm Springs to spend time away from Vancouver’s wet winters. Survivor-friends also spend time there. Our wonderful president, Stefanie Seltzer is one of those friends. While there, we remain committed to our responsibilities to teach. So we volunteer at the Tolerance Education Center in Rancho Mirage.
Last year, I spoke to a class of 40 brown-faced youngsters, almost all Mexican, First Nations Native Indian, and Central American. They were amazing. Their questions were sensitive, and reflected their own encounters with prejudice and racism.
One young man, about 17 years old, lingered behind to talk with me more privately.
In essence he said, “I just had a life-changing experience. I have decided to embrace the bad.” I told him that I think I knew what he meant but could he explain. He said that he had a bad beginning in life, including abuse at the hands of his parents. But he had listened carefully and concluded that he should no longer devote his energies to his anger, but “embrace the bad” and use those experiences to re-build a better life for himself. I asked him where he was from. His response: Guatemala. Then I asked if I could use what he had said to me in either written or spoken form. He beamed, his face glowed. “Of course”. He had begun his transformation.
We can never really know whose lives we touch with our stories, but they must be told by us so long as we have the strength to tell. Then it falls to our descendants. Our responsibility will be yours.
That is our legacy. Thank you.
November 10, 2018, Robert Krell
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