On the Way to Birkenau – A story for Tisha B’Av

On the Way to Birkenau – A story for Tisha B’Av

By Eugen Schoenfeld | One Man’s View

Usually, I neither watch movies and television, nor do I read other people’s stories about their experiences in the Holocaust.

It is not because I am disinterested — to the contrary. I abstain from watching or reading such stories because they tear the scab away from the healing wound that I still have. Such activities cause me to relive my own experiences, leading to extreme emotional pain. For this reason I have not talked about my experiences for a long time, even to my children.

I was about 50 years old when I began to lecture about the Holocaust, and I did so not because I wished to share my story, but because, as a sociologist, I wished to explain the reason why it happened and what we can do about it. In short, I treated my personal experiences as an academic subject — sine ira et studio (without anger and fondness).

For the same reason, I didn’t visit the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington after it opened, although I was and continue to be a contributor to its important mission. About 30 years ago I was asked by the Georgia Commission on the Holocaust to join the award-winning students’ trip to see the museum, and reluctantly I agreed. I felt it to be my duty, as a survivor and as a teacher, to instill into the next generation the meaning of becoming not only a human being, but also a humane human.

Eugen Schoenfeld
Eugen Schoenfeld

The morning when the students and I went to visit the displays at the museum, I was, to say the least, apprehensive. The question that nagged me: “How will I take it?”

I hoped not to break down and cry at that public place. Unfortunately, I could not control my emotions — particularly those that I experienced at one of the displays. Contrary to my hopes, I stood there with tears gushing through my eyes. What was that display, and why was I so overwhelmed there?

As we followed the displays, we came to the railroad car, one that was actually used to transport Jews to various camps, very much like the one in which I and my family were taken to Birkenau, the notorious extermination camp.

As I entered it, suddenly I retrogressed to the actual time and place of the event. There in the left corner of the car I saw my mother sitting on the floor, while my father was at the other corner with the adult males finishing the Ma’ariv services. There were so many men there that it was easy to make a minyan, the quorum of 10 males necessary for collective services. After all, praying could not hurt; perhaps G-d would listen and have mercy on us.

My mother, as Yiddishe mames do, was concerned about feeding us children. She opened the backpack and took out the remnant of the bread we took along, together with a salami, and cut a piece of each and handed portions to me, my 13-year-old brother, Benjamin, and my 10-year-old sister, Esther.

I looked at my mother, and she was crying. In retrospect, she appeared to me as Rachel, the quintessential Jewish mother, who cried for her children who were taken to captivity in Babylon.

Far wuss weinste, mame?” — “Why are you crying, mother?” — I asked her. “Children,” she responded. “I had over 20 wonderful years with your father, I experienced life. I cry for you who are so young and haven’t been given a chance to have a life.”

There in the car I re-experienced that moment, and I cried. Was there anything else I could do?

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