All over the country, Israelis gathered last night and today for Holocaust Memorial ceremonies in honor of the six million who perished as a result of Nazi war crimes. While the official state ceremony at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem was as well attended as ever, a new custom has spread over the last few years. The following is a personal account of one Israeli’s experience last night.
Last night, I had the fortune of coming to a friend’s home for a Zikaron B’Salon event. Zikaron B’Salon literally means “remembering in the living room”, and is a growing initiative for people to host Holocaust survivors in their homes and provide a platform for them to speak all over the country and share their stories directly with young people.
Not long after sirens were sounded throughout the country, I found myself in a friend’s home with dozens of other young people. In front of us stood Avraham Tzin, 89, who was born and raised in Munkcasz, Hungary. He told the assembled crowd of men and women in their twenties and thirties of how one day in 1944, after years of hearing about German crimes elsewhere in Europe, the S.S. finally arrived in his hometown. Together with a few hundred other Jews, He was ordered to go to the local synagogue. There, two S.S. soldiers instructed the people to destroy the building. The Jews were stunned, unsure if they understood. One of them knew German and asked what the Nazis meant, and was beaten mercilessly in front of the other congregants. Over the next few hours, the Jews disassembled the synagogue with their bare hands.
When Avraham came back to his road, he saw that it had been blocked off. Over the last few hours, other Jews had been kept busy, and had been told to create two ghettos for the Jews: one large one, where most lived, and one small ghetto, where the others were. This was to be their entire world until they were deported to Auschwitz.
There were too many details to describe, so Avraham was forced to skip over many parts. Instead, he told us of some of his stories. For example, one day he was told to transfer to another labor camp where he would be needed in a coal mine. Upon arrival, the camp commander refused to accept his group, saying that they were all children and too fragile for intensive labor. The group was sent back by train to Auschwitz. “You know the famous sign?” he asked us. “The one that reads ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’, Work Makes Free?” We all nodded in recognition of the infamous propaganda. He continued: “Well, next to it was a green patch of grass. And we sat there while two Nazis had a terrible argument about whether we should be let in or not.”
Apparently, one of the commanders thought that if the teenagers were so weak, they should be moved on to Treblinka, a death camp where countless Jews were incinerated. “Eventually, a telephone call was received and the order was given to let us back in,” he recalled. “We ran back inside of Auschwitz. Imagine that? Running into a concentration camp, because for it meant life, for now.”
The audience listened as Avraham explained how he had several brushes with death, but was spared by the grace of other prisoners who shared food with him. At some point, he was charged with moving bricks by hand. One afternoon, he became tired and sat down to rest, but fell asleep. A soldier discovered Avraham and woke him with two fierce slaps. “Do you know that I could report you to the overseer for sabotage and have you killed on the spot?” the soldier barked. It was true. Any slack in labor was regarded as sabotage. Many workers were killed for less than optimal work. Thankfully the soldier let Avraham go, and he made sure to never fall asleep again.
Later on, towards the end of the war, the camp was disbanded. Everyone was made to leave, and reached another camp some distance away. At that point, the commander gave people an option. They could either stay at the new camp, where they would be responsible for their own fate, or continue the trek. 90% of the prisoners continued the march, but Avraham had had enough. He decided to stay put. None of the other prisoners was ever seen again, and were most likely taken to a convenient spot in a forest, shot and buried in a mass grave.
Thankfully, not long after this incident Avraham and the few other survivors were liberated by Soviet soldiers. After a few years, he moved to the Holy Land, and raised a family there. He now lives in Kfar Adumim, just north of Jerusalem, and is a grandfather and great-grandfather. He remains a religious Jew to this day.
This is just one account of many survivors who endured the atrocities carried out by the Nazis, but it is important we hear them and remember this dark time in our history. We stand together during this time of remembrance and say “never again.”