Written by Mimi Sieradzki (Machaneh Moshava), for a tekkes at Auschwitz.
My Grandpa Ben grew up in Zgierz, Poland, a town outside Lodz (the second largest city in Poland, southwest of Warsaw). He had 2 sisters and 2 brothers – Mendel, Isaak, Chanah, and Bluma. He was the youngest of the 5 and had a beautiful young childhood – he loved biking and going to a small pond near his house. He was 12 when the Germans started the war by invading Poland. He and his family had to walk around with Jewish stars on their sleeves and faced a lot of discrimination and hate from non-Jewish Poles as well as the Germans. He and his family were forced to move to the Lodz Ghetto, where they were starved, forced to work, and crammed into a tiny apartment. Later his parents were taken from the Lodz Ghetto and murdered by the Nazis at the Chelmno extermination camp, and eventually he was separated from everyone in his family and sent to Auschwitz, and then to Ahlem, a slave labor camp in Germany. By the end of the war, his parents and sisters were killed and his brothers, who spent the war in Russian POW camps, were able to reunite with him in Sweden, where he had been sent to recover from the camps.
When the Holocaust ended, my Grandpa was 18. He weighed less than 80 pounds from being starved, was extremely sick, and mentally scarred from years of being starved, beaten, torn away from his family and treated less than human. After reading my Grandpa’s memoir and hearing stories from my dad and uncle, I know how many horrifying, dehumanizing, and near-death experiences my Grandpa went through, and it makes me disgusted, upset and so angry. But mostly it makes me confused. Even though I know all of the horrible things he went through – especially at Auschwitz – and I know he suffered from PTSD and insomnia, and probably some degree of fear and paranoia his whole life, that wasn’t the Grandpa that I knew.
Considering the dehumanization he went through for so long, he was the most kind, loving and lively person I know, filled with spirit and warmth. He could be stubborn and irritable, understandably, but he was so silly, had the best sense of humor, was creative, smart, an amazing cook and could fix anything. When I was growing up, he read Tintin comics with me, cooked homemade jam, played Lincoln Logs with me, and fixed up a little play house in his backyard in Berkeley for my sisters and me to play in. He always told me stories – he was an amazing, dramatic storyteller, and my sisters and I loved spending hours listening to him talk. He would tell me stories from his childhood. For example, one time when he went in the woods with his brother and heard a wild boar running through the forest, and had to climb up a tree quickly with his brother to hide from the boar. He also told me stories from the Holocaust. It’s interesting now to think about the stories he chose to tell me, especially since everything I remember is from the perspective of a kid (he died when I was 13.)
My favorite story he ever told me was about how a dog saved his life at Auschwitz. He said that all the prisoners got lined up and were getting evaluated and split into two lines – one for the group to be sent to slave-labor camps, and the other one for people to be killed in the gas chambers. At the time he was very weak and skinny and was scared he would be sent to his death. When he got to the front of the selection line, the Nazi told him to go to the line on the right, of people being sent to die. But at that moment, another Nazi walked up to the soldier with a dog to tell him something, and the Nazi in charge of selection turned around and pet the dog. My grandpa sprinted away to the left line of people who would live, and hid among the prisoners. This story always stuck with me and I love it for so many reasons. First of all because I love dogs and as a kid I loved to think about a dog helping my Grandpa. I also love the story because it brings humanity into the Holocaust, and it shows my Grandpa’s bravery, youth spirit and will to live.
He also would tell me about how he did everything he could to stay with his sisters and keep them alive when they were together in the Lodz Ghetto. No matter what close to death experiences he went through, his love for his family never died. After the war, he had to advertise in a newspaper to find his brothers.
He also told me about how he went to school illegally in the ghetto and that he always had the drive to learn. He knew Yiddish, Polish, German, and some Hebrew, even though he never even finished middle school or went to high school. Later when he was liberated and went to Sweden, he learned Swedish, got odd jobs, went to technical school and eventually became a mechanical engineer. When he came to the U.S. with the help of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), he learned English, worked in the food processing industry and held several patents for machines. He invented a machine that cuts the vegetables into squares for Campbell’s soup, the machine that shapes ground beef into McDonalds quarter-pounder burgers, and a machine that put the filling in pies, among others.
I loved hearing these stories and thinking about his acts of resistance, whether it was running away and hiding from the Nazis, stealing food for his friends and family, and escaping death camps to get to work camps – or if it was fighting for the will to love and to learn. To love his friends and family members in the face of utter evil, and to continue learning and discovering is his resistance.
Sometimes the Holocaust feels so overwhelming and horrifying. Learning about it just feels like reading a horror story or having a bad nightmare. And even for me, it’s hard to think about how personal this is and it’s hard to accept how deeply this has affected my life. I have almost no family on my dad’s side, because almost all of my Grandpa’s family perished in the Holocaust. I have cousins in Sweden who I’ve never met, who are descendants of my Grandpa’s brothers who survived. Some of these cousins came to my parents’ wedding and Lily’s bat mitzvah.
Also, just think about how much your parents have affected who you are. Think about how much your friends and your community has affected who you are. My Grandpa affected my dad so much, and my dad has passed this onto me and my sisters. While this includes a sense of humor, creativity,and loving kindness, it also includes an inherited trauma. A deeply rooted fear for the Jewish people. And also a huge importance for the celebration and expression of Judaism, and involvement in the Jewish community.
I learned a few really important things from my Grandpa:
- He wanted to be remembered as a human being, as a real person who lived through the Holocaust and did everything he could to bring life and humanity into his and other people’s lives. I know that he wanted all the horrors of the Holocaust to be talked about and remembered (especially American Jews, since when he came to America almost no one was willing to talk about the Holocaust with him – except my Grandma). But he also wanted to be remembered for the things he did, ways he resisted, and the people he cared for and who cared for him.
- He didn’t want to be seen as special, as the most clever or brave or strong for surviving. He struggled his whole life with feeling guilty – he never understood why he survived and so many others died. He wanted to be remembered as lucky. He had so many close to death experiences, like when he was mining at a work camp and a rock came loose from the ceiling and fell and crushed and killed his work partner standing right next to him. He definitely resisted – he hid, escaped, had an incredible will to live – but he was very lucky, and that’s something he always wanted me to remember.
- When he was liberated, he went to a hospital and rehab facility in Sweden, and after living there for a few years and going to school he had to decide to go to Israel or America. He decided to go to America because it was 1953 and there was a lot of fear and threats of war in Israel right after it had been established, and it wasn’t clear if Israel would continue to exist. His questions revolving around religious expression and Jewish identity remind me so much of the same questions we struggle with – living in America safely as a Jew, but at risk of assimilation and not being fully able to express Judaism; or living in Israel, fully able to express and celebrate Judaism, but in a state of fear of violence from powerful neighboring countries. I also recently found out that in my Grandpa’s childhood home in Zgierz, he lived in an building that had 3 floors. The bottom was a retail store, the middle was his family’s apartment, and the top was a garin of socialist Zionist Jews doing a hachshara (preparation for work on a kibbutz) and planning on making Aliyah. He never found out if they made it to Israel or died in the Holocaust, but I thought this was so interesting and so relevant to the questions of our year and life. It made me really think that the questions of the Jewish people and their needs during my Grandpa’s generation and our generation maybe aren’t that different.
- I know that to my Grandpa, his family (my grandma, dad, uncle, my mom, my sisters, and me) represented survival and resistance. He represented the resilience of the Jewish people, expression of true identity. We represented freedom to him.
It’s complicated to talk about my Grandpa and characterize him. I can’t say that when he survived and created a new life for himself in America, that he was fully happy or ever recovered. He always had PTSD, to the point where he couldn’t even come to fireworks shows with us on 4th of July because the fireworks sounded too much like bombing from attacking warplanes. But the Grandpa I knew was loving, kind, silly, and so fun. And he was always looking out for me.
Like one time, Lily and I wanted to walk to the library alone when we were really young, but got lost walking there and didn’t know what to do. My Grandpa had anticipated that it would happen and had been following us from a distance, to let us feel independent but to look out for us. And right when we didn’t know what to do, he came and helped us find the way. Another time when we went to the Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington, D.C. with him, he came up to me and gave me a chocolate bar and said, “Shhhh! don’t tell your sisters I gave you this.” Of course later I told my sisters, and they told me he had done the same thing to them! He always wanted to make us feel special and loved, and had such a sense of humor in doing that.
I think the saddest thing about the Holocaust is all the stories that are lost. Every person that died in the Holocaust had families, stories, thoughts and memories. When I think about how complicated of a person my Grandpa was, and how many things he had to talk about and what he contributed to the world, it’s hard for me to think about how many more people there were that we will never know who they were or what happened to them. That’s why it feels so important to me to talk about his childhood, his life outside the Holocaust, his friends, his family, and his acts of resistance to preserve humanity while he was in the Holocaust. It’s hard for me to find words to explain this, but I really loved my Grandpa so much and it’s so horrifying to think about someone you love going through the Holocaust. But I’m pushing myself to read about his story and talk about it, but also remember him for the way I knew him, as a really amazing, wise, kind, funny and full person.
My Grandpa was a survivor, I am a survivor, all of us are survivors. We are the seeds of hope of the Jewish people, we are the future. We have the will to live, the pride in our Jewish identity, and we have the deeply rooted fear and knowledge of what happened to really never let it happen again. And not just not let it happen – but build a better world with no anti-Semitism or oppression of any peoples, that allows us to fully express ourselves and be who we are. My Grandpa would be proud of us for building such a beautiful and supportive Jewish community and for making it such a priority in our lives. Just like my Grandpa, we need to feel deeply affected by and connected to this, but remain strong enough to continue living and finding meaning in our lives.