Authors: R. D. Rosen
Sophie and her mother were once again in each other’s daily life, but they kept one secret from each other, and it was the same one: what had happened during the war, and that they each endured their separate realities during those years. Once in a great while, Laura would gently broach the subject of their lives in Poland, but Sophie didn’t want to hear about it. Sophie had learned too well from her mother how to put the past behind her and move forward. She avoided movies and books about the Holocaust, limiting her knowledge of World War II to a single volume, Herman Wouk’s Winds of War. As for psychiatry, that was for others. By 1970, history’s greatest genocide was already the subject of numerous books and movies, remembrance days and academic conferences, even caricature and satire. But it was a subject that Sophie knew almost nothing about.
Sophie had met only a few other hidden child survivors by chance in the New York City area. A fellow resident named Ruth Rosenblatt, herself a survivor, introduced her to a former hidden child she thought Sophie would like. Sophie and Flora Hogman hit it off immediately. The two women were joined not just by history, but also by a similarly wry sense of humor. They also shared something else: frustratingly impaired memories of their childhoods. Sophie referred to her brain as “Swiss cheese.” Flora just liked to say that she couldn’t remember anything.
They met often, including at Flora’s holiday parties, where they practiced equal-opportunity holiday singing, mixing Christmas carols and Hanukkah songs, with some Japanese songs thrown in out of respect for Flora’s Japanese companion, Naka. Yet their bond was real: two child survivors who had been in their forties before they could grieve at last for the little girls who had almost died and who could do nothing to save the parents and relatives who did.
In the spring of 1991, when Flora told Sophie she had been asked to lead a workshop at the Gathering, Sophie decided to attend after all.
Carla’s husband, Ed Lessing, now a sixty-four-year-old graphic designer with a full head of curly brown hair and a short beard tinged with gray, had fought attending the gathering harder than anyone, even though his wife had spent much of the past year helping to make it all happen.
“Aren’t you coming?” Carla had asked him just ten days before, realizing that he’d yet to make a commitment.
“Naw,” he’d told her. “Why should I come? And what would I do there? You’re going to be busy and I will just have to hang around until it’s over.” As far as Ed was concerned, Carla was the Holocaust survivor—or “hidden child,” the new magical term that the media had seized upon. The television networks had already been out to the Lessings’ carriage house in a suburb of the city to interview them while they sat on the new swing set with their grandchildren—the grandchildren who never would have existed had the two of them not been sheltered and saved by Christian strangers.
“Don’t you think it will seem a little strange, Ed, if you’re not there?” Carla said. “The husband of one of the organizers? When you’re also one of us?”
He was still not convinced.
“My own brother is coming from Israel especially for the conference, Ed,” Carla added. “It would be nice if you could be with him.”
Ed relented. Had he not suffered too—suffered in many ways more than his wife?
The remarkable thing, Ed thought, watching the hidden child survivors at the hotel, was the power of repression and denial, and the fear of touching old wounds. Ed had behaved for the entire last year as though none of it concerned him. What did he have in common with these miserable survivors? He prided himself on not being one of these people who came from Poland or Russia and could barely speak English. He had his own graphics design business right here in New York City. In any case, he was, perhaps understandably, not much of an optimist; his philosophy was that he’d seen it all, and the rest was going to be “a repetition of the same damn thing.”
Ed hung out near the registration desk on the seventh floor of the Marriott in Times Square, curious to see what kind of people would show up at the First International Gathering of Children Hidden During World War II. They poured out of the elevators, balding men and freshly coiffed women, most of them in their fifties, with a few, like Ed and Carla, in their sixties and a smattering of people in their forties, born during the war. He stood to the side and watched as they registered at a long table, received their packets, their meal tickets, and pinned their name tags to their shirts and blouses. They looked quizzically at their programs and stopped by tables selling Holocaust-related books. One table, soliciting oral histories of the attendees, belonged to the not-yet-opened United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC.
Within minutes, they were turning to one another, forming clusters, shaking hands, peering at name tags, hugging. The conversations bubbled with a variety of accents and languages. Ed clung to his pride, indulging his lifelong tendency to stand apart and observe. He stood in wonder as some men and women began to cry, their defenses needing only the sight of other hidden children to give way. The air was alive with something hard to describe: a mix of sorrow, history, humanity, connection, and release. Ed inched closer and squinted behind his eyeglasses to see what was on some of the name tags: not just their names, but beneath them, “Hidden in Poland,” “Hidden in France,” “Hidden in Hungary.”
Ed realized that he was looking at the greatest rebuke to Hitler’s evil. The Nazis had murdered Jewish children with an unconscionable single-mindedness and thoroughness. As Himmler pointed out to senior SS officers in 1943, there was no point in “eradicating the men” yet “allowing the avengers in the shape of the children to grow up for our sons and grandsons.” But he had missed a few, and here they were.
Ed blinked and saw not a confusion of middle-aged men and women, but the frightened children they had all once been. In an instant, he crossed over the border from aloofness and began to cry with the rest of them for their losses, and for all the other children who had perished. The dead too had been hidden children; they just hadn’t been hidden long enough. As for the living, they had come so close to death in so many cellars and closets and convents and fields all over Europe, and yet somehow they had all ended up together after forty-five years, members of a secret society of silence, a diaspora that had gone unnoticed and unknown for decades.
I never knew there were so many like me, Ed thought. Everyone he saw was so intimately acquainted with death, harboring a story so implausible, so sad, so haunting, that strangers couldn’t be trusted with it. He was embarrassed. Had it not been for his wife being one of the organizers, he wouldn’t have come. He would have stayed home, safe in his bubble of forgetting.
Bulletin boards had been set up as a central clearinghouse for information of all kinds:
“I am looking for Michel and Paul R. from Antwerp… . we were hiding in the same Flemish village: Belsele …”
“Pour Sara F. nous étions aussi à Trelon au Sanotorium …”
“If you were hiding in Charleroi, 1942–45 …”
“I am looking for the name and address of the convent where I was hidden. Can you please help me find it?”
“If you were in the convent of Egletons …”
“Looking for Clara S. living in Bucharest during the war. Call me …”
“Spent 1941–44 in Transnistria Labor/concentration camp… . Looking to meet anyone from Chernowitz or Transnistria …”
“Looking for classmates from Constantza Romania 1942–44 Jewish community school …”
“I am searching for survivors of the family of Philippe D (Austria) …”
“I am looking for my sister Celeste J… . She was badly wounded in August 1941, in Zaliesciche, Poland, in the crossfire between the Germans and the Polish forces. I last saw her in the town’s hospital—but the next day I was deported and never saw her again… . God bless you for your help in finding my long-lost sister… .”
“To anyone who was in Theresienstadt … did you know at that time a woman named … ?”
On another board were copies of an assortment of notes and letters Jews had tossed out of the cattle cars on the way to the camps, in the hope that they would reach loved ones: “We are going to Poland to work,” one said. “Do not worry about us.”
Ed—and Carla and Flora and Sophie—sat in the hotel ballroom with the others, listening to the Gathering’s opening remarks by Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, the Gathering’s godparent organization. Foxman talked about hidden children’s “struggle to be with other people.” He spoke of the “pressures building over the years… . As our presence here demonstrates today, we can be silent no more. Our presence proclaims the need to speak, to bear witness, to remember the monstrous past that robbed us of our childhoods, and that has cast a shadow on our lives ever since.”
The unbearable randomness of it all hung over the proceedings like a disturbing cloud. The attendees could spend their entire lifetimes trying to ascribe meaning to the events that had marked the difference between their lives and the others’ deaths, and get nowhere at all. How was it that, in Holland, a country that lost three-quarters of its Jewish population, Carla and her immediate family had survived? Why had Flora reached middle age while her mother had not and her best friend Rachel would forever remain an eight-year-old girl with her hand raised at a school desk in Nice, France? What explained the fact that, in the midst of state-sponsored mass murder, Sophie and her mother had stayed alive in Poland under the noses of the very men who wanted to kill them?
MY NAME MAY HAVE BEEN MIRIAM
The most famous child survivor of the Holocaust in the 1950s was not Anne Frank—after all, she didn’t survive—but a young woman named Hannah Bloch Kohner.
NBC television’s This Is Your Life was one of television’s first reality shows, in which host Ralph Edwards surprised a guest, often a celebrity, by reuniting him or her with friends and family members the guest hadn’t heard from in years. The program didn’t shy away from either political controversy or questionable sentimentality, as when guest Reverend Kiyoshi Tanimoto, who had survived the atomic bombing of Hirsohima in 1945, was introduced to the copilot of the Enola Gay.
On May 27, 1953, This Is Your Life ambushed a beautiful young woman in the audience, escorted her to the stage, and proceeded, in a matter of minutes, to package, sanitize, and trivialize the Holocaust for a national television audience. Hannah Bloch Kohner’s claim to fame was that she had survived Auschwitz before emigrating, marrying, and settling in Los Angeles. She was the first Holocaust survivor to appear on a national television entertainment program.
“Looking at you, it’s hard to believe that during seven short years of a still short life, you lived a lifetime of fear, terror, and tragedy,” host Edwards said to Kohner in his singsong baritone. “You look like a young American girl just out of college, not at all like a survivor of Hitler’s cruel purge of German Jews.” He then reunited a stunned Kohner with Eva, a girl with whom she’d spent eight months in Auschwitz, intoning, “You were each given a cake of soap and a towel, weren’t you, Hannah? You were sent to the so-called showers, and even this was a doubtful procedure, because some of the showers had regular water and some had liquid gas, and you never knew which one you were being sent to. You and Eva were fortunate. Others were not so fortunate, including your father and mother, your husband Carl Benjamin. They all lost their lives in Auschwitz.”
It was an extraordinary lapse of sympathy, good taste, and historical accuracy—history that, if not common knowledge, had at least been documented on film. It would be hard to explain how Kohner ever made it on This Is Your Life to be the Holocaust’s beautiful poster girl if you didn’t happen to know that her husband—a childhood sweetheart who had emigrated to the United States in 1938—was host Ralph Edwards’s agent.
Hannah Bloch’s appearance was a small, if crass, oasis of public recognition for Holocaust survivors—and child survivors especially—in a vast desert of indifference. It would be decades before the media showed them this much interest again.
Now, almost thirty-eight years to the day after Kohner’s appearance, child survivors—the hidden ones—were in the spotlight at last, but far more important, they were visible to one another.
Myriam Abramowicz, one of the Gathering’s godmothers, watched as attendees approached the large rolling bulletin board on which survivors had posted photographs from the war years. A photo of seven-year-old Sophie in her communion dress was among them. Despite a sign warning survivors to post copies, a lot of them were precious originals. Two survivors, one a few years older than the other, stood at the wall, arm in arm, studying a photograph of a group of girls.
“I remember you liked tomatoes,” the older one said to the other.
Tears sprang into the younger one’s eyes.
Myriam walked over and asked about the photo.
“We were both in the same home,” the older one explained. “I was twelve and she was seven. She liked tomatoes so much she would trade anything for them in the dining hall.”
“I’m crying,” the younger one said, “because until this moment I really couldn’t remember anything. I had no one to tell me how I was as a child. I have no idea who I was then. My parents never came back, and the whole time has been a blank. But the tomatoes—I can see myself now.”
Unexpected reunions and connections were the norm. A member of the contingent that had come all the way from Poland had, as a baby, been thrown out of a transport train, tightly wrapped in a pillow, and rescued. Now a grandmother, her only clue to the identity of her biological family was her mother’s first name. She was approached by a man at the Gathering who had once lived in her family’s Polish town, had known her parents and older brothers, and now had spotted her in the crowd because of her resemblance to her mother. And so, by chance, she was reunited with her lost family through a stranger’s memories.
For most of those at the Gathering it was the first time they felt safe to share their secrets with anyone. One man even unbuttoned his shirt and showed others the comforting Christian cross he had worn around his neck for years but had never before shown a soul.