by Lisa Ruimy Holzkenner (New York, NY)
This piece is dedicated to the six million Jews and other innocent victims who perished in the Holocaust and to the beloved families left behind.
Years ago, after visiting my family in Israel, I stopped for several hours in Berlin before a connecting flight back home to the U.S.A. I shall never forget the overwhelming feelings of dread I had when I saw the building that once was the headquarters of Hitler’s Nazi regime. The thought that here I was, standing on the soil where the Final Solution was planned to murder six million Jews and other innocent victims, filled me with anguish. I wept. I could not wait to leave the country and vowed that I would never set foot on German soil again.
Several years after my stop in Berlin, a friend and her husband in Israel called, asking me to join them on an organized tour from Israel to Germany. Initially, I declined the invitation. The thought of being in Germany again made me uneasy. As a child, I had lived through the pain of prejudice and persecution just for being Jewish. I remembered the beatings and every syllable of slurs, a traumatic experience that has been like a shadow accompanying me throughout my life.
Also, my late husband was a Holocaust survivor. Except for one brother, the rest of his family were all killed in the Holocaust. The atrocities inflicted on him during the years he spent in several labor camps left psychic scars with which he wrestled the rest of his life. The trauma became a silent phantom; during the day, painful memories were locked away, but at night, when the repressed pain became too much to bear, it burdened his dreams with nightmares, awakening him from a storm of grief, as he called out the names of his perished loved ones. Witnessing his suffering from a wound that would never heal was painful. Many times he expressed the wish that one day he would visit Dachau, the concentration camp from which he was liberated.
Like other survivors he journeyed from darkness to light, striving toward the birth of a new life. We built a family with two wonderful children, and he lived to enjoy our first three precious grandchildren. Like other survivors, the love and pride he took in his children were deep and truly meaningful. Often, my husband would say: “The revenge is to live a successful, meaningful life.” At the age of 93 after a long illness, Samuel Holzkenner (z’l) passed away. His wish to visit Dachau remained unfulfilled.
So, the question of whether to join my friends in Germany rattled around in my head for weeks. After some deliberation, I contacted the administrative office in Dachau. Initially I was told they had no record of a Mr. Holzkenner. But after much correspondence, I finally received an email saying that they had found several documents about my late husband. This information was pivotal in helping deal with my emotional turmoil.
I wanted very much to fulfill my husband’s wish to visit Dachau, and I needed that to happen before memory deserted me, before age took me down. Also, I wanted to impart to my children and grandchildren the beauty and tenacity of their Jewish heritage. But being in a country where my people had been systematically annihilated filled me with anxiety, anger, and fears. My grandfather’s words of wisdom came to mind: “Hate is the seed of evil that tarnishes the soul, while finding creative ways to no longer be a victim is self-healing.” His words inspired me to look into unresolved fears from my past traumatic experiences with prejudice and how they continued coloring my present life. I realized that I had to cultivate a healthier perspective of life. I said to myself, healing only comes through learning to forgive and making peace with the past, and if a lesson is to be learned, one must never forget.
Yes, I thought, why should the good-hearted young German generation be judged by the sins of their fathers or grandfathers? This rekindled awareness imbued me with the strength to join my friends, tour the country, and visit several Jewish historical sites. And on the day my friends returned home, I took the early train to Munich, arriving in the late afternoon. I spent a sleepless night in a hotel. In the still of the night, I cried and awakened. The first crimson hues of dawn brought the promise of a new day, a new hope. Early the next morning, I took the train to Dachau.
In this cataclysmic landscape, I walked with apprehensive steps over the gravel walkway, thinking this is the same path where prisoners in a human chain of misery were forced to walk as they were brought into the camp to meet their demise. The path led toward the main original gate with its motto in German, “Work Sets You Free.” I saw a variety of people of all ages strolling in groups in solemn silence. Everything seemed eerie at this site that was once a killing field. I felt the ashes of the perished ones still permeating the air. I exhaled a long sigh.
As I had been directed, I went straight to the administrative office that preserved the legacy of the victims. The staff there welcomed me warmly. One administrator guided me to a room and we sat down. He asked me several questions to verify who I was before getting up to go to the archive room. When he came back, he provided me with my husband’s background information – his birthplace, date of birth, a list of names of people who were deported with him on the same train, the names of the camps he was in before Dachau—and the identification card Jews had to carry with them at all times. He gave me copies of all the documents.
I felt overwhelmed with sadness and pain at the images this information conjured up in my mind, imagining my husband and others taken from their homes, their families left behind in anguish and fears, the cries of loved ones being separated from loved ones, and the horror that awaited them all. I felt a lump in my throat and tears sprang from my eyes. When I lifted my gaze to the man in front of me, his eyes seemed rimmed with red, as though he was holding back his tears.
He got up and showed me around the place. There was a room where paintings of survivors were displayed, a library, and a big archive room that contained films, relics, photos, written documents about the history of what happened in the camp, eye-witness reports, personal narratives of survivors, and scholarly work. I was filled with a sense of gratitude and extended my thanks to all those involved in maintaining this place as a reminder of history, and as a resource for people like myself who wanted to research and learn about their loved ones’ experiences of the atrocities committed in Nazi Germany. I left the office knowing that the people here were on the right side of history.
I walked along the Path of Remembrance, viewing several Jewish memorial halls and monuments, all of which commemorated the sanctity of those who had perished and solemnly honored the loved ones who survived. A Jewish menorah on the wall displayed the words “Never Again.” Another memorial sculpture in the yard symbolized the emaciated bodies of the prisoners dangling down; underneath was a placard indicating the dates 1933-1945, the years the camp was in use. Also, there was a big sculpture of a menorah and a lectern engraved with the word “Yizkor,” Hebrew for “to remember”; a museum; and other memorial sites to commemorate non-Jews. Utterly chilling were the barracks, the gas chamber, and the crematorium building, all too painful to describe.
As I moved around, I was consumed with grief. How could such a highly cultured nation as Germany descend into such unfathomable depths of barbarism? The question remained beyond my comprehension. I wanted to be alone in some corner, mourning the martyrs in silence. I asked myself, how does one mourn for six million Jews and all the other innocent victims who perished. What prayer shall I recite? I shut my eyes and bowed my head low, and cried for the suffering of humanity as I recited a prayer: “May the souls of the six million Jews, and the millions of others who were victims of Nazi persecution, rest in peace, and their sacred memory last forever and ever. Amen.”
When I opened my eyes, tears still dropping down my face, my heart filled with sadness, I was awake, yet felt physically transported to another time and place, I wished that by some miracle I had been disguised as an invisible eagle, with strong wings that soared over the regions of the world in turmoil, to redirect the tide of history.
I wished that I had been there with the innocent victims yearning to live and be free, to hold their hands as my grandfather held mine once, walking together to the synagogue on Shabbat or the holidays, or to sing to them the first song my mother had sung to me to soothe my fears before bed. Or, that under my wings of love, I could have been their mother, or sister, and together we could have prayed to change the course of the trains and every road that led to their impending doom, and take them to the city of their ancestors that stands on the hill in the Promised Land. Out from the rhythm of my imagination: somehow, I heard voices, I knew they came from a nation in anguish of grief in a prayer asking: “Please, please, never, never again.”
On my way back home, I looked at the gravel paths. Among the stones are the ashes of cremated corpses of which I felt I was a part. Their infinite and indestructible souls are beyond the celestial heavens gazing at us here on earth, reminding us that wherever they are, they will always be part of us, for in the chain of life by many threads we were, we are, and we will always be interconnected, between the land of the dead and the world of the living, ancestors and descendants united. And yes, we must preserve the collective memory and keep truth alive so that these atrocities do not happen again, toward anyone regardless of age, gender, race, color, religion, or creed.
I looked back one more time. I said to myself, I shall continue to mourn the annihilation of the innocents. And yes, I shall never forget. But I am also thankful for the miracle of survival and for the tremendous power of the human spirit to triumph over the extremes of evil. For I know that these monuments are a precious legacy, commemorating all the victims who perished in the Shoah, a symbol of human tragedy.
Before reaching the main street, I picked up a stone as big as a coin cut from the evil of time past, a silent witness. I can’t see it, but I know it is there: engraved on it the word Zachor (remember). The clouds moved in wandering shadows, mirroring my emotions — intense and painful in a complex way. Everything here was, is, and will for eternity remain touched by solemnity and sorrow and tears. Under my breath I said, Hitler did not win; here I am walking out of here as a free Jew, a testament that the Stars of David are not all burned out or destroyed; we still live and shine among the nations of the world.
Just as I was leaving the camp, I met a group of non-Jewish German boys and girls, high school students with their teacher who — from what I could ascertain — was explaining the history of the camp. I was interested to find out what emotions this place stirred in them, so I approached the group and asked in the few words of German I knew, “Do you speak French or English?” The teacher answered, “Yes, I speak English and some students do as well.” I asked, “How do you feel being here?” One of them responded by asking me, “Why are you here?” I told them that my late husband was liberated in this camp, and briefly related my early childhood experiences of persecution.
They were curious and articulate, not shy to ask their own questions. I encouraged their curiosity and answered as best I could. The students told me that they were here as part of their school curriculum that prescribed over 14 hours of instruction in National Socialism of WW II, as well as learning about the Holocaust, including a visit to a concentration camp. They also mentioned that they’d seen Steven Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List. Some expressed a wish for sympathy for their grandparents’ generation and resented being defined by their grandparents’ genocidal history. The past, they said, had so little connection with their immediate lives; they were no longer willing to bear the weight of historical wrongs. Others maintained that the past was still part of their psyche as they continued to struggle with their ethnic inheritance and national collective guilt, trying to make things right with the world.
emotional discourse, we concurred that each generation must create a new culture of its own humanity by playing a unique role in the moral conscience of the world. Inhuman behavior toward any race, gender, age, creed, color, or religion is simply not acceptable. Every individual must seek insight in order to separate darkness from light, for if we are indifferent to the plight of others’ humanity, we will be neglecting the future and risk repeating the past. Moreover, we must be aware of the importance of participating in whatever minuscule manner we can to build a safe, more humane world. In Hebrew, I told the teens, we say, “Tikkun Olam” — a phrase describing the effort to repair the world. Two of the teens broke down in tears, as did I. In their words, I heard remorse and sadness; in their eyes, I saw hope.
Among the swirling clouds I thought heard words wrapped in a celestial rhapsody.
I looked up into the vast sphere, and smiled. I want to believe it was Samuel Holzkenner (z’l), smiling back from above, whispering, “Yes, may the seeds of hope give humankind strength and love to teach them more.”
Lisa Ruimy Holzkenner is a psychoanalyst and family therapist with extensive clinical experience in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder, early childhood development, and couples and family therapy. Born in Morocco, she lived briefly in France and Israel, and has resided in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan for the past 56 years.
Her poem, “Hidden Identities in Transition,” inspired by the Jews of Belmonte, Portugal, and an essay, “When Understanding Comes,” both appeared in The Jewish Writing Project, and her poems and prose have appeared in such publications as Reflections in Poetry and Prose 2015, HaLapid, Chelsea Now, Chelsea Community News, the Israeli Birding Portal (in both English and Hebrew), and, most recently, she was profiled on Senior Planet- “Poetry, Power and Perseverance.” Her photographs have appeared in Dance Studio Life, the Audubon Society Newsletter, and Persimmon Tree, as well in a traveling exhibition on the life of Bayard Rustin.
She has two children, and five grandchildren, for whom she writes storybooks and poetry.