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A Holocaust Survivor's Reflections on a Grandson's Graduation

Except for the year from May of 1944 to May of 1945, my life has been very satisfactory. However, that one year left an indelible mark upon my life, a mark which affects me still. It was the year my relatives and I spent in four Nazi German concentration camps: Auschwitz, Warsaw, Dachau, and Muhldorf. 

My family and I were deported, along with the Jews of Hungary, from my hometown of Munkacs. Our German captors killed us and burned us in ovens, or changed us from comfortable middle class persons to starving, filthy slaves. Over half of my extended family were killed in Auschwitz, including my baby brother Solomon, and my Grandmother Irene Gottesmann. Fortunately, both of my parents survived.

After World War II, with the help of my mother’s brother, and my father’s brother who had migrated to the US before the War, and their respective spouses, we arrived in St. Louis in 1946, just one year after our liberation. One of the earliest survivor-refugee groups to be rescued from the graveyard that was Europe.  Thus, we were spared the long sojourns in the displaced persons camps in Germany where some not as lucky as we, waited for as long as five years among the erstwhile murderers of Jews  to restart their lives.

My father was 43 when we arrived. He had been a successful practitioner of medicine in Munkacs, and he was determined to continue to practice medicine in the US. His motto was “I can break iron”.  By 1948 he had completed a year of internship and a year of residency, had learned sufficient English to communicate with his patients, and to pass the state board examination in Illinois. In the summer of 1948 he opened his medical office, and quickly became successful again. His income kept us comfortable and enabled him to support me through medical school. My mother and he were also very charitable, providing support to schools, synagogues, and children’s homes, particularly in Israel.

With hard work and the support of relatives, friends and mentors I was able to succeed as an academic physician, and with the love and support of my wife we raised three splendid children who in turn gave us seven grandchildren. 

While my parents were able to retain their trust in God and continued to observe the practices of traditional Judaism, despite their losses, I was left with many questions relating to theodicy. Soon after the liberation, I made a pact with God to the effect that if He left me alone and did me no more “favors” such as the Holocaust, I would not bother Him. My attitude has softened with the years but I have remained skeptical of religion.

Nevertheless, I continue to believe that the Jews are a meritorious group who has contributed disproportionately to the culture and welfare of the world, and certainly had as much right as any other group to survive as a people.  In order to survive, each generation has to assume the responsibility of assuring the education of its offspring, in Jewish history and in the ways of our people. Metaphorically, I was going to assume my share of the responsibility for continuing the millennial “golden chain” that represents the survival of Jews generation by generation. For this reason, despite my own skepticism about theology and religion, Miriam and I kept a traditional kosher home, and affiliated strongly with the American and Israeli Jewish communities. We sent our own children to Jewish day schools, and strongly supported the attendance of our grandchildren. Thus, all three of Josh’s and Suzanne’s sons attend the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School (JDS) in Rockville, MD. It is a splendid school, housed in beautiful buildings and offers strong programs of both Hebrew and general studies. I have spoken of the Holocaust to some of the classes, and Miriam and I have attended several ceremonies at JDS involving our grandchildren, to our great joy.

On June 11, 2009 we visited Josh’s and Suzanne’s family, and on the 12th attended Brian’s graduation from grammar school. The 6th grade contains 115 children, divided into several sections. Brian, a lovely child, a gifted baseball player and comic, is the middle child of my oldest son, Josh and his wife Suzanne. Next fall he enters the middle school.

The ceremonies are not complicated. They began at 8AM with a welcome by the leader of the Hebrew program, an Israeli. Followed by the traditional morning service, for which the men donned phylacteries and prayer shawls. It was led by members of the class taking turns in groups of four, from the elevated dais in the center of the synagogue.  It concluded with more speeches.

 The prayers consisted of much singing, accompanied on the piano by the music teacher. Most of the songs were sung by every 6th grader, and many by the whole audience of about 500 relatives and friends. The mixed choir of children’s voices was high-pitched, very beautiful and affecting. It would have been beautiful had they sung any number of musical pieces, but it was particularly affecting for me because the songs were in Hebrew, and the words consisted of the prayers I had learned as a child, and had sung in the synagogue in Munkacs. My eyes began to shed copious tears, soaking my handkerchief.  My attempts to retain my composure were unsuccessful.   The tears were not tears of bitterness, but tears of gratitude. Despite Hitler’s best attempts to annihilate us, the golden links of our generations continue. The children are educated in our ways and proud and happy in their Jewishness.  I thanked God for his kindness and prayed that our progeny would be permitted to continue to live their lives as Jews, without shame, and undue suffering.  Hodu l’hashem ki tov, ki l’olam chasdo.