30 January 2009

Holocaust Remembrance: Human faces of tragedy

This year's stories - published in connection with Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27 - touched on survivors in many countries and their stories.

Here are just three: A Connecticut resident who returned to his German hometown and saw how the citizens had restored the synagogue and cemetery, a Texas writer recounting her trip to Terezin with a Holocaust survivor, and two Kindertransport children revealing their stories.

Returning to Wetter

From The Connecticut Post, by managing editor Michael J. Daly

Bridgeport resident Harry Weichsel, 75, recounts his harrowing escape from Nazi Germany as a boy, and his decision to return 16 years ago to Wetter, Germany, where his nightmare had begun. The story focuses on his 5-day November trip to the small town (some 9,000 residents), to a restoration of the old synagogue, a Jewish museum, a restored Jewish cemetery.

This most recent chapter in Harry's odyssey started 16 years ago when he decided to act on his longing to reconcile his own past and present, and a longing, as he put it, "to validate my faith in the intrinsic goodness of man."

In 1992, Harry and daughter Donna flew to Wetter to find people who remembered his mother and grandparents. They met the then-mayor Dieter Rincke, and over the next few years, Harry proposed reclaiming the old synagogue building, making it a place where people could come together, and where they could learn about the town's Jewish heritage.

Ultimately, the town embraced the idea. They secured the building in 2005 and began work. "It's amazing what these people did," Harry said the other day. "You can imagine what the politics might have been. 'Why are we digging all this stuff up from the past?' " he said. "But you know," he said, "the Germans of today are not responsible for the actions of generations before them. These families got together and said we should not deny history, but they made the statement that we are a new generation. We're not going to carry the anger and the guilt forward."
The story caught the eye of an ex-pat American in Barcelona, Micah Brandt, a documentary filmmaker. A portion of his film, "Robbery of the Heart," is online and documents the trip. The group of 10 toured Wetter and a nearby university town, Marburg.

At one point, the current mayor Kai-Uwe Spanka called Harry aside.
"He was crying," Harry said, "and I said 'What's wrong?' and he told me that the Jewish cemetery had been desecrated over night."
Two young men were arrested a few days later. Harry calls it the work of a couple of pathetic losers, and that what stays with him is what the true people of Wetter did.
"It shows what one person, or one little town in this case, can do to set a tone for a larger world in terms of reaching out and celebrating our shared humanity. Harry gave a speech the night before they left. "What did you say?" I asked. He looked at me and said, "I said exactly what I told you I was going to say. I said, 'When people ask me where I'm from, I've told them I'm from Bridgeport. But now, I'm so proud to tell them I'm from Wetter in Hessen in Germany.' "

Visiting Terezin with a survivor

From the Austin (Texas) Statesman, a Terezin travel story, by Becca Hensley, who says that some holidays teach unexpected life lessons.

The door slams shut in the van, encapsulating our small group of strangers in a weighted silence. Outside on the streets, a cold wind blows and the early morning sun casts an orange light on the eerily beautiful buildings of the Jewish Quarter.

The small, baseball cap bedecked man in the front seat turns to us solemnly and looks us each in the eye, as if gaining our unspoken permission — as if to say: "Are you ready for this?" Instead, he introduces himself: "Hello, My name is Pavel Stransky — and I am a survivor."

Nobody says a word. To answer seems somehow inadequate. We wait and slowly the van moves along the ancient streets of the Jewish Quarter, crosses a bridge that spans the Vltava River and continues to the edge of the castle district. We're heading to Terezin, a place of suffering, a former concentration camp 40 miles from the city.

In Prague, Wittman Tours offers intimate tours of the city and its environs. For Terezin tour, Holocaust survivors are the guides. Along the way, Stransky tells stories.

"Some people said that Terezin was not a concentration camp," he says, wistful, shaking his head and looking out the window at the passing landscape. "But for the old, the very young, the sick, it was a place of extermination." Indeed.

They visit a gallery filled with art created by the inhabitants, which says more than words. He tells his story and those of others, as they visit the Ghetto Museum, railway, crematorium, underground factory, a hidden prayer room and other locations.

Most amazing, is Stransky's infectious joy and wit, his sense of humor amid the gloom. "My testimony is my gratitude for my survival," he says. "I am a messenger." He makes a true connection with my children, who are enthralled. My daughter confides in me that she wants to give him a hug and hold his hand. He's vulnerable, but strong — and she knows it. Spritelike, he leans over both of the kids, looking into their eyes soulfully — he transmits history to them. This is one of the best — and most difficult — days of our lives.

The story includes travel and hotel details for readers planning their own visits.

The Ultimate Sacrifice

In the Coventry Telegraph (UK), a story by Cara Simpson about the remembrance ceremony held in that town, focusing on twins Susi and Lotte Bechofer who, at age 3, and Gerda Lewin Kerr, who arrived at age 7, both on Kindertransport.

Their mother was aware she might never see them again, but she also knew it was the only way of saving them from the persecution of the Nazis.

Susi, who now lives in Rugby, was one of 10,000 young war refugees taken out of Germany just before the Second World War on what became known as Kindertransport.

It probably saved them the horror of the Nazi death camps.

Adopted by a childless Welsh Baptist minister and his wife, near Cardiff, their identity was stripped away.

Susi became Grace and Lotte became Eunice. They were told never to ask about their past. The twins were brought up as Christians, never knowing of their Jewish ancestry and that their mother had perished at Auschwitz.

Lotte fell severely ill with a brain tumour and she was to die at the age of 35. Susi suffered years of cruelty at the hands of her foster father.

Susi, now in her 70s, first came across her real identity as she entered an exam room to take her O-levels and was told to sit in the B section – B for Bechhofer.

Only in her 50s, did Susi finally discover the truth: her mother, Rosa Bechhofer, was unmarried; her father, Otto Hald, was a Nazi soldier.

Inspired after hearing a radio program about Kindertransport, Susi (a psychotherapist) found relatives in New York whom she later visited.

“I think my mother stood up to hatred the day she put both me and my sister on to the Kindertransport,” she said. “Knowing what she did makes me respect her even more because it takes a lot of courage to stand up to hatred and there’s a real need for it today.

“It’s thanks to people like my mother who made the ultimate sacrifice of sending their children away that the story is still being told.”

Susi wrote a 1996 book titled Rosa’s Child.

Recalling her early years, Susi said: “Those who grow up with loving families cannot understand what it is like to grow up without a single relative in the world.

“I had become more and more lost as the years went by. I was depressed and it was becoming increasingly difficult to mobilise myself. My life became quite dark and gloomy.

“It really was like a fairy-story to find my family.

“The clouds have lifted and I do feel wonderful after all that pain.”

The Coventry event was the first time Gerda Kerr, 76, had gathered with other survivors. She was 7 when she fled Germany on Kindertransport.

The grandmother-of-three said: “I’m quite apprehensive really as I’ve never been to anything like it before and there are people who have experienced it all first hand, whereas my only experience is that I had to leave my homeland.

“I was lucky, very lucky indeed. I may have been young but I have a good memory. I was old enough to know what was going on and how devastating it was.

“I just hope history doesn’t repeat itself although hatred is happening all around us today.”

Read the complete stories at the links above.

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