June Neal recently participated in the Adult International March of the Living. She joined Jews from around the world for a week in Poland visiting concentration camps and restored historic Jewish sites, followed by a week in Israel celebrating Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Memorial Day), Yom Hazikaron (Israel Memorial Day) and Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israel Independence Day).
“I knew the program would be emotionally exhausting,” she says. “But never could I anticipate Paul and Leah.”
Paul Fryberg is an 86-year-old survivor of Auschwitz-Birkenau who made the 20-hour trip from Australia with his daughter Yvonne. He’s a sweet, large man with rapid speech and a thick Aussie accent. Like most survivors, Paul said he would never return to Poland, but now he had a mission. After 67 years, he’d located his father’s grave in the medieval Lodz cemetery; and he returned to give him a funeral.
Paul was a teenager in Lodz when the Nazis herded his family into the ghetto. When his father’s legs became too swollen to work, a German soldier shot him in the head; the Judenrat gave Paul the photo the Nazis took for evidence. His mother and sister were burned, he believes, at Chelmno. Waiting for transport to Auschwitz-Birkenau, he recalled how the local Polish kids would make throat-slicing gestures and call out “Zhid, Zhid.”
When our group visited Birkenau, Paul remembered Dr. Mengele, silently awaiting the doomed coming off the trains, using a single finger to direct them right or left: immediate death or slave labor.
The next day, we walked to Paul’s father’s grave among the astounding headstones of the medieval Lodz cemetery that told a story of this once thriving Jewish cultural center of some 223,000 Jews before World War II. I could feel Paul’s arm trembling through his thin marcher’s jacket, although he was steady. But when we began to recite kaddish, this gentle old man collapsed over the grave, sobbing for his father like the lost child he was.
Later, Paul confided he was afraid he’d be alone with his daughter at the gravesite. Instead, he cried with joy to see dozens of us, from all over the world, now his congregation.
A week later, we gathered in Israel’s Safra Square for our march to the kotel to celebrate Israel’s Independence Day. Music, dancing, flags from Panama, France, Brazil, the UK, Australia, the U. S., Argentina, and more. Everyone cried as Paul lead his contingent, carrying the Australian flag to the Western Wall.
It was pouring when we visited the women’s barracks at Birkenau, not far from Mengele’s house of horrors. It was dim inside and I had no idea what was taking place: Leah Herman, an elderly survivor living in Israel, had come to say kaddish for her lost family.
Leah was a 12-year-old Hungarian Jew and small for her age when she arrived at Birkenau. They stripped and shaved her, gave her a huge cotton dress, and wooden shoes. Nothing else.
They stood in their thin cotton rags in freezing weather during “roll call.” If anyone was missing, they’d stand until the escapee was caught, even if it took all night. In the meantime, the Nazis randomly shot prisoners.
When the siren went off, you had to run into your barracks immediately or you would be shot. Once Leah was caught too far away; terrified she ran into the closest one. She was amazed to find her auntie there, the only family member left! Auntie heard the Nazis would be choosing another work force: it was a chance they had to take. Auntie stood Leah on some bricks in a back row of the review line and pinched her cheeks to make her appear taller and healthier.
The work force walked four miles a day, no matter the temperature; they were given two slices of moldy bread. Nothing else.
The sleeping bunks were rough wooden slats in layers of three, with room for two or three people in each. The Nazis forced in six to eight. (More could fit as their bodies wasted away.) Leah remembered how everyone wanted a top bunk because, as people died above, their body fluids would spill onto you.
She survived the four-day death march to Bergen-Belsen, which was worse than Birkenau. At Birkenau, at least she saw workers. Bergen-Belsen had only corpses.
They marched with no food, no water, no toilets. They ate dirt along the road. Later, the lice covered her body so thickly that when she flicked them with a finger, they’d fall off in clumps. She contracted typhus and tuberculosis, a living skeleton when the Russians liberated her. Leah made a new life in Israel.
As she told her story, I held onto a slat of a middle bunk. I was reaching out to ghosts, but it was all I had.
Like Paul, Leah cried when she turned to see dozens of us reciting kaddish with her. The ten tiny candles glowed brighter than chemistry should allow.
Even in Poland, splattered with so much evidence of human venality, the Holocaust can be grasped only a piece at a time. As we left the camp, someone noted that the liberation photos of Auschwitz don’t show the leafy trees and grass we were looking at. Someone answered: “That’s because it was winter then and the snow covered the grass.”
“No,” Paul said, “There was no grass. We ate it.”
June Neal is a freelance writer, editor and former feature writer for Northeast Magazine and has contributed to the Jewish Ledger and other publications. She is a member of Connecticut’s PRIMER (Promoting Responsibility in Middle East Reporting).