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Thursday, February 11, 2010

Sala, More than a Survivor

The book SALA,MORE THAN A SURVIVOR, is a story about a 10 year old girl who was left alone to wander the streets of Poland after her family was taken away by the Nazi's. The story is told through a ten year old girls eyes but without a doubt when you read today's section of her story you will want to read more.

The book is available at & www.barnes& The net proceeds from this book go to the Holocaust Museum in Illinois and Washington. There is also a tape of SALA LEWIS at several of the museums that is used as an educational tool for visitors. Sala is still alive and a frequent speaker at the Illinois Holocaust Museum.

I was only ten years old when this all began, losing all the innocence of youth but gaining strength with each breath After all the evidence that exists there are those who feel the Holocaust never existed. I hope in my lifetime I will never have to face anyone who tells me it didn’t happen. It’s certainly unbelievable what a person goes through. Who can explain or even try to understand why I am here to tell my story and millions of others are not?

I have been taking on speaking engagements, difficult as they are for me, to help all of us who have suffered through the tragic events of the Holocaust. As a member of the last generation to have gone through the Holocaust, I feel an obligation to expose the truth for what it was. Don’t my parents, brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles deserve at least this much?

As I have stood before strangers and opened my heart to them, I feel a sense of accomplishment .I don’t use notes and I don’t prepare speeches. What I speak are the words of truth that are in my heart and can never be erased, even by time.
There is nothing stronger than a person or weaker than a person. We may be tested many times over and we may at some times want to give up, but when we are pushed against a wall and forced to make that choice, each time we must choose life.

The question is to be curious
To be curious is to care
To care is to love
To love is to forget
But if we forget
Who will answer the questions
Who will be there
To make sure
The deaths of our loved ones
Will have not have been in vain,
So please don’t ask us to forget
The pain and the sadness
The outburst and
The tears
They belong to us
They are dreams,

They are the sparks of light
That survive in us
To remind us
Of love and honor
And of being who we are
We have been spared by G-d
To hold in our hearts
All that is dear to us,
For we as a people have
We are not just Jews
We represent honor
And courage

We are the inspiration
We represent love,
We are not only survivors
We are teachers
We are friends
We are the assurance that
The Holocaust did happen
We are here to repeat
The facts
So it can’t happen again,
Yes, we are the reminders
But you my children
You are the future
You have the power
To say no
We didn’t …

I was ten years old when the Germans separated my family. It happened so quickly we didn’t even get to say goodbye. We lived in Sosnowicz, Poland, and all we were told was the Germans needed workers. There were no choices. When the Germans came to get you, you went. If you didn’t go, you were killed. That was the beginning of the end.
I never dreamt that I’d never see my family again. It wasn’t supposed to happen that way. My parents were going to grow old together. We were going to share our lives together, the good times, the bad times and everything in between. Then in a flash, everything changed.

The Germans took my family away from me, one by one. I never quite understood why, but they told me it was because we were Jewish. I was taught not to question, so I didn’t.

Then the day came, the final separation. I had gone out to play for a short while but when I returned, I came home to an apartment that had been sealed off and I wasn’t allowed in.

I never did see the inside of that apartment again, but I can still remember the joy we shared every evening at dinnertime. We sang songs and told jokes. Sometimes we didn’t sing that well or tell terribly funny jokes, but we had each other. That was the feeling I liked best.
Salucia was my birth name but everyone called me Sala, the name I prefer.

I was born on a snowy, cold Christmas day. My father, Simon, was a butcher and my mother, Eve, was a wonderful homemaker. I was one of eight children three girls and five boys – Karl, Phillip, David, Kamek, Hanusz, Toby and Dora. Dora was the light of my life, and as the years passed she was the one who got me through it all. Without her, I never would have survived. She was my lucky penny.

Long ago, I learned never to take anything for granted. That’s how I got through the hard parts, especially the loneliness. At the very beginning, they told us the work camps were just places to work, nothing more. When Dora left, she promised she would write, and she did just enough to let us know she was alive. When her letters came, mother was so happy and so was everyone else. We took turns reading the letters over and over again. Usually on those days, dinner was special and mother didn’t seem as angry. But then there was the next, and there were no letters. Those were the bad days. The very, very bad days.

As the days passed, I missed Dora so much more than I thought I would. There was nothing very different about our relationship. We were sisters. We fought a little, yelled a bit and sometimes we even had fistfights. We were rather ordinary, so I guess it was normal to miss even those fights. And I did.
We lived in a very small apartment, which even in the best of circumstances made for some pretty rough times. But all and all, I think we all started to miss the squabbles and the “he said this,” and “she said that” after Karl, Phillip and David left for the work camps.

Our family was getting smaller, and day by day, my mother and father were growing older. They didn’t say much, and maybe that was part of the problem. The Gestapo came, they took and we suffered, but we didn’t talk about it.

Every night at the dinner table, our conversation was less and less. In fact, what used to be such a special time of the day became my least favorite. Sometimes I pretended to have a stomachache, just so I wouldn’t have to sit there and look at the empty chairs.

Late at night, I used to lay awake and think about the good times. There was one particular evening that was right up there with the best of the memorable times. It was Chanukah.

Mother had just brought the last batch of latkes to the table. Phillip looked at David, Dora looked at me and we all looked at Karl, hoping he would get the message. In a minute or two, we knew our message had been well received. Karl walked over to the gramophone and looked at Mother. She could read his mind as well as any one of us. She nodded to Karl and he turned on the music. One by one, we all got up to dance and sing, all except Father. He just watched.

Then, as always, Mother grabbed his hand and tried to get him up to dance. Usually he said no, but not that night. That night he danced. I watched Mother and Father holding each other tightly as they danced, hoping someday to have someone love me the way my father loved my mother.
I overheard my father as he whispered to my mother, “Eva my dear, we may never be rich but look ... look at our children. This is what we posses. No man could ever want more.”

The next night, the Gestapo came. That was only the first visit. There would be many others to follow, as well as reminders of what each day might bring. It was the constant fear of the visits that upset my father the most, especially the night before Dora left for the work camp.
I can still feel the pain as I remind myself of Dora’s last night at home. My family thought I was sleeping, but after overhearing their conversation, I didn’t sleep a wink.

My father watched as Dora packed a small bag. “When you come back my child, I will not be here,” he said. “So you go tomorrow and remember to do whatever you have to to stay alive. I promise you life will offer you more, much more, but never give up what you believe in. Never.”
Dora’s voice quivered as she spoke. “Don’t say that. You will be here when I return. I know you’ll be here. You just have to.”
“Dora, listen to me,” my father said. “I’ve had my life. When I stand back and take a good look at all my children, I can ask for no more. I have no right.”
“You have every right,” Dora said, as she put her arms around Father and gave him a great big hug. “Of course, you have every right, we are family. We belong together, and we will be together again. G-d will have it no other way.”

All night I tossed and turned, wondering why I wanted so much more than anyone else. My dreams were of acting and performing on stage. What if the Gestapo took me? I wouldn’t go. I would tell them no way and ask them to go. Why didn’t Dora do that? She should have done that.

As the days and nights passed, our entire community of Jewish friends was slowly being taken away. It was a slow process with quite an effect on everyone. Father didn’t smile as much as he used to and Mother kept herself busy. She cooked and cleaned and cleaned and cooked, and when she heard bad news, she cleaned some more.

We didn’t talk about what was happening, but it was quite evident to me we were no longer the happy family we used to be. Every time I looked into my father’s eyes, they were red and swollen. I knew he had been crying, but he never admitted to it. It was becoming more difficult to pretend our situation wasn’t critical, but as long as my family pretended, so did I. I had become very good at pretending. We all had.
Days would pass without changes. However, when my older brother Karl’s wife Lusia and their son Jurek came to live with us, things did change. Father talked a bit more and Mother sometimes even smiled. Having a baby in the house eased the tension a bit for us, but not for Lusia. Every day we waited for the mailman, hoping to hear from Karl, but there were no letters. There were never going to be any letters.
As if enough hadn’t happened, Lusia had gone out to get some milk and never returned. After three hours of pacing back and forth at the window, my father went out to see if he could get anyone to tell him what happened. We knew it was getting worse.

When he finally did return and my mother saw the look on my father’s face, she cried out to him, “They took her. The Gestapo, they took her. Oh my G-d.”
It was horrible watching little Jurek standing at the door, waiting for his mother to come home. It was days later when we finally found out Lusia wouldn’t be coming back. That’s when I began to write letters to myself. I needed to feel as if I was doing something that mattered.

To Me -
Maybe if I were a little older or a little smarter, I would understand just what was happening. Sometimes late at night when everyone was sleeping, I would get up and look outside. All I ever saw was darkness. I didn’t see the soldiers marching and I couldn’t hear the cries. I don’t know if it’s just the beginning or the very end. Why doesn’t someone tell me something?

It was a day like any other. As I raced up the stairs, I waved goodbye to my friends. When I got to my apartment, I knew something was wrong. Our apartment was sealed off and I couldn’t get in. My family was gone and no one knew where they were.
I tried not to panic, but I was scared. I didn’t understand what had happened and why they didn’t wait for me. I didn’t know what to do, so I ran outside and into the street. I knocked on the neighbors’ doors, but no one knew what had happened to my family.

Finally, I ran to the schoolyard after someone on the street said my parents would be there. I had to keep wiping my eyes as the tears kept falling from my eyes. When I walked around the back, I could see my mother in the window.
As she waved to me, I moved closer toward the window. I called out to her, “I want to be with you. Take me with you Mother, I’m afraid.”
“Salusia, my child,” Mother said as she called back to me. “Do not be afraid. I will wait for you up here. But first you must run to your aunt’s house and get some money to buy candy for the children.”
I looked up at my mother and shouted. “Please don’t do this to me. I want to be with you.”
“You will,” she said, as she called down to me.
“Where’s father?” I asked.
Mother shrugged her shoulders and motioned for me to go. As always, I did as she asked. While walking away, I couldn’t help but wonder why my younger brother, sister and Jurek were with her but I wasn’t. I looked back and waved goodbye.
Mother waved back and said, “I’ll be here when you return.”
But she wasn’t. No one was. That was the last time I ever saw them.

That night I wandered the streets, hoping Father would be out there somewhere. When I got tired, I walked back to our apartment, where I sat on the steps hoping my father would come back to find me. Somebody should have, but nobody did. Instead, I woke up sitting on the stairs alone. I couldn’t help but feel abandoned. I was.
Finally, I realized I was on my own. Even my aunts and uncles wouldn’t take me in. No one wanted the extra burden. One time, my uncle sent me out some scraps of food to eat, to be eaten outside only. They were afraid I would bring in unwanted germs. The hell with the germs, I thought. What about me? Doesn’t anybody realize I’m still a little girl, a scared little girl?

The hours turned into days and the days turned into weeks. I never slept in the same place twice. As I roamed from place to place, I heard bits and pieces about the Germans and the horrible things they were doing to my people, just because we were Jewish. None of it made any sense, but it did make me cry a lot. I tried my best not to think of my family being tortured or worse than that. Word of the death camps left me sleepless and afraid to close my eyes. I tried to have faith in G-d, but sometimes I wondered if there really was a G-d. I was certain if there was one, how could he let this happen? And more than how, why?

To Me -
Maybe if I could have kissed my mother and father goodbye, I wouldn’t feel so empty. Maybe if I were with them, I could close my eyes at night and not see their faces. Maybe if I didn’t love my brothers and sisters so much, it wouldn’t hurt so much not to see them again. Maybe if I would stop crying, I would feel better. Maybe this and maybe that. Maybe if I closed my eyes and pretended I wasn’t me, I wouldn’t be. Yes, I think I’d like that a lot.

Sometimes I would imagine myself kicking the German Gestapo when it was my turn to go. I thought myself stronger than most and certainly able to defend myself. But when a Nazi soldier holds a gun to your head, you weaken. I certainly did.
Then the inevitable happened. It was my turn. I was part of a large Jewish cleanup. The Nazis took both the young and the not so young. Men, women and children were ordered to march. Despite the pouring rain, we did as they said.

At a distance, I could hear the chanting of other kids. Those that chanted were referred to as Hitler’s kids. “Kill the Jews. Kill the Jews. Jews are no good.” Even when they weren’t calling out to us, I could hear their voices bellowing in my ears.

Everything about that evening will never leave my mind. The Gestapo treated us horribly. We weren’t allowed to sit or lie down. We had to stand the entire night. Several times that night, I wanted to scream out at the top of my lungs, “Please dear G-d don’t do this to us,” but I didn’t.

When morning came and the rain stopped, I looked around at all the men, women and children who had made it through the night. I couldn’t help but wonder if they were as afraid as I was. We never spoke to each other, but at that moment I knew I might never know their names but would never forget their faces.
Several daylight hours had passed before the Gestapo started to do what was referred to as a roundup, arranging groups depending on age and capabilities to be transported to Auschwitz and Treblinka, the known death camps.

The commotion caused unrest among all of us. Tears were shed and screams were heard. Then all of a sudden, the Gestapo started to randomly shoot at us, especially the young babies. I was sick to my stomach as I watched the Gestapo laugh as they tossed babies into the air and shot them.

A young woman with a small baby nestled in her arms was standing next to me, trying to comfort her baby as he cried. I closed my eyes in prayer, hoping the little baby would stop crying. Then from behind, a German soldier approached the young woman.
The soldier called out to the woman. “Keep that damn baby quiet.”
The woman responded with a nod. Then she stroked her son’s head as she whispered to him, “Shhh ... please don’t cry.”
But still the baby cried. I took a deep breath as I watched the soldier reach for the baby and grab him away from his mother. The guard looked at the woman in anger. “Didn’t I tell you to shut that damn baby up? Didn’t I?”
The woman cried as she held out her hands, trying to get her son back. The Gestapo pulled back, “Get away ... you stupid Jew.”
It all happened so fast. The soldier tossed the baby up in the air and nodded to another Gestapo soldier, who then shot the baby in mid-air. Seconds later, after giving one of the most blood-curdling cries I had ever heard, the baby fell to the ground dead. I tearfully watched as the baby’s mother fell to her knees, lying over her son’s torn-apart body.
Another soldier stood before the woman and kicked her in the belly. “You see Jew, now he’s quiet.”

As if that wasn’t enough, the Gestapo soldier who had shot the baby pointed his gun to the woman’s head and fired. I don’t know if I will ever be able to stop seeing the woman’s blood splatter all over her son’s.
What upset me most was the carefree way in which the Gestapo soldiers killed people. How they ever went home at night and kissed their own children will always remain a mystery to me.

Once again, the Gestapo began to count. A woman with slightly graying hair eased toward me and whispered in my ear, “Reach back toward my hand and take my bra. Hurry and put in on, you will look older.” Even though I didn’t quite understand why, I did exactly as she said.

Luckily, I had just enough time to wiggle the bra from my ankles to my waist, which allowed me to be chosen during the reselection to go to the right. There were only two ways to go, valid to the right, invalid to the left. Useful to the right, useless to the left.

I never got to thank the woman in the line, but she saved my life. Because of her kindness and concern, I was treated as an adult, which prolonged my life. Even though one might think death might outweigh life when faced with such horrible choices, it doesn’t. I chose life, and if I had to do it all over again, my choice would always be the same. There is no gift greater than life.

It was obvious to any of us who remained in line that the Gestapo was not there to please us. As luck was with me, I quietly listened to the faults of the others who waited in line for assignment. Begging didn’t seem to help, so I waited until it was just the right time to ask for what I wanted. Placement was everything.
“Please let me go where my family is,” begged the woman next to me.
“Now why in hell would I do that?” the Gestapo soldier said as he wacked her on the back with his gun.

As I watched the woman suffer as she tried to get up from the ground, I wondered if I would be able to get any satisfaction when it was my time to stand before those horrible Gestapo soldiers men and women who, with just one motion of their hand, could have us killed or shoot us themselves.
“I would like to be sent where my sister is,” I said in a straightforward voice when it was my turn to stand before the jury of horror.
The Gestapo soldier took a second look at me. “Did you see what happened to the woman before you?”
I nodded, realizing the less said the better.
“And you still ask to be sent to your sister,” the Gestapo soldier said with certainty.

With courage I quickly responded, “Yes I do.”
When the Gestapo soldier motioned for another soldier to come closer, I thought I had pushed a little to hard and would probably end up in Auschwitz or Treblinka. I was shaking inside, but on the outside I was cool as a cucumber.
That’s when I reminded myself of my mother’s words. “Salucia,” she would say, “If you were in a fire, you would not burn.”
She was right, because no sooner did I ask to be with Dora then a Gestapo soldier walked over to me. “Consider yourself lucky,” he said. “You’ve got guts.” I could still hear him laughing and mumbling to himself as he walked away. “How do you like that, a Jew with guts.”

To Me -
I don’t know if this horrible feeling in the pit of my stomach will ever go away. I don’t know if I will once again be able to laugh, sing or feel loved. I don’t know if I’ll be able to take a deep breath, smile or enjoy life, but if I do there will never be a day that I won’t thank G-d for helping me through this. Please G-d, hear me cry.