An excerpt from the book, “A Daughter of the Holocaust” by Melanie Webster
I was born on December 7, 1956, and yet, as the title of this book says, I am “a daughter of the Holocaust”. You ask, “how can that be if the Holocaust took place between the years of 1939 and 1945?”
To my own shock and amazement, having been raised by my dad who is a Holocaust survivor, I feel like I have lived through the Holocaust myself. The same emotional and psychological effects that my dad has taken away from his time in the concentration camp, has become part of my personality as well as the personality of my siblings.
I always wondered why a dark cloud was always over my head; a spirit of doom and gloom hovered around me.
My siblings and I have taken on an identification of being miserable. We were taught that the world is a horrible and scary place. Unintentionally, my dad instilled fear in us.
He was very overprotective. If we were out and did not call him, he became distorted with worry thinking something terrible had happened to us.
After all these years (I am now 51 years old), I have learned the name of what my siblings and I have experienced living with my dad. It is called, “secondary post-traumatic stress syndrome”.
As a young child, I remember at home hearing my dad wailing in his sleep as he had nightmares about the Holocaust. I recently asked him what some of those nightmares were about.
He would dream about how emaciated he was, about the stripped jacket and pants he had to wear. He would try in his dream to get out of this “gehemum” (Yiddish for “hell”).
He would picture the bunks he had to sleep in. A bunk consisted of three shelves of flat boards that were only big enough for two or three men on each shelf. They had to squeeze six or seven men on each shelf of the bunk.
The men were of all different sizes. Some men carried disease or would vomit or have diarrhea as they lay very tightly next to you.
My dad said, “It was torture”.
He would ask himself, “Why do I deserve this life? Only because I was born a Jew? What did I do? Why me?”
My mom would have to wake him up to stop the horrible nightmare from continuing. My mom died when I was thirteen years old. So, when the dreams recurred and I heard my dad wailing again in his sleep, I would yell to him from my bedroom to wake him up and help stop the nightmare.
The wails were heart wrenching. As young children, it was beyond our comprehension as to the horrors that my dad and his family faced.
As we grew up through our teenage years, my dad did not speak to us about the horrors of the Holocaust. What he did share with us was what his life was like before Hitler invaded Poland, and, eventually, also his life–forever.
My father was born on April 12, 1922 in Plonsk, Poland. He was the third of four children. The eldest was his brother Aaron, then his sister Miriam whom they called Mannia, my dad Moishe, and finally, his brother Solomon.
His dad’s name was Israel Sol, whose family followed Orthodox Judaism, and his mom’s name was Nicha Sol, whose maiden name was Lazenski. My paternal grandfather, Israel, was a tailor and my grandmother, Nicha, was a seamstress.
My grandmother Nicha Lazenski Sol had twelve siblings. The small town of Plonsk in Poland where they lived consisted mostly of my father’s aunts, uncles and cousins. Needless to say, it was a huge family.
My great-grandmother Lazenski lived to the ripe old age of 103 in that little town after giving birth to 13 children. My dad refers to her as “my Bubba”. In her younger days she sold fruit for a living at her store in town.
He remembers visiting her home every day as a young child with his mother. They loved spending time together. He would run errands for his grandmother, and she would give him goodies and some coins to spend.
My dad said when the Germans entered Poland, they took his grandmother to the hospital and he never saw her again. He only has a picture of her to remember her by. His mother Nicha’s oldest sister who came to the United States way before the war saved the picture.
Nicha hardly knew this sister because she was the youngest of 13 children. There was a big age difference between the oldest and the youngest child. As my dad looks at the picture of his grandmother Lazenski, it brings back many fond memories of being with her.
From birth to the age of seventeen, my father had a wonderful childhood. He was very close to his parents, especially his mother, his siblings and all his relatives. They would have memorable picnics together and frequent visits to each other’s homes.
My dad would speak of all the Jewish holidays when the family would get together. He spoke of all the great cooking his mother and grandmother prepared.
In those days there was no such thing as a refrigerator. All the food was kept cool in the basement of the house in cooler boxes. As a result, all the food was bought and prepared fresh almost daily. There was no such thing as chemical additives to extend the shelf life of the food they ate.
To this very day, my dad likes to go to the supermarket, meat store and produce store every few days to buy fresh food. He does not like to keep food too long in the refrigerator or freezer, and he eats very little food with preservatives in them.
At eighty-six years old, my father is very disciplined in his eating habits. This was instilled in him as a child growing up in Poland.
In spite of the great family life my dad experienced as a child, outside the home was a totally different story. There was a great deal of anti-semitism from the Polish Catholics in his town.
The Catholic children went to school in the morning and the Jewish children went to school in the afternoon. They were not allowed to go to school together or to mingle.
When they passed each other going to and from school, the Polish children would call the Jewish children “Christ Killers”. They would then proceed to beat up the Jewish children.
My father tells the story of one young boy that beat him up every day. He would run home to his mother crying every day. She would say “if you stand up to him once and fight back, he will never bother you again”.
So that’s what my father did, and that young boy never did bother my father again. I think this was one lesson my father learned that was instrumental in helping survive the concentration camp.
Life in Auschwitz
When my father arrived at Auschwitz, his friends and family members from his town realized how horrific their situation was. My father said he watched as many of his friends ran to the electrified wire gates that enclosed them and committed suicide. They knew that they were not going to be able to take the conditions in the camps, so they killed themselves.
The thought crossed my dad’s mind as well, however, he decided he was going to fight for his life. He said to himself, “Hitler is not going to kill me, I am going to survive”. This he did by taking many risks and having much “mazel” (Yiddish for “blessing”).
My father says he was liked by many of the German soldiers, and he really didn’t know why. He was given many indoor jobs to do so he did not have to work in the freezing cold with little clothing.
He shared a story of him and his friend having to clean a German commander’s office one day. While cleaning they found a large stack of cigarettes in the desk draw. They decided to take some of the cigarettes because they were a great bargaining chip to trade for food.
When two officers came in to check on my dad and his friend, they noticed that the stack was tilted, and some cigarettes were missing. The two officers proceeded to beat them up very badly. Then one officer pointed his gun at my father’s head ready to shoot him on the spot.
The other officer pushed his hand away and said, “leave him alone”. My father’s life was spared; that is “mazel”.
My dad was 17 years old when Hitler invaded Poland in September of 1939. His parents were both 40 years old. His sister, Miriam, was 20 years old and his younger brother, Solomon, was 16 years old.
His older brother, Aaron, left Poland a few years before the invasion to go to Palestine to help establish a Zionistic State with the likes of Golda Meir, and David Ben-Gurion who actually was born in my father’s hometown of Plonsk, Poland in 1898. My dad said that David Ben-Gurion went to school with his grandmother Lazenski.
When the news came that Hitler crossed the border into Poland, thousands of Jewish young people started on foot to go to Russia to escape the Nazis. The older people could not make the trip, but they sent their children on to “freedom”. My dad, his sister and younger brother were also going to make the trip to Russia by foot, leaving my grandparents behind.
My dad shared that as they were leaving the house his mother cried and cried. At that moment he describes his older sister as slamming the door to the house shut saying, “we’re not going anywhere”. They could not leave their parents alone to deal with the Nazis.
So, as a family, minus the older brother Aaron, they stood together to face the Nazis. My dad and his siblings loved their parents too much to leave them knowing that they probably would never see them again.
Remembering his mother’s tears was very difficult for my dad. He loved and respected his mother so much. The trauma of that day is so vivid to him, even at 86 years old. It is as if it happened yesterday.
Before the transports started to the concentration camps, the Nazis placed all the Jews in my dad’s town into a ghetto. There were beatings, harassment and humiliation at the hands of the Nazis.
My dad related a story that on one of the High Holy Days, Rosh Hashanah, in his town, all the men were in the synagogue praying when the Nazis demanded that they leave the building and come into the courtyard.
They proceeded to force every male to run back and forth, up and down the courtyard for hours, for no reason until they fell down from exhaustion. My father remembers watching his father do this knowing he was not a well man. It was heart wrenching for him.
Since my father and his family were orthodox Jews, they attended synagogue in his town every Sabbath. He described the building as very large and very beautiful. When the Germans came to his town, he remembers them coming into the synagogue, taking the Torah Scroll out of the building into the courtyard and then proceeding to trample on the scroll and then to tear it to pieces.
My father, my grandfather and the other orthodox men of the synagogue watched in horror as their foes desecrated and destroyed the Word of God. In the Jewish faith, if the Torah touches the ground, it is no longer usable and must be destroyed by fire. They stood in shock and wondered how God could allow these Nazis to do this to His Word.
They were crying out to God to cut off their hands and feet to stop them from doing what they were doing. Many of the orthodox men that witnessed this act turned away from God as a result. They were disheartened and lost faith.
The Germans entered Poland in 1939. Prior to this invasion, the Jews of the town of Plonsk lived and worked intermingled with the Polish people of the town. Day by day, family-by-family, the Germans rounded up the Jews, took them from their homes and placed them in a Nazi-secured, closed off part of town (a ghetto).
They had to leave their homes with little or none of their belongings. Two and three families were forced to live in one apartment. Very little food was allowed into the ghetto to feed the Jewish people forced to live there.
They were required to wear a yellow patch, in the shape of a Jewish star, identifying them as Jews. The Nazis would frequently beat and harass and even kill many Jewish people at random. Under these conditions, the Jews were forced to do hard labor for the Germans.
Many Jews died in the ghetto either by the gun or by the terrible living conditions forced upon them. In the ghetto they had the opportunity to bury their dead in the Jewish cemeteries. This occurred from the years 1939 to 1942.
In 1942, the Germans closed the ghetto in my father’s town. All the remaining Jews, my father’s family included, were taken to the train station. They were forced into cattle cars and transported to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp.
This concentration camp was on the border between Poland and Germany. Birkenau was on the Polish side and Auschwitz was on the German side. My dad was appalled that Poland allowed the Nazis to build the camp and the crematorium.
The Fate Was the Same for All
My father frequently remembers and shares the story of a young woman named Shalamas. They went to school together. Her parents had a store next to his grandmother Lazenski’s fruit store.
When the Germans would go from store to store to find out who the Jews were, they would not believe that Shalamas was Jewish. My dad speaks of how very, very beautiful she was.
She had blonde hair and blue eyes. She looked like she was part of the German “Arian race”. They did finally throw Shalamas into the cattle cars with my father and the rest of the Jews.
My dad said when she came out of the cattle car, she was not the same. Shalamas did not survive long after that cattle car ride. My dad constantly repeats how beautiful Shalamas was and how the Nazis destroyed such beauty.
When they got off the cattle cars after the transport, my father says there were two lines forming. One line he says was for life and labor and the other line was for death and extermination. At this point, he, his brother and his sister were separated from their parents.
Both his parents, who were 40 years old, were too old to work, so they were sent to their death. My dad could not describe the devastating effect that this experience had on him and his siblings. He shared an account of a 36-year-old man who was pleading with the German soldiers to let him get on the line for labor.
This man could not understand why he was on the line for death. He felt he was strong enough to work. All his pleading was to no avail.
The German soldiers would not let him get off the line he was on and he went to his death. Then my father added, those on the line for labor would work just to die from disease or lack of food. The fate of every Jew was the same in the eyes of the Nazis.
My People, My Blood
My eldest son Jason Andrew Webster wrote the following poem for an assignment he had in the sixth grade:
“My People, My Blood”
My people were murdered
By a man who had no heart
For my people, my blood
Thinking of himself and power
He wiped out a nation
And left my people with nothing but
A nightmare of torture and death
Their families killed before their eyes
But some still live with that memory
And wish they were like the members
Of my people, my blood
I was totally amazed that he sat at the dining room table and wrote this poem in literally less than ten minutes. I was amazed because I feel at his age of 11 years old, not knowing that much about the Holocaust, Jason captured the essence of how my dad felt about the Holocaust.
Number of Life
My dad often asks throughout his life, “why did I survive, and the rest of my family didn’t?” He has a deep sense of guilt that he lived, and his family members died horrible deaths. Many survivors of the Holocaust have this same sense of guilt.
In spite of my dad’s feelings, he did survive the Holocaust. When he entered Auschwitz, my dad, along with all the other Jews in the camp, stood on a long line to get a number tattooed on his arm. They all considered it “the death number” thinking the end was near once given the tattoo.
He was no longer referred to by his birth name but by the number on his arm. It was just another way for the Nazis to dehumanize the Jews. The number on my dad’s arm is 84420.
If you add up these numbers, the total is 18. In the Jewish faith, the number “18” is the numerical value of the Hebrew word “chai” which means “life”. My mother always told my dad that he survived the concentration camp because he was given that number on his arm.
The War Ends
At the end of the war, when the Germans knew they were defeated, many of the soldiers dropped their weapons and ran away so as not to be captured by the allied forces. Many of the Jews in the camp took up the guns and started killing any German soldiers they could. My dad said he was too weak to do that.
Many of the Jews also raided nearby homes outside the gates of the camp and stole food and jewelry from the people in the homes. My dad did not do this either. He said, “stealing from the Germans will not bring my parents and siblings back from the dead.”
He did not want anything that belonged to the Germans.
As the war was coming to an end, the Nazis took my dad and the other prisoners from Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland to Mauthausen Concentration Camp in Austria by train. They were finally liberated from Mauthausen in 1945.
In Austria, the liberated prisoners were given food and a place to sleep.
The Austrians took the guns away from the prisoners who were killing the Germans. They said, “it was enough killing”. They wanted to stop the killing.
From Austria, those liberated were taken to Munich where the Red Cross was going to help them find any surviving family.
After a few days in Munich, General Dwight David Eisenhower arrived to see first-hand what had happened. My dad saw Eisenhower and listened to him as he spoke to all the liberated prisoners. Eisenhower told them that the horror is now over, and that it is time to build a new life and to look to the future.
My husband and I went to visit the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C.
Engraved on one of the walls as you enter the museum is a quote by Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower. It is as follows:
“The things I saw beggar description… The visual evidence and the verbal testimony of starvation, cruelty and bestiality were so overpowering… I made the visit deliberately, in order to be in a position to give first-hand evidence of these things if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations to propaganda.”
Thank God for Eisenhower’s insight and interest in the plight of the Jew after the war to be a source of living, “outside” proof that the Holocaust really did happen. This book is a source of living, “inside” proof that the Holocaust really did happen. It is the account of my father’s horrific experience in the Holocaust and the effect on him and his offspring.
Melanie Webster is a Messianic Jewish believer and the daughter of a Holocaust survivor. She has been a conference speaker and currently lives in Israel.
This article originally appeared on Netivyah, October 11, 2020, and reposted with permission.