Each dawn, as we shivered awaiting the count, we waited to know if we’d live one more day.  We feared this day we’d be chosen for deportation, long trip to hell, where we’d be stripped of all that is human, and forced into chambers of anguish and death.

We stood at attention in the dawn-gray courtyard.  Stood in the cold, awaiting our doom.  The commandant passed us, reviewed our frailty, then pointed his stick to mark us for death.  You had to step out, to follow his order, and nobody dared to ignore his command.

So, how did it happen that I stood my ground when his riding crop pointed my way?

My Unicorn saved me.   It took me away.  It carried me back all the way to my home.  I could taste the sweet rolls.  I could feel the warm sun.  I could hear my mother’s voice, smell the scent of warm cocoa, Mother called “breakfast,” and I was there.

So I didn’t see the commandant’s finger, didn’t know he was pointing at me.  I stood in my spot.  When he told me to go, I did not.  I stood as if rooted and lived.  He passed on.

Later my friend said, “Why did you ignore him?”

“Who do you mean?”

“Didn’t  you see?  He pointed at you.”  She explained.

“I was home,”  I replied.  “I was free.”

By Ruth Treeson in

“Green Sun in Red Sky-A collection of Short Stories and Poems” Published in 2001

 

 

January 27, 2014

Presidents think about it.  Parents think about it.  Old people think about it.  Leaving a legacy is the closest any of us can get to immortality.  It is a way of continuing after we’re dead.  It’s a way of leaving behind something we valued when we were alive.  It’s a way of making a difference that somehow shows we were once here.

I thought of that recently when I attended a memorial service for Ruth Treeson, author of “The Long Walk.”  She  left behind a mighty legacy to her children, grandchildren, friends, troubled teenagers who related to her quickly and deeply, and people of many faiths.  Diminutive in stature, she was powerful in her conviction that hate was wrong, forgiveness worked, and imagination can save you.

She did not come by the wisdom in her legacy easily.  Her loving, happy childhood ended rudely, crudely, and completely when Hitler came to power.  Her parents gone, and her 6 year old sister torn from her grasp, she coped with her early teen years from 12 to 15 in Auschwitz.  None of the horror made sense, so she relied on daydreaming to keep at least her mind stuck back in the happy days with love and family.  She conjured up a unicorn to save her from the death selection, and the hatred and death all around her.

Totally alone after the war, she actually walked back from Germany to Poland to confirm that she no longer had a family or a home.  She went to America as a refugee, struggled with language and cultural strangeness,  and succeeded in putting together  another family — husband, three sons, three grandchildren.  They spoke at her memorial service about what they had learned from her in so many subtle ways about how to live a good life.  I, like other friends, spoke of how her wit and humor, her toughness and yet her gentleness and sensitivity, had influenced them.   Young students read poems they had written after Ruth had come to talk to them at their schools.  Her living example of how love defeats hate, how a strong sense of self-worth is the most effective defense against being bullied or humiliated, how your imagination can be your best friend was her legacy.

I left the memorial service with a livelier step, a sense of optimism, gratitude that I had found such a friend in the last few years of her life, the proof that legacies can be passed on,  and the knowledge that I had also become a part of Ruth’s legacy.

There are relatively few of us who can leave legacies of such magnitude.  But passing on a legacy that makes us proud we were alive fulfills the soul.

What legacy will you leave?

 

 

 

 

 

Her death was unexpected, but not a shock.  She was, after all, 82 or so, and had a variety of medical issues she was living with.  She died rather quickly last night.  I valued her friendship above others because she was the most remarkable person I have personally known.

I knew her first as a poet, and then as a newly published author of “The Long Walk,” which filled in the details of her life.  I was born into World War II as Ruth was suffering from incarceration at Auschwitz between the ages of 12 and 15.  As a Jew who couldn’t help reading endless books about the Holocaust, I often wondered what made some people even want to survive such brutality.  When I lived in Israel, I saw numbers on the arms of people holding on to straps in buses.  I cringed visiting Holocaust Museums and memorials, and felt so very strange actually walking through a railroad car that had physically taken many to their doom.  But I had never personally known or talked to a Holocaust survivor — until I met Ruth.

We became friends after I read her book.  I had questions about some things she had written.  This led to deep discussions about how she coped with the unthinkable happening to her and around her in the concentration camp.  I marveled that her active pre-teen imagination had been strong enough to keep her daydreaming about happier days with her childhood family — so much so in fact, that she had once been selected for death, but didn’t hear her name called and didn’t step forward.

When one of our discussions touched on being dehumanized, she gently but quickly refuted that anyone can dehumanize anyone else.  Your self-worth comes from within, and no one can take away your self-worth.  After her book was published, she began to speak to groups of troubled teens in local high schools.   She said there was an immediate bond between her and them because they suffered from others trying to degrade and dehumanize them.   Even in the most inhumane conditions, her self-worth stayed intact, and her message was that no one could take away someone’s self-worth.

Perhaps her biggest impact upon the troubled teens, and me, was that she had never let vengeance and hate inside her.  When the teens asked her what she would like to do to those who were her captors, she replied simply, “nothing.”  In spite of being the child victim of so much hate and cruelty directed toward her, she truly did not have any hate within her.  Even more than her book, her poetry lets in the excruciating pain and the darkness she lived in, but hate and a desire for retribution never entered.

Literally ripped away from her young sister whom she never saw again, and denied a normal life with her parents, Ruth eventually created a new loving family — husband, three sons, and grandchildren.  She had explained to a recent Interfaith meeting of over 600 people that Thanksgiving was always a very happy holiday in their family.  She was extremely grateful for each fine member of her close-knit family.

I am grateful for personally knowing Ruth.  Along with our deep discussions, her ready wit and good humor will stay with me.

 

Petr Ginz of Prague wrote and illustrated 5 novels, an Esperanto-Czech Dictionary, numerous essays, poems, and short stories published in a weekly newspaper — all before he was 16 years old.   His remarkable creativity was cruelly cut short in 1944 when he was murdered in Auschwitz.   But true to Petr Ginz’s own words, “The seed of a creative idea does not die in  mud and scum.  Even there it will germinate and spread its blossom like a star shining in darkness,” some of Petr’s work survived and has recently been put together into a film, “The Last Flight of Petr Ginz,” more than half a century later.

Through more modern technology, the filmmakers have creatively woven together Petr’s stories, documentary footage of the Nazi horrors, and animation to make Petr come alive again and soar into space.  Some of his precious papers were discovered in an attic in Prague in 2003.  His sister, Eva Pressburger, who lives in Israel and is an exceptional artist in her own right, eventually took possession of them and published “The Diary of Petr Ginz.”  The new film helps to bring Petr’s creativity to a wider audience.  His sister said, “There is enough Holocaust literature describing the horror.  I don’t really need to add anything to that.  But Petr’s diaries show that if you were a child during the Holocaust, you could still live moments of simple happiness.”

A contemporary friend of young Petr said, “Everyone looked up to him.  He was just a terrific boy with enormous talent and an insatiable appetite for learning anything there was to be learned.”  Unlike Anne Frank’s diary, Petr’s diary concentrated on facts, such as weather and daily activities.  He commented on the changes that the Nazis imposed, like Jews having to wear a star that he compared to what sheriffs wore, and the increasingly ridiculous restrictions that reduced the Jews to prisoners even before they were sent to the concentration camps.  As humiliations and senseless deaths increased, Petr created Ka-Du, a vengeful dinosaur devouring Jews.  As Petr felt the approach of his own time for transport, he drew pictures of the Prague he loved and would be taken from.  His handwriting showed an unusual disorder and stress as the noose tightened.

Because he was the child of a Jewish father and an Aryan mother, he was sent to Terezin (Therienstadt) concentration camp at the age of 14.  Even there, his fertile mind continued to devour every book he could find.  He also learned history, and drew maps — each accomplishment added to a list he kept.  With other artists and writers at the camp, he produced every Friday for two years a newspaper called “Vedem,” (We Lead) that both documented their lives there and allowed them to feel the freedom of creativity.

The film tries to capture the dichotomy of nature and death and other disparate parts within Petr’s mind amidst the realities of his world.  Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon on Space Shuttle Columbia took Petr’s drawing of the Earth as seen from the moon.  On February 1, 2003, which would have been Petr’s 75th birthday, this painting was destroyed when the Columbia disintegrated.  But an asteroid designated by Czech astronomers as 50413 Petrginz in 2000 continues to wander the heavens.

I watched “The Last Flight of Petr Ginz” seated next to my friend, Ruth Treeson, author of “The Long Walk,” who was there at Auschwitz in 1944  at the same time Petr was gassed and cremated.  She said quietly, “My heart goes out to him.”

Comments?? E-mail Suellen at ZimaTravels.com

The events and experiences happened long ago when Ruth Treeson was a teenager.   She wrote her book, “The Long Walk,” only a few years ago and has been both surprised and heartened to find out how meaningful her words are to today’s children in America  when she speaks at local schools, often with at risk young people.   Although these children are far removed geographically and politically from the Holocaust,  Ruth has found an emotional link between her and the children who eagerly listen to her and ask pointed questions.

Teryl Zarnow of The Orange County Register wrote an article that followed some of the questions and answers with 8th graders in Santa Ana.  Here are some of the exchanges that appeared in the OC Register article between the author/Holocaust survivor, and the students.

Why did you feel guilty about your sister?

I was the older sister; I was responsible.  When they pulled her away from me, I could not save her.  I felt I failed.

How could you sleep knowing you could die?

You sleep in terror and exhaustion, with no dreams … It was already one long nightmare.  Imagine you don’t know when your turn will come.  I feel proud that I persevered.  I won’t be destroyed as a human being.  I thought, “You will not change me,” and they didn’t.

Were you ever about to be killed?

Yes, I was chosen once during a selection, but I was daydreaming about eating breakfast at home and didn’t realize.  The guards were so certain prisoners would follow directions, they never counted.  I survived by my imagination.  I wasn’t there.  I put myself somewhere that I liked better.

What did you learn about yourself?

It is important to endure that which is unendurable.  You must turn yourself into the type of human being you want to be.

If you could, what would you  do to a German who was cruel to you?

I would do nothing.  In order to get even, I would have to become like that person.  I would have to turn myself into a beast, and I don’t want to be like that.

In these exchanges with students, Ruth gently but resolutely pushes her hard-won and tough-tested philosophy of life to the children.  Many of the young students are dealing with difficult life situations that have turned them pessimistic about themselves and society.  They are often burdened with anger and the desire to strike back.  Ruth gives them strategies for survival such as:

“Young people need to understand that hope doesn’t come from the good nature of other people.  You need to build on what is within yourself.”

“Hate is a railway that leads only to destruction.”

“It is much better to  listen, not to judge people, but to accept and understand.  If you are less concerned with anger, you will discover an ability to improve.”

Even after the war ended, coming to the United States at 15 and having to deal with a new culture, a language she didn’t know, and classmates who had no understanding of what her years in the Auschwitz death camp had been like required Ruth to continue to call upon her inner strength.

Many people talk easily about staying optimistic and keeping peace in your heart, but talking to Ruth Treeson gives a much deeper dimension of what’s possible – then and now –  in the most indescribable of horrible, even in the tender teenage years.

Comments?? E-mail Suellen at ZimaTravels.com

An ocean saved me from the clutches of the Holocaust because all four of my grandparents had left the Old Country well before World War II.  But, knowing what my fate could have been, I have been drawn to movies and books about the Holocaust early on.  Over the years, the Holocaust became more personal when I lived in Israel and visited Yad Vashem.  History became more real when I saw the numbers of the tatoo on the arms of people.

In more recent years, I have been seated at a local Book Fair next to an author named Frederic Kakis, whose “Legacy of Courage” grippingly described his years as a Resistance Fighter in Greece — starting at age 11.  Also at the local author Book Fairs, I got to know Jacquie Grossman through her book, “Chased by Demons,” as she literally ran from country to country trying to get away from Hitler.  Also selling her new book, “The Long Walk,” my neighbor Ruth Treeson quietly acquaints me with some of the details of her teenage years, from 12 to 15, enduring  Auschwitz, followed by her young life as a refugee.

In this week of Holocaust Remembrance, I re-read “Man’s Search for Meaning,” by Viktor E. Frankl, who gained wisdom in the concentration camps he survived.  Soon, all the eyewitnesses and victims of the Holocaust will have died.  But what they suffered and learned will continue through their words.  I have culled out some of what I found so meaningful and indeed timeless in the words of the  renowned Dr. Frankl.

“I shall never forget how I was roused one night by the groans of a fellow prisoner, who threw himself about in his sleep, obviously having a terrible nightmare.  Since I had always been especially sorry for people who suffered from fearful dreams or deliria, I wanted to wake the poor man.  Suddenly I drew back the hand which was ready to shake him, frightened at the thing I was about to do.  At that moment, I became intensely conscious of the fact that no dream, no matter how horrible, could be as bad as the reality of the camp which surrounded us, and to which I was about to recall him.”

“In spite of all the enforced physical and mental primitiveness of the life in a concentration camp, it was possible for spiritual life to deepen.  Sensitive people who were used to a rich intellectual life may have suffered pain (they were often of a delicate constitution),  but the damage to their inner selves was less.  They were able to retreat from their terrible surroundings to a life of inner riches and spiritual freedom.  Only in this way can one explain the apparent paradox that some prisoners of a less hardy make-up often seemed to survive camp life better than did those of a robust nature.”

“And as we stumbled on for miles, slipping on icy spots, dragging one another up and onward, nothing was said, but we both knew:  each of us was thinking of his wife…My mind clung to my wife’s image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness.  I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look.  Real or not, her look was then more luminous than the sun which was beginning to rise…I didn’t know whether my wife was alive, and I had no means of finding out (during all my prison life there was no outgoing or incoming mail); but at that moment it ceased to matter.  There was no need for me to know; nothing could touch the strength of my love, my thoughts, and the image of my beloved.  Had I known that my wife was dead, I think that I would still have given myself, undisturbed by that knowledge, to the contemplation of her image, and that my mental conversation with her would have been just as vivid and satisfying.”

TO BE CONTINUED…

Comments??  Please e-mail Suellen@ZimaTravels.com

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