Profound Testimonies: Aged Holocaust Survivors and Their Last Testaments

Fiona Harari, in the Weekend Australian Magazine 27/28 Jan 2018, where the title reads “Last Testament”

Survivors of Nazism who have adult memories of the ­Holocaust are a fading group. Born in 1926 or earlier, they were at least 18 when the war ended. The war consumed a small fraction of their lives, percentage-wise. But its legacy endures in their memories, their outlooks and, increasingly, in their dreams. They are the last living voices of a generation that was not meant to be, men and women now in their 10th and 11th decades who have defied not just the law of a nation that sought to annihilate them, but the law of nature that not so long ago would have dictated a much shorter lifespan.

Mala Sonnabend. Picture: Fiona Harari

These are the last adult witnesses who can tell us what it is like to have endured those years and how they lived long after them. Having outlived, in many cases, almost all their contemporaries, their unexpected longevity has culminated in a quandary: the desire to record their histories has become for many just as intense as the desire to forget it.

Zygmunt Swistak, 93. Picture: Julian Kingma
Zygmunt Swistak, 93. Picture: Julian Kingma

Zygmunt Swistak. Born: September 5, 1924, Działdowo, Poland

Zygmunt Swistak lives with his past in a small suburban Melbourne apartment decorated with eclectic ­belongings that track his long and varied life. Mostly, his story remains confined to his memory, his haunting tale of survival tinged with a sad sense of solitude. History has ­rendered him a man of minimal emotions. Apart from ­choral singing, which continues to rouse his spirit, he is mostly sombre, and the only time his mood visibly lifts, through hours of interviews, is when he talks about becoming a father. His past remains a significant part of his present, trailing his waking hours and increasingly intruding on his sleep. But while the Holocaust is the defining element of his life, it is a term he rarely utters. Because he is not Jewish, he says he is not entitled to be counted among its survivors.

He was born in a Polish town near the German border, a quirk of geography that would have devastating consequences. He was 15 when German planes flew over Warsaw in 1939. As the war progressed, he was issued with a new identity card; while his parents and brother were listed as Polish, his place of birth had since been annexed and was noted as Germany. As an ethnic German, he would need to join the army or work for the war effort outside Poland. He escaped German authorities numerous times, fought in the Warsaw uprising, was caught by German soldiers once more, and was sent by train with his father and brother to the Dachau concentration camp. He was 20. By then, his mother had died of heart failure. After several weeks he was moved with others to the Katzbach concentration camp at the former Adler industrial factory near Frankfurt, where his brother was beaten to death. Soon after, his father was fatally shot. By the time he was liberated by US troops, he had tuberculosis and fluid in his lungs.

One of 50,000 Polish-born people to arrive in Australia between 1947 and 1954, he worked as a fitter and turner and a toolmaker. In retirement he has taught plant propagation and chess. Married for many years, he has been separated since he was 86.

ZS: Before the war, I was a different character. I was happy-go-lucky, the life of the party. When there was a dance or something, I made everybody happy and I was liked. Another person came out of the concentration camp. My character was broken completely, not only from the loss of my father and brother but how they died. I know how they suffered. I was one of the walking skeletons. In Dachau, they made a lot of pictures of me because I could walk but I couldn’t stand up. On my hips there was bare bone, no skin. Physically they repaired me, but mentally I had to repair myself. I saved my sanity by painting. And I started to save my brain from the torture of my memories. I created a ­barrier to not remember the concentration camps.

Australia gave me a chance for a new life. I didn’t aim for too much. I just wanted to have what I was missing. I wanted to belong to a family. So I got married and I had children. That’s the only thing I could do. Once I was married, I started to have motivation. I plunged into work. I wanted to improve and improve and create something for my children. I was full of energy. I was tireless.

In the morning when I was going to work, I was always kissing my wife, but it was more ritual. I became sort of rigid. When I look at some films today, I see modern families that did not go through the tragedy of the last war. I see fathers cuddling their sons or daughters happily, smiling and laughing. I couldn’t do it. And I realise this and I am ­missing this. I am unable to show emotion. I feel it, but I can’t show it. I can’t express myself easily — sadness or happiness. I think it has had a great impact on my family. That’s why my wife left me eventually, because I never completely recovered from the concentration camp. Still it’s in me. Anything reminds me. I hear German music: the German waltz played in the Dachau concentration camp every time there was a row of prisoners hung. My mother died on May 2; that was my name day. And I was arrested on September 5, my birthday.

I had so much hate towards the Germans. That hate was killing me. I realised this later when I went to Germany. Three times I have been there. They wanted me to lecture at university, at ­technical colleges, about what I suffered in the ­concentration camp in Frankfurt. I just went there to tell them what happened. And I met so many Germans; it started to change me. After I finished one talk, a student wrapped herself around me. She had tears in her eyes and said, “I am sorry for what our fathers and grandfathers have done to you, your family, and your country.” Then I started to get emails from students saying that my survival was not wasted and that to hear from somebody who was there, as an inmate in their country, was a ­different story. That’s how I got rid of the hate. I didn’t expect that. I have changed a lot. I can’t get rid of the hate altogether but it’s much less than I had and it doesn’t kill me anymore.

But in one way, things are worse. Loneliness brought back more memories. Because the older I am, I have more time to think, the more the ­memories come back and interfere with my sleep, more and more now, in details, and so vivid. I’ve sometimes wondered why I have lived this long. I should have caved under all this, but I haven’t. Yes, I was in the Holocaust. But the Holocaust seems to be entirely and only what happened to Jews. ­Russia didn’t allow Poland to talk about what the Germans had done because we had East Germany as neighbours. I think the Holocaust was for us as well. It’s the only word for it.

My life was not like an average person’s. I know that. I am aware that I have gone through hell. But I don’t class myself as anything special. Because I know there were others just like me.

Mala Sonnabend. Born: Malka Izrael, March 21, 1918, Ostroleka, Poland

The first time Mala Sonnabend spoke publicly about her war losses she was 96, a diminutive woman with a small voice who stood alone on a stage, a box of ­tissues by her side, and related to so many strangers how she had come to lose almost everything she had loved. Two hundred people crowded into a Sydney auditorium in 2014 to listen as she spoke ­quietly about her personal war toll: the ­devastation of her Polish home near the German border, her years of internment and deprivation in four concentration camps, how she had survived a death march but lost almost every member of her family, including her husband and their infant daughter. She spoke evenly, mostly dispassionately, and when she finished she received a standing ovation.

The youngest of four daughters, she was raised in a Polish town of 25,000 where one in every three residents was Jewish. When Germany invaded Poland, most of her family — bar one sister and brother-in-law who were living in Melbourne — moved closer to the Russian border for safety. In March 1940 she married her boyfriend, Gedale Rekant, and moved to Sokoły, where he was the local pharmacist and she worked as his assistant. Their daughter Miriam was born in January 1941.

Life under German occupation became increasingly restrictive and, in September 1942, word spread of an impending roundup of Jews. They accepted an offer of assistance from a man who lived out of town with his wife and six children. That evening, the couple and their baby arrived at the home carrying and wearing whatever they could. As the night progressed, the man continually asked them to hand over whatever they had brought until they were left with just a set of clothes each. The next morning, the host declared it was safe for the young family to leave. As they emerged to daylight, German soldiers appeared from behind a nearby cemetery wall and began shooting. Mala was struck in the arm and kept running. Her husband and baby were killed.

Endless doors were closed on her that terrible day as she begged other families to take her in until eventually one did. But the risk of being discovered forced her out after a month, and she fled to the ghetto in Białystok where she was rounded up by Nazis and taken to jail in Grodno, near the ­Lithuanian border, and finally to Birkenau. She arrived at the death camp in January 1944. She was on a death march when she escaped near ­Hamburg, hiding in a barn with two other girls for three days until she heard people shouting “die Russen sind da” (the Russians are here). She was free.

In April 1946 she married Isi Sonnabend, who had been married to her cousin. He, too, had lost a spouse and child to the war. Seven months later, they sailed into Melbourne and were reunited with Mala’s sister and her husband.

MS: We were some of the first people who came here after the war. I remember when I first started telling my story, my sister didn’t believe me. She came to me and very gently said, “Do you know what, we’ll go to a doctor tomorrow.” She thought I was crazy. And she wasn’t the only one. Everybody I talked to was looking at me and thinking that I was just telling stories. So I stopped talking. I lost a whole family through the war. I didn’t want to be reminded of what happened and what I lost. Even now I don’t like to talk about it. I spoke only once publicly. I was getting old and I thought there are some things people should know.

I still have nightmares. What I’m telling you, what I tell people, is not the same as living through it. I saw terrible things. Of course, you can’t forget it, but you don’t want to introduce it into your new life.

I became pregnant on the way to Australia. I was happiest when my son was born, and later my daughter. Because I never thought I would have a family again, that I would have children again. The children found out slowly about our past; it was not something I would like to hide from them. We tried to normalise our life, not to live all the time in the shadow of the war and the camps. I consciously didn’t want the children to be brought up with a negative approach to life. I think people are good, definitely, because I experienced it; I experienced the good and I experienced the bad, among ­Polish people and among German people.

When we were hiding in the house in Sokoły, they just took everything from us in the night. In the morning, they said we could leave because there were no Germans. And as soon as we walked out, Germans started popping up from behind the wall and started shooting and so we started to run. My husband was carrying the baby. They got killed. And I was running, and when I looked around I saw what was happening. I must have fallen asleep later because at one stage somebody touched me on the arm and I opened my eyes and I saw a ­German soldier in front of me. He said, “Get up, and I will take you to where the other Jews are gathered.” And I started to run, then I said, “You can shoot me instead.” I heard a shot — and it didn’t hit me. I was still alive. And I saw the German walk away. He was shooting in the air and not shooting me. It’s incredible. Some Germans really behaved properly. Even in camp, there were people who were nice to you and people who were not.

I am generally a positive person. I don’t want to think of bad things. When I look at my children, I see they have grown up beautiful kids. I have six grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren. And I can’t believe it. Every time I get together with my family I look at them and I think, well, there must have been a reason I survived. There is a reason: to create a new family, not to let the family die altogether.

Mala Sonnabend died in Sydney early this month, shortly before her 100th birthday.

Marianne Schwarz. Picture: Julian Kingma
Marianne Schwarz. Picture: Julian Kingma

Marianne Schwarz Born: Marie Gross, August 8, 1922, Vienna, Austria

By September 1942, with Jews being deported almost daily, ­tension among those remaining in Vienna was acute. When ­Marianne and her parents were finally packed onto a train and sent to the Theresienstadt ghetto near Prague, just a week after her grandparents were deported, the relief she felt at the end of so much uncertainty was short-lived. Her grandfather died at Theresienstadt, and then her father and her grandmother were gassed at Birkenau, where she, too, was sent in May 1944. Apart from her mother, Grete, who was to be with her throughout the war, from Theresienstadt to Birkenau and on to multiple labour camps in ­Germany, the constant presences in her life were misery and uncertainty. And yet she remembers this time not just for its tragedy, but also for its humanity: reciting poems with other women; the humour that sustained them.

It was only in Bergen-Belsen, the last of the many camps in which she was imprisoned, that her optimism failed. Stricken with lice, exhausted and starving, she developed typhus. Gravely ill and weighing 31kg, she lost her will to live. It was mid-spring of 1945, and she had little awareness of the arrival of the British troops who liberated the camp on April 15. Her mother survived the war only to die days after she was freed.

In 1949, Marianne married Joschy Schwarz, whom she had known in Vienna before the war. They settled permanently in Melbourne in 1952. Hoping to fall pregnant, she stayed at home for many years and had six miscarriages. She gave birth to a son, prematurely, in the late 1960s, but he lived for only five days.

After training as a welfare officer, she worked at the Children’s Court in Melbourne and spent many years caring for her husband before his death in 1995. Now retired, she plays bridge and table tennis multiple times a week and calls bingo monthly.

MS: Whatever happened to me does not ­compare to that loss of my mother after liberation. I still feel guilty that I couldn’t do anything to save her, that she had to suffer all through the war and then die. The losses were always with me, but life goes on. I was young. I wanted to live.

My experience in concentration camps taught me a lot of things: resilience; to take people the way they are; and my attitude to life and death is completely different. I am a fatalist. I hate it when people say to me, “I didn’t deserve that.” Who gets what they deserve? Things happen to people, and it’s just your attitude and what you do when you are given misfortune that counts.

In the labour camps in Germany we did really hard work. And while we did, we laughed and we told each other jokes. We wanted to show the ­Germans that they couldn’t humiliate us to such an extent that we would lose our dignity. We wanted to show them that they couldn’t squash us. Humour is very important. It keeps you going. When I had my number tattooed on my arm, of course it was traumatic. I remember saying, “That will go nicely with an evening gown when I come out one day.” Deep down, I felt they were not able to take away my identity. I still was the same person.

At first, I could only speak to people who shared the same experiences with me because I thought they understood. I talked a lot, but ­privately. And I think it has made me a good ­survivor. I didn’t become bitter. I tried never to lose my faith in people. I believe in people — although it’s not easy. And you know I still bear no deep resentment against the German people today. I refused to believe that everybody was ­terrible — and they were not.

I learnt to live with what happened to me. I dream occasionally but nobody dies in my dreams. I don’t let them. There’s one more thing I want to tell you. When I was in the labour camp in ­Germany, I went to the latrine in the middle of the night. It was the most beautiful starry sky. And it consoled me in a way that the war was going on and the moon and the stars were still around and during the day the sun was shining. There was madness all around, but I looked up and the sky had not changed. Life goes on.

Edited extract from We Are Here: Talking With Australia’s Oldest Holocaust Survivors by Fiona Harari (Scribe, $29.99)

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2 responses to “Profound Testimonies: Aged Holocaust Survivors and Their Last Testaments

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