I appreciate the many positive comments on my recent article about a young woman who survived the Holocaust in the forest. This led me to pick up another volume by another young woman, whose story is very different. This time, I will share her experiences after the war, as well, because the story does not end with the end of the war. The effects live on, and we need to have more understanding of how the Holocaust affected its survivors.
Hope Never Dies is written by Holocaust survivor Sarah Wahrman, who was born in Czechoslovakia. Her father was a shochet, who traveled by bicycle to 18 surrounding villages to shecht for the few Jews who lived in each place. Her town of Coltova was so small that there was only a minyan on Shabbos in the shul that was attached to her house. Her father, Yaakov Elimelech Herskovits, Hy”d, was, by default, the one who conducted all religious services in the area. She describes their poverty and the fact that there was no Bais Yaakov in her country. Her only Jewish education was at home. After the war, she married a talmid chacham and must have learned quite a bit, as this book is full of divrei Torah and hashkafa, far more than any Holocaust diary I have read.
Sarah’s town was annexed by Hungary in 1939. For the next five years, many anti-Semitic measures were imposed, but, unlike the Polish Jews, the Jews from this part of Europe were not sent to the concentration camp. Life was hard under the Hungarians, but they managed. Sarah grew Angora rabbits, and she and her sisters spun the wool into thread and then made clothing, which they sold.
In 1944, the Herskovits family was sent to Auschwitz, along with nearly 440,000 other Hungarian Jews. After nine days, they were sent to Plasov for six weeks and then back to Auschwitz for 10 days. Here I quote: “A most unexpected occurrence transpired on our second day back in Auschwitz. As my sisters and I were sitting near a high voltage barbed wire fence that separated the women’s area from the men’s area, we heard several men communicating in Hungarian….I called out to the men, “Hello! Does anyone here know Yaakov Herskovits from Tornalya (near Coltova)?”
“We were flabbergasted when one man responded affirmatively. “Yaakov Herskovits is the one who usually arranges a minyan for us whenever possible...”
In short, the men got someone to take their father’s place at work, and he came close to the fence and spoke to his daughters. “When we informed him that we were refraining from eating the treife meat, he responded, ‘My dear children, you are permitted to eat everything. Otherwise, you may not survive. Did the Torah itself not teach us “And you shall live by them”?’
“He warned us, if we were ever separated, we should expend every effort to get together again. “United, your chances for survival will vastly improve because you will assist each other and encourage each other.’ Above all, my father insisted that we must never lose hope. ‘With hope, you will survive,’ he assured us. Even if a sharp sword rests upon a man’s neck, he should not desist from prayer. The help of Hashem can be immediate. It can come as quickly as the wink of an eye.
“A screaming female kapo suddenly interrupted our conversation. ‘Get away from the fence!’ she yelled, ‘If that man’s kapo will see him talking to you, he will be severely beaten!’” Later that afternoon, this indeed came to pass. Their father was walking towards the fence to see them when his kapo punched him with such force that he fell to the ground.
“We screamed along with him in agony and pain. It is unbearable to see your own father being physically abused with such brute force and have to stand by helplessly….We never saw him again.”
I am going to interject that this meeting saved their lives. The girls didn’t know; they assumed they could not eat treife, as their only Jewish education was in the house. Their father was a learned man, and he explained that they could eat in order to survive. He also told them that if they stayed together, they would enable each other to survive. This advice was also lifesaving.
The next day, the three sisters were talking about how horrible the Nazis were. No one could believe how cruel they were. “A Polish girl sitting nearby overheard our conversation. ‘You have just arrived in Auschwitz, so you don’t know anything yet. I have been here for years.’ She then pointed to a huge smoking chimney, ’What do you think they are burning in the furnace below? They burn all those who have been declared unfit for work.’ This was the first time we had ever heard that in Auschwitz human beings were being torched by flames. My sisters and I had difficulty believing a word she said. We felt that this was an embittered young girl who had suffered so much that she had lost all hope. Naturally, we sympathized with her and made efforts to allay her many fears.”
Is it a part of human nature to shut out bad thoughts? The girls did not believe in the Final Solution, even in Auschwitz. Hungarian Jews in general could have done more to save themselves. But they refused to believe the tales told by Jews who arrived from Poland. It was beyond their capacity to imagine. Would we have been different in their place?
Guben and Bergen-Belsen
After a few days, the girls were again put on trains and taken to Guben in the latter half of August, 1944, and remained there until the death march to Bergen-Belsen in early March, 1945.
“In Guben we worked the night shift. We worked with fine wires and metal spools. We were never informed of the purpose of our labors….I thought that perhaps I could create something with the wires and then barter the product of my creation for some additional food for my sisters and myself. There were some heavier, stiff wires on the working tables. I began experimenting. I discovered that with these wires I could make things, such as a flower, a French poodle, a rabbit, and a reindeer with horns.
“The camp’s cook was delighted to see the items I had created and was more than happy to give me some food for them.” She explained that toiling with the wires enabled her to not focus on her hunger pangs. An elderly German civilian was the manager of the factory. He saw what she was doing but instead of rebuking her, he praised her work.
“I took out all the pins I had created. He looked at my hands and said, ‘From now on, you can make your pretty things and I am going to watch over you so that the Gestapo will not catch you.’ I gave him one of my pins, and he promised to return to bring me some food.”
The German brought them vegetables, and Sarah believes that this helped them survive their last two months in Guben. “I remain fully convinced that this gentleman was surely one of chasidei umos ha’olam, one of the righteous among the nations.”
The Death March
As the Russians were rapidly approaching the Guben area, the Nazis forced the inmates to walk into Germany. “At sundown, we arrived in a field. Supper consisted of boiled potatoes in the skin. We stood in a line and a German soldier gently handed each person several potatoes. When the Nazi lieutenant observed this procedure, he ordered him to stop. ‘Just throw the potatoes to these animals,’ he screamed with rage. The soldier tried to reason with the officer that if he did that many girls would fail to get any food. The Nazi slapped him for his insubordination.
“We later had an occasion to talk privately with the abused soldier, and he spilled out his story to us. He was born in the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia and had been proud of his heritage. All this had changed, he told us. It never dawned on him that Germans could be so cruel and inhumane. ‘Germany, today, without any ethics and morals, is a jungle, rather than a civilized society,’ he concluded.”
They arrived at Bergan-Belsen, which is near Hanover, Germany. At this point, the camp was vastly overcrowded, and there was an absence of food and medical care. People were dying in large numbers from disease and starvation. Many died from typhus. Sarah’s sister, Fayge, fell into a coma, and the author cried out, “How can I ever face my parents without my sister? If my sister dies, I too want to die. It’s over. I can’t fight anymore. We will surely not survive this jungle.
“Suddenly, a miracle occurred. It was unbelievable. Fayge opened her eyes and began to speak. ‘Don’t lose hope. Don’t you remember that Tatty told us never to lose hope?’” She continues, “I will always consider Fayge’s awakening a miracle from Hashem, since we knew of no other person who had lapsed into a coma at Bergen-Belsen and eventually recovered. My own hopes for survival began a steady upward trend once again. We can and we will survive with the help of Hashem, I declare.”
After three full weeks in the gehenom of Bergen-Belsen, the inmates were liberated by the British. On the very first day of liberation, as soon as the prisoners realized that the Germans had left, many headed to the camp kitchen, where large amounts of bread had been stored. However the British troops prevented them from approaching the premises using water hoses. The inmates were very perplexed and angry. Soon they discovered that the Nazis had poisoned the bread, and the British saved their lives by not letting them near the bread.
Of course, we have read enough about the Holocaust to know that the starving Jews were not able to eat the normal food provided. The British gave them canned food that they themselves ate. The Jews ate and ate and the next day were all sick and had diarrhea. The author was sick, too, but her sisters were sicker. She walked around until she found some women who were boiling rice and begged them to give her some.
It took a number of weeks, but eventually the survivors were able to leave their disease-ridden bunks and start to recover. The author, at this time, was seriously ill and needed medical attention. They decided to go to Sweden. The story of Sweden is complex. Prior to the war, Sweden restricted immigration. There were many among Sweden’s upper classes who were pro-German. However, as the war continued, Swedish public opinion changed. They took in the 900 Jews of Norway and the 8,000 Jews of Denmark. Raoul Wallenberg was Swedish. As a member of the diplomatic corps, he saved many Jews in Budapest by providing them with protective passports and moving them into buildings designated as “Swedish territory.” Thus Sweden’s offer to take in Holocaust survivors was a continuation of a humane policy that offered asylum during the latter part of the war, when they knew who was winning.
The sick sisters traveled by ship from northern Germany to Sweden; the journey only took a few hours. The Swedes were very kind to them. Her older sister had sent a letter to their mother’s younger sister, who had immigrated to the United States in 1931, long before the war. Not knowing the address, she wrote “Chanah Rose, Gary, Indiana, U.S.”. The letter arrived, and Aunt Chanah wired her $10, which was real money in 1945. The author wrote too, and also got $10. It was all they possessed in the world, at that time.
In Sweden, the sisters slowly recovered. The author mentions that besides pneumonia and tuberculosis, she had a hunger that never went away. She could not stop thinking of food and wanting more. She would take potato peels back to her room, even though they were well fed. Her older sister, Fayge was in a different convalescent home. Fayge informed her that she had seen a list of some survivors and recognized the name of someone from their area. She sent him a telegram asking if he had any knowledge of her family. Shortly thereafter, Fayge got a telegram from her Uncle Menashe, her father’s brother. He had jumped off a train to Auschwitz and spent the war hiding in the forest. When he was later asked what he ate in the forest, he would humorously reply that he ate everything that didn’t eat him.
The uncle informed her that he was back in Tornalya and that two of her brothers, Zalmen and Chaim Leib were with him. What the telegram did not say was anything about her parents and the rest of her family. Before the war, they were a family of 10 children. Gradually, she came to accept that her father and mother, and her younger sisters and brothers would not be coming back.
Now, we come to a part of the book that I think is vital for us to understand. The author has survived the Holocaust but, now, she has to deal with the aftermath.
“My nerves were so shattered by recent events that on the following Yom Kippur, I actually prayed to Hashem to take my life, as I was unable to cope with the tremendous mental anguish I had to endure. I then remembered my father’s teachings that everyone is born for a specific purpose, and that wishing and praying for death is considered a violation of the Torah. I experienced a sudden feeling of remorse and penitence, and prayed to Hashem that he remove this excruciating pain and mental agony from my heart.”
Something now happened that brightened Sarah’s life. There was an empty bed next to her’s, and a nurse carried in her arms a little girl. The girl cried so hard with such hopelessness. In short, Sarah went over and sat on the little girl’s bed and started to talk about her own family, just talk for the sake of talking. “Suddenly, the little girl interrupted me: ‘Excuse me; did you say you had an uncle in Vishny Verecky?’ She told me that she came from that town and she remembered that a relative named Yisroel Hershkowitz often visited her home. ‘Is it possible that we are related? Perhaps Hashem has sent you to me to let me know that I am not alone in this world.’”
The author recalled that she too had visited that very home in that town and remembered young children playing on the floor. She didn’t know for sure if they were related, so she sent a letter to Aunt Chana, in Gary, to find out. Aunt Chana replied that the girl, named Surie Weiss, was indeed related. Her mother was their cousin. Since Surie’s grandmother had passed away, Aunt Chana had been the one who escorted her mother to the chupa. She enclosed $10 for Sarah and $5 for Surie. They became “sisters,” and several years later, Surie married Sarah’s brother Chaim Leib.
Her older brother Zalman went back to Coltova, but their house was destroyed in the war. Her parents had a second house in Tornalya but, after going there, he realized that there was no future for him in that town. The gentiles occupying his house would not leave, and the mayor would not evict them. In fact, he threw him out of the office. Zalman decided to go to Eretz Yisrael. His ship was intercepted, however, and he was sent to a camp in Cyprus. He became seriously ill in the internment camp, and a young survivor named Fayge Weinberger nursed him back to health. They married and went to Israel as soon as it was established in 1948. Zalman fought in the Israeli army in the War of Independence.
At this point, I want to mention that Zalman’s father had been the shochet in Orshiva when the future Satmar Rebbe was the Rav, and he was a strict follower of the Satmar Rebbe. The Rebbe later told Sarah’s husband that he remembered her father well and one doesn’t find tzadikim like him anymore.
Her brother Chaim Leib also returned to Coltova, and though the house was destroyed, the shul attached to it was not. In the attic, he found, hidden, his older sister’s complete dowry, which included embroidered tablecloths, several bushels of wheat, and many other valuable items. Since the two brothers had no money, they sold some of these items. Chaim Leib decided that rather than go to Eretz Yisrael with Zalman, he would go to his three sisters in Sweden. He was able to come see his sister, Sarah, in December, 1946, while she was in a sanitarium. He looked a lot different. The loss of their parents and younger siblings was a big shock, but they did have each other.
After a while, her uncle and aunt were able to send affidavits, and secured American visas for their relatives. Her uncle and aunt were far from wealthy but they also wired the money for steamship tickets, and the survivors arrived in the United States in August, 1948. Gary, Indiana, was no place for a frum girl, who wanted more than anything to marry a talmid chacham like her father. She joined her married older sister in Detroit and soon found a shidduch. “We were married on June 7, 1949, and we have been blessed with children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. All of them are living a life of Torah.”
One cannot say that they lived happily ever after, however. That is for fairy tales. Sarah writes, “Occasionally I had nightmares, frightening dreams accompanied by a sense of depression, but they decreased as time went by and eventually ceased completely. When we visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington, I became so restless as I viewed the horrible scenes that I actually trembled and wept. My husband strongly urged that we both leave the museum. For a similar reason, we have not yet visited the Museum of the Jewish Heritage in New York.
This is actually not the end of the book. Sarah Wahrman is a very intelligent woman and she has two essays at the end. One is entitled “Did Anyone Really Care?” and a final chapter is entitled “Like Sheep to the Slaughter?” She examines both topics in depth and conveys not only a lot of history but also hashkafa. Maybe she didn’t get much education as a little girl, but she sure picked it up later on, after the war. I am sure her husband helped her as well.
Some stories are tales of exciting survival. This one uses the facts of the story to delve deeply into Jewish thought and try to make some sense out of something beyond our capacity to understand. Think for a moment how much bravery and fortitude it took for Sarah Wahrman to write this book. She can’t stand to read about the Holocaust or visit the Holocaust Museum, yet she recalled in vivid detail her time in the Valley of Death. That is gevura, real Jewish bravery. She wrote the book for the next generations, for us and our children.