70 Years Later …
I can’t remember another occasion when I started crying in the middle of an interview. It wasn’t a matter of being shocked – I knew the details of Miriam Friedman Ziegler’s horrific story since I was a young child. Miriam is a survivor of the notorious Auschwitz death camp, and I spoke with her as she was preparing to journey back for the 70th anniversary of the camp’s liberation on Jan. 27. “In all the 70 years, I never talked about this,” she told me. “It’s very painful.”
I grew up in a community of Holo-caust survivors and many, including my parents, never spoke of what they went through. We were taught about the six million who died. We knew that included our family but we were spared the specifics of their fate.
Miriam evoked a powerful childhood memory as we spoke. I must have been seven or eight. I was staring at a strange-looking, glassy-eyed man limping along the street. My mother whispered: “He was in camp. He is a survivor.” I knew exactly what that meant. I also knew my parents believed their suffering was not on the same scale – I do not know if this made them grateful or guilty or both.
It took a lengthy charm offensive before 79-year-old Miriam agreed to share her story and to return to Auschwitz. She had made this journey in 1981, and it was traumatic. After two days reliving everything, she left Poland, vowing never to return. Last summer, a Jewish foundation convinced her to tell her story. They found her because of a photograph taken when the camp was liberated. It shows a dozen children, including nine-year-old Miriam, her tattooed arm outstretched, behind the barbed wire fence. To me, it is a miracle that 10 of those children are still alive.
“It is a miracle,” said Miriam. “I guess it was because it was toward the end of the war, and they needed us for experiments … that’s why they kept us.”
“What kind of experiments?” I asked, knowing full well she was referring to the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele and his evil human experimentation.
“That I blocked out of my head,” she responded.
Miriam was taken to Auschwitz in a cattle car and separated from her mother, father and aunt. It was scary to be put in a children’s barrack. The others were in the same situation but had been there longer. She remembers seeing the smoke and the way people were killed. “I myself don’t believe I went through all that,” she said.
For years, the memories haunted her. She had terrible nightmares. She never told anyone about any of this because she didn’t want her children to know. I understand that decision. Some kids I knew, who were the children of concentration camp survivors, suffered depression and other psychological problems when we were teenagers. The details of what happened to the children would have been the hardest. “We had constant selections, and every time they would take a few children out of our barrack, some of them never returned,” Miriam recalled. “I was lucky.”
She was very lucky in another way. After the war, she was reunited with her mother, her aunt and her grandmother, all of whom had also been in Auschwitz. It was virtually unheard of for three generations of a family to find each other alive.
My parents weren’t so lucky. No one on my mother’s side survived. My father’s sister made it; so did his first cousins who had left Europe before the war. They ultimately helped our family immigrate to Canada. Over the years, my mother and father doled out fragments of the story. My brothers and I heard different and sometimes contradictory versions. We have elements of the story but not all of them and not in the right order. I realized this when my mother was on her deathbed and rushed to the hospital with a tape recorder. She just looked at me and told me it was too late.
That won’t happen to Miriam’s family. She says this journey has had a great impact on them. Her daughter made the trip with her, but it was her 25-year-old grandson who went straight to the heart of things when he called before she left. “Bubby, I’ve never been as proud of anything in my life as of what you’re doing now.”
Libby Znaimer ([email protected]) is VP of news on AM740 and Classical 96.3 FM (ZoomerMedia properties).