“In order for a house to burn down, three things are required. The timber must be dry and combustive, there needs to be a spark that ignites it, and external conditions have to be favorable – not too damp, perhaps some wind. Hitler’s Nazi regime in Germany provided the spark that set off the destruction we now call the Holocaust, and World War II created a setting conducive to brutality. However without the dry timber, mass murder on such a scale would not have been possible. People had to be prepared to accept the identification of other members of their society as enemies.” Doris L. Bergen
January 27th is designated by the United Nations General Assembly as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. On this day the UN and its member states hold commemoration ceremonies to mark the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau and to honor the six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust.
The scope of the Holocaust is mind numbing. The fact that one group of people could inflict suffering of such magnitude on other human beings is beyond the pale. And because the numbers killed are so staggering it is easy for those not directly affected by the genocide to regard it as a footnote to history. What happened at Auschwitz-Birkenau, however, was not unique. There were 6 death camps that functioned solely to execute Hitler’s final solution.
Sachsenhausen was not an extermination camp, yet 100,000 of the political prisoners who passed through its gates died from disease, execution, or overwork. In the weeks immediately following Kristallnach, some wealthier political prisoners were released in exchange for a promise to emigrate. Papa Schlesinger was one of those prisoners and he is one of the people who made the Holocaust more than a historic example to me.
When Bob and I were first married we lived in an L-shaped apartment in the basement of a six flat on the south side of Chicago. The Schlesingers, who escaped from Germany shortly after Kristallnacht, owned the building. They came into our lives during a period of wrenching dislocation in the South Shore and Hyde Park neighborhoods of Chicago. Whole blocks of apartments emptied as white-flight from the city accelerated. The building on Paxton Avenue was their Alamo. Having been forced from one home, they refused to leave another on any terms other than their own. Most of their friends had moved on to Jewish enclaves in the suburbs and the price they paid for staying behind was loneliness. Their only child, a daughter, died during their flight from Germany, and, as we were the only tenants in their building, they began to treat us as their own and opened their home to Bob and me.
They had peculiarities to be sure. Gus was tightly wound and seemed never to relax, while Mama, as he called her, wore enough gold jewelry to make King Midas seem a piker. The display was not meant to be ostentatious. Mama was a walking bank account and she’d urge me, whose gold was limited to a thin wedding band, to wear my valuables “lest you need to move your tent to another village.” Papa’s startle response grew worse as the neighborhood became more dangerous and his already damaged heart gave out one day as he was frightened coming down the stairs. Mama passed just thee months later of what I swear was a broken heart. She couldn’t bear life without him at her side. Many would consider theirs to be an immigrant’s success story. They did prosper, but in truth their hearts never left the soil on which they were born. Bob and I kept the promise we made to them and placed rocks on their headstones once they passed. The request puzzled us at first.
Why would someone visiting a cemetery leave rocks instead of flowers on a grave? It was explained to us by a kindly rabbi. Flowers are a metaphor for life but they have never been a part of Jewish rituals for the dead. The belief can be explained in these words from the prophet Isaiah, “All flesh is grass, and all its beauty like the flower of the field; grass withers and flowers fade.” Rocks, on the other hand, are forever; they do not die, and they serve as a striking metaphor for the permanence of memory.
So, today I will honor the memory of Mama and Papa Schlesinger. They were not religious people and the beliefs of their childhood were buried when they lost their only child. Rather than light a candle, I’ll plant some pansies, the flowers of remembrance, and top them with small stones. At dinner tonight Bob and I will raise a glass of Mogen David and toast them. L’chaim, dear friends. We will not forget. Shalom.