“That’s it. That’s our life,” the rasping old woman said, summing up this schematic version of the ordeal the Germans, Russians, and Poles had inflicted on her over 70 years ago. “You will be busy—you have what to write.”
That’s it—it’s a straightforward series of events, familiar enough by now. You will be busy—and unless you were there, the true content of such a life can’t possibly be known. And soon enough, no one will know it.
With no sentimentality or possibility of appeal, the extinguished Jewish worlds of Warsaw and Budapest, as well as the campaign of extermination that destroyed them, will soon lose their final living witnesses to an oblivion that is optimistically referred to as “history.” At that point, which gets closer with every passing second, the memory and reality of the Holocaust will be the sole responsibility of people who weren’t there.
It is far from obvious that we are up to the challenge. Soon, Jews and the broader human race will have no living reminders and no living accusers. Instead, we will have to remind and accuse ourselves and each other, an unpleasant activity that most people, and indeed most Jews, might decide they’re better off without.
In the unlikely case that Jewish Europe and the Holocaust aren’t generally remembered in ways that are distorting and self-aggrandizing, they will still be in danger of being conveniently reduced to rhetorical devices or metaphysical thought experiments or a series of trivializing political catchphrases tailored to the latest partisan political ends. This is already happening, with the pace of the vulgarity increasing almost by the week. Anne Frank trends on Twitter with revolting frequency—last week it was because of a Rhode Island sports bar attempting a tasteless joke. The joke was perhaps less appalling than the U.K.’s Anne Frank Trust, which uses the name of a murdered Jewish child to legitimate their blandly universalist women’s empowerment platitude factory, which highlights antisemites like Virginia Woolf and Alice Walker as role models for today’s youth.
The grossness of the ideologues who exploit Anne Frank’s name and image is in turn exceeded by that of the New York-based Olga Lengyel Institute for Holocaust Studies and Human Rights, which endeavors to “educate teachers …about human rights and social justice through the lens of the Holocaust”—a mission it carries out by appropriating the moral capital of Holocaust memory in order to bless newfangled and still-controversial “equity initiatives” introduced in U.S. public schools after the supposed American racial reckoning of 2020, which have a funny tendency to marginalize and exclude living Jews. The institute’s online “About” page and video only very obliquely mention the Jewish identity of the vast majority of the Nazis’ victims.
As long as there are living Jews who experienced the attempted destruction of their people as not just a national but a personal violation—an act of violence that real and identifiable perpetrators inflicted on them and on their societies and on their loved ones—it is still possible to know what the Holocaust really was, and what it destroyed. And it is still possible, within this desperately narrowing span of time, to grasp the full burden of the task we will inherit once the last of the survivors are gone.
Fifty-six survivors in a single room—where to even begin? I mentioned to Cisner, the Nachas case worker, that I had recently been in Krakow, in eastern Poland. Perhaps there was someone in this ballroom who remembered what Kazimierz, the cobblestoned hipster precinct that is now a moving yet slightly ghoulish open-air Jewish heritage museum, had been like before the world ended. “Mrs. Mikel come here,” Cisner beckoned. “He was just in Krakow!”
A formidable older woman in heavy makeup and a burnt-blond sheitel, streaked with tastefully understated ribbons of gray, appeared to float toward us. Erna Mikel had spent six years in various camps and ghettos after the Germans occupied Poland in 1939. First had been the Krakow ghetto, where she was locked inside walls built to look like giant Jewish tombstones, a cruelty followed by the Plaszow and Ravensbruck concentration camps, along with other loci of the German campaign to murder every Jew on Earth. She escaped a death march when a small group of prisoners pretended to relieve themselves by the side of the road and ran off into the forest. Today she has children in Los Angeles, Toronto, and Monsey, New York. One of her daughters is a lawyer. One of her sons she forbade from ever visiting Poland. “And they’re very good children,” she said. “They call me every day.”
Jewish Krakow was her home. Her father was a shoe salesman, a follower of the Belz Hasidic movement who wore a shtreimel on Shabbat. She lived in a house “where I had everything,” including a nanny. “My grandfather lived across the street from the cemetery,” Mikel remembered, clutching Cisner by the wrist and craning her head upward. The centuries-old burial ground in the center of Kazimierz is still the site of several major rabbinic tombs, and its walls now face a row of “traditional Jewish” restaurants and boutique hotels. “They were terrible apartments,” she said. “Only the most honest people lived on this street … they gave their lives away for Yiddishkeit.”
“Nobody can understand—nobody,” Mikel said of what came after. “Because nobody went through what we went through.” I sensed she was not talking about the entire Jewish people but about the survivors themselves—and maybe not about every survivor, either. Maybe just the Polish Jews knew what “we” had been through. Because the Holocaust began in 1939 in Poland, earlier than it did in France or the Netherlands or Hungary, there are very few alive now who can talk about it firsthand. Mikel recalled hearing mass executions at Plaszow. She remembered hiding in a trench her father had dug in the family’s basement. He later died in Mauthausen. “I want to tell you everything,” she said, “but it would take a few days.”
The retreat includes entertainment, exercise, and activities like a challah baking workshopMARGARITA CORPORAN
An attendee addresses the camera during a challah baking activity. The rapper Kosha Dillz talks with other attendees at the table behind.MARGARITA CORPORAN
A petite woman with shocks of light orange hair—her natural hair, it would turn out— approached us and pulled up one sleeve, revealing a tattoo on her forearm. Upon her arrival at Auschwitz, Alice Rosenberg, the daughter of a grocer who grew up in a Hungarian-speaking family in present-day Slovakia, was grouped into the camp’s notorious children’s housing, where twins and other potential subjects of medical experimentation were sent. Her jailor was Josef Mengele, a monster of history whom she saw with her own eyes. “I was so little—I don’t take it seriously, the situation,” she said. The dress she wore in the camp was too long for her. “They gave me a big shoe, like a man’s shoe.” She had no underwear. Her head was shaved at Auschwitz, though this did not trouble her. “I never liked my hair, because it was red.” No one else from her family survived the war.
For a surreal moment—I am privileged to be able to call it surreal—Mikel and Rosenberg compared their experiences in the German network of death camps, speaking with increasing speed and animation as each one prodded deeper into the other’s memory, as if they were swapping recollections of their old neighborhoods, or at least of something less sinister than what was actually being discussed. Both remembered that upon arrival at a new camp prisoners were forced to give up everything but their shoes. Potato peels were a known vector of typhus and were only eaten as a last resort. Taking clothing discarded by dead inmates could get you shot, but sometimes you had no other choice. At any moment you could be killed.
“I got married 10 years after the war,” Rosenberg said. “You build a family … but it hurts you. It never heals … We tried our best.”
“We don’t even like to think about it, because we have to live through it,” added Mikel. “We have to have our lives. We have children.”
“See these two ladies?” one of the volunteers asked as she walked by. “They’re our best card players.”
I was suddenly part of a circle of a half-dozen old women. Mikel, the dominant personality of the group, seemed to imply that at six years under the Nazis, she’d had it harder than some of the Hungarians, who only fell under total German control in 1944 and for whom the Holocaust had been brutal and deadly but also comparatively brief. The Hungarians, she remembered, had arrived at the camps with furs, hats, and fancy luggage, “dressed to kill.”
It was a fellow Polish Jew who eventually overtook Mikel in the conversation. Toby Goldberg’s late husband had been on Schindler’s list, and survived the genocide because of the German industrialist. The Nazis had tattooed her husband’s arm, a number with a “KL” prefix, standing for “Konzentrationslager” or concentration camp. “When he wore short sleeves people asked if it was his girlfriend’s name,” she said of those first years in America after the war. Later, an employer offered to pay for its removal. “He said, ‘Oh no, I suffered too much for it. I’m leaving it where it is.’”
The survivors had all lived in the United States for the majority of their lives. Most of them wound up in Borough Park in Brooklyn, one of America’s strongholds of Orthodox Judaism. The sharp edges of their speech, the exclamations and interruptions, the scattered musings on life, the short aphoristic phrases, the serious humor, the humorous seriousness—all of it belongs to the murdered Old World. They spoke the last of the living Yiddish of 20th-century prewar Central Europe, transposed onto American speech with both musical clarity and a poignant note of dissonance, as if the mixture never should have been necessary.
“Before the war, you can call it normal. We went to cheder. There was antisemitism. But it wasn’t that bad,” recalled Ben Kraus, born near Budapest, almost singing each sentence and each clause from the back of his throat, his quiet voice rising and falling to set up the concluding emphasis on each phrase. He wore a black vest and a head-sized kippah. Like many of the other survivors he had piercing and active eyes that somehow looked decades younger than the person to whom they belonged.
Word of the German arrival came hours before Shavuot in 1944, “while my mother prepared for the yontif.” The family fled to an aunt’s apartment while their stove was still burning. Kraus eventually sought refuge in the Glass House, a factory that the Germans recognized as sovereign Swiss territory where over 2,000 people hid for the remainder of the war in conditions of unconscionable squalor and fear.
After the war Kraus arrived in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, along with his rebbe and hundreds of other Satmar Hasids who had lived through the European slaughter. There were roughly 20 other young men in his yeshiva class—“survivors, all of them.” After yeshiva Kraus got married and went into the manufacture of women’s belts.
“That was the style then,” added his wife, an energetic woman who was born in Romania and who spoke up to prod her softer-spoken husband throughout the conversation. “Every dress had a belt.”
Lunch was served in the neighboring ballroom—Caesar salad and eggplant Parmesan, with bottles of kosher seltzer water. In the ride up from the city the journalists had been joined by Kosha Dillz, an Israeli American battle rapper and a cast member on MTV’s Wild ’N Out. He had made Holocaust commemoration part of his creative mission, performing regularly in Poland and, at one concert I’d attended, introducing a Holocaust survivor to the son of the late Ol’ Dirty Bastard, from the Wu-Tang Clan.
Dillz often carries a small amplifier, daily life in New York presenting infinite chances for an impromptu rap performance—including, apparently, this lunch. “I decided I’m gonna sing for the ladies in the front row!” Kosha announced over an appropriately unaggressive beat. “They say, Kosha where you feel the heart?” he crooned. “I met some ladies from Borough Park!” A few listeners in front cooperated when he asked them to put their hands in the air. He launched into a verse in Hebrew.
“Speak Hungarian!” joked a man behind me in a tan dress shirt—another survivor, born in Budapest.
What did you think of this unexpected Jewish rap show? I asked. He replied with an Old World deflection, raising his hands parallel to his temples, arching his eyebrows, and spreading his mouth into a smile of cheeky, almost face-consuming vastness. “I should go back to kindergarten!” he declared. If only I could approach this with the wonder and enthusiasm of a child, I think he meant. But, for better and for worse, it’s too late now.
You know, I still dream of Auschwitz … I’m still not finished from there.
The Blue Card program offers a chance for the survivors to spend a week breathing fresh air in a place even more peaceful and quiet than Borough Park, surrounded by family and by each other. They were happy and relaxed and never alone.
Yet there is a pain at the core of what the survivors saw and went through that, while merely notional for us—experienced through the secondhand discomfort of attempted empathy—is tangible and permanent for them. The pain might even be worsening with the passage of time. The survivors were born into a world that no longer exists, and that every day fewer people remember. The killings of nearly 80 years ago are incomprehensibly ghastly, yet they exist at the outer fringes of living memory, meaning the survivors are among the only people for whom those murders are fully real. The further away the horror gets, the harder it is for other people to understand what the survivors went through, and the harder it is to grasp that it happened at all.
As lunch wrapped up, I noticed a vital, athletic-looking, middle-aged woman in secular dress speaking Yiddish to a heavyset older man in a dignified button-up shirt and a dark knit vest and kippa. The man was her father, 96-year-old David Einhorn. He had been born into a religious family in Szeged, in southern Hungary. It was women’s hours at the resort’s outdoor pool, Einhorn’s daughter explained. Perhaps while she swam I could speak with her father. I should record the conversation, she said, in case he said something new.
Einhorn spoke with total command, a sharp bristle of white beard fringing his round face. He was 17 when he arrived at Auschwitz, “a week before Shavuot” in 1944, as he told me. At Auschwitz he and his father, another shtreimel-wearer, were immediately separated from his three brothers, his three sisters, and his mother. “I didn’t know what means the left, what means the right,” Einhorn said of the initial sorting of new arrivals at the camp. At the barracks the German guards left open the possibility that their family members were still alive, but the earlier inmates knew better. “The Polish said, your parents are burning already.”
Einhorn was soon marched to one of Auschwitz’s outlying labor camps, where he was forced to work 12-hour shifts 400 meters underground, in a coal mine excavated using dynamite. After the war, with his family killed and Hungary’s Jews dispersed or destroyed, Einhorn attempted to join the yishuv in Palestine, but spent two years in a British detention camp in Cyprus instead. In the new State of Israel he found a society unsympathetic to what he had been through. “You come home from Auschwitz like you fell from the sky,” he recalled. He had “no parents, no siblings, no nothing.” He worked in the Tel Aviv port, but there was a time when he had to sleep in a public park. He had no living connections to the rest of the world and no one to guide him, just people who seemed eager to evade what he’d been through and what it might represent. For decades, no one asked Einhorn about the numbers on his arm, or seemed to care very much about them.
In New York, Einhorn worked at a kosher butcher shop on the Lower East side and raised a family. Most of a century later, the horrors of the Holocaust are still recent enough to be able to cause nightmares in the people who experienced them, Einhorn included. “You know, I still dream of Auschwitz,” he said. “My mind is still in Auschwitz … I’m still crying. I cry in the night, I cry in the day. I’m still not finished from there.”
It is indecent, not to mention inaccurate, to imply any neat ending to the survivors’ stories, as if living through the Holocaust were a fair price to pay for getting to spend the rest of one’s life in the United States making womens’ belts or selling kosher meat. If one insists on extracting any hope from the experience of the war and the subsequent decades, it shouldn’t come from the inevitable need to salvage meaning from evil, or from the psychological impulse to vulgarize tragedy in order to make it comprehensible, but from forces beyond the merely human, far outside our meager range of understanding.
Throughout Einhorn’s story there were puzzling and terrible hints of a God, subtle in action, mystifying in intent, and undeniably there. In the mines, Einhorn said, a dynamite explosion once sent a chunk of rock careering toward his head, knocking him backward but leaving him miraculously unscathed. “The foreman asked, ‘how did you survive?’ I said, ‘It looks like an angel pushed me out from there.’” As Kol Nidre approached in 1944, Einhorn yearned for something, anything he could eat to prepare for the coming fast. “I went from the barracks and said, this is the day before Yom Kippur. I said God, I have nothing, how am I going to fast tonight? Tomorrow I have to go back to work.” At that moment, he said, a cabbage rolled off the back of a passing supply truck and “arrived to my feet.”
On the cattle car to Auschwitz, Einhorn’s brother said to him: “I don’t know where we’re going, but I’m going to pray to God that you should survive.” And he did. “Everyone was killed,” Einhorn later added. “I’m the only one who survived.”