When fact was fatal

1st December 2000 at 00:00
Gail Berlin, daughter of an Auschwitz survivor, has found a powerful way of teaching about the terrifying times of the Holocaust

Each spring, I visit a junior high school to tell eighth graders in Indiana, Pennsylvania, about my family's experiences during the Holocaust. The pupils are about 13 years old and have been looking at works such as the novel Gentlehands or the memoir Alicia: My Story and at maps of Europe and pictures of the camps, and writing about the Holocaust period. How to engage these young people? Over the years, I have learned to stop my storytelling at a crucial point and give the students a quiz that has never failed to rivet them. I ask three questions. Students must commit their answers to paper, and I tell them that they may not change their minds once they have written their responses. After they have marked down their answers, I have them put their pencils away and tell them that in order to survive their first 20 minutes in Auschwitz, all three answers must be correct.

My family, I tell them, comes from Verbovetz, which is now in the Ukraine. They got along well with the neighbours and my grandfather, Abraham Berkovic, was elected mayor. But in 1939, life became difficult. Hungary invaded and grandfather fled to the United States, where he saved the price of boat tickets to bring out his two elder daughters. All three worked to save enough money to bring over the rest of the family, Esther (my grandmother), Olga (my aunt), Lenka (my mother), and the two boys, Erno and Tibi. But in 1944 the Nazis seized power in Hungary and the family was trapped. Two weeks after Passover, the deportations of Jews began.

Early one morning, a knock on the door woke my grandmother. The family was arrested and taken to a ghetto in a larger town. It was here that my mother first felt fear. When they arrived in the ghetto, the Hungarian Nazis began collecting valuables and gold. My mother had on a pair of gold earrings. A Nazi demanded them, and Mom discovered that they would not unfasten. Then she heard a voice yelling: "If they won't come off, rip them out." As a hand reached toward her ears, the earrings suddenly sprang open, and she handed them over. A few weeks later, on the day they were to leave the ghetto, she felt fear again. As they were walking to the train, she saw a pair of glasses squashed on the ground. She recognised them as those of an old man from her town whom she very much loved and respected.

Then she was on the train. Mother was comforted to be with her family and by the words of the Nazis. "You are being taken to work," they told the gathered Jews. The train ride in the sealed wooden box car lasted about 24 hours and then they arrived at Auschwitz.

My mother could barely interpret what she saw when she jumped down from the train. "On one side," she would tell me, "I saw people playing soccer, healthy young men. An all-girl orchestra was playing beautiful music to greet us. Can you imagine what it was like to hear music? We never even had a radio at home. There was no electricity. And here we were welcomed with music. It was like a fairytale. But on the other side of the train tracks, I saw crazy people with shaved heads wearing striped pajamas behind a barbed wire fence, and they were screaming at us, but we had no idea what they were saying. And I thought, 'There must be an insane asylum here.' Next, the Nazis separated the men from the women, and we were separated from my brothers. We saw them one more time, inside Auschwitz, then never again. (After the war we learned that they had both been shot on a death march.) Next, a crazy-looking man came up to my family. He, too, wore the striped pajamas and a hat." In his eyes my mother saw fear.

"And now," I tell the students, "I want you to take out your journals and answer three questions. One: How old are you? (The students write.) Two: Are you a twin?" Now I tell them: "The next question will take a little longer. Imagine that you are on the train platform at Auschwitz, and you see a cousin there. She has five young children so, to help her out, you take a toddler by the hand. Then a man comes along and tells you to give the child back to the mother. Do you do it? Do you help the mother or give the child back? OK. Pencils down. You have your answers now. You are not allowed to change your minds. To survive the first selection at Auschwitz, you have to have all three answers right. Let's see if you'll survive.

Here's what happened to my family.

A man in striped pajamas came up to my mother. He asked her: "How old are you?" "Fifteen," she replied.

"No. you're 16. If they ask you, say you are 16." Then the man ran away, but he was back again a little later. He told Olga, who was 16 that she was 17, and grandmother, who was 47, that she was 45. Then he asked, "Are you twins?" Mother and her sister Olga are one year apart, but both are blonde and both wore dresses of the same fabric and cut on that day. They looked alike. Mother wanted to tease the man, whom she thought was probably crazy, anyway.

"Yes, we're twins," she lied.

"Say you're not twins." His eyes darted about, fearfully, and he left them again. Then they met a cousin there on the platform. She had five children with her, including an infant and a toddler. Mother and Olga rushed to help her, each taking a child by the hand. The man in striped pajamas came back. "Give the children back to the mother," he commanded. They would not. This woman needed help. The man came back again. "Give the children back." Still they wouldn't do it. He returned one final time and turned to the cousin instead. He pointed at my mother and her sister. "Do you want those girls to die? Take your children back." The cousin had no idea what he was talking about or whose children would die, but she was badly frightened and gathered all five of her children to herself.

The Nazi guards commanded the group to line up in fives. At the head of a line was a very handsome man doing the selections and pointing gracefully to the right and to the left. This was Dr Mengele. (I ask the students if anyone knows who Dr Mengele was, and there is usually at least one person in the audience who can explain that he was a Nazi doctor who did medical experiments.) When my mother got to the head of the line, Mengele looked at her and asked, "How old are you?" Mom thought about the fear she had seen in the eyes of the man in striped pajamas, and she lied.

"I'm 16 years old." Olga and my grandmother lied as well, each giving her new age.

Then Mengele looked at mother and Olga. "Are you twins?" Mother wanted to joke with this handsome stranger, but again she remembered the fear in the other man's eyes, and she told the truth. "No, we're not twins." And Dr Mengele waved the family over to the right side, to life. They had survived the first selection.

"Let's find out how well you did," I tell the students. "Do you know why Mengele asked their ages?" Generally, few know, and I explain that the age for workers that day was between 16 and 45. Anybody younger or older was sent to the left, to the gas chambers. "How many of you survived the first question?" I look around at the audience, most of whom are 13. To make it through this selection, they would have had to lie about their ages. Very few hands go up. A sprinkling of students have done enough reading to be wary, and have in fact lied. Out of my audience of about 200, perhaps six have "survived".

"How about the second question?" I ask them. "Why did Mengele ask if they were twins?" Someone usually is able to explain that twins were saved for medical experiments. "Do I have any twins in the audience?" In most years, one or two hands go up.

"Was being a twin good or bad, then?" they want to know.

"That depends," I explain. "If you are much younger, say five years old, then you would have been sent to the left, to death, anyway. Being a twin gave you a chance at survival for at least a little longer. But you would have to face painful medical experiments, and one of the twins was usually killed for purposes of comparison."

"What happened to the cousin with her five children?" they want to know. "They were all sent to the left, toward the gas chambers. How many of you gave the children back to the mother?" About 20 hands go up.

"Well, you're not very helpful people, but you did survive this question," I tell them. "Do you know why the man told my mother to give the child back to its mother? Anybody with a child was sent to the left. It didn't matter if the person holding the child was the actual parent or not. A child was a death sentence. By telling my mother and her sister to give the children back, the man in striped pajamas, a Jewish prisoner himself, saved their lives."

Usually, not more than a half-dozen of the students claim to have survived all three questions. They are instructed to write about their feelings in their journals, and after five minutes of scribbling, they ask questions for half an hour. Some questions show that the students are trying to capture the details of the story or flesh it out: Did the people in the town try to save your family? Did your grandfather in America know what was happening to his family? How did your family find out that your uncles died? Who was the man in striped pajamas? Didn't the Americans know? Why didn't they help you? How long did it take your family to recover from the Holocaust? Some questions indicate that the students are trying to absorb and understand the details of camp life: If you were already bald when you arrived at Auschwitz, would the Nazis still try to shave your head? Did prisoners try to murder or hurt anyone? Why didn't people try to escape? Did people kill other people for food? What was the reason for killing all those people? Did people ever commit suicide in the camps? Did any Nazis commit suicide? Did prisoners ever kill an SS guard? Did your family ever encounter any friendly or nice Germans or Nazis? What was it like to be Jewish during the time in the camps? Were Jews in Auschwitz allowed to practice their religion in camp?

Among my favourite questions are the ones that are both thoughtful and thought-provoking: "How has hearing your mother's experience changed your life? How does having Holocaust survivors in your family affect the way you think and act? Did your family ever regret surviving when so may others didn't? Could the Holocaust ever happen again?" I tell them that I think it could. I tell them I think they are the ones who can help prevent it from happening. But I worry. For this generation, accounts in histories and memoirs lack a sense of reality or immediacy. Living people convince them; written words do not. Yet we are reaching a time when fewer and fewer Holocaust survivors remain to tell their tales.

Gail Berlin is a professor at Indiana University and hopes to publish a book about her family's experiences. E-mail: IVY@grove.iup.edu

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