This past winter, I was fortunate enough to go on a trip to Israel with Taglit-Birthright Israel. I had been to Israel a few times before, with my family and with my high school, but it was still amazing to come to Israel again and live there for a few days as an adult. As Jews, we are extremely fortunate that Israel exists as a country for all Jews. It is incredible to come to Israel and feel connected. The majority of Israel is Jewish so the culture and media are immersed with Jewish culture. Even most of the restaurants are kosher! So many people are Jewish, it feels so comfortable to be there and belong. When I think about Israel, I think about how my life would have been different if Israel had been established before the Holocaust. Israel could have opened its doors wide to all of the Eastern European Jews as a temporary or permanent refuge and many of the Jews would have been saved. My grandfather and only part of his family survived the Holocaust. What would have happened if the rest of my family had lived?
My grandfather and his family grew up in a small town called Munkacs in Czechoslovakia. In March of 1944, the Germans entered Munkacs, the town my grandfather and his family lived in, and forced the Jews to live only in a concentrated part of the city, called a ghetto. Luckily for my grandfather, his immediate family and he were brought to a nearby village Barkaszo so his father could practice as a physician.
After a couple months, my grandfather and his family were forced back with the other Munkacs Jews and all were forced into cattle cars to be herded to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Once they arrived, Dr. Mengele separated them into two lines based on who would or would not be able to work. My great-grandfather had ran ahead and heard that he should do the following and so he did: He lied and told the Nazis that my grandfather, who was tall for his age, was 16, not 9. He told them that his wife was a nurse. And he also gave baby Solomon to his mother-in-law to hold. The Nazis told her and the baby to move to the line on the right, while other members of his family were to stay on the left side. Later, they learned that those who were sent to the right were murdered in the gas chambers.
My grandfather spent two weeks in Auschwitz. The Nazis split up the men and the women in the family. My grandfather, his father, uncles and his cousin Eugen always stayed together. Germans starved the Jews and the other prisoners and forced them to dig up holes and then fill them with dirt over and over again.
After Auschwitz, my grandfather and his family were sent to a new German concentration camp at the Warsaw ghetto. This was after the Warsaw ghetto uprising, the Jews’ stand against the Nazis, had failed. The purpose of this camp was to retrieve all of the useful material from the ghetto’s remains. In August 1944, since the Russian army was approaching Warsaw, the Nazis forced the prisoners of the Warsaw camp into a death march. They forced them to march for three days with minimal food and no water.
Eventually, they reached cattle cars that brought them to Dachau, another concentration camp. Here, they were allowed to shower and given new clothes. My grandfather believed that the Nazis did this because they wanted the prisoners to give beneficial testimonies about the Nazis if the allies won the war.
After only a few days, my grandfather and his family were sent to another concentration camp. This one was called Waldager Muhldorf and was much smaller. This is where most prisoners were forced to help the Germans create an underground airplane factory. I remember hearing over the years from my family that if the Germans had finished building this factory, perhaps they could have won the war. My grandfather was first given the job of a potato peeler, which he could use to sneak some food back to his family. His father was working as a doctor in the camp hospital and in a few weeks, he was able to get my grandfather to work for him as his assistant so he could always keep a careful watch on him to protect him.
On May 2, 1944, all of the Nazi guards had evacuated the camp and the American army had arrived. My family was freed. After a year of living in Prague after the Holocaust, my family decided to move to the United States, to St. Louis.
Thinking of the Holocaust terrifies me. There were so many chances for my family to have died, and yet they survived. If my family had not lived, I would not have even existed. I am so lucky that my family survived one of the most thought-out genocides in history.
It was a strange feeling walking through Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum, with my Taglit-Birthright Israel trip members. It was sad, yet important to hear about the history and stories of the Holocaust in Yad Vashem. As the tour guide told us stories and the history of the Holocaust, everything felt more real because my family lived through it.
Taglit- Birthright Israel did a great job showing my fellow travelers and I around Israel. We hiked in the Golan, explored the streets of Tel Aviv, and visited the ancient city of Jerusalem and the Western Wall. It was amazing to experience so many different places in Israel and it made me realize even more how much as Jews, we are so privileged to have Israel.
The writer is a Potomac resident.