Friday, January 23, 2015

Child Survivor

From the DW:
"'You were not a child, you were a number'"

Thousands of children were murdered in the Nazi concentration and death camps. Only few survived to tell the story – Jack Mandelbaum, prisoner number 16013, is one of them.  It was five o'clock in the morning when the SS troops surrounded the Jewish ghetto in the small Polish town where 15-year old Jack Mandelbaum was living with his mother and siblings and started shouting "Alles raus! Alles raus!" "They gave us five minutes to get out", he recalls, decades later in Berlin. Mandelbaum clearly remembers that day in June of 1942, the confusion and terror: "People were screaming and yelling." Then, he says, the Nazis lined everyone up and marched them to a local brewery, where the selection process took place in the courtyard: He was told to go to one side, his mother and brother to the other. "I went to the concentration camp, the others to the gas chamber." It was the last time he ever saw his mother and brother: His entire family perished in the Holocaust. Every day, he says, he is haunted by the vision of his younger brother, clutching his mother's hand, slowly choking to death on the poisoned gas raining down on them: "I live with those visions." His voice is calm, almost matter of fact, as he talks about how in the following years, he was shuttled from one concentration camp to another, forced to do backbreaking labour, clinging on to life in the face of indescribable horrors, murder and starvation: "You were not a child anymore, you were a number." His was 16013. Jack Mandelbaum is one of an estimated 232,000 babies and children who were turned into mere numbers when they were deported to Auschwitz. Most of them died there: murdered in the gas chambers, beaten, worked or starved to death, or killed by the gruesome "medical" experiments conducted by Josef Mengele. When Auschwitz was liberated on January 27, 1945, only 416 children aged 13 or younger and 234 boys and girls aged 14 to 17, survived. Their stories are told in the exhibition titled "Vergiss deinen Namen Nicht – Die Kinder von Auschwitz" ("Don't forget your name – The Children of Auschwitz"), housed in two small rooms in the German Resistance Memorial Center in central Berlin.  At the formal opening on Thursday (22.01.2015), German Justice Minister Heiko Maas (SPD) told a packed audience, the stuffy room so full that many had to stand, that, as a father of two children, the horrors children had experienced "takes away my breath." Currently, some 30 criminal investigations were underway against former concentration camp guards and wardens, Maas said, adding that his ministry, which in the past had let "many perpetrators escape", would do its utmost to prosecute the perpetrators. "They don't deserve a peaceful retirement", he added, as the audience clapped loudly. Later, after Maas and entourage moved on, Mandelbaum stood in a corner of the exhibition, dwarfed by the posters displaying biographies full of terror and fear. He looked exhausted and frail, his hands were shaking. He desperately wants to educate people about the Holocaust and has spent the last 35 years telling and retelling his story, ever since a neighbor in America, where he moved in 1946, asked him: “What kind of sports did you play in the concentration camp?" He smiles wryly: "I told him: The sport was: try not to get killed." That was when he realized, he says, that it was important for him to educate people, "that's the only way to prevent another holocaust." And he's worried that as the survivors die out, soon there may be no one left to tell their stories, while "each day there are more and more who minimize, or deny the holocaust." But he's getting tired, he says, and as he's getting older the work is starting to take its toll emotionally. Mandelbaum shrugs: "I don't know if I can continue doing this." He shrugs again, then smiles and turns to a middle-aged German woman, who stretches out her hand to him.

^ People need to remember that the Germans actively went after Jewish children to murder them. One famous Nazi quote says that you have to kill the children otherwise they will be tomorrow's terrorists. In other words, if you kill only their parents then when they grow up they will come after you. I worked at the Holocaust Museum and they have a good and popular exhibit called "Daniel's Story." It takes the different experiences of children during the Holocaust and combines them to make a summary of what happened to them. I would always get asked if Daniel was a real person and if so what his full name was. I had to tell them that he wasn't real, but the experiences come from the children who were murdered as well as those who survived. While no one can fully understand what the Holocaust was actually like (except the few survivors) the stories from every age group - from the babies to the elderly, men and women - needs to be told and retold. ^

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