Dr. Tauba Zipper
Professor of English, Kingsborough Community College and Daughter of Holocaust Survivors
Full transcript: “Both of my parents were concentration camp survivors; they were born in Poland and were taken into the concentration camps as young adults. So their lives were shattered in their prime years. My father suffered through four years of harsh labor in Auschwitz from 1941-1945. My mother went directly to Auschwitz from Hungary in 1944. She was forced to flee to Hungary from Poland as a child in order to save her life. It was a miracle that either of them survived.
My father was in Auschwitz for four years. Auschwitz was a camp that was divided into sections. There was the administrative section, the labor section , The prisoner of war section, and the death camp with gas chambers.(mostly for Jews). It was Hitler’s intention to annihilate the Jews. I am not aware of too many of my father’s experiences , because he was a quiet man., but I do know some. One day my younger brother told me that our father had been part of the Sonderkommando at Auschwitz. The Sonderkommando division was ordered to remove dead bodies from the gas chambers and put them into the crematorium so that they would be burnt to ashes. The bodies could have been those of family members or anyone that was known to the laborers. They were forced to do this; refusal would have meant instant death – being shot on the spot. My father never spoke to me about this, so my reaction was shock and disbelief when my brother told me. I began to understand my father’s quiet and his lack of communication.
I had been in shock simply upon hearing about it. My father experienced it. I have heard from several children of survivors that their parents told them little in an attempt to protect them. It’s understandable. Who would want to tell their children of torture that they experienced?
My mother was in the camps for one year. During her time at Auschwitz, she worked in the kitchen, where she could get all the potato peels she wanted – what luxury! The soldiers told her and the other girls who were fully shaven and emaciated that the Allied Forces had entered the war and the end was near. “Hold on! Hold on!” They encouraged the young girls. I’m sure that my father didn’t hear words like that. It was known that those in the Sonderkommando were shot after a while in order to destroy any chance of the enemy finding out the truth about the camps should enemy soldiers overtake them. The Germans did not want the depths of depravity at Auschwitz or in any other camp, to be known.
My mother contracted typhus from constant exposure to the filth and especially the lice in the camps. She was placed in a camp hospital where she was in a coma. Without the devoted care of a friend who risked her own life when bringing water and spending time dropping it into my mother’s mouth, my mother would not have survived. As I mentioned she did not experience liberation, but she did survive the camps.
Both of my parents were place in (DP) Displaced Persons camps after the war along with other survivors. They met eachother about a year after WWII – or “The War” – as they referred to it, was over. Other survivors made a small wedding for them and with time they decided to emigrate to America.
They came to this country on a two week boat ride in which my mother and my older sister, who was a year old at the time both got seasick. The conditions on those boats were appalling. They were dirty. The food was difficult to eat. families were separated with the men sleeping in the bottom part of the boat and the women and children on an upper floor. The only place where people got relief from the smells and the constant rocking of the boat was up on the deck. Finally when the people on the boat saw the Statue of Liberty with her message “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” the immigrants cheered for they knew that now they would be free to be themselves, not having to be afraid of being Jewish. The days of fear were behind them.
When my parents arrived in America, they were sent to Racine, Wisconsin. They lived there for a year before my mother’s relatives brought them to the place of my birth, Elmira,NY. Elmira is a beautiful town nestled in the rolling hills of upstate NY. The Chemung River flowed through the center of town and the dike built next to it provided a playground during my growing years.
Here we were a young, growing family living in an idyllic natural setting beset with strong reverberations of the holocaust. The surroundings were beautiful, but my home was full of holocaust memories. My mother was a kind but anxious woman. My father was a quiet man.
The television was always playing. The shows more often than not had to do with the war. The screaming. The yelling. Hitler’s face that I couldn’t bear to see. His voice that I couldn’t bear to hear, because I knew that he had ruined my parent’s lives. I remember the Eichmann trial. I remember seeing him sitting in a glass booth. And I remember people vying for the opportunity to be the one who would hang him.
I remember my mother teaching herself to read English. She sat devotedly reading the paper and soon her broken English became less so. My parents dressed simply. They had heavy Yiddish accents. They were not wholly accepted by their family who had come before the War. Although they were brought over by family, I do have a memory that they were probably looked down upon. My mother accepted shoes from the shoe store man. My father labored daily in an auto body shop under the criticism of fellow workers who made fun of the fact that he was a Jew. He couldn’t seem to get away from it.
My parent’s friends were other survivors. I suppose survivors were most comfortable with each other. After the horrors they had experienced, it must have been comforting being with others who had gone through that they went through: I do remember it being said that “nobody believed that it was that horrible. They must surely be exaggerating.” Survivors needed each other.
We headed for the hills in our broken down Dodge often; I have learned that many holocaust surviviors enjoyed an escape from the city often. The Finger Lakes were near us; that was a frequent outing. My mother packed delicious picnic lunches. And there was always plenty of food. She was a great cook. She had worked as a cook’s assistant in Hungary and we benefitted from that! I am sure that my parent’s emphasis on having a good amount of food had to do with their deprivation during the war years. A cup of black coffee, a small piece of black bread, and watery soup with a few potato peels floating in it daily, was a torturous diet. The prisoners were fed enough to keep them alive, yet starving. My parents didn’t confide in me, but they told these things to my older sister.
One night when I was lying in bed – I slept with my older sister in a double bed – she told me that our parents wake up at night crying and hold each other; they try to calm each other down so that we should not wake and get scared when hearing them. I was, of course shocked that they cry at night. “My parents”? Iasked, “why do they cry”? She said, “the war dummy”. I did feel silly.
My sister and I had a bedroom that was fit for a king. The furniture was expensive – I don’t know how my parents afforded it. I suppose they felt that they had to coddle and protect us; we were their only family. They had both lost their families – either murdered in cold blood or wasted away in concentration camps.
At age twelve, I didn’t want to hear any more about the holocaust. I had literally soaked up my parent’s experiences, somehow, through osmosis. I felt it in the air in our home. This is also something that I learned other children of survivors have experienced. I felt different. We were different. I needed to fit in with everybody else – a typical teenager. I loved my parents, but felt suffocated by constant reminders of their sufferings, reminders of our not being upper middle class.
Yet when it came time to marry, I married a son of survivors. Funny isn’t it? I feel that “the war” is so much a part of my identity. I understand certain quirks on his part, and I’m sure that he understands mine. My husband can’t waste food. I must have enough in the house.
Still, fifty years later I react to reminders of the holocaust. I get angry when people make little of it. Once, I even wanted to scream. Yes, I wanted to scream at an unintentional inference about the holocaust which I felt was wrong.
Something that reverberates so deeply cannot be forgotten.
I know so little about what happened to my parents and I think that speaks volumes. I have so little information and I suppose that’s why I’m consumed by the desire to learn more and more about World War II and their experiences. I became aware that my parents had traumatic experiences during the war, yet I don’t know what they were. The holocaust was all around me. It surrounded me, yet I know so little of what happened.
Recently I have been reading history. The rise of antisemitism. The rise of Hitler (ym”shmo). Resistance movements. I want to know what made my parents tick what made them who they were. I want to find out information I was never told.
I need to solve a never ending mystery.”
Mr. Ernest Biederman
Mr. Seymour Kaplan