Awakening With a Scream

by Sylvia Selverston July 27, 2017


sylvia-and-mother_approx-40-yrs-agoThe train tracks. The sound of the wheels pounding. Train cars filled to the brim with humans being driven to hell. And not back. The scraping of tears running down the faces of children, and their parents and grandparents.

The visuals and sounds of my family being hauled to Auschwitz haunt me incessantly.

I was born a miracle since the Nazis fed my mom sterilization chemicals to be sure there would be no more Jews, should any survive the camps.

I awake with a scream that reaches from my gut to the top of my head but doesn’t exit my mouth. It reverberates in my chest. And I double over in the pain that was inherited through the bloodstream.

This is my heritage.

This is my history.

This is my story.

All my grandparents were murdered, as were aunts and uncles, along with other millions of grandparents, aunts and uncles, plus brothers and sisters and parents. Annihilation was pursued. And, for the most part, achieved.

Those who survived were then abused by the Russians who supposedly came to rescue them.

I am astounded by the resilience of many of the survivors and appalled by the lack of support for those who quite understandably fell apart. But that’s another piece of history.

Then there were the U.S. decisions to not only not provide assistance to those slated for murder but to also turn away those who made it out and to the U.S. only to be forced to return to Germany and their deaths.

So, yes, I harbor some anger. It’s the only way I seem able to deal with the deadly past. There is no way to undo the horrors of the reality that underpins my family’s history.

I grew up among survivors, so grandparents didn’t really exist in our world. What did exist were memories of a distinct before and after, and of course memories of Nazis and their supporters.

And the trains. My mother’s family was sitting down to a holiday dinner when there was knocking at the door. The family was told to pack and head out. My mother hid some sugar under her mattress to provide some sweetness upon their return, a return that never happened. It would be many years before my mother would again experience any sweetness.

From the raid, my family began their trek to a ghetto, then to trains, and on to either labor camps and/or extinction. After surviving the train voyage, the family was separated into groups. The pregnant mother and youngest child were immediately sent to the gas chambers. They were deemed disposable since they would be unable to help in the munitions factories or in any other capacity.

The father and brother were sent to some unknown location and assumed murdered. My mother and her sister, ages 20 and 17 went to the area of the camp where they would be “reviewed,” after their heads were shaved, by marching naked, with one arm stretched upward, to be assessed by Nazi guards for assignments. 

My mother and her sister were deemed healthy and marched to a munitions factory, where they would be fed a slice of bread for their one meal. A small ray of goodness appeared when one day a guard slipped my mom an apple. Parenthetically, he was one of the guards who committed suicide as the Nazis were overrun.

Each night the munitions “workers” were marched back to the camp “dormitory” where they slept so many to a slab bed. When one person turned in her sleep, they all had to turn to keep from falling to the floor among the rats. In the morning, so early in the mornings, they were marched back to the factory. Molten steel burned several scars into my mom’s body, but that was far from the worst she would endure.

At one point her sister Sari contracted diphtheria, a common occurrence in the camps given the highly unsanitary conditions. Since those who were ill were immediately disposed of, my mom and a couple of other women took it upon themselves to help Sari line up each day and walk to the factory, as if she were not ill. They stood close to her to prevent her from falling over, and they shared their limited bread and water. Miraculously, my aunt survived this additional disaster.

After months of continual suffering, something seemed to change. Some of the brutal guards started pretending that they were not so bad and, in fact, began to ask the prisoners for support. And others committed suicide. The Allies were finally closing in.

Auschwitz was liberated. The armies that marched in were stopped short by what they witnessed. The piles of starved corpses.  The emaciated, barely living prisoners. The gas chambers. The crematoria. Unfathomable horrors. The few surviving prisoners were freed.

Not knowing who was still alive, the survivors roamed from one town and train station to the next, placing their names at each stop, with a note as to where they were headed, in the hope that a surviving family member would find them. At one stop, my mom and her sister found a note from the cousin who would become my father. He had secured a home and welcomed any and all relatives to join him.

And so began another stage of history. One in which survivors could only go forward, since their homes and businesses and farms had been stolen by either the Russians or non-Jewish former neighbors.

I’ve always wondered if the sugar under the mattress was found in my mother’s childhood home, hoping it attracted vermin to haunt the new occupants. My mother never returned there, even when she and I went for a visit to Prague and Budapest. She refused to go back.

As the Russians moved into Czechoslovakia, where we were living in 1946 when I was born, my parents were awaiting visas to travel to the U.S. The wait would take two years, since the U.S. was both limiting immigration and demanding assurances from family “sponsors” that the immigrants would be cared for by relatives rather than by the U.S. government. During the wait, my dad worked at a lumber yard and sold cigarettes sent from U.S. relatives to make extra money for a new life in a new country.

Another story would soon begin.

But first an added note attached to the murder of so many by the Nazis.  Some were able to elude the death mongers, to grapple their way to what would become Israel and were incarcerated in Cyprus on their voyage to a new land. One of my dad’s brothers was among those who escaped, climbed the mountains heading south, and spent time in Cyprus jails. He was able to get to his destination and settled with other escapees in the swamps that would be drained to create farmland. And about 10 years later, my mother got a call telling her that her brother had been spotted in the southern Israeli city of Beersheba. My mother’s excitement was infectious and all possible contacts were called into play to locate her long-lost brother. Could you imagine the glee! A month-long search, however, determined that the person was misidentified, and the crush of the Holocaust was again upon our home. Α

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