by Mort Laitner – chapter 1 of “A Hebraic Obsession”
As a ten-year old, I eavesdropped on my father telling his harrowing story of almost being gassed to death. In darkness, I sat on the top of the stairs, my legs hung over the first two steps. I pushed my head forward to be better able to hear him. I listened to my father’s somber voice as he sat with his friends in the living room below and spoke in his thick Germanic accent. I sat within a few yards of my father but totally out of his sight. If anyone started to climb the stairs, within a second I could escape to the safety of my bedroom.
I listened, concentrated and memorized his words as if I knew one day after he was gone it would be my duty to pass them on. He spoke them in English, Polish, Yiddish or a mixture of all three depending on the audience’s language preference. His old friends quietly sat, as silent as falling snow. Many had not seen my father since before the war. Many were fellow survivors with numbers tattooed on their arms and memories permanently burned into their brain. As invited guests, they allowed my father, the doctor, to speak first. He captured their minds with unimaginable horrors. They never interrupted him, being too polite or afraid to ask questions they may not have wanted to hear the answers to.
I also sat in silence: listening, fidgeting, and wondering. My father never told his story directly to me. I thought he wanted to protect me– but I believed he knew I was perched on top of the steps.
Thirty years later, I again heard my father’s voice tell the story, this time resonating from the speakers of a cassette recorder. My dad died of a heart attack, one day before his unedited Holocaust Memorial tape arrived via mail to his Boca Raton home.
I ripped open the manila envelope. I popped open the cassette player window, pushed the tape in the slot and pressed the play button. For the next three hours I sat transfixed. I listened. I remembered. I cried.
The interviewer asked, “Doctor, when you were a slave at Auschwitz what was your most harrowing moment?”
My father said, “There were too many frightening moments to count. I don’t know how or why I survived. But here is one miraculous moment that I have often told my closest friends.
It started during morning roll call, on a cold, rainy day. My constant pangs of hunger retreated as the metallic taste of fear washed across my bleeding gums. A SS doctor determined that I was no longer fit to work. Therefore, I had to die. At gun point, I and a few other men were marched into a group of new arrivals.
Mothers held onto their babies and young children. Elderly couples walked hand-in-hand. Crowded into a large courtyard, I faced what the Nazi’s termed the ‘delousing showers.’ Having lived in, or better said, survived in the extermination camp, I knew that all of us were going to be gassed to death in those showers. I had been told by men who brought the bodies to the ovens. I smelled the putrid odor of burning human flesh. The stench permeated my nostrils as well as the entire camp. Smoke rose from the chimneys of the crematoria. Ashes of the silenced snowed down upon those selected to live.
I knew most of my family had been murdered. Death stopped appearing to be my enemy. Having already descended to Hell; I wondered if there was a heaven.
I, with over a thousand other people, was ordered to strip. I unbuttoned my blue and gray striped camp shirt. Sewn on the pocket was a yellow six-pointed star. In the middle of the star, as if the star alone was not a sufficient symbol, one word pointed out my religious identity. JUDE. The reason for enslavement summed up in one four letter word.
I dropped my trousers which were encrusted with filth and stains of death. I folded my soaked so called pajamas on top of my wooden-healed shoes. As my fingers grazed the Star of David — a sharp, burning, electrical jolt shot through my body and clutched my heart.
As the pain subsided, I used my hands to cover my privates. I was surrounded by the naked. I wept as I listened to the cries of babies. As I shuffled toward the gas chamber, I looked into the dark smoke-filled skies as rain battered my face. I prayed the ‘Shema Yisrael’ as I wondered about the existence of the Almighty.
I glanced over at the perimeter of the crowd and saw a Nazi guard holding his rifle in the direction of the throng. The guard talked to my clothed lover, my girlfriend.
The guard screamed and pointed his rifle at me, “You, vermin! Get out of line! Raus!”
I had known that if I paused for a second it would be my last.
I hurried to find my clothes and shoes among a thousand piles.
Miraculously they appeared.
I questioned my luck. I would be allowed to survive in hell for another day.
In seconds, I dressed, stepped out of the formation and turned my back on a thousand naked people being led to the gas chamber. I feared looking back.”
As I sat at my father’s table, in his Boca home, my ears felt the Interviewer’s silent pause as she absorbed what she had just heard.
Trembling, I gently pressed the off button. I had heard enough.
I shut my eyes and returned to my tenth year. I found myself in my childhood home, in the hallway, hunched over on the top stair, wishing my father had been less protective.