Edwin Black: Why Surviving the Holocaust Was Historically Significant

Roundup: Talking About History

Edwin Black, in a syndicated column (2-14-05):

[Edwin Black is the author of award-winning five books and scores of articles, including the New York Times bestseller IBM and the Holocaust, all of which dealt with the Holocaust, all predicated on his parents’ experience.]

A few days ago, a 79-year old Polish Holocaust survivor died in West Palm Beach after a long illness. Born in Bialystok with the name Ethel Katz, her story was known all over the world, having been retold for some four decades in newspaper and magazine articles, books, documentaries, TV presentations and lectures in 60 countries.

Ethel’s intersection with history began long ago in August 1943, in the terrifying darkness of a boxcar as a train that swayed rhythmically sped toward the Treblinka death camp. Ethel, nicknamed Edjya, a thin, 13-year-old girl, sat on the boxcar floor, listening to the thudding rail ties, trying to understand the scream of terrible events befalling her family. Her mother nudged and whispered, “You're a skinny one, Edjya, always a skinny one,” as she eyed the tiny vent at the top of the boxcar.

“Quickly, up there,” she said. “Edjya, go through.” Her mother repeated. “Quickly, I said. We'll let you down slowly. Hold onto the towel.”

Edjya inched out of the vent and down the horizontal wooden slats of the boxcar's exterior until her elbows and then finally her wrists cleared. With one foot resting on an exterior bolt, and hanging onto the towel against the wind, Edjya cried out, “Take me back up. I can't do it.”

“Get ready,” her mother instructed. “When you hit the ground, run, Edjya, run. And tell someone. Tell someone what is happening!” Edjya jumped. On the ground, she was shot by militiamen and then buried in a snowy mass grave. But when Herschel, a teenaged Polish forest fighter, came upon her leg protruding from the snow, he pulled her out to life and survival. They lived in the woods for two years.

After a brief stay in a post-War Displaced Persons Camp, the young survivors reached America, settled in Chicago and as her mother enjoined, “she told someone. Ethel’s dramatic and unique escape from a boxcar—one of the few that occurred—was retold many times in the mass media and inspired many, beginning in the 1970s during the formative years of the Second Generation movement.

At her brief private funeral February 9, in West Palm Beach, one family member rose to explain that in Jewish tradition, when Jews pass from life, they do not go to heaven, but dwell in the nederland of Sheol. Moses, King David, and all the Jews who pass from this world became inanimate shades awaiting God’s next instruction. The inert Jews of Sheol live on not in corporeal or spiritual form, but only in memory, and only in the inspiration they provide the world.

Hitler placed Ethel and millions of other European Jews in boxcars, and gave them numbers instead of names to wipe out the Jewish people and eradicate their memory. Before embarking upon the Final Solution, Hitler declared, “Who will remember the Armenians?” referring to the extermination of about a million Armenians during WWI. He intended a similar fate for the Jews of Europe.

To defeat Hitler’s plan, Jews like Ethel only needed to survive to tell their story. That happened. More than the testimony of survival, so many victims emerged from Nazi inhumanity by living lives of lovingkindness toward others. In this way, survivors such as Ethel inspired a multitude, inspiring them to both live exemplary lives and to warn the world about the dangers of intolerance and race hatred. In the case of the Polish survivor born Ethel Katz, she also inspired me. In America, her name was Ethel Black. She was my mother. See, I’m still telling her story.

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