The word holocaust means a totally burned sacrifice. In the years between 1933 and 1945, it became Holocaust with a capital ”H,” defining the Nazi regime’s efforts to exterminate European Jewry. Survivors of the genocide are dwindling in number like grains of sand through an hourglass.
For those who remain, and the generations since, now is the time of remembrance. Time for candles and prayers for the dead. For the victims of the Shoah —- the whirlwind that left 6 million Jews dead in its wake.
”This is a difficult topic,” said Annette Segal as she came to the podium to talk of the period when whole families were obliterated by the Nazi killing machine. Segal, of San Diego, was Temple Adat Shalom’s guest speaker Friday in commemoration of Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, which falls on May 5, today. The service was conducted by Rabbi Deborah Prinz and Rabbi Tamar Molino at the Poway temple.
Segal speaks with the authority of personal knowledge. Born in Poland, she is the daughter of two Holocaust survivors.
Yom Hashoah honors those who died in concentration camps and those who resisted in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. Segal said there were four categories for those who were caught up in the death storm: victims, perpetrators, collaborators and rescuers.
Those in the last category —- important role models, she described them —- were the subjects of her presentation. One way to honor the victims, she said, is to honor the rescuers, no matter how small the numbers.
”I thought it would be a good time in our strife-filled world to think about unsung heroes,” she said. Her words were a salute to the efforts of the few who mounted campaigns of ”spiritual resistance,” she said.
”Think about what it took to fall into this category,” she said, and named lesser-known, ordinary citizens who made small but dangerous sacrifices to help Jews despite the possible consequences.
”You could lose your own life or instigate the death of your own families if you helped or protected Jews,” Segal said.
She cited the case of Raoul Wallenberg, a wealthy and well-connected Swedish diplomat who volunteered for a post in Budapest, Hungary. There, he openly defied Nazi leader Adolf Eichmann, the lieutenant colonel who was the chief of the Jewish Office of the Gestapo. Wallenberg used every means at his disposal to save tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews. He reportedly disappeared at the end of the war when Russian troops entered the city. His ultimate fate remains a mystery.
Segal also told of Johan Weidner, who helped organize the ”Dutch-Paris” underground network that reportedly rescued about 800 Jews trying to flee the Nazis; about a Polish woman who brought food into the Warsaw ghetto until it was closed, then hid 13 Jews in her attic; about the many brave people who sheltered Jewish children.
What qualities of a human being allow for this type of courage and humanity, Segal asked, and what can we take away from their example to honor them as well as the victims? These people deserve our attention and to be honored, she said. Their courageous acts are cause for introspection in the here and now, when people should ask themselves, ”Where do I draw the line in terms of what I will not tolerate? What kind of torture would I endure? What am I willing to sacrifice to live to that line?”
Segal’s mother, Esther Lichtenbaum, was one of nearly 500,000 Jews confined in the Warsaw Ghetto. In her 30s, she was deported to Bergen-Belsen, the concentration camp where diarist Anne Frank died.
Lichtenbaum remained in Belsen for three years, then was put aboard a train for an unknown destination. But Allied forces in the area stopped the train and freed the prisoners. After the war, Lichtenbaum saw a document showing she had been destined for Auschwitz, the main extermination camp.
Segal’s father, Schlomo Zlotnikow, was from Riga, Latvia, where 77,000 Jews were murdered by Nazis and Latvian police. But he had a strong physique, so he was pressed into slavery and moved from job to job until he ended up in Buchenwald, a labor camp in central Germany.
Both of Segal’s parents lost their entire families in the Holocaust. The two later met in a displaced-persons camp and eventually married. Segal was born in Poland in 1949. Years later, she began to learn what had happened that made her mother so sad.
Segal’s mother had a photograph of her murdered son that showed him at age 4. The photo had been sent to a friend in Belgium before the war. When the friend learned that Lichtenbaum had survived, she sent the photo to her. Segal said her mother often gazed at the boy’s image.
”I was convinced the child was me,” Segal said. ”But I wondered why my mother became so sad when she looked at it.”
Little by little, the story emerged.
”My dad didn’t like to talk about it,” she said. ”But as I got older, he shared.”
Schlomo Zlotnikow had visible scars from Nazi torture, she said. His ears had been burned —- fused against his head —- and his shins were permanently blackened. His tormentors had pushed a needle through his index finger all the way into his arm, she said.
His crime? He was on a work detail and discovered a cache of raw potatoes. The members of the detail began smuggling the food back to the camp. He was caught and tortured to make him name the other inmates involved. He refused. He was scheduled to be executed, but the camp commandant decided to throw him back into the barracks to survive or not.
After the war, Segal’s mother smuggled her father into Poland because the country wasn’t accepting any Jews who weren’t natives, she said. They remained there until 1951, getting on with their lives. But her mother couldn’t be at rest, she said. The family moved to Israel, where they lived until 1953. A man from New York agreed to sponsor her and her mother to come to America. Five years passed before her father was able to join them.
While in New York, they moved eight times, Segal said. Then two men who had survived the terrors and relocated to Los Angeles persuaded the family to move west.
”My parents kept starting over and over, and they were no longer young,” she said. ”My mother was still going to Grossmont College into her 80s, but she had a restlessness of never being able to settle in one place and call it home. I guess it was the loss of her whole family. She was very haunted.”
Segal has been heavily involved in Holocaust education for 36 years, writing Holocaust curricula and training teachers to teach the subject. She has also taught English literature, developed Hebrew language curricula, and served as principal of elementary and high schools. She is a published author who has lived in Israel and Greece and taught in Moscow and Singapore.
When Segal finished her presentation, Holocaust survivors, refugees, and second- and third generation survivors —- the children and grandchildren of those who endured —- were invited to stand.
As the service ended, memorial candles, lit by a survivor, continued to burn.
Merle Fischlowitz, congregation president, compiled a book 10 years ago of all the survivors in Temple Adat Shalom, and is married to a survivor. ”She was a child in Bergen-Belsen,” he said.
He was pleased to see the younger generation rise to their feet.
”The rabbi asked second- and third-generation survivors to stand,” he said. ”And in that group were two teenagers. So the recognition of the Holocaust will continue. There will be a day when no one will be here like the lady who lit the candles. In a few years, that generation will be gone.”