“When we have passed a certain age, the soul of the child we were and the souls of the dead from whom we have sprung come to lavish on us their riches and their spells…” Marcel Proust
Last year, I met a lovely woman, ten or so years older than me and over breakfast we discovered friends in common. Not surprising really given the size of New Zealand. As the conversation developed she told me that our mutual friend (who’s now 80 years old) had recounted the story of her experiences as a Polish Jewish teenager during World War II in a book that had been published four years ago. As we parted company she said she’d call me soon and give it to me to read.
Fast track twelve months on, and I receive a call asking if it’s be convenient for me to meet her in town so that she could give me the book to read.
It’s a beautiful little book, its format not unlike my own Looking for Braki.
The story is told by Zofia Galler, who we knew as Zosia (am not sure if I’ve spelled that correctly) – and is known by her New Zealand friends as Sophie. She and her husband were close friends of my father. I’d always thought her an incredibly beautiful woman- tall, elegant, olive skin, high cheeks bones, thick dark hair – and knew that she’d been imprisoned in Auschwitz during the war.
In common with most of Dad’s friends, she had her prisoner number tattooed on her arm. But I knew little more than that because it simply wasn’t talked about.
I learned through reading the account (written by her daughter-in-law) that she was twelve years old when war broke out, was forced to witness her father being beaten and shot at point blank range, spent several years in concentration camps, was fed cocktails of drugs to prevent menstruation, endured the infamous death march, and finally, when on a work detail, escaped to freedom with a 16 year old friend.
Recently when visiting family in Melbourne, I was told that Susie (wife of my late cousin Stasio), had also spent her early years in Auschwitz and lost her entire family there. Stasio and Susie have been an integral part of our family since well before I was born. Yet, I never knew her history.
Why didn’t I ever ask?
There are so many many stories. Every day we are bombarded with stories of the victims in our society – some are very real victims, other are victims because they choose to be.
Maybe the difference is that my father’s friends didn’t see themselves as victims. They were survivors. And as survivors they probably carried a bit of guilt – why did they survive when so many didn’t? Why not their brothers or their sisters? But also, they wanted to put their horrendous pasts behind them and just get on and ‘live’.
There is one common thread to all the stories of survival – they are extraordinary. They are feats well beyond our imagination – yet when recounted, they are so in the most matter-of-fact way.