Friday, November 5, 2010

My Survivor

By: Ali Silverberg

Holocaust Education Week has very personal meaning for me.  I am very fortunate to have my grandmother, Leah, who is 91 years young and a survivior of the Holocaust. It is hard not to be in awe of my amazing grandmother, Leah (Kaplansky) Zuker.

Grandma grew up in Opatov, a small Polish town of eight thousand inhabitants.  She had a conventional upbringing in a happy home with her parents and eight siblings. Her family was comfortably well to do by the standards of the day.  They even owned one of the first telephones in the town. My grandmother will never forget her phone number...#64...nor let you forget it either, for that matter. Her family had disciplined routines.  You knew dinner was every day at 2:00pm, with white table cloths, and everyone seated in their chairs throughout the duration of the meal.  The trait that separated Grandma from so many others was that to this day, she is a self-confessed bookworm.  She is a well-educated woman imbued with a wonderful sense of curiosity and a lust for learning.  Her keenest area of interest is fittingly, studying history, from the Roman Empire to modern history and all times in between

Until the war started, her family lived a happy life.  They had no idea what the future held in store for them, and the destruction their tranquil lives would endure. On a September morning in 1939, the Nazis came knocking.  Grandma watched as she, and her siblings were taken away and dispersed, never to be reunited again. Grandma Leah was taken to Skarjiska, a brutal death camp where she witnessed the rape and murders of loved ones.  She was starved and beaten, and forced to make ammunition in a factory for the Nazi war machine. Like far too many, her experiences and what she witnessed during the Holocaust are too barbaric and painful for me to fully comprehend but nonetheless inspire me to keep trying.

After her liberation at the end of the war she was fortunate to be able to reunite with three of her siblings, who also survived.  They all immigrated to the United States to be with a brother in Detroit, who was lucky enough to leave Poland before the war started.  The rest of the family perished, along with their spouses and children and so many other relatives and loved ones.

Even though she was occupied with helping to run a business she co-founded, while raising my mother, my grandmother still had time to pursue her formal education, earning a high school diploma and moving on to pursue a university education.  In 1963 she wrote an essay outlining her life in Poland, and her life through the war. It is a composition that moves me beyond words because of the horrors she endured and the wisdom of her observations.  That essay opened my eyes and made me so proud to be the granddaughter of Leah Zuker.  As a sample, speaking of her Nazi tormentors, she wrote,

“The glorious murderers had never been awarded with the long awaited medals. All they could do is claim credit for the millions of innocent victims scattered all over the continent.

 The end of war meant freedom to me. An experience that is incomprehensible to anyone who never felt its loss. The value of freedom is priceless, and the preservation of it is worth all the human sacrifices. Freedom is like good health that makes a person vigorous and happy. Once it deteriorates it is difficult to recapture it; the lack of it emphasizes its meaning.”

Holocaust Education Week for me is epitomized by Leah Zuker – the pain, the torture, the death,  the will to survive, the gift of freedom, the imperative that we learn the history and teach others so we never forget.

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