this issue, Metamorphosis continues a series of personal stories about how
individuals learned to cope with tragedy and loss ... and how they found
spiritual strength to carry on in the face of adversity and sorrow. In this
second article of the series, site member Eran Spitz reflects on his
parents history as survivors of Hitlers Holocaust.
My parents and
family are Holocaust survivors. My father was born and raised in Vienna,
Austria. He was constantly beaten and brutalized by the Nazis as a child
and while growing up, all because he was Jewish. At 17, he was ready to go
to the university but couldnt, again because of his religion, because
no Jews were allowed to attend.
He fled Vienna
in 1938 right after Kristallnacht
of Broken Glass) to Palestine, where he was recruited for the British
Army. My grandfather was missing one day and never heard from again. It is
assumed he either perished in the camps or was killed by the Nazis some other
way. Nobody knows. My grandmother survived, fled and lived in Israel. My
fathers uncle had a wife and two children who also were taken away
and never heard from again. It is presumed they died in one of the concentration
My mother was born
and raised in Königsberg (now Kaliningrad), a city in western Russia
that came under Nazi occupation and, as such, was considered part of
Hitlers Germany. When my mother was 17, she watched in horror, along
with her aunt and uncle, as the Nazis marched in front of their synagogue
and torched it, while the family and others stood by, helplessly. They had
belonged to this synagogue for many, many years. This was only one of 200
synagogues that were destroyed during Kristallnacht. My mothers family
was just a middle-class German working family - far from being rich. But,
like all the Jews, everything they owned was taken away. Everything!
aunt and uncle managed to escape to the United States, but my mother was
left behind in Germany because there was no money for her trip. Then
Hitlers government decreed that no more ships could leave Germany.
mother caught up with the Jewish Agency, an organization that was part of
the underground resistance, which provided ways to escape Hitlers Germany.
The final destination of the escapees was Palestine, and the Jewish
Agencys goal was to take only the strongest to help build
Israel. There were only so many people the group could rescue. The agency
refused to take my mother because, of all things, she was too
skinny. But my mother had a friend whom the agency wanted to take to
Palestine. She said that if my mother werent allowed to go, she
wouldnt go either. Finally the agency and the underground relented.
In September of
1940, about 3,000 Jewish refugees from Vienna, Prague and Danzig were attempting
to reach Palestine. In a convoy of four river steamers, they set sail down
the Danube and reached the Romanian port of Tulcea where they transferred
to three Greek cargo ships named the Atlantic, Pacific and Milos. Conditions
onboard these three ships were horrendous. Eventually the ships reached
Palestinian waters, but the British Colonial Office refused them permission
to land. The British government had decided to take drastic steps in order
to put an end to the illegal immigration of European Jews into Palestine,
so the government announced the following day that the would-be immigrants
were to be deported to Mauritius instead, where a special camp was to be
built. Their fate would be decided when the war ended.
When the ships
arrived in Haifa, their passengers were transferred to yet another ship,
which the British intercepted earlier, called the S/S Patria. The Patria
was under repairs in the harbor.
As the last passengers
from the Atlantic were boarding the Patria, a tremendous explosion ripped
the liner apart. The death toll amounted to 267 refugees killed. The Haganah
(the Jewish underground army) had decided that the British expulsion of the
illegal immigrants must be prevented at all costs, and had succeeded in smuggling
a mine aboard the ship. The Haganah had meant only to damage the ship to
prevent its departure, but they miscalculated the destructive force the explosion
would have on the aging craft. The ship was not merely disabled but sank
rapidly. Within 15 minutes, the 12,000-ton liner plunged to the bottom of
Children were left
orphaned and parents lost their children. There was not a single home in
the city of Haifa that was not affected by the disaster, and the city responded
with an outpouring of donations of clothing and furnishings for the survivors.
The British colonial government reversed its deportation decision, declaring
that survivors of the Patria and Atlantic could stay in Palestine under
special dispensations of mercy on the grounds of the horrors they had
just experienced board the S/S Patria. The roughly 1,700 Jews were
interned in a detention camp at Atlit. They were permitted to stay in pre-state
Israel and were released in groups throughout 1941. My mother was one of
those 1,700 survivors.
My parents rarely
spoke about the Holocaust. Their story was told to me only recently, several
years after they died. I wish they had discussed it more with me. I, personally,
will only stop talking about the Holocaust when others in this world of ours
stop saying the Holocaust never happened, and when I can be assured that
other genocides of any kind will never again happen, ever. With such a family
history, I take the issue personally.
But I also like
to reflect, in troubled times, on the writings of Anne Frank, the 15-year-old
Jewish girl whose diary was published after her death in the Holocaust. She
did not survive the genocide, but her idealistic words did.
a wonder I havent abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and
impractical, she wrote. Yet I cling to them because I still believe,
in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.
She was aware of
the near-hopelessness of her situation. Its difficult in times
like these: ideals, dreams and cherished hopes rise within us, only to be
crushed by grim reality, she wrote. Yet, she resolved to hold onto
her ideals with unflagging optimism and the belief that peace would
simply cant build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion,
misery, and death, she wrote. I see the world being slowly
transformed into a wilderness, I hear the approaching thunder that, one day,
will destroy us too, I feel the suffering of millions. And yet, when I look
up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better,
that this cruelty too shall end, that peace and tranquility will return once
eternal optimism, no matter how dire the circumstances, made her a lasting
example of a spirit that could not be crushed. Somehow, my parents endured
their experience of the Holocaust. I still dont know how my parents
did it, but they made it through. The family continues on.