An Exercise in Memory:
Two stories among millions for Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day
By Benjamin Wexler
Lipot Lehrer became Ludwig Lehrer somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic, and he arrived in America a new man. As a father, his memory is preserved, but as a survivor of the Holocaust, he remains a phantom.
He would not speak about the war. To new friends, he said that he immigrated before it began. According to the database of the World Holocaust Remembrance Centre, he was murdered in the Shoah.
The best information we have was collected by his family, in particular his daughter, my grandmother. We know that he was born in Muncaks, Czechoslovakia (today, Ukraine), a town with thriving religious life and a burgeoning Zionist movement. He was one of nine children. One brother and two sisters immigrated to America before the war, and another brother immigrated to Palestine.
Nazi-allied Hungary annexed the region in 1938, and anti-Jewish legislation suppressed Jewish social and economic life. By 1940, many young Jewish men, including my great-grandfather and two of his brothers, were recruited for forced labour in the Hungarian army. The forced labour soon became a vehicle for Hitler’s “Final Solution to the Jewish Question” — genocide. Of the tens-of-thousands of Jewish men forced to aid the Hungarian army in the war, over 80% never returned home. My great-grandfather’s brothers, Yosef and Moshe, were among the murdered majority.
As the tide turned against the Axis Powers, the Jews of Munkacs hoped to be liberated by the Red Army. Instead, in 1944, the German army invaded Hungary. The remaining Jews were packed into ghettos. On 11 May 1944, the Nazis began deportation to Auschwitz, and only 12 days later, the final deportation train left the town. In the Auschwitz concentration camp, prisoners died of starvation, disease, beatings, medical experimentation, shootings, and, most of all, mass murder in the gas chambers.
My great-grandfather’s survival is a matter of family legend. One family member claims Ludwig killed a man and fought the Nazis with the partisans. In a rare moment of divulgence, he told my grandmother a story of hiding in the bathroom of an outdoor sports stadium. Regardless, like for most Jews, there was no future for him in Europe. In 1941, a census found 13,488 Jews in Munkacs. By 1945, only about 2,000 were still alive, and a fraction of those actually returned to rebuild their stolen lives.
My great-grandmother did not speak much about the war either. Eszter Bruder was born in Satu-Mare, Romania. Hitler’s rise to power prompted discriminatory measures preventing Jewish involvement in economy, government, and public education. Things worsened when Hungary annexed the region in 1940. In the early forties, the Jewish Agency smuggled children and young adults from Satu-Mare into Palestine. The Satu-Mare rabbi, a religious anti-Zionist, forbade the evacuation, so my great-grandmother’s family refused the offer.
With the conquering of Hungary by the Nazis, the Jews of Satu-Mare were forced into ghettos. Almost 19,000 people, the entire Jewish population of the city and the surrounding area, were then deported to Auschwitz to be killed. When the Russians approached the camp, the Jews were “evacuated” in a winter death-march.
One brother survived the war in a Russian gulag, but three of their siblings died in the Holocaust. My great-grandmother and her younger sister Suri kept each other alive. Suri cried of hunger in the camps, and Eszter stole potato peels for her. Eszter caught typhus, and Suri carried her some of the 540 kilometres on the march from Auschwitz. According to one cousin, while still in the camp, my great-grandmother was told to strip naked, and waited in line to be killed in the gas chambers. In the late-war scramble of mass-extermination, the chambers were too full to fit her, and she was spared — not by sisterly love, only dumb luck and more bodies.
My grandmother did not have a grandmother. There is a blip in memory somewhere along the family line. And like so many other Holocaust Remembrance articles, this is an article about memory. The Nazis hoped to erase the Jews; when they realized they had failed, they tried to erase evidence of the mass graves. Trauma, too, does violence to memory. Time does not stand for a moment of silence — each year, there are fewer survivors, and soon there will be no-one left to give first-hand account of the Shoah.
What can one learn from six million dead Jews? Maybe there is some lesson here about evil, or injustice, or human nature. I won’t search for a moral. The only lesson I can find is memory itself.
Image: Lipot Lehrer in a labour battalion during WWII