My family’s legacy
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My family’s legacy

Standard staffer tells his grandparents’ survival story

I was in eighth grade when I was given the assignment to write a short speech about one of my heroes. I wasn’t sure who to choose and asked my mother for advice. She recommended her father because of his experiences in the German concentration camps.


My grandfather used to smuggle food out of the kitchen in Bergen-Belsen, where he worked as a prisoner and later as a refugee-resident of the DP camp.

"My father’s attitude had always been that he would survive so people would know what happened. When he was in Bergen-Belsen, the only way you survived was to work, so he did whatever they needed. They said they needed carpenters to make windows; he was not a carpenter and he said ‘all right, I’ll be a carpenter.’"

He watched others and quickly became a proficient window maker — until the Nazis came up with a new opening. They needed a cook.

"Oh, I’m a cook," he said, according to my mother, even though he wasn’t.

At his funeral in 1984, a dear friend, Adam Potok, recalled my grandfather’s days in the Bergen-Belsen kitchen. My grandfather, said Potok, would smuggle scraps of potato skins and other food back into the barracks, knowing full well the penalty if he was caught.

"He knew if the Germans caught him it would be instant death, but he felt he needed to help the people in his bunk," my mother recalled.

My grandfather was from the Sosnowitzch region of Poland. Before the war he was a member of what would be now be deemed upper middle class. He owned a few apartment buildings and a general store. He came from a large family — he was one of 1′ children — and he was married and had three children of his own. His family could trace their ancestry back all the way to Spain, which they were forced to leave in the 15th century. From there they went to England. When they were forced out of England, they relocated to Poland. "We’ve been thrown out of all the best countries," my father would joke of my mother’s family. The family’s history was recorded in a book that survived every expulsion, except the last.

One night, German soldiers broke into the store and rounded up my grandfather and his family to send them to a ghetto. My grandfather tried to save his oldest son by sending him to a neighbor’s home. But the neighbor quickly turned my grandfather’s son in to the Nazis, who killed him on the spot.

My grandfather wound up in Bergen-Belsen.

My grandmother came from a blue-collar Ashkenazi family. She had three sisters and two brothers. Two of her sisters had their own families. They were also sent to a ghetto, where my grandmother’s father was killed. He had forgotten his identification card one day before he left for work. My grandmother and her mother found it on the table and ran out to give it to him, but the Nazis had already shot him for not producing the ID on demand.

My grandmother’s eldest sister, Rose, had two children. She saw one murdered, but she never found out what happened to her youngest son. She always believed he had escaped, and after the war she and her husband searched for him. But Rose’s husband became ill and died in a Polish hospital while they were still searching, and they never found their son.

My grandmother, her mother, and another sister were all sent to Auschwitz. When they first arrived, the Nazis shaved their heads, took their clothes, and gave them striped dresses and wooden shoes.
"She said they had to laugh at each other," my mother remembered. "Just at the way they looked because they looked so horrible with their shaved heads. But they still had to laugh about it."

Each morning at roll call, one particular commandant would look through the lines of inmates. He would pick out children and babies, who would become his target practice for the day. Their remains were fed to the dogs.

My grandmother met two doctors in Auschwitz. The first was the notorious Josef Mengele, who left her with a gap between her teeth.

"I always used to tell her to have her tooth repaired because she had an empty hole, and she would say no because that’s where Mengele had hit her and knocked out her tooth," said my mother.

One day, my grandmother developed a rash on her body and was sent to stand with her aunt and uncle in the line that lead to the camp’s gas chamber. While in line though, another doctor pulled her out and said she was too young and the rash wasn’t so bad. He sent her back. The next day she was sent back to the chamber and the same doctor pulled her out of the line. After the third time, the doctor managed to get her into the hospital ward.

"He said she wasn’t sick, she could work, and she should live," my mother said. "But, she said by this time she didn’t really care. She had reached the point where she thought everybody was dead and she just didn’t care if she lived or died. But she survived Auschwitz."

My mother’s Aunt Rose survived in Bergen-Belsen, as did her Aunt Ceil and Uncle Sol. After the war, they stayed in the Bergen-Belsen Displaced Persons camp. Every day they checked the lists of survivors, until they finally found my grandmother in Auschwitz. Aunt Rose brought her to Bergen-Belsen, where she met my grandfather. My mother was born in the camp and stayed until she was 3.

"Most children learn to walk in playpens or in yards. I learned how to walk by a barrack," said my mother.

They eventually ended up in Bayonne with the help of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.

But my grandparents’ experiences would hang like a dark cloud over my mother’s childhood. At one point, HIAS offered to send my mother to summer camp. They even offered to pay for it. But my grandmother refused.

"When I asked her ‘Why can’t I go to summer camp like everybody else?’ She said, ‘because it’s a camp.’ Her idea of summer camp wasn’t to have fun. She had thought if she couldn’t pay, they would never let me out. So the connotation of a camp to her was not to have fun, but was a place where she would lose me and never see me again."

My grandmother’s fears didn’t extend only to outsiders. During thunderstorms, she would often pull my mother into a closet, as the loud claps of thunder reminded her of the explosion of German shells. My grandfather would often scold her for doing this. "You’ll make her afraid," he would say, and he’d pull my mother out of the closet. But after he left the room, my grandmother would pull her right back in.

They never felt comfortable talking about the Holocaust with people who weren’t also survivors because they thought that nobody else could understand. One summer day, one of my mother’s friends asked my grandmother about the tattoo on her arm. From that day forth, even on the hottest of days, she wore long sleeves.

My grandfather died in 1984 at the age of 91. My grandmother died three years later. She was 67, but the doctors said that she had the body of a 90-year-old woman.

Through all his ordeals, my grandfather never lost his faith in God. My mother said survivors either developed a renewed belief in God or lost their faith completely. My grandfather was the former. He believed that no matter what happened, God would help us.

My grandfather fought for survival so he could be a witness to the world of what had happened. My mother, who now lives in central Pennsylvania, speaks to area schools about her parents’ experiences. This is just a fraction of what they went through, but chronicling as much of their story as possible will be my contribution to the legacy of Isaac and Dora Edelist.

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