The Nizkor Project: Remembering the Holocaust (Shoah)

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WITNESS TO HORROR
Ann Kazimirski
1993 & 1997: Devonshire Press, Montreal.

From 1939 to 1945, the German machine of destruction systematically
killed six million Jews, including one million children. Poland, my
native country, had a large Jewish population of approximately 3,011,000
before the Second World War. By 1945, 3,000,000 of these Jews had been
murdered.

Fifty years later, I still cannot forget the scenes of incredible
brutality, torture and killing that my eyes witnessed. The same
questions repeat themselves over and over again after all these years:
Why? Why were so many people killed and why did the world choose to
remain silent?

In 1993, I published the first edition of my book, Witness to Horror,
fulfilling a promise I had made to my mother before German soldiers
killed her. She had predicted that I would survive and had begged me to
"tell the world what the beasts have done to us." It had taken me all
this time to bring myself to face the task of remembering and telling my
story.

I was born and raised in the town of Vladimir Volynski, in Poland, where
Jews had settled as early as the twelfth century. My father, Joshua,
originally had been a teacher of Russian and my mother, Matilda, had
been one of his students. Later my father could no longer earn his
living teaching so my parents became merchants, selling coal and wood.
My parents were able to provide an education for my brother Benny and
me, an education that included Hebrew school, private high school and
music lessons.

I was seventeen years old when the Germans invaded Poland. My father and
my eighteen-year-old brother Benny were among the first group of Jews to
be rounded up and then executed in the town prison. I saw my best friend
Sarah being raped by German soldiers. As a result of this brutality she
died.

The Germans killed my Zeide Aaron, my grandfather, who was a very pious,
orthodox Jew. He was a role model to his children and grandchildren and
taught us the blessings of nature, work, rest and the Sabbath. But my
grandfather's Jewish world, in which he believed that "God wanted a
beautiful land where people could live and be happy," was almost
completely destroyed by the Holocaust. His world became a world of
concentration camps, ghettos, and systematic mass murder.

Soon after the arrival of the German soldiers, the Jews of Vladimir
Volynski were forced into a ghetto surrounded by barbed wire. Then the
systematic killing began with the first of three Aktion, or killing
operations. During the first Aktion, my husband Henry and my mother and
I were hidden in the attic of a military dental clinic. A German dental
technician, who was a friend of my husband, had agreed to let us hide
there. This man, whose name was Hahn, risked his own life to save us.

The clinic was right across from the ghetto. Early one morning we heard
terrible screams, and from a small window in the attic we saw the pogrom
unfold. There were big trucks scattered around, and men wearing prayer
shawls were being beaten with clubs and shoved into the trucks. With
arms raised to the sky they were screaming, "Lama Hazavtonu?"  (Why have
You forsaken us?)

Mothers were screaming out loud, some clutching their babies and trying
to hide them under their dresses. But the little children were grabbed
by the Nazis and thrown into the trucks. Blood stained the ground and
the children's clothing. I covered my ears; I could not listen to the
screaming any longer. Even today I still hear it in my dreams.

During the second Aktion, we were hidden in a stable and then in an
attic by a Polish woman, Maria Wierzbovska. We stayed there for weeks
until her husband discovered us. He was a bailiff and an anti-Semite,
and when he discovered our presence he threatened to report us to the
Gestapo. We were finally forced to go to the ghetto.

We were in the ghetto when the third and final pogrom broke out on 13
December 1943. This third Aktion was to accomplish the goal of making
our town, Vladimir Volynski, Judenrein - cleansed of Jews. German
soldiers overran the ghetto and shot Jews at random. Many were killed
while trying to escape by climbing the barbed wire fence.

Miraculously, Henry and I found a cramped hiding place in the attic of a
house, but we were separated from my mother. During the next few days we
watched from our hiding place as German and Ukrainian soldiers searched
the ghetto for any remaining Jews. To my horror one morning, I
recognized my mother in a group of five people being dragged from a
hiding place in a nearby house. The five were lined up against a wall
and shot. I will never forget the image of the red blood staining the
white snow. I saw my beloved mother die_and there was nothing I could
do. To even cry out would have endangered the lives of everyone in our
hiding place in the attic.

In all, nineteen thousand Jews, including one thousand children, were
killed in Vladimir Volynski. It was truly a miracle that Henry and I
survived this third killing operation. But although we had managed to
survive we still faced an enormously difficult road ahead. In March
1944, after escaping from the destroyed ghetto, we joined a group of
Polish partisans. When it became obvious that the group did not want
Jews, we ran away and headed on foot for the Russian front. Finally
liberated by the Russian army, we were hungry, filthy, covered with lice
and sores, and homeless. But our immediate reaction was one of joy. It
was an incredible feeling_to be able to go outside without being afraid
for our lives, after years of hiding in attics and cellars.

During the following three months we began to recover our health, and
our first son, Mark, was born in Lwow. Our intention at this time was to
get to Berlin. We made a stop in Krakow on our way, and to our great
dismay we found ourselves in the middle of another pogrom. Polish neo-
Nazis who were determined to kill the remaining Jews were conducting it.
We managed to reach Berlin, but it was only to discover that we were
stepping into an inferno. The Russian bombardment had put the city on
fire and epidemics of dysentery and cholera were raging. Our son Mark
took sick and we almost lost him.

From Berlin we went to Munich, where we applied for help from the United
Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), and then
settled in Garmish, where our second son, Seymour was born. But even
now, we were not free of the violent hatred of anti-Semites. A young
girl we hired to help us in the house made an attempt to poison our son
Mark. We found out later that she had been active in the Hitler Youth
movement.

When we received our visa to come to Canada in the spring of 1948, we
could not wait to leave behind us the war-torn and bloody soil of
Europe. I will never forget the day we arrived in this country. We were
greeted by a large sign saying WELCOME TO CANADA. Overwhelmed, we cried
tears of joy.

We settled in Ste. Agathe, north of Montreal, and it was here that our
daughter Heidi was born. Like many other survivors, we did not discuss
the Holocaust with our children until they were older, and even then,
not in any detail. It was still too painful. The wounds were too deep.
They had not yet begun to heal.

And even here in Canada, there were reminders of the Holocaust. I met a
woman named Danka, who was living in Ste. Agathe. She was a survivor of
Auschwitz. I was shocked when I met her. I could not figure out whether
I was looking at a man or a woman. Once I got to know her, she was glad
to talk to me as one Holocaust survivor to another. In Auschwitz she had
been chosen for medical experiments. She was given injections in her
uterus over a period of two months. Gradually she began to notice
changes in her physical appearance. She became hysterical, screaming
like a wild animal. The Nazi doctors gave her pills, which made her feel
less than a human being. Again and again, she was taken to the hospital
for more injections and more tests. She began growing a beard, her
breasts disappeared and her voice deepened.

Five years after the war Danka still felt nothing but shame and was
profoundly depressed. In 1950, in Ste. Agathe, she killed herself. The
inscription on her tomb reads, "A victim of suffering in Auschwitz."
Surely, this was the greatest violation of human rights. I know there
were, and are, many victims like Danka who did not come forward with
their testimonies. Women were raped, prostituted, tortured, sexually
assaulted, and used for medical experiments, but many of their stories
have not been told or documented.

In 1942 and 1943, sterilization experiments were carried out on women at
Auschwitz and Ravensbruck, by Professor Carl Clauberg. The aim of his
"research" was to determine the feasibility of mass sterilization by a
single injection of a chemical into the womb. He reported the results of
his experiments to Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS and the German
police. In 1948 Clauberg was arrested and tried by the Soviets. He was
sentenced to twenty-five years imprisonment. Clauberg showed no regret
for his experiments and even boasted about his "scientific
achievements." The records of the medical experiments are available, but
there is a debate in the medical community as to whether it is ethical
to use the results, considering the circumstances under which the
results were obtained.

In 1971, and again in 1982, I was invited by the German government to be
a witness at Nazi war crimes trials. At one of these trials,
Gebietskommisar Westerheide, the German regional commander who was in
charge of the massacre of eighteen thousand Jews in my hometown, was
tried and found not guilty. As far as I am concerned, this was the final
injustice. Like many others, Westerheide maintained that he had not been
in charge and that he had only followed orders.

Since publishing the first edition of my book, Witness to Horror, in
1993, I have told the story of my experiences during the Holocaust many
times: at elementary and high schools; at colleges and universities; and
at synagogues, libraries and various associations both in Canada and the
United States. The book has made me a public speaker and launched me on
my mission to preserve the memory of the Holocaust for succeeding
generations. In 1995 my testimony was filmed for Steven Spielberg's
Shoah Foundation archives.

In 1996, fifty years after leaving Poland during the aftermath of the
Holocaust, I returned with my daughter to visit my native country.  We
visited the sites of the concentration camps at Auschwitz, Birkenau and
Maidanek, and Plaszow, where the movie Schindler's List was filmed. This
trip was a bittersweet experience for me; a painful but necessary
pilgrimage to the past.

The following year I was invited to accompany a group of teenage
students to Poland and Israel on their March of the Living. It was a
memorable event for me, first to share their grief and anger and then
secondly to realize that in the end it was a dynamic and empowering
experience for them. And it has been very gratifying to me to see my
three children and my grandchildren take an active interest in my
mission to preserve the memory of the Holocaust.

In 1997, I published a second edition of Witness to Horror, where I
speak of how the book has influenced my life. Witness to Horror is my
legacy to the world, to my children, to my grandchildren, and to future
generations. In the Torah we are taught that we are responsible for
three generations_our own, that of our children, and that of our
grandchildren. The concept is I `dor v' dor - generation to generation.
I want to pass on the legacy from my Zeide Aaron and my mother to my
children and their children.

In recent years there has been an outpouring of Holocaust memories.
There is a rush to get everything down in writing before the generation
of survivors dies away. There is also a search for knowledge and
understanding by the descendants of survivors, a search that is leading
the young to rediscover their Jewish heritage. Jews are proudly calling
themselves Jews once more.

The young people of today will be the leaders of the next generation.
They and people of all nations have an obligation to protect the memory
of the Holocaust.


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