Abraham Weiner doubts that words can really explain the horrors he experienced in the Nazi concentration camps during World War II.
“There was one incident of a mother, who had a baby in her arms and the kid was unfortunately uncomfortable, screaming and crying, ” Weiner, 87, told a spellbound audience of teachers at the University of Hartford Monday. “The SS … grabbed the kid threw it up and shot it. Now go try to explain that to somebody who has a clear mind. I didn’t talk about it when I came out because I knew that nobody had the imagination to know how human beings can treat each other.
“I don’t think the words have yet been discovered,” Weiner said. “I used to look in the dictionary for words. I didn’t find the words that would describe the Holocaust.”
But still on Monday, Weiner and five other survivors of the Holocaust, all West Hartford residents, put into words their memories and insights about the genocide as a way to help middle school and high school teachers grapple with teaching something so important, but so beyond their students’ experience.
The survivors and teachers also had a chance to tour a new exhibit called “Hartford Remembers the Holocaust” at the University of Hartford’s Museum of Jewish Civilization which features the lives of the six West Hartford survivors. Avinoam Patt, director of the museum and a professor of modern Jewish history, said the exhibit, which opens Nov. 9, makes a direct connection with children because it is told through the eyes of the survivors, who were all children at the time.
Weiner was 14 when he and his family were taken to Auschwitz-Birkenau where he was separated from his mother, whom he never saw again. He and his father were shaved, dipped in disinfectant, showered, and clothed in striped pajamas. He was also tatooed: A7705.
He was separated from his father, but almost a year later in Buchenwald he met up with his father, who was very weak. Weiner was able to visit his father four times before he died. He remembers trying to spot his father in a pile of dead bodies, but being unable to do so.
Rabbi Philip Lazowski, now 86, was 11 when his quick thinking saved his life. In April 1942 the Germans rounded up Jews in the Zhetel ghetto in Poland, driving them from their homes into a central marketplace. Lazowski’s family hid in a cave under his home, but he was caught by a German soldier.
“I noticed a kind-looking woman standing with two young girls who looked frightened as they held on tightly to their mother,” Lazowski says in an account posted in the museum. He said the woman, Miriam Rabinowitz, was holding a certificate that said she was a nurse that made her useful to the SS, the armed wing of the Nazi party
“I gently, with a begging voice, told her that I was in the marketplace alone and asked if she could tell the Germans that I was her son,” Lazowski says in the museum account. “She looked at me with compassion and although terrified said, ‘If you wish to stay with us, you may. If the Germans let me live with two small children, they will let me live with three.'”
Lazowski avoided the roundup and reconnected with Rabinowitz years later in the United States.
Asked what they think are the most important lessons for students to learn about the Holocaust, Dr. Leon Chameides, who was born in Poland and survived the war hiding in monasteries in western Ukraine, said that human beings are “extremely complicated individuals.”
“We’re capable of both extremes, capable of intense love and intense persecution. The fact that no one is immune from these feelings,” Chameides said. “I think that it’s very important to emphasize that it was Germany where the highest form of philosophy of civilization was developed that went to these depths and therefore none of us should assume that we are incapable of doing the same.”
Margot Jeremias, who was born in Germany and survived transit camps before being sheltered in France, said she thinks children need to be taught tolerance, not to automatically go along with people.
“Think for yourself, use your own mind,” she said. “I know from experience. The children did follow Hitler and they really didn’t think for [themselves].”
The survivors talked about how for years people were not interested in hearing about their stories.
“Our parent were all so busy, trying to make a new life, trying to make a living providing for their families,” said Ruth Fishman, who survived camps in the Netherlands and Czechoslovakia. “My parents [and friends] played cards, had coffee and cake, but I don’t think they exchanged atrocities, what this one went through or that one went through.”
Chameides, who eventually served as the founding chairman of pediatric cardiology at Hartford Hospital and Connecticut Children’s Medical Center, said that people — even adult Holocaust survivors — were not interested in hearing from children who survived.
“There was very little interest in the experiences of children because the idea was the children — they don’t suffer. They weren’t aware of what was going on,” Chameides said.
“I think the experiences of children were downgraded significantly and not of great interest,” he said, “but now we’re the only ones … left practically. So here we are.”
And what about forgiveness?
Lazowski said, “Forgiveness is a wonderful thing, but we must not forget … You forgive a person something terrible, it’s OK … but you forget what you forgave? Then there is a big problem there and the problem is history will repeat itself.”
On the other hand, Chameides answered with an “absolute, emphatic no” to the question of whether he can forgive.
“The only way I can forgive someone is if someone does me wrong, then confronts me with it, asks my forgiveness and convinces me that they will never do that again,” Chameides said. “That has not happened.”
But he added that he does not hold the next generation responsible for the sins of their parents.
After their talk, the survivors toured the museum, where Weiner paused for a long time in front of the panel about his life, gazing at a couple of the only photos of his parents and photos of the camps.
He sat down, propped his chin on his cane and his eyes welled with tears.
“I think of them every day, every day,” Weiner said of his parents. “It brings back hard times and happy times.”