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Live Your Legacy Now!Ten Simple Steps to Find Your Passion and Change the World
By Barbara Greenspan Shaiman
IUniverse Inc.Copyright © 2009 Barbara Greenspan Shaiman
All right reserved.
Chapter OneMY LEGACY
My Name Is Bella
My name is Bella, and this name means everything to me. I was named after my maternal grandmother who perished during the Holocaust. I was born on January 22, 1948 in Regensburg, Germany. When my family moved to the United States in 1951, friends told them that Bella was an immigrant name, and that I needed a strong American name. My mother, afraid that I would be stigmatized and unable to fit in with my peers, legally changed my name to Barbara. However, to this day she still calls me Bella. With this name as a daily reminder of my family legacy, I have tried to live not only my own life, but the life that was taken away from my grandmother.
When I was three-years-old, I remember seeing the numbers tattooed on the arm of my paternal grandmother Golda. "Bella," she told me, "a bad man named Hitler did this to me and you should never forget. One day, you must do something about it." Obviously, as a young child, I had no idea what that something would be. It wasn't until more than forty years later that I figured it out.
My name and family history have shaped my life and driven my need to do something to teach the universallessons of the Holocaust: to teach people that silence and indifference in the face of violence and hatred are unacceptable; that we must speak up for what we believe in; and that we must make socially responsible decisions for the greater good. In order to understand the path that ultimately led me to create my own not-for-profit organization and live my legacy, you must understand where it all began. And so, this book really begins with my mother.
My mother, Carola Iserowski, was born in Lodz, Poland, on November 11, 1921. She was the youngest of four children by nearly fifteen years. She had two brothers, Herman and Adek, and a sister, Stephanie. My mother remembers her own mother, Bella, as warm and loving. Her father Joshua was an importer of food and clothing. As a young woman, my mother became an ardent Zionist. She and her friends belonged to Bnai Akiba, a group whose goal was to foster love of Judaism and the Jewish homeland. When the war broke out, she was twenty-years-old.
My mother describes her early years in Lodz, Poland in the happiest of terms: "We had a rich cultural background and a wonderful family life." But those family ties, so strongly wound, would begin to unravel in 1939 with the German invasion of Poland. First came the ghettoization, where an entire community of Jews was walled-in and cut off from Polish society. This was Hitler's first step in a plan to dehumanize and then exterminate all Jews. My mother's stories of ghetto life are just the beginning of the nightmare that unfolded. In her words:
Four years in that Lodz ghetto, I lost everybody. People were dying left and right of hunger and disease because no one outside the walls cared. No one cared ... There were so many orphans because the parents were deported or they died. And the little children that were left were put up in one part of the ghetto, and we youngsters were taking care of them in groups. We played with them and sang songs to recreate a little normalcy in their lives. I remember that black Wednesday in 1944 when the decree came to deliver all the children in the Lodz ghetto to the Nazis-the precious children. We cared for them and tried to build a warm, secure, and loving environment. Now we had to deliver them to the Nazi murderers. There was no choice. The next morning we had to bring them to a big stadium filled with German soldiers and trucks. Ironically, the loudspeakers were blasting with German children's songs. I was so torn with emotion. We all knew the destination of the children. In my arms I held six-year-old David, who was so stricken with meningitis. I had carried him on a pillow to ease his pain. Suddenly, the beast of a soldier tore the child from my arms and threw him on the truck. I was screaming with all my heart, but didn't make a sound.
My mother's silence was rooted in fear and oppression-so different from the silence of indifference that helped perpetuate one of history's greatest human atrocities. From the Lodz ghetto, my mother was shipped from one concentration camp to another: Auschwitz-Birkenau, Stutthof, Thereisenstadt. When she first arrived in Auschwitz, she came with her best friend, Pola. My mother shares her story:
You should have seen me. My head was shaved; I was wearing wooden shoes, a flimsy dress, and no undergarments. I came with my dearest friend, Pola. We had to call out our names to recognize each other. It was the middle of winter. We were freezing and frightened. One day, two soldiers were walking me to the train station. And I'll never forget, there were a bunch of German civilians who were reading the newspaper. They were going to work in the morning and I was looking desperately at their faces and thinking, "Let them see me. Let them see what they are doing." But they just buried their heads in the paper. I was invisible.
In Auschwitz, my mother bore witness to the unspeakable, while others closed their eyes. By the time she was liberated in May of 1945, she was the sole survivor of a family that had once numbered sixty-five.
Over the years, I have frequently asked my mother why she thinks she survived. She has shared with me that what motivated her to face each day of torture was her dream of one day getting married and having a husband and children. In the direst of times, she frequently fantasized about how her family had sat together at the holiday table, singing songs and enjoying traditional holiday foods. Then she thought about how wonderful it would be to one day have her own family celebrating together.
These fantasies gave her the hope and will to carry on. She also said that being with other people in the camps, even though many spoke different languages, helped sustain her. Had she been in isolation, it would have been much harder for her to survive. The group's collective strength supported her. The most important thing in my mother's life to this day is her family and being connected to people and sharing life's experiences with them.
My father, Henry Greenspan, was born in Krakow, Poland on May 4, 1919. He had two younger brothers, Leon and Arthur. He attended the Hebrew gymnasium in Poland, a secondary school where he became fluent in Hebrew and well versed in Jewish studies. He also enjoyed skiing, horseback riding, and swimming. His parents, Nathan and Golda, were involved in many businesses, one of which was buying and selling corals.
When Hitler invaded Poland, their lives changed forever. My grandfather, father, and Uncle Leon were incarcerated in the Plaszow Concentration Camp in Krakow. My grandparents tried to save Arthur, who was only nine-years-old, by paying a Polish family to hide him until he obtained Hungarian papers and a passport. Young children and the elderly were the first to be killed by the Nazis because they were not able to work.
While in Plaszow, my father, uncle, and grandfather worked for Oskar Schindler in his factory called Emalia, where he produced enamel goods and munitions for the German army. Schindler would later become famous for employing and ultimately saving 1,200 of his Jewish employees by claiming that he couldn't keep his factory running without them. While they worked at Emalia, my family was protected, fed, and clothed. Unfortunately they were not on Schindler's famous "list," the subject of Steven Spielberg's film Schindler's List. They did not go to Brinnlitz, Czechoslovakia where Schindler relocated his factory; but instead were sent on the death march to Germany.
Toward the end of the war in 1944, the Nazis wanted to erase evidence of the concentration camps, and the atrocities committed in them. They forced the Jews to walk for hundreds of miles under extreme cold and harsh conditions. They were brutally mistreated by the SS guards, and went without food, water, or shelter. Anyone who could not keep up was killed instantly. Both my parents were on the death march, and were interned at the Thereisenstadt Concentration Camp outside Prague.
My parents met after the Russian army liberated the camp in May of 1945. Both were suffering from typhus and weighed eighty pounds each. They resided in separate male and female convalescent areas within the camp. My father liked to tell the story of how my parents met. One day, he went to the women's convalescent area, and saw my mother. He said to her, "If you could change your dress, and put on something nice, I would take you dancing." She replied, "This dress is made out of a tablecloth, but unfortunately, it is all that I have. So if you want to take me dancing, you'll have to take me as I am."
This was the beginning of their courtship. Once they were able to, they traveled to Krakow to see if they could find any surviving family members or friends. Miraculously, through a family friend, my father found his mother Golda and brother Leon. It was extraordinary that Leon was alive, but it was even more amazing that my grandmother had survived at age fifty. My grandfather Nathan had died in the concentration camp Mathausen. Arthur, tragically, was handed over to the Nazis by the family that was entrusted with his care.
My mother traveled to Lodz and found that her whole family of sixty-five people had been killed. She always tells me how grateful she was to meet my father, but the added bonus, she says, was that his mother and one of his brothers were still alive. They became an instant family that was inseparable. Being together took away some of my mother's pain and anguish after she discovered the magnitude of her own loss.
My father was smitten by my mother and immediately proposed. He told her that he was sorry that he could not give her a ring for their engagement. Upon hearing this, my grandmother shared with excitement that she, in fact, had a way to give my mother a ring. She said that before the war she had a premonition of doom, and had given her Sabbath candlesticks and one of her most valued coral stones to a Polish man who had worked for her in the family coral business. She had also provided him a place to live in a four-story building owned by her family, and asked him to watch over the building and these few precious belongings. My grandmother was very excited that she would be able to give these treasured items to my parents as a wedding gift.
My father went with my grandmother and found the man to whom she had entrusted her building and these possessions. He had moved into the building with many of his family members and friends. When he saw my father and grandmother, he became ashen and started shaking. He was afraid that they had come to take back the building. My grandmother assured him that she had no interest in the building because they did not plan to stay in Poland, but wanted him to return the coral stone and candlesticks.
In spite of the great losses they had endured, the man denied having these possessions. He firmly stated that he never had received the candlesticks or the coral stone. Exasperated and dejected, my grandmother and father went to the police and begged them to intercede. When the man realized that the police might become involved, he sheepishly handed over the items. Even though the war was over, this man was so filled with hate and greed that he had no compassion for their suffering and loss. My parents were astounded at his lack of humanity, but they would not let it detract from their joy in having found each other and their plans to marry, start a new life, and create a family.
A Coral Ring: A Symbol of Courage
My grandmother Golda's coral stone became the centerpiece of my mother's engagement ring. For my fiftieth birthday, my mother gave me this ring. Every time I look at my right hand and see it, I am reminded of my family history. This ring, which brought so much joy to my mother, is a daily reminder of the values that my family taught me. It is my most treasured possession.
As I reflect upon this ring, and what it means to me, it teaches me about the courage displayed by Holocaust survivors. Many times I have heard people question why the Jews went to the gas chambers "like sheep to slaughter," showing no resistance. On the contrary, my parents and the other survivors showed resistance by waking up each day to face their perpetrators and endless physical and emotional torture. Despite the unthinkable and horrific circumstances facing them, my family showed great character, and true courage. My mother tried to bring love and joy to the children whom she took care of in the orphanage in the Lodz ghetto. My father carried his cousin on his back when he was too weak to continue on the death march. Each time I see my cousin Henek, now ninety-years-old, he reminds me of his gratitude to my father for being so selfless.
When my grandmother was sent to Auschwitz, she found herself standing face to face with Dr. Josef Mengele, the "Angel of Death," who was directing people to the right and left, and in so doing, determining who would live and who would die. In that instant, she decided that no matter what Mengele told her, she would go to the line where the younger Jews were being directed. Despite Mengele's instructions, she quietly moved to the right, and thereby escaped the crematoria for the first time. She realized that further survival required that she looked as young and healthy as possible Using her knowledge of Italian, she befriended an Italian doctor in the camp, who had access to the infirmary where they stored purple cleaning crystals, which he gave to my grandmother. She used these crystals to make a black hair dye that she shared with others and exchanged for food. She also found berries growing in Auschwitz and used them to apply a red rougelike substance to women's cheeks. The hair dye and berries made them appear healthier and able to work. Through these selfless actions, she helped save hundreds of lives. These were extraordinary acts of humanity performed under the worst of circumstances. This was true courage.
The Child of Survivors: A New Beginning in America
I grew up with these stories, and they have inspired me throughout my life. This was my heritage. But I couldn't let it rest there. I didn't want these atrocities to be my family's only legacy. I had to turn it around somehow for them. I had to try to give meaning to their senseless suffering and to model a message that we are responsible for one another-that as individuals, we can influence the human condition for good, knowing that it can just as easily be subjected to evil.
My parents, grandmother, and I came to the United States when I was three-years-old. We didn't speak a word of English, and my family had no money or formal professional training. We settled in New York City, in the Washington Heights area of Manhattan, joined by hundreds of other Holocaust survivors. I went to yeshiva, a Jewish day school, because my parents wanted me to become educated in Jewish studies. In spite of what happened to them, they never lost their belief in God. They felt that because they had been singled out by the Nazis for the crime of being born Jewish, their responsibility was to imbue their love of Judaism in their children.
The yeshiva's curriculum was quite rigorous. We spent half of each day studying Hebrew language, Hebrew literature, laws and customs, the Bible, and Talmud. The other half of the day was devoted to English, math, science, social studies, music, and art. I got home at 5:00 PM and had at least three-to-four hours of homework each night. My mother told me that although she understood this school was very demanding, she felt it would give me the background to succeed in life. There were many times I resented not having more time to play, but I liked my friends at school and enjoyed mastering so many different subjects. College and graduate school seemed relatively easy compared to my early education.
My mother always revered education and went to night school to learn English. She learned to crochet, and worked making dresses and evening gowns to help supplement my father's modest income. She became very talented at this craft, but eventually had to give it up when her eyesight began to suffer from the intricate work. Her life was very busy because in addition to working and taking care of our family, we had taken in two boarders for whom she cooked and cleaned to help to make ends meet.
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