Olga Lengyel: Surviving in Words

Memorial Library (Old house of the late Olga Lengyel)

Monday, May 14, 2012

Video: Olga Lengyel (author of Five Chimneys)

Synopsis: Olga speaks of how her father bought her a man’s broach for her birthday when she was young and that was all that she wanted. She still had the broach with her in New York City because she had given it to a family friend to safeguard it for her when she went into the concentration camp. Olga’s mother was always the center of attention and everything. Olga did not believe her British friend when he said that the Germans had placed Jews in gas chambers and killed them. She only knew Germany to be reasonable and full of scientists and progressive innovations. Olga’s father said to her while saying goodbye, “My God, you are the best child ever existed.” She trusted the Germans and thus unknowingly condemned her father to death in the gas chambers (by sending him to the Red Cross ambulance) along with her grandmother and two sons. “The wound was so deep that people did not feel like sitting down and reliving the horrors.” Her responsibility and duty to record this (she did this before anyone else) stemmed from the fact that when someone endangers one group it endangers all of us. When one person, who is considered criminally insane masterminds something, 6,000,000 people can die in a matter of 2-3 years. That is unthinkable!

My thoughts: I am glad that in the video, Olga pointed out that her purpose for writing Five Chimneys was not to make people know how awful this travesty was and cry about all of the people who died because of this evil… She wanted people to know about this so they may recognize behaviors and trends of the same sort if and when they arise, for they undoubtedly will arise. She made a great example of learning from her experience and abuses in using them to facilitate not only her own moving on, but to her moving on to teach and inspire others to be aware of the world they live in daily. Olga mentioned how she cannot sleep much anymore because she has insomnia and these scenes of the concentration camps and (presumably) the moments when she parted ways with her family members, not knowing that this meant certain death and she would never see them again. She is haunted by nightmares and perturbed times of some sleep or no sleep at all. What an incredible spirit must this woman have, to be strong enough to share these horrors with the world in hopes that she could prevent the same thing from ever happening again? She felt compelled to write the book and share with the future generations. Her mother said she needed to worry about herself in the camps because she tended to worry about others always. Maybe her family being separated from her allowed her peace to care for herself? Was her naïve and innocent uplifting of her family members to what she assumed was safety really an act of mercy? Is a swift and painless death better than a slow decline of starvation and work?

In the book, we find that the absence of her family haunted her still, and that she continued to worry about others throughout her stay at Birkenau. She became a nurse, which not only gave her the energy of knowing that she was helping some of the people, but it kept her safer than a regular internee by elevating her status just slightly. She ends her book by asking what the reader can do to be sure that such dreadful things may never be repeated? She concludes that her hope in the goodness of mankind was saved through Birkenau by the knowledge that even a few tortured people there maintained their humanity and kept good morals through this most hellish time in their lives.

Faith so strong it’s glad

that Germany betrayed you

How are you not mad?


Survivor: Francis

Monday, May 14, 2012

Francis Erwin of Brooklyn, NY.

“You see chimneys, I see Auschwitz.”

I was driving home with my sister the other night, and we were driving through the industrial part of Des Moines, where there are a lot of factories with large chimneys which spew billowing white steam and smoke high into the air. I saw them and I almost broke down, ready to pull the car over and ask my sister to take over driving. I had this strong emotional reaction because I thought of Francis’ quote here and her story, as well as the horrors of the crematoriums recounted in the book Five Chimneys by Olga Lengyel, which I had just finished reading.

This industrial portion of town also reminds me of one time during my senior year of high school when I was across the interstate from these factories at my school. That day, there happened to be an explosion and a random fire started at one of the tire factories. My friends and I gathered in the parking lot outside of our school to watch the black smoke and flames rise above the chimneys. The smell was simply awful, of burnt rubber and chemicals. Thinking of our experience that day and our fear that the fire may cross the interstate and endanger our lives sobers me as I think of the daily fear of the prisoners at Auschwitz-Birkenau as they smelled much worse than we did, and lived in much closer proximity to chimneys that caused true fear and terror.

“Love and compassion can change any person. With love and kindness, you can change the worst sort of people. Punishment just makes them more angry, love and compassion are the keys. Kindness and reasoning with students is all it takes to change their lives.” -Francis

“If they kill me, I’m not losing anything.” –What Francis thought before she snuck out of the ghetto to steal milk for the babies.

– She was tiny, but she is the biggest person I have ever seen. As soon as she walked into the room she had everyone’s undivided attention and a reverent, awe-struck silence.

I can’t stop loving

I’ve never had the trials

Francis told; humbled

On her arm was tattooed: 35430 with an upside down triangle underneath the numbers.

I don’t believe that my life can ever be the same again, after hearing this story and this amazing woman’s belief that God had an angel watching out for her and keeping her alive through all of this for a purpose. When she started telling Coach Luther and me about her one son and husband, everyone and everything in the room went blurry and all I saw was her beautiful face and her lips moving; all I heard, was her sweet, soft voice. It was as if something inside of me had found the magnet which drew my heart and soul north, but it wasn’t north, it was Truth, Light and Goodness all wrapped into one. I knew that there was nothing more important in those moments but to focus all of my mind and all of my faculties (intellectually and physically-through body posture) on this wonderful woman, this living inspiration.  I will always view Francis as a living memoriam to what the Holocaust should inspire in its survivors and all those who hear about it. The joy and love pouring forth from this woman were like visible waves of energy or pure white light. There were so many questions racing through my head, but I realized that most of them did not even need to be asked because of the way she spoke and lives speak of her spirit. She spend 9 months in bed just to have her one son, because her insides were so messed up and she had a lot of miscarriages before birthing her first and only son. Then her husband told her she could not have another child and spend another 9 months in bed, because he needed a wife and their son needed a mother.

Francis asked me about my foot and said she hoped it would heal quickly. Then I asked her for a hug and said it would probably heal my foot instantly. She hugged me with her short little arms and kissed me repeatedly on the forehead and cheeks. Then she said, “There, it should heal just fine now!” Such a sweetheart! Never have I met a woman so overflowing with love, joy, and wisdom. She is a very habitual woman, and how could she not be? She still keeps candies in her pockets and never finishes an entire one in one sitting, she keeps saving them in their wrappers. This is because her brother made her take two candies into the sewers with her when she snuck out to steal food. The candies had previously been used to let the babies suck on them for a short while to make them stop crying of hunger at night before bed. She makes the potato soup every May 5th. She snatched up some blueberries from Coach Luther’s plate, because she loves them. She was very concerned that we would throw away the blueberries and blackberries which had fallen off the treats into the empty pans. Wow. What an incredible woman who has bounced back and made something really great of her life since being liberated. She is a vibrant and brilliant light for the school communities of New York City, and everyone else who has the distinct privilege and honor of hearing her speak or being in her presence.

Woman of True Light

Liberation: sixty pounds

Now Quiet Giant

Digging Deeper: Further Reflections

Etunia Bauer Katz

“From the day the Nazis first occupied our city, fear gripped its Jews and never let go. Actually, our fear began earlier, when Hitler came to power. At that time, however, he was perceived as only a distant menace. First there was bewilderment and disbelief, then fear of the unknown and uncertain future. Gradually, our bewilderment and disbelief became a progressively dark, grinding devastating, and deadly fear of having no future at all. Then, as the intensity of our terror mounted, it brought the destruction of body, soul, and not infrequently, mind. Although hope and our innate faith in God remained with us, our lives became a nightmare, one long fight to live, an existence tormented by fear that ended in the diabolically organized extermination of most of us: the Nazi “Final Solution.”

This quote from the book, Our Tomorrows Never Came shows the progression of Hitler’s master plan quite well, from the emotional standpoint of the Jewish heritage and culture.


“So began our annihilation. With brutal passion Hitler hunted down hundreds of thousands of Jews and humiliated, degraded, and murdered us. The graves of a million Jews are scattered across Europe—most of the massacres having been committed in Poland, especially the eastern region, the Ukraine and Russia, all the way to Babi-Yar.”

This is a quote from the introduction to that same book. What a chilling phrase that must have been to hear, as the first group of Jews in Buczacz were taken to a ravine and shot in cold blood.

After reading this first paragraph of the book, I put it down and nearly cried because I was suddenly reminded of a chilling poem that I found in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum a few weeks ago.

Kiev, capital of Ukraine (the Babi-Yar ravine killing)

“The wild grasses rustle over Babi Yar,

The trees look ominous, like judges.

Here all things scream silently, and baring my head, slowly I feel myself turning gray.

And I myself am one massive, soundless scream above the thousand thousand buried here.” – Yevgeny Yevtushenko (Russian poet)

Imagine being shot over a ravine where thousands of dead bodies already lie below you, waiting to suck you into their masses when you inevitably fall. What if some of the people recognized friends, family members, or neighbors in the pit below before they were shot? The psychological ramifications of the horror of this death are overwhelming.

Ethel Katz concludes her introduction with this plaintive and distinct plea: “Please, reader, light six candles in remembrance of the six million Jewish victims, all of them! Light the sixth candle for the Jews in hiding—for those who survived and the majority who perished. Let them, the million torn by canine and human dogs, be remembered.”

The description here of Germans and their vicious dogs as one in the same, is striking and very poignant. It shows us that the German soldiers were just as brutal (if not more so) outside of concentration camp settings as they were inside. The beginning pleas made me want to go out and light the candles right away, as soon as I could find some in my room or kitchen. I think I know that I will observe many of the remembrance techniques that Francis mentioned such as making potato soup on May 5th, or lighting candles for her friends who spoke out against the German terrors courageously before being killed. I encourage you to think of a way in which you could yearly, monthly, or daily remember the Jews who were murdered and uphold their memory in an honorable way. Maybe it could be something as small as praying for the families that are still aching from the empty places caused by a missing grandparent, aunt, or uncle. Think of your family and friends, however plentiful or scarce they are, at least you still have someone. Many of these people like Ethel had no one to comfort them after their liberation. They still moved on and lived life. Never take those in your life for granted.

Movie Reflection: La Rafle

This is the initial posting that started my Holocaust journal. It is not unexpected that at that time I began to have the inescapable feeling that this journal would continue far beyond the trip itself, perhaps for the rest of my life, if there are enough pages to last (which is doubtful – I would be disappointed in myself if I could not fill all of these pages and more). I feel even more strongly now that I will continue reflecting in writing about the Holocaust and other social injustices or genocides throughout my lifetime.

Monday, April 9, 2012

The movie that started it all.

I don’t feel that there are any words which could adequately describe how I felt while watching this movie. It felt so real and I became attached to the characters quickly. The way that all of the Jews were placed in that stadium with no supplies or amenities was incorrigible. When Jo told Nono that they (Jews) were the only show there, my heart broke.  My body was frozen, petrified by the horror of children being separated from their mothers at the internment camp. My horror soon turned to rage as all of my muscles tensed with the desire to rip the evil perpetrators of this travesty into tiny pieces. When the Jewish men walked away from their wives and children at the behest of the soldiers without an epic standoff, I wanted to jump up and down screaming expletives at them. “Why don’t you put up more of a fight, why don’t you fight against this, I don’t care if you have to die to resist this, why would you not??!” I was disappointed in them for not stepping up as real men, but I also admired them. I was unsure what to feel, whether it was more honorable to fight against the injustice, or take it quietly. Which way is more true to the faith they professed?


Sunday, May 20th, 2012

My mind feels like a blunt object, all of my emotions feel like they are boxed up in a storage unit far away after the finale of the Holocaust trip learning (the USHMM).

            Any new or other unrelated emotions that try to crop up in my mind flicker out as soon as they begin, like a car with a dead battery trying in vain to start its engine, like a great musician attempting to play a song he has known for years, but now he can never make it through the first measure without messing up and sounding terrible. Like a horse with a rock stuck between its shoe and tender frog, pain sears at every step, with every uprising of feelings.

            I am excited, happy even, to seem my family and be home once again. I am grateful that they are all safe and healthy, and I love them. But how can I share what it is I have experienced, and the pain I feel now, when one minute of sharing the Voices of Auschwitz already brought tears to my mother’s eyes? It will be difficult, perhaps impossible for them to understand how I’ve been changed, but I need to let it out somehow, to pass at least a portion of the fervor on to those closest to me. So however long it takes for my emotions to feel real again, for my mind to unclench its death grip on my peace and former innocence, I will process these experiences, this meteorite of emotions which was dropped onto my head and my heart. I will make it through this, though I have no plan, no timetable or deadline. If it takes years, I will assimilate this horrifying information into my mind and person in a helpful way. I will use this to better myself as a human being and a teacher. Right now love feels like winter, my body feels restless like I need to run somewhere far away, and my mind feels as if it is encased in a solid steel box to protect itself from the imminent harm that must befall it sometime (or already has). I have never taken so long to process any information or learning, never taken this long to unearth my true feelings and reactions. God feels far away, or I feel far away, I’m not sure which. I chose to use a red pen for this entry, because it represents screaming, torment, and bloodshed as it jumps sharply from the pages to the eyes. Black or blue are too dull, and any other color is too happy and would seem to present a fake aura of joyfulness.