We often hear the imperative ‘Never Forget.’ Growing up with a father who survived the Holocaust, forgetting was never an option for me, not even for a moment. Some Holocaust survivors put their experience behind them and never mention it again because they don't want their children to have to relive what they went through. They want to insulate their children from that horrible part of their life. Not my father. Ever since I can remember, my father has been telling stories of his survival. This has created a constant background narrative in my life that I carry with me always.
When life throws its challenges at me, when bad things happen to me, when things become extremely difficult, when I am at my lowest point, my father's narrative starts playing in my head, reassuring me that whatever I am going through at the moment pales in comparison to what he went through. He never gave up; how can I? He persevered; I must. If he never lost hope, then I surely cannot. This attitude is in no way intended to trivialize the suffering of others, no matter how small physically or mentally. Everyone has their own struggles, and they are real. The point is that if you are suffering, you need strength, determination, and hope to move through the pain and come out of the other end of the tunnel of despair. My father's story provides that for me.
My entire life I have always been driven to document my father's experiences so that future generations of our family would know what he and his family went through. About twenty years ago I decided to record my father. I collected over six hours of video and audio recordings of him telling his story along with my asking him questions. It is from those recordings that I have compiled this book.
People often ask me why I feel the need to tell this story. They say that there are already so many stories published about the Holocaust, so why do we need yet another? My response is, "Six million Jews were killed. Every one of them had a story to tell. When there are six million stories published, you might have a point. It is only through the stories of those that survived that we can know the stories of those that did not."
The purpose of remembering is not to carry a life-long grudge, or to seek revenge, or to label a group of people as evil; that is what the Nazis did. A basic belief of the National Socialists was that Jews were an inferior race. They condemned an entire group of people based on nationality and ethnicity. The purpose of remembering what happened to the Jews of Europe is to learn from the past so that as a society we do not repeat our mistakes. It is for this reason that I am compelled to tell my father's particular story of survival.
I can remember writing a book report for school in fifth grade. We had to choose a non-fiction title to read. I chose While Six Million Died by Arthur Morse. It was one of the first books about the Holocaust and the untold story of the obstructions placed in the way of attempts to save Jews from Hitler's ‘Final Solution.’ Well, in the late Sixties no one was learning about the Holocaust in American public schools, so I'm sure that for my teacher this was an odd choice for a fifth-grader.
She asked me why I chose that particular book and I remember feeling a sense of pride when telling her that my father—my father—was a survivor. No other child in my entire school could make that claim about one of their parents. To me, my father was the greatest hero in the world. Six million Jews died, including many of his own family members, but somehow, he survived. That was astonishing to me, and I wanted to know how he did it. What were the circumstances which he had to endure? What was life like before his family got split up? What happened to his brothers and sisters? How did he get through it all and finally come to America? I never stopped asking my father questions, and he never tired of giving me answers.
The one question I never thought of asking until I wrote that book report in the fifth grade was the one which the teacher asked me in her final comments (after giving me an ‘A’)—“Why?” She wanted to know why Hitler chose the Jews as his enemy. Why was Nazi ideology inherently anti-Semitic? Why were Jews scapegoated? As a fifth-grader I couldn't answer her questions, and even today there is still no simple answer. Recently I met with a good friend for dinner and told him that I was writing this book. He told me he thought that was great because everyone's story from the Holocaust needed to be told to add to the collective memory of one of the worst periods in human history. I was delighted to hear that. It gave me a sense of encouragement to go forward.
While we were sipping our cocktails before dinner he said, "You know what I've never understood, Mark?" I shook my head. “Why the Jews? Why did Hitler and the people of Europe hate the Jews?” I took a sip of my drink and replied: "Well, that's a great question. I've been thinking about that very question since fifth grade." I then asked him: “Why do you think the Nazis used the term 'The Final Solution to the Jewish Question'? First, what is the question that needs an answer or solution? Second, why ‘final’?” He looked puzzled and said he never really thought about that. I told him that in writing my father's story I found answers to these pressing questions and had incorporated them throughout his story. He replied, "Well, looks like I’ll have to read it to find the answers.” We both chuckled.
Retelling my father's story has also given me a better understanding of my people, my heritage, my culture—where I come from and who I am. Since my mother's family were Russian Jews who came to America in the early twentieth century, this makes my Jewish origins both maternal and paternal. After writing about my father, though, I've come to identify more with my own hyphenated identity as a Jewish-American— more specifically as an Ashkenazi Jew, yet not in a religious sense but as an ethnicity. The story of the Holocaust is primarily the story of the Ashkenazim: those Jews who originally came to settle along the Rhine River in West Germany and Northern France and then moved out into the Pale of Settlement, which comprises parts of present- day Belarus, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Russia, Ukraine, and my father's home country of Poland.
The Ashkenazi community was devastated throughout Europe. No family was left untouched by the killing and destruction. There were approximately 8.8 million Jews living in Europe at the beginning of World War ll. Most of them were Ashkenazi. There were 3.3 million Ashkenazi Jews living in Poland alone. Only 300,000 survived. I also came to learn that Poland had the dubious distinction of being the country with the greatest number of collaborators with the Nazis, but also the greatest number of resistance fighters during the war. They lost almost two million non-Jews fighting the Nazis.
Learning this about Poland made me realize how important it is not to generalize about any ethnicity or population of people. I have heard some members of my family say things like: "There has never been a good German, and there never will be." Or: "The Poles were worse than the Nazis. They'd turn us in for a loaf of bread." While I can understand why someone would think in those terms, I've come to learn that those statements are just not true. In every culture, in every country, in every community, regardless of national origin, race, religion, gender, or skin color, there are people who sometimes act cruelly toward one another but mostly they don't. What's more, it's hard to know how we would behave if we were suddenly thrown into a horrible situation full of moral dilemmas. It's very easy to judge in hindsight, so the lesson which I've learned is to never generalize.
When I was growing up we didn't learn about the Holocaust in public school. Only my Jewish friends knew about it either from going to Hebrew school for a few hours after public school, as I did, or from their family. By the time my own kids went to public school things had changed. It seems like all children in middle school learn about the Holocaust these days. My father, who has nine grandchildren, visited most of their classrooms to discuss his experience as they learned about the Holocaust.
I remember one time when he came to King Middle School here in Berkeley to speak to my twins' class. The meeting was held in the school library and there were about three classes assembled there. When my father walked in, the entire room of people stood up and gave him a standing ovation before he’d said a single word. He spoke for a few minutes and then took questions from the kids. At one point they asked to see the number tattooed on his arm and the scar on his back from being stabbed by a Nazi soldier. That was a very proud moment both for me and for my twins. We took pride in his survival.
My father is now 92 and no longer gives talks in classrooms. Soon he and the rest of the handful of survivors who are out there will be gone, and I've thought about the effect that will have on Holocaust education around the world. In just another decade or so there will be no more eyewitnesses to the tragedy, so I decided that the next best thing to an actual survivor telling their story is the child of that survivor telling it. That is why I formed a non-profit organization, The Henry Koperweis Foundation for Holocaust Education.
The mission of the foundation is to promote an awareness of the atrocities committed by the Nazis against the Jews of Europe through the personal story of my father. By bringing a short multimedia presentation to a classroom and having a question-and-answer period, young students can potentially be connected to what happened in a more visceral way and better understand how they can learn from it. It is my hope that this book can be used as a tool for young students to read and discuss in a group setting. For example, teachers and educators could present a set of questions that each student could answer and discuss based on my father's story, which represents the story of millions who did not survive.
In spite of all the documentation and personal testimony that exists today regarding the Holocaust, there are still people who want to deny that it happened or rewrite history, saying that it was an exaggeration or that it was not the intention of the Nazis to exterminate European Jewry. Holocaust denial takes many forms, yet nothing combats denial of an event better than the testimony of one who experienced it first-hand. Hearing my father's story counteracts this denial and also serves as an example of what can happen in human society when racial prejudices are tolerated, or worse still, promoted. It also highlights the danger of propaganda and reinforces the need for every individual to develop critical thinking skills in order to be vigilant in detecting and fighting racism, prejudice, and bigotry wherever and whenever this three-headed snake spews its insidious venom.
I can never fully comprehend what it was like for my father as a young teenager being torn away from his friends and family and all that was normal for him. I can’t fathom what it was like not knowing when or if your struggle would end. It’s inconceivable, and equally incomprehensible to think about how many lives were lost. To get a grasp of the enormity of the loss of life, consider this: If you held a minute of silence for every person who perished in the Holocaust, you would remain silent for eleven years. Although there is certainly a time for silence, there's also a time for speaking up, and this book is the latter.
Thank you in advance for taking the time to read my father's account of one of the darkest, most hateful periods in human history. A great deal of progress has been made since that time. People are more tolerant and accepting of others and have come to realize that no matter what one's ethnic, religious, or cultural background, we are all part of one race, the human race. This, too, we should never forget.
Thank you for reading.
Copyright 2016 by Henry Koperweis Foundation. All rights reserved.
No duplication permitted without written consent.
Henry Koperweis Foundation
for Holocaust Education