Thursday, November 8, 2012

A Token Survivor: Martin Weiss, Holocaust Survivor

Today, I had an absolutely wonderful experience courtesy of Salisbury University.  Salisbury University provides countless opportunities to its students.  Over the years, I have seen the Golden Dragon Chinese Acrobats perform, Dr. Arun Gandhi, grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, speak, the Estonian ambassador speak and several leaders in the education field speak, just to name a few.  Today, however, I had one of the most profound experiences in my college career.  I saw Martin Weiss speak.  It wouldn't surprise me if you've never heard of Martin Weiss.  He probably won't go down in the history books as anyone of consequence, save for a few key years in his life, he has lived a fairly normal life.  It is what happened in those few years, however, that makes Weiss so profound and moving.  You see, Martin Weiss is a Holocaust survivor.

Weiss was born and raised in Czechoslovakia along the Carpathian Mountains.  This part stood out to me only because my mom's family is originally from Poland along the Carpathian Mountains, although they came to America about a hundred years ago.  Anyway, I digress.  Weiss lived in a small village in Czechoslovakia, and it was Hungary, not Germany, that invaded his country.  The Hungarians were just as bad as the Germans, although people often remember Germany and what it did during World War II.  Weiss told one heart wrenching story where children were ripped from their mothers' arms and bashed against stones, and only after seeing that were the mothers killed with that image in their heads.  Many Czechs were sent to the Ukraine, which was a very anti-Semitic country.  Weiss spoke about Orthodox Jews having their beards burned.

In 1944, Weiss and his family was sent to a ghetto, which was an old brick factory.  They had heard of the atrocities going on in the rest of Europe, but they didn't believe it, they didn't think people could actually do that to other human beings.  In the ghetto, they were made to do manual labor where they simply carried bricks from one end of the factory to the other and back again.  At that time, Weiss and his family did not know about the concentration camps, but they were about to find out.  They were only in the ghetto for five weeks, and then they were rounded up.

Weiss and his family were rounded up and crammed into cattle cars to the infamous Auschwitz Concentration Camp.  Each car had upwards of 125 people, although some had more, although people died on the journey, particularly the elderly.  They arrived in Auschwitz in the middle of the night.  Weiss described arriving at Auschwitz as the personification of hell.  Since it was the middle of the night, they had floodlights on.  People were screaming, there were armed guards and dogs surrounding them.  To this day, Weiss doesn't understand why the guards were armed and why they had dogs with them, the prisoners weren't armed, they weren't going to do anything. 

Soon, the selection process began.  Weiss was the youngest child from his town to survive.  Only about thirteen children survived in total.  Weiss knew they were being selected based on their ability to work, so he put on three jackets to look bigger so he'd look like he could work.  Of the women in his family, Weiss only had two sisters survive the actual selection process, although one later died.  Weiss' father survived the selection but later died as well.  Weiss almost didn't survive.  While he did survive the selection process, he saw his mother and sisters in the line on their way to the crematoriums, and he stepped out of line to join them to help them, but a guard grabbed him and threw him back in line.  He never saw them again.

After they  went through the process of showering and getting their uniforms and barrack assignments, Weiss saw the black smoke from the crematoriums, and they could smell the flesh burning.  One prisoner who had been at Auschwitz for a while said to him "See that smoke?  That's your family burning.  They're already gone."  The numbers Weiss gave during his presentation were astounding.  in two months, 550,000 people were shipped to Auschwitz from Hungary alone, and roughly 10,000-12,000 people die every day.

Weiss only stayed at Auschwitz for ten days, and then we was sent to Mauthausen in Austria.  This process was completely different, only fifty people were in each car, although they were accompanied by two armed guards as well.  Once again, Weiss couldn't figure out why armed guards were with them, where were they going to go?  In Mauthausen, Weiss worked in a stone quarry where people died constantly from the hard labor.  They pulled stones like donkeys or carried them on their backs.  At Mauthausen there were a lot of political prisoners as well.

After spending some time in Mauthausen, Weiss was sent off to a sub-camp called Melk.  He described the gorgeous, picturesque town that the camp was in and how they passed by women who stared at them from their houses.  Weiss wondered if they were sympathetic towards the prisoners or even cared.  It was at Melk that Weiss experienced the only act of kindness from a military official.  A Captain of the Guard from the regular army, not a Nazi, gave him a piece of bread.  Other than that, the military was as cold and ruthless as the Nazis.  In Melk, Weiss and the other prisoners were digging tunnels using only shovels, no real tools to make the job easier.  The death rate in Melk was 600-700 a week, not counting executions.

Weiss took the time to talk about life at the camp.  Prisoners would use bags from the construction sight to keep warm, but if they were caught, they got twenty-five lashes.  Also, the prisoners got a haircut once a week.  Their hair was mostly shaved off, except for a strip down the middle (like a mohawk), this made the prisoners stand out of they escaped.  If someone did escape, which was rare, they were usually caught almost instantly because they stood out in the town.  Usually, the dogs mauled the escapee, but if he survived, he was taken back to the camp and hanged in front of everyone.

Weiss and the other prisoners were evacuated back to Mauthausen since the Russians were closing in.  Once there, the Jews were separated from the rest of the prisoners.  Weiss and the others were convinced that they were going to be killed, it was inevitable.  The Jews were forced to march, and Weiss described themselves as being "walking zombies."  If someone fell while marching, they were shot in the head, no questions asked.  As Weiss put it, "you wouldn't even do that to a dog."  He said that no matter what, you never got used to the prisoners being executed like that, no matter how many times you saw it.  They marched to a new camp in the forest where there wasn't enough food, not even for the soldiers.  There were about 5,000 people shoved into each barrack.  There were so many people that they had to stand, and many people died of suffocation and exhaustion.  Weiss was lucky, he was small enough where he could find a sufficient space for himself.  At this point, Weiss said an absolutely heartbreaking thing.  He said that they saw people dying, and nobody would help them.  They were doing them a favor and letting them die to put them out of their misery.  The weak prisoners were also prayed upon by the guards, and for fun, the guards would sic their dogs on them to watch them get mauled to death.

One day, the guards just disappeared, and they were liberated.  Weiss and the other prisoners thought it was a test, and the guards were waiting just outside the gate with guns to kill them if they tried to leave.  They spent one extra night in the camp, just to be sure.  The next day, Weiss left with some others.  They found a tub of lard and some leather in a car, and they helped themselves, eating the lard and taking the leather to make shoes.  They were full of hate, in their minds, "every German was a Nazi and every Nazi a German."  They came across a farmhouse though and knocked on the door.  The woman was very scared but let them in, giving them some flour and water.  They made dumplings using the lard, and that was their first meal in freedom.  One man, who was considered old in the camp because he was 55, died the next day because he ate too much.  This was very common, about half of the people liberated from his camp died soon after from eating too much and getting sick.  To thank the woman for giving them food, Weiss and the others gave her some of the leather.  This was a profound and moving lesson.  Weiss pointed out that despite everything they'd endured, they still respected life, because they were raised that way.  

The numbers given were astounding.  Of the six million Jews who died, one and half million were children.  Weiss really put this into perspective.  He said, "the only time six million means something is when it's multiplied one by one."  Each one of those six million people were denied life, has no grave and denied any contribution they could have made in the world.  This reminds me of a line from one of the best movies, Schindler's List, taken from the Talmud, "Whoever saves one life saves the entire world."  Think of it this way, the people who died, they might not have contributed to this world, but one person's great-great-great granddaughter could have found the cure for cancer or something like that, and now that person will not even be born.  Weiss also said that hate comes from when you dehumanize someone.  When the Germans and others thought of the Jews and other prisoners as less than human, it was much easier to kill them viciously then if they thought of them as being similar.  We also must remember what happened or else we can't call ourselves civilized, we have to learn from our mistakes.  

Seeing Weiss speak was a wonderful and memorable experience.  It's so important to talk to survivors like this, it puts life into perspective.  All of a sudden, your stress melts away as soon as you realize that there is so much going on out there in the world, there are people out there struggling to survive, so why should a bad grade or a breakup with the "love of your life" seem like the end of the world?  In the grand scheme of things, that's nothing, and there are people out there struggling to survive each and every day.

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