Holocaust Remembrance Day and Mother's Day, both commemorated by Congress, occur in early May. And every year, around this time, I think of Cecile.
I met her about twenty-five years ago. Fragile, intelligent, in her mid-fifties, she was a Holocaust survivor finally ready to tell her story. She had written some narrative and had shown her poems to Elie Weisel, who encouraged her. And she sought a writer to help her.
For almost a year we spoke and met, looking at the remaining pictures of her family and talking of her past. We polished three chapters and several poems and sent them to a few editors. Cecile didn't want to face possible rejection, the project ended, and I lost touch with her.
But I never could forget her, nor her extraordinary experiences. And at this moment of remembrance, reflection and love I want to share some of them with you.
Cecile was a sensitive girl living with her sisters and brothers and her widowed mother in the mountains near the border of Czechoslovakia and Hungary. A couple of her siblings moved to Palestine. One brother became political and was sent to a concentration camp early on.
When the Nazi menace flared, Cecile's young boyfriend asked her to join his family, who had paid a farmer to hide them. She wanted to be with him, but even more, she wanted to be with her mother, so she said no.
Not long after, the farmer betrayed her boyfriend's family, and they disappeared.
Cecile and her mother stayed together for awhile. Later, to hide out, she moved to Budapest with some Catholic friends, slept with a cross over her bed, and worked in a dental office. She'd walk around with an anti-semitic newspaper to throw the authorities off. But eventually they brought the girls to a police station and queried them, one by one. Cecile was last. She not only got through the interrogation, she persuaded one of the police to walk her home.
By 1944, time ran out, and Cecile was rounded up, along with her mother, her sister, her brother-in-law and her two-year old nephew.
One of Cecile's poems describes seeing the stars through slats in the cattle car on their way east. Of that awful transit she writes of the darkness, throwing out the buckets of waste, the stuffy heat, the fear of the unknown, the fainting, frightened captives, the slivers of sky and clouds outside.
When the train stopped at Auschwitz, Cecile's brother-in-law gave away his hidden watch to a man in stripes, who moved them out. The man whispered, "Have the old woman hold the little boy. Otherwise your wife will die too."
Cecile's sister did not hear those dire words, but her mother did, and she pleaded to her older daughter. "Please, let me have the baby. Otherwise I will have to do hard work." The mother resisted, but to save her daughter's life, the grandmother took her grandson in her arms, knowing that their fate was sealed.
When Cecile and her family lined up before Josef Mengele, just beyond the train, her mother, holding her nephew, was sent to the left. Her sister cried, but still did not fully understand. Cecile did.
(One day when we were working together, Cecile called me in a strained voice. "Look in The New York Times Magazine. The story about Raoul Wallenberg." There, spread across the page, was a grainy photo taken by the Nazis. Bewildered people were walking on a train platform. The focus was a sweet-faced woman in a head kerchief, holding a small boy in her arms. It was Cecile's mother, minutes away from the selection. Cecile had never before seen that photo.)
Cecile and her sister managed to stay together at Auschwitz, surviving day by precious day, through luck, cleverness and support. Sixteen year-old Cecile volunteered to write love poems for the leader of her block, to arouse the woman's Nazi guard lover. When the affair ended, the despondent woman cried, "Now we're doomed to die."
At one point Cecile actually stood at the door of a gas chamber. Her group traded places with another at the last minute, and she was sent away to dig potatoes. She often kept a few of them to supplement the watery soup that barely sustained her. One day the guard asked the laborers to empty their pockets. Those who had potatoes in their pockets were shot. Cecile, ever wise, had hidden her potatoes in her hat.
The sisters stayed alive through degradations, illness and constant danger. Even at the end, when they were liberated, many of the starved victims ate their fill, became ill and died. Cecile had cautioned her famished sister. They were safe.
On the train to their freedom, Cecile recognized one of the fellow passengers. It was her boyfriend. They had both endured the hell of Auschwitz, living close to each other and never knowing it.
The couple later married, but life remained difficult. Returning to a now Communist Eastern Europe, they encountered anti-semitism once again. They eventually managed to get to America, but were treated poorly by sponsors, and lived for a long while on scraps such as beef lungs and wilted vegetables.
Years passed, they raised a family, worked hard, and prospered in suburban New York. Cecile's husband lived the American Dream, put the past behind as much as possible and even purposefully bought a Mercedes. But when I met Cecile, her deep sadness and loss were still evident.
I traveled to Auschwitz fifteen years after I had worked with Cecile, and fifty years after she had been imprisoned there. I needed to see it. The camp was vast, and a friend I had come with, who didn't want to go in, waited for me near the infamous railway entrance where the tracks ended, near where Cecile and the others had waited for selection.
By myself, with Cecile's descriptions in my mind, I walked among weeds and butterflies, in the emptied, buzzy stillness of a May late afternoon. I found the Hungarian blocks she had described so clearly to me. I entered one barrack, and tried to imagine the filth and and fear. I wondered if this was the one she had slept in, crowded next to her sister in a grimy, bug-infested, straw-covered bunk, with others stacked above and below.
I walked to the huge washhouse where holes in the latrines lined up along the center, and I remembered that she had used the same bowl for washing herself and holding the watery soup she ate twice a day.
Here where millions perished, I walked in silence for maybe an hour to the back of Aushwitz, to the crematoria, exploded into rubble. And I walked down stairs now leading nowhere, tracing the last steps of naked men, women and children, Cecile's mother and nephew included, heading to the gas chambers.
As light faded, I heard a rustle, and a deer bounded through the grasses. In the far distance I could make out the outlines of a factory in a nearby town. Other visitors had long gone, except for one couple, speaking German and shaking their heads. I walked back toward the front of the camp in near darkness. My waiting friend was beside herself with worry, and I could hardly speak.
Cecile found a way to bear witness, and I came upon it by surprise. At the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC, a wall is covered by the enlarged photo of her mother holding her grandson at Auschwitz. I recognized Cecile's voice, narrating some of the exhibits. And in a short film at the end of the experience, she is one of six survivors representing six million who were murdered. The stories vary, but each is told with dignity.
In this film Cecile reflects quietly about the evils she experienced. But most of all, with visible love, she tells the story of her mother's ultimate sacrifice.
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