Holocaust Remembrance Day (Yom Hashoah) is April 18-19. Each heartbreaking memory can serve to represent all people who have experienced the horrors of genocide.
I met Cecilie Klein in the early 1980s. Fragile, intelligent, in her 50s, she was a Holocaust survivor finally ready to tell her experiences. She had written some narrative and had shown her poems to Elie Weisel, who had encouraged her. She now sought a writer to help her.
For almost a year we spoke and met. I edited her prose and poems, sorted through the remaining pictures of her family, and talked with her for many hours about her early years. We polished three chapters and several poems and sent them to a few editors. Some expressed interest, but some were abrupt: "Too many Holocaust stories coming in right now." Cecilie was put off by this and didn't want to face possible rejection. The project ended, and I lost touch with her.
But I never forgot her remarkable story.
When Hitler came to power Cecilie 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 politically active and was sent to a concentration camp early on.
As the Nazi menace flared in Hungary, Cecilie's young, well-off boyfriend asked her to join his family, who had paid a farmer to hide them. She wanted to be with him, but decided she couldn't leave her mother, and said no.
Not long after, that farmer betrayed her boyfriend's family, and they all disappeared.
Cecilie and her mother stayed together for awhile. Later, to hide out more safely, Cecilie moved to Budapest with some Catholic friends, slept with a cross over her bed and worked in a dental office. A clever, bold teenager, she'd walk around with an anti-Semitic newspaper to throw the authorities off.
But eventually the police brought the girls to a station and queried them, one by one. Cecilie was last, afraid she had been outed as a Jew by her friends. But she not only got through the interrogation, she persuaded a policeman to walk her home, figuring they would never again suspect her if she actually wanted to extend time with the gestapo.
In 1944 time had run out for Hungarian Jews, the last European Jews to have escaped deportation. Cecilie was rounded up along with her mother, her sister, her brother-in-law and her 2-year-old nephew, Nathan.
One of Cecilie'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 above.
When the train stopped at Auschwitz, Cecilie's brother-in-law gave away his hidden watch to a man in stripes, who rushed the Jews out of the train. The man whispered, "Have the old woman hold the little boy! Otherwise your wife will die along with him."
Cecilie's sister didn't hear those dire words, but her mother did, and she pleaded to her older daughter. "Let me have little Nathan. I'll take care of him. Otherwise they'll assign me to hard labor." Cecilie's sister resisted giving up her son, but to save her daughter's life the grandmother took her grandson in her arms, knowing that they were doomed to die.
Cecilie and her family lined up for selection before Dr. Josef Mengele, just beyond the train. Her mother, still holding Nathan, was sent to the left. Her sister cried, but still did not fully understand what would be happening to her son and her mother. Cecilie understood.
(One day when we were working together, Cecilie 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 rare grainy photo taken by the Nazis, of bewildered people walking on a train platform. The focus was a sweet-faced older woman in a head kerchief, carrying a boy who is sucking his thumb. That woman was Cecilie's mother, holding her grandson, hours before their extermination. Cecilie had never before seen that photo. It is the one above.)
Although the rest of her family perished, Cecilie and her sister managed to stay together at Auschwitz, surviving day by precious day, through luck, cleverness and support. Sixteen-year-old Cecilie volunteered to write love poems for the Jewish leader of her block, to arouse the woman's Nazi guard lover. When the affair ended, the despondent woman cried in Cecilie's arms, "Now we're doomed."
At one point Cecilie actually stood at the door of a gas chamber, awaiting certain death. But at the last minute her group traded places with another group, and she was sent away to dig potatoes. She often kept a few of them to supplement the watery soup that barely sustained her and her sister. One day the guard asked the laborers to empty their pockets. Those who had potatoes in their pockets were shot.
Cecilie, ever wise, ever bold, had hidden her potatoes in her cap.
The sisters stayed alive through the degradation, illness and constant danger. Even at the end after their camp was destroyed and they were liberated, many of the starved victims ate their fill, became ill and died. Cecilie had cautioned her famished sister not to gorge on the food provided and they remained safe.
But the story is even more remarkable. On the train taking them to their freedom, Cecilie recognized one of the fellow passengers, the boyfriend who had been betrayed by the farmer and whom she assumed was dead. They had both somehow endured Auschwitz, living close to each other for months and never knowing it.
They fell in love and married, but 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. Cecilie's husband lived the American Dream, and put the past behind as much as possible. But when I met Cecile, the sadness in her eyes still reflected the loss of her siblings and her mother and nephew and the relatives and friends who had perished in the Holocaust.
I will light a memorial candle and again think of Cecilie's story, of her mother's harrowing sacrifice, and of the millions who perished without having their story told.
And I will especially remember the millions of children like Nathan, the little boy in the photo, who was only 2 years old.