President Reuven Rivlin speaks to Holocaust survivor Miriam Eshel..
(photo credit: MARK NEYMAN / GPO)
For the third consecutive year, President Reuven Rivlin and his wife, Nechama, on Thursday hosted Memory in the Salon, a project initiated seven years ago whereby Holocaust survivors are invited to people’s homes to tell their stories in a more intimate atmosphere than an auditorium or a classroom.
The hosts invite relatives, friends and neighbors, with an average of not more than 40 people, because the idea is to also facilitate discussion after the survivor has told his or her story.
The survivor who came to the President’s Residence was Irshava, Czechoslovakia-born Miriam Eshel, 87, who in 1943, at age 13 was taken to Auschwitz.
She told a harrowing tale of Hungarian, Czech and German soldiers who had suddenly come to the Munkacs Ghetto where her family was living. She’d been afraid and had asked her mother what they were doing there. Her mother told her not to worry. Nothing would happen to them because they were good people. But less than 24 hours later, a German soldier came to the door, told her mother to get all her children ready and to give each of them a kilo of food.
Her mother fainted on the spot and was revived by the maid. An hour later the soldier was back, packed eight children and their father into a wagon and took them to the local synagogue, telling them that their mother couldn’t come for the time being because she was nursing a baby. The real reason was that the Germans wanted to come back and seal the house so that it would not be ransacked, and they reasoned that while it was occupied nobody would venture inside.
Eshel’s mother had the presence of mind to photograph her family in front of the house before they were taken away. The photo was proof that they belonged there, she said. Not long afterward, she too came to the synagogue, and after a day or two, all the Jews who had been sitting and sleeping on the floor were herded into cattle cars and deported to Auschwitz.
At the death camp, Eshel was first separated from her father and her siblings and later from her mother. None survived except a younger brother whom she did not see again till after the war. She spoke Thursday of the cruelty of Mengele, of the punishments for disobedience and the even worse collective punishments when someone didn’t show up at the daily line-up to be counted. Being absent even for a call of nature was not tolerated.
Eshel spoke of the beatings she endured, the death march, the sadism of the Nazi soldiers, the sharing of the sparse rations they were given when someone was denied any food whatsoever as a punishment for some perceived misdeed. The worst was once when she saw something swimming in the soup. It was a human finger. She almost threw up and said she couldn’t eat. The other prisoners advised her that if she wanted to stay alive she should throw away the finger and eat the soup. She knew there was no other option.
During the death march in January 1945, she and two other girls felt that they could not go on any longer and entered a barn and lay down on the threshing floor. They heard Nazi whistles and bullets outside and were sure that the end had come. They clustered together and recited the Shema. Suddenly there was silence – and the silence was even more terrifying than the noise. Then they heard footsteps approach and they clung to each other in terror.
But the footsteps were those of a Russian soldier. He asked if they were Jewish. They said they were. He offered them food and clothing, explaining that there were still Nazis in the area and if the three girls were seen in their tattered clothing, the Nazis would immediately realize that they were from a camp. The Russians took them in a jeep to Prague.
There, someone told Eshel, that they had seen her brother. Every day she went to the railway station, hoping that he would alight from a train. But he didn’t and in the end she went back to her family home. She saw him there, lying in the street. Someone had told him that they had seen his sister, so he thought that eventually she too would come home and he had been waiting for her.
In 1947, they were taken to the Land of Israel. She immediately volunteered to serve in the Irgun. Her brother joined a combat unit. She begged them not to take him, saying that he was far too young. But they took him anyway and he was killed. After the establishment of the State, Eshel joined the Israel Defense Forces.
Eshel, her voice breaking said that she couldn’t understand why she the sole member of family had been spared to meet the President of Israel in the President’s Residence. Why had God chosen her instead of one of her siblings? President Rivlin said that one of the most meaningful chapters in modern Jewish history was written by thousands of Holocaust survivors who came from the camps to fight for Israel’s Independence. Nechama Rivlin said that survivors didn’t really speak much about their experiences before the 1961 Eichmann trial which somehow was a catalyst in getting people to open up.