Delivered at B’nai Jeshurun—Yom Kippur, 5767
Before I start I would like to thank the rabbis, Myriam Abramowicz, and Freddie Goldstein for offering me the opportunity to speak in front of you, and I would also like to wish us all a Gemar Hatima Tova and a prosperous and healthy New Year.
My name is Avi Ovadia Ben Sasha and number 48739 … This is how my father Yakov was called in the German Prisoners of War Camp and the number my mother was known by in the Auschwitz concentration camp.
My father, Yakov Ashman, grew up in a small town named Lachva that initially was part of Poland but later became part of Belarus. My grandfather Vadia Ashman was a traveling merchant, and my grandmother Ester was a homemaker.
In 1936, Private Yakov Ashman joined an infantry unit in the Polish army and was placed on the German border. On September 1, 1939, the Germans invaded Poland from the west, the north, and the south with a massive barrage of heavy artillery and the force of superior equipment. The first cannon round of that attack landed 30 meters—100 feet—from my father, but luckily he was not injured badly; it only ruptured his right eardrum. The Polish Army units were outmatched, and they started retreating inland.
My father and a few remnants of his unit tried to escape from the German soldiers and hide in the forests but were finally captured and sent to a Prisoner of War camp. At the camp he changed his name from Yakov to the common Russian name Sasha to hide his Jewishness and survived by being a handyman. Need to construct a new uniform, alter your overcoat or iron your shirt before meeting a high-ranking German officer? Ask Sasha and he would take care of it. Your motorbike stopped working? Sasha would fix it. Was my father trained to be a tailor or a mechanic? No, but he learned both trades quickly in the school of survival.
On September 17, 1939, Russia invaded Poland from the east. On September 28, Poland was partitioned, and my father’s hometown Lachva became part of Belarus. Soon after, Germany and Russia exchanged prisoners, and my father returned home to Lachva. He later joined the Russian Army.
At the end of 1939 the Germans captured Lachva and gathered the 2,300 Jews into a ghetto. Father’s older brothers, Michael and Aaron, became the leaders of a resistance group formed inside the ghetto. Father became a supplies sergeant in the Russian Army and continued fighting the Germans.
On September 2, 1942, well before the Warsaw Uprising began, two underground leaders in Lachva—one was my uncle Michael—heard that pits were being dug at the town’s outskirts. A German commander told Dov Lopatyn, head of the Lachva’s Judenrat (a Jewish Community Council that the Germans created in every town that they occupied), that the Germans planned to liquidate the ghetto and leave behind only 30 craftsmen.
Late that afternoon, 150 Germans and 200 policemen encircled the ghetto. The underground, with full cooperation from the Judenrat, planned to attack the police and the soldiers at midnight at the ghetto fence and create enough chaos that the ghetto’s population would be able to flee into the forests. When my uncle, Michael Ashman, and Dov Lopatyn gave the signal, the underground members, among them my father’s other brothers and relatives, broke through the fence and fought the Germans with axes and their bare hands.
Large numbers of Jews rushed through the hole in the gate, but many were killed by German gunfire. None of my father’s family survived. Over 500 Jews, including my paternal grandparents, who did not manage to escape from the ghetto, were taken to the pits and shot dead. Only about 120 managed to escape and assemble in the forest. But many of those who did escape were betrayed by local Christian farmers, their old neighbors, and killed by the Germans.
My mother, Sara Zalcstein, was the youngest child in a religious family of eight that lived in a small Polish town near Warsaw called Radzyn Podlaski. Grandmother Razel leased land from Christian neighbors for a season and grew vegetables for both home consumption and for sale. Grandfather Eliyahu was an artisan bootmaker whose craftsmanship attracted many customers, both Jews and Christian. But he lost many customers when he kept them waiting in his shop while he attended daily prayers in the nearby synagogue. So, from time to time, there was no food in the house and the kids went to sleep hungry.
As poor as my grandparents were, they scraped together enough money to send their sons to a heder, a religious school. After completing their heder studies, children started working to help their families. My Uncle Shimon, the oldest son, became an artisan bootmaker, moved to Warsaw, and later established a family there. The two younger sons moved to Warsaw as well: Zvulun became a garment-store helper, and Mordechai a carpenter. After the Germans captured Warsaw in September 1939, my Uncles Mordechai and Zvulun escaped to Russia and joined the Partisans. But Shimon stayed in Warsaw and later perished in the Treblinka concentration camp.
The money my uncles sent back home helped to send my mother and her older sister Devorah to a regular Polish school with a curriculum of math, Polish language, and literature studies. (Mom’s other sister Miriam died at a young age.)
Soon my mother’s hometown Radzyn fell into German hands. One fall day, in 1942, the German Gestapo stormed into Radzyn, rounded up the Jews, and marched them to the train station in the next town, Mezeritch. At nightfall the Germans pushed my mother, 16 at the time, and her older sister Devorah into one train car and her parents into another. As all the cars filled with frightened Jews, Sara and Devorah clung to each other in the dark and cramped car and Devorah said, “Surale, we will survive this.” A German soldier gave the signal and the train started moving toward Treblinka.
As the train raced through forests toward its destination, Devorah and Sara were able to open a small window. “I just wanted some fresh air and water,” my mother recalled. The train started slowing down as it neared Treblinka. Devorah told her sister, “Surale, I will help you jump out of the window and will jump right after you. You must live!” The train was now approximately 3 miles from Treblinka. Devorah pushed my mother out the window, and she fell on the trackside and rolled down into a ravine. The train passed and Sara climbed back to the tracks looking desperately for Devorah. But Devorah stayed on the train. My Aunt Devorah and my maternal grandparents perished in Treblinka in the fall of 1942.
My mother collected her thoughts, rolled back down into the ravine, walked into the forest and started walking away from Treblinka. She walked many days in the forests, eating berries and drinking dew water. From time to time she sneaked into a Polish farm to sleep and warm up in a shed before being chased out by the Polish farmers. Somehow she ended up in Seleditze, her Uncle Avraham’s town.
Tired, hungry, thirsty, cold, feverish, and ill with typhus, Sara lay down near the synagogue until one of her uncle’s neighbors recognized her and brought Avraham to see her. Mother wanted to die, but Avraham told her she must live as who knew which family member would survive? He took my mother to his house and nursed her until she recovered—he had saved her life. Luckily, Avraham was immune to typhus because he had survived it himself as a soldier in the Polish Army in WWI.
Shortly after Sara was cured, the Germans came to Seleditze looking for Jews. Avraham hid with his family in his house’s small basement. But Sara and 20 other Jews hid in the attic of a house across from her uncle’s place, where they stayed for a few days until one day they heard the Germans coming.
One of the hiding women’s little baby started crying and everyone begged the mother to quiet the baby or leave so they would not all be captured. The mother refused and cried hysterically as well. The Germans came near and one of the men in the group took the baby out of the attic and laid him on one of the beds downstairs. The Germans couldn’t find the Jews in the attic but saw the baby. They remarked how beautiful the baby was, shot him, and left.
In the meantime other German soldiers found the hidden door to Avraham’s basement—their cat sat on the hidden door meowing and caught the German’s attention. As they opened the door Avraham jumped on one of the soldiers with a kitchen knife and killed him. The soldier’s partner shot Avraham to death and killed the rest of the family in the basement.
Sara and the other Jews hid for a couple of weeks until the Germans announced over loudspeakers that the last transport would leave that day and whoever was found after that would be killed. So, the group came out and surrendered to the Germans.
The Germans loaded Sara and others onto a train and transported them to Majdanek. At the entrance to Majdanek soldiers ordered everyone to get off the train and line up. One by one they stood in front of a German officer who instructed them to join a line to the left or a line to the right. The officer, Dr. Josef Mengele—yamach shemo ve zichro—“selected” between Life— to the right—or Death—to the left.
Sara, a beautiful 17-year-old girl, stood in front of Mengele. Did he like her big brown eyes? Did he like her beautiful face? Did he see a potential good worker? One will never know, but Mengele quickly pointed to Sara with his finger to join the line on the right and continued the “selekzia.”
Mother noticed that the left line was much longer and thought that it was the “better” line and jumped to that line. Mengele noticed that out of the corner of his eye and instructed a soldier to move Sara back to the right side. The Jews on the right were told to undress and given striped uniforms with a patched number in front and were selected again into other groups. Some were sent to the medical quarters to become human guinea pigs for Mengele’s medical research and others to different working groups.
The Germans told my mother’s group that they were to build ovens for bread making. They even asked the Jews what would be the optimal door height “so it will be easy to take the bread out.” Needless to say that these were crematoria, not bread ovens. Mother stayed in Majdanek for six months, until one day she and other Jews were told to climb onto a train that transported her to Auschwitz.
The slogan on the gate at Auschwitz promised that “work makes you free,” but every Jew that arrived there underwent a “selekzia” to either work or die. My mother was chosen to be part of the Working Brigades. The number 48739 was tattooed on her arm, and she was sent to Barrack 113 in Birkenau, a couple of miles away. That barrack, near the south entrance to the camp, was her home for many months. Every day Mother and her fellow inmates marched from Birkenau to Auschwitz to work.
One spring night a number of German soldiers stormed into my mother’s barrack and ordered all the women, at gun-point, to line up in front of the building. They then ordered the women to march east toward the main road crossing Birkenau. At the main road they told them to turn north—not south as they did every day. All the frightened women knew where they were heading — towards the gas chambers and crematoria — and started reciting prayers and Shema Yisrael. Mother recalls “I said: Mamale, Tatale, Devorale I am coming to see you again.” As they marched they could see another group of women marching into their barrack. After 10 minutes or so they reached a fork on the road with a path to the left toward the men’s barracks and a path to the right to the crematoria.
Suddenly, an officer mounted on a motorbike appeared from the right and stopped in front of the marching women and ordered them to stop. My mother, who was in front of the line and understood a little German, heard him screaming at the squad leader, “You stupid! You took the wrong barrack. They need to work tomorrow. Bring them back!” The squad leader replied, “I can’t. We filled their barrack with a new shipment from Hungary.” The officer said “Wait here until further instructions” and disappeared.
While waiting for the officer to come back, Sara saw a little girl walking on the path toward the crematoria picking flowers. Mother recalled, “She was such a beautiful girl, 3 or 4 years old, with beautiful long hair and she was picking flowers on the road side and showing them to the German soldier that escorted her toward the crematoria. So, I asked God ‘Will I ever have a little girl of my own?’” The soldier and the girl continued walking until they disappeared on the curve near Crematorium number 2. A few minutes later the motorbike-mounted officer reappeared and instructed the women to march to the left, toward the men’s barracks. The soldiers told them to stay overnight at barrack 15. The next morning they marched back toward the fork in the road, turned to the right toward the main gate and from there headed to Auschwitz to work. While my mother’s group was working at Auschwitz the Germans took the Hungarian group to the crematorium. That night my mother’s group came back to Barrack 113.
In the middle of January 1945, the Russian Army began an offensive to capture Krakow. The Germans retreated fast and sent approximately 60,000 Auschwitz and Birkenau prisoners, mostly Jews, on “death marches” in the direction of concentration and labor camps in Germany, killing them as they marched. In the frantic retreat they did not have time to empty or destroy the warehouses of the victims’ looted belongings. The Germans also left approximately 8,000 Jews in the camps.
On January 27, 1945, Red Army soldiers entered Auschwitz and Birkenau and found 600 corpses of prisoners whom the Germans had murdered several hours before they fled, and 7,600 living prisoners, ill and exhausted. Sgt. Yakov Ashman, one of those Red Army soldiers, entered Birkenau in total disbelief and, with teary eyes, started helping the prisoners. He looked up and saw three emaciated young women lying at the roadside, all confused and frightened begging for water and food. One of them caught Yakov’s eyes.
“She had these big brown eyes and a beautiful face,” Father recalls seeing Mother. Yakov gave water and bread to Sara and her friends and calmed them down. Meanwhile, a number of Polish farmers entered the camp. Father called one of the farmers and said, “Here are five zlotys. You will feed and give water to these women until they become healthy. I will give you more money when needed. I will come every day to check, and if you don’t feed them I will kill you.”
Yakov came back the following day and saw that the farmer bathed Sara and her friends and washed their clothes, and, most importantly, fed them. “She looked even prettier than the first time,” Father says. Day after day, Yakov came back to make sure that Sara was becoming healthier, gaining weight and strength. They got to know each other, fell in love, and decided to marry. A few months later, while my mother was pregnant, they moved with my fathers’ Army unit to Roveno in Belarus; and in June 1946 my brother Eliyahu was born.
In 1950 my parents boarded a ship in Poland and sailed to Israel. My family settled first in a refugee camp near Pardes Hannah, in central Israel, and in 1952 my sister Ester was born. Soon after, my family moved to another Refugee Camp near Kiryat Bialik, north of Haifa in northern Israel, and in 1957 I was born. A few months later we moved to our first “real” apartment. My mother eventually reunited with two of her brothers in Israel, the only survivors from her immediate family. Both my parents, and my sister and her family still live in Kiryat Bialik, and this year we celebrated my father’s 91st and my mother’s 87th birthdays.
Israel was born because of the Holocaust and obviously was influenced by that tragedy. It looked like everyone around us in Kiryat Bialik was a Holocaust survivor. My best friends’ parents had been in Theresienstadt and other camps. The next-door neighbors, both Holocaust survivors, did not want to bring children into what they perceived as a cruel world. The Germans had experimented on the couple across the street and they could not have children. Dr. Mengele tinkered with the digestive systems of another couple down the block, and they became obese. My mother met my Sandak, godfather, at the camp. She saw her now good friend Rubin get bitten by a German soldier in Auschwitz and survive that vicious attack. Many survivors, now residing in Israel, did not talk about their painful experiences. They suppressed their feelings and just moved on to rebuild their lives. The people were refugees again, but the State of Israel helped settle them and provided them with a future.
Israel’s founders were, for the most part, suspicious of the outside gentile world, trusting only a few, and did not care what other countries had to say about many of their actions. Israel’s first Prime Minster David Ben Gurion always dismissed the U.N. and said many times, “UM Smum”—“U.N., bunch of nobodies,” or “It does not matter what the world thinks, it matters what Israel does.”
Israel’s culture was dominated by the survival mentality of the remaining Eastern European Jews, now in Israel, coupled with the natural Jewish intellectual curiosity that strives for education and skill in problem-solving. The phrase “Never Again” meant that no enemy would ever conquer us and no one will ever destroy us—the Jews. And to achieve that, Israel must have a strong and educated army. It also meant “Never Forgive,” and anyone that hurt Israel or other Jews around the world would be punished harshly. A new Jewish image developed in Israel: a fighter that would not back down, an innovator that will always make something from nothing—whether growing crops in the desert or creating sophisticated weapons—and mostly as a short-term planner, for who knows what tomorrow will bring?
Many Israeli Sabras, including myself, couldn’t understand why Jews went like sheep to the slaughter. We resented the “Weak European Jew” who did not fight back when thousands like him were lined up by a handful of German soldiers and marched to the gas chambers. Why did they not resist when they saw their friends lined up in front of a ditch, shot at, and then told to line up as well. All they did was pray and march on to their own death. The “Israeli Jew” would have never allowed this to happen.
We also shared the hatred of Germany and Eastern European countries and considered them anti-Semites. I still remember my mother spitting at our TV screen and cursing the German, Russian, and Polish basketball players when Maccabbi Tel Aviv played in the European Cup in 1976. I also remember the national pride when Maccabbi won the cup that year—the Israeli Jews, coupled with three American Jews, defeated the mighty Russian team—and everyone celebrated in the streets. Through the years that hatred subsided a bit, and Israel started dealing with conflicts within its society: the “Never Again” mentality vs. “Don’t do to others what was done to you.”
Looking back, I think that a lot of my feelings of resentment were caused by my limited knowledge of my parents’ stories. It was easier for them to suppress their pain and difficult for them to open wounds that would personalize the Holocaust for me. They felt they were protecting their children, but they achieved the opposite. I am sure that many children of Holocaust survivors in Israel share my feelings. Only when I grew older could I understand how Nazi Germany systematically dehumanized the Jews and brought such despair on them that death seemed a better choice then their hopeless life.
My father always says, “What the brain cannot do, time will.” In 1987, after my wife Lorraine and I came back from our honeymoon, my mother, still visiting the United States, started telling some of her stories to Lorraine, but for unknown reasons not to me. So, through Lorraine, I slowly learned about my mother’s and my father’s amazing survival stories.
Now I think I understand why my parents decided to own a grocery store: Being around food gave them sense of security after years of not having enough to eat. And I think that my mother insisted that my brother, and later I, come to the United States because she saw it as her chance to push us out of the train—the security situation in Israel being that train.
A few years ago, my brother and I traveled to Poland with my parents; my sister did not join us feeling that she would be unable to deal with the emotions of the trip. We visited my mother’s home in Radzyn, walked in Auschwitz, entered her barrack, heard her experiences in Birkenau, saw the crematoria of Majdanek and the railroad tracks near Treblinka. We also visited Warsaw and Krakow.
Poland is a beautiful country, but I will go there only once more—to visit with my family the same places that I visited with my parents and never again afterwards. I will carry the vivid details of my mother’s experiences in these camps for the rest of my life. I will remember forever the heroic actions of her family members and of my father’s brothers.
I will never forget how, during our trip to Poland, my mother sat on the railroad track near Treblinka and talked to her parents and, in particular, to her sister Devorah. She told her in Yiddish about my daughter Maia. Maia, whose Jewish name is Mirel Devorah, sits here with my wife Lorraine. She is named after Lorraine’s mother and my Aunt Devorah, and these two angels are protecting and guiding her. I see it as my duty to pass on my parents’ experiences coupled with my Israeli upbringing. Therefore, it is essential to me that she become a proud Jew who does not forget the bad, but looks for the good in people. It is important that she be versed in Jewish and Israeli history and our rich heritage. Like Devorah, Maia is compassionate and caring. Like my mother, she is strong and independent, which will ensure her survival. And like my father, she is a good tailor.
This was the original ending to my talk, but in light of this summer’s events, I added one more section. During the recent war in Israel, many Hezbollah rockets fell on my hometown Kiryat Bialik, the nearby towns and Haifa. I know the neighborhoods where Katyusha rockets and missiles struck, destroyed buildings, and hurt many people. My sister and her family left Kiryat Bialik as the shelling started and stayed with family further south.
But my parents repeatedly refused the offers of hospitality and stayed—most of the time the only ones in their entire three-story building. They ran multiple times a day to the old bomb shelter downstairs and tried to convince me that it was not so bad. Every day I begged, actually shouted at them to leave, to go south as well.
But during the first week my father told me, “You know, back during the Holocaust we did not have an Israeli Army to protect us against the Germans. Things will be OK now against these new Nazis.” During the second week, he told me, “Do you know how many times the Germans stood me in front of a wall to shoot me and G-d saved me? And, do you know how many times your mother was on the way to the crematoriums and G-d saved her? G-d will protect us against Hezbollah the same way as He did then against the Nazis.” Finally, during the third week, I was able to convince them to leave the north, and they got a hotel room in Ramat Rahel near Jerusalem. Two days later a Katyusha rocket fell on 9 Ha’Vered Street, a block away from my parents’ house—my house—in Kiryat Bialik. Once again, G-d was on my parents’ side, but this time I was fortunate to witness it.
If you can, please go to Israel this year with B.J. or whenever you can go, be sure to visit the north. Please help Israel rebuild the destroyed communities, heal the many wounded, and rehabilitate the many children whose souls are scarred for the rest of their lives. It is so important for Israel, and I think that it is very important for you too.
Avi Ashman was born and raised in Israel. Following his army service, he came to the U.S. in 1980 to travel and spend time with his brother, who was living in New Jersey. While working and doing graduate work in New York City, he met his wife Lorraine. He is currently a corporate vice president working in IT at a large insurance firm. Avi, Lorraine and their daughter Maia have been members of BJ since the late 1990s. Avi regularly ushers at BJ’s Shabbat morning services and serves as a gabbai at High Holiday services.