Ella Blumenthal shares her experiences and deliver s a cogent message
I was born in Warsaw, the youngest in a family of seven children. I had seven nieces and nephews. My father was a chasid, a respected and well-to-do textile merchant. My mother and the entire family were very frum. I was a happy teenager until the invasion of Poland. I will never forget the images in the Warsaw ghetto – of starvation, epidemics, streets lined with corpses, starving children in rags begging for a piece of bread, human hunting, roundups, raids and deportations. In spite of surviving three concentration camps, after the liberation I tried to integrate into a normal society and after getting married, raised and educated my four children. But, I wasn’t able to talk about my suffering and fight for survival because the open wounds were still bleeding.
Now after many years, the tears have dried up and the scars have healed and I am now able to share it with you. It is now a few days after Pesach. At this exact time but in 1943, 65 years ago, the Warsaw ghetto was set alight and I was there. It was already May 1943, three weeks after the heroic uprising when we were discovered, still hiding in our last bunker under the burnt out building of Mila 19, and then led to Umschlagplatz on our last journey.
We were almost among the last survivors holding out under the ruins. By pure chance, we were not driven in the cattle trucks that went to the extermination camp, Treblinka, but instead we were herded into that pit of hell called Majdanek. Were we really more worthy than our brothers and sisters? This question will never be answered. While in Majdanek, my niece and I (who were the only two survivors from our entire family), were among a group of girls forced into a gas chamber. The iron doors were shut and we stood tightly pressed together. The shower heads would spew out the poisonous gas at any moment. There were cries for help and prayers – “Sh’ma Yisrael”. I was holding my niece’s hand and whispering, “Don’t be afraid, it won’t hurt. I don’t think it will take long. We will soon join our loved ones”. Suddenly the heavy doors opened and an SS man shouted, “Rueh” Quiet. We were told we were not going to be gassed, as the order was received to gas 500 Jewish women and not 700, as we were. The correct transport to be gassed would arrive in the morning and we would be sent to another camp. At dawn, when we were led to the cattle trucks, a contingent of women passed us and was led to the gas chamber we had just left. Due to German orderliness and the irony of fate we evaded the angel of death. Sometimes a fraction of an instant that may seem completely insignificant in a human existence can be the difference between life and death.
What followed after Majdanek, was Auschwitz-Birkenau, where my arm was tattooed with the number 48632 and then it was Bergen-Belsen, where, as in all these camps, disease, malnutrition and random killings were the constants of my life. They worked us to death on starvation rations. We were the slave labour brigade.
These scenes will remain forever imprinted in my memory. I will never be able to erase them for the rest of my life. Twenty two souls of my immediate family perished: my parents, brothers, sisters, their spouses and eight nieces and nephews, including an infant born in the bunker. Every Jew has a matzeva, a tombstone, a grave to go to. We have none. To us survivors this was denied. Now my children, grandchildren and great grandchildren symbolize to me the continuity of the Jewish people and a victory over those who sought to destroy us. As I am one of the last generation of eye witnesses, in the twilight of my days, I am pouring out the terrors of my life in the Warsaw ghetto and in the death camps. But it has come to a time when survivors must entrust our painful legacy to the youth – it is you who will carry our testimonies into the future and ensure that the voices of those who deny this atrocity are silenced. It is a task that carries an awesome responsibility considering the resurgence of neo-Nazi rhetoric, and even conferences dedicated to denying the very horrors I witnessed with my own eyes.
The only way to combat such evil is to remember who you are. At all times – during the darkest hours of my life – I never lost faith in Hashem. The instinct of survival was awakened in me, and I believed I had to fight. Some would believe that luck or good fortune played a role in my survival, but I’m convinced it was the hand of Hashem that has guided me through life then and now. You too will have to fight to bring G-d’s truth into the world – live a life of purpose and meaning. Even now I still ask myself: “Why was I chosen to survive. I have yet to find an answer to this question – but I knew that because I was chosen to walk out of Bergen Belsen in 1945, I had to make every day count. You too are chosen – you are G-d’s chosen! Dedicate yourself to not only bring light into your own homes but to spread light and tolerance in the world, so that the senseless hatred of mad men cannot take root in civilized society. The potential of youth is great – choose to use it well and not squander it on futile pursuits. Speak out and educate others about the dangers of prejudice and racism and where they can lead to. In this way future tragedies might be prevented and you will ensure that these horrors do not happen again.