Light from a death camp (JERUSALEM POST OP-ED) By BARBARA SOFER 02/03/05)
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Gabi Neumann was seven when the Red Army liberated him from slavery
in Auschwitz on January 27, 1945. Now 67, a handsome artist with a
trim white beard, he´s going back for the first time. Neumann has
difficulty fitting his long legs together with the flag and a poster
tube he´s carrying into the seat on the charter flight taking
President Moshe Katzav, other survivors, soldiers, and the press from
Ben-Gurion Airport to Krakow. I am privileged to travel with this
delegation representing the Jewish state.
From the row behind us, a slim woman with auburn hair leans towards
my seatmate. "Isn´t your name Gabi?" she asks him, her voice
soft. "I´m Erika. You slept above us in Birkenau. Your face hasn´t
changed at all."
Sixty years are swept away, but their bittersweet reunion includes no
hugs or shouts of joys. Neumann is grim. Erika Dohan confesses she
threw up before boarding.
Neumann remembers Dohan. She was friends with his older sister Eva in
their hometown of Obyce, Slovakia. At night, in Bock 7, the two
preteens would talk until they fell asleep. Then Eva was sent to a
work camp and Neumann was alone. But he was lucky, he´ll tell you.
The selections had ended when they arrived; he was allowed to keep
his shoes; his mother and Eva survived and they made aliya in 1949.
Neumann studied sculpture and, like Victor Brenner, a Lower East Side
Jewish immigrant who escaped from a Russian prison and later designed
the American Lincoln penny, Neumann crafted our shekel.
Until now he had waved away invitations to return. Neumann uses the
strong Biblical word arrur, for "cursed," to describe Poland.
Nonetheless, he´s drawn by the 60th anniversary ceremony hosted by
Polish president Alexander Kwasniewski and the presence of so many
world leaders. Neumann hints he has prepared a surprise statement to
make on the frozen wasteland where his grandmother was murdered.
Indeed, in the midst of the ceremony in Birkenau, when army Chief
Rabbi Israel Weiss and soldiers move through the crowd with the IDF
standard, Neumann walks behind them, bare fingers gripping the pole
of his Israeli flag. The soldiers stop, and from inside the flag,
Neumann unfurls a poster he has designed himself with the words "Stop
it before it begins again."
"It begins again" means anti-Semitism. He signs his name and B14206,
the number branded on his forearm.
A few photographers step forward. Too few. For me, the question hangs
heavy and unanswered in the frigid Polish air: Will the visit of
presidents, prime ministers, queens, and princes be a wake-up call or
an excuse for closure on the Holocaust?
I know I should be grateful that so many leaders have shown up, but I
want more. For that day in Auschwitz to mean something, I want what
Yad Vashem Chairperson Avner Shalev called "a concrete commitment"
from the participants.
President Vladimir Putin impresses us by admitting his shame over
anti-Semitism, but continues to sell missile parts to Syria. In the
United States, The Washington Post and its muscular investigative
reporters care more about the color of Vice President Dick Cheney´s
parka than why the Americans didn´t bomb the gas chambers. Call me
touchy, but listening to the message of the pope at Auschwitz, I
didn´t catch the word "Jew." I was offended by the choice of a well-
known convert to Catholicism as the papal envoy. From England, the
country that closed off Palestine to the refugees and where anti-
Semitic attacks have become commonplace, the errant prince Harry was
conspicuous by his absence.
Maybe I missed it, but I didn´t hear the Swiss expressing regret for
keeping Jews out, nor the Dutch wondering why their own policemen
facilitated the deportation.
What exactly do I want? I want the governments of France, Belgium,
and Denmark, where teachers are allegedly reluctant to teach about
the Holocaust, to make that a condition for employment.
Most of all, I want all the nations to say, as German Foreign
Minister Joschka Fischer told the UN General Assembly, that his
country would always be linked to Israel by the events at Auschwitz,
and that "The State of Israel´s right to exist and the security of
its citizens will forever remain non-negotiable fixtures of German
foreign policy. On this Israel can always rely."
On the plane home, we wait two hours because President Katzav wants
to speak to President Putin. Neumann says he was emotionally numb at
the ceremony and can´t yet sort out its meaning. But he will never
return to Poland; the past must remain behind him.
In the future is his son, 22, a long-haired redhead who has worn a
suit because of the weight of the occasion. For all the candle
lighting, the ominous searchlights penetrating the track, the fires
outlining the infamous tracks, Neumann knows the only sure beacon is
a generation committed never to forget and willing to illuminate the
That´s why he´s named his only son Ohr, the Hebrew word for "light."
(© 1995-2005, The Jerusalem Post 02/03/05)
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