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The Secret Jew
I AM A JEW. My name is Carl Avroch, and I was born on December 5th, 1918 on Schulstraße Street in Berlin, Germany. My father was Yonah Avroch, the High Rabbi at the Local Conservative Synagogue. He had a long black beard, and dark-red, almost brown hair. It contrasted with his light blue eyes. He wore a white and blue tallit, tefillin, and a kippah during the services he led. For a Jew it was such an honor to be a rabbi’s son, especially the high rabbi’s eldest son! My father led the service much differently than other rabbis at the community did. When he prayed with the congregation, all eyes were on him. Papa’s speeches stood out in my mind, and in everyone else’s from our synagogue. He connected biblical stories to the present day, and explained them to people so that they felt closer to God. People came to our synagogue not only to pray, and to hear the services, but mostly to hear my father’s advice on their personal relationships. He was a very wise person, and everyone in our congregation listened to him.
My mother, Anne Avroch, was a typical Jewish woman and the best mother in the world. She had blond hair, and a pair of brown eyes. She was always busy with the housework, and childcare. Of course, she had half a dozen children, including me, to worry about. When she had spare time, and this occurred very rarely, she used to mollycoddle me and my siblings. She would hug us too much. She didn’t punish us at all, even when we deserved it. She didn’t let us play any dangerous games. If we had a small scar, she used a lot of bandages on it. Sometimes, it made me feel that I was being treated like a baby.
Her brother, my Uncle Jacob, worked as the head cantor at my father’s synagogue. He was bald, and he had warm brown eyes. He was a kind person, like my mother, but his wife, my Aunt Kate, was strict, and her attitude made my father ill-tempered whenever she came to visit. Papa didn’t really like Uncle Jacob either, because he thought that Jacob had a problem with Hebrew. He pronounced Hebrew words like Yiddish words. “It’s a disgrace in front of God, and an even worse disgrace in front of the whole congregation,” Papa used to complain. He had been very close to firing Uncle Jacob from the synagogue several times, usually because of Jacob’s problem in pronouncing Hebrew. However, Mama eventually convinced him to tolerate her brother.
I had three sisters and two brothers. My eldest sister Hannah, with her plaited golden hair and her blue sapphire eyes was the prettiest girl in all of Berlin. She was the hardest-working in the family always helping our mother with the housework. Then came Liesel with her unruly red hair and “flaming”, as Papa used to say, personality. We all feared her short temper, which was frequently brought out. The third one was Eliza, my music-intelligent sister, who always used to play Beethoven’s “Für Elise” on the piano, to which Papa responded to by trying to tap out “The Death of the Hero” from “Eroica” and miserably failing. As you can guess, Eliza loved Beethoven more than any other Romantic Era composer, or any other classical composer for that matter! For her seventh birthday, Eliza was given a violin on which she usually played “Ode an die Freude.” She played it very deftly. Soon Eliza found all eight of us singing it. At that mere memory tears of joy come to my eyes in rivers. I was the fourth in the family, with brown hair and brownish-green eyes. My friends called me “the male version of Eliza.” The reason being that I am very good at singing, and playing music. I used to play the piano, though not as much as Eliza. I preferred playing the Moonlight Sonata rather than Für Elise. Eliza and I used to set up concerts for guests that came to our house, in which Eliza played the piano and I sang some of Goethe’s poems that Beethoven had turned into songs. Sometimes, Eliza sang the Ode to Joy while I played it on the piano. I was followed by Sigmund, my younger brother. He was nicknamed Sigi and even now everyone calls him that. He had light brown hair, and gray eyes. The youngest, the most-loved by everyone, and remembered most dearly by my family was Jonathan, with his huge blue eyes and soft, blond hair.
Our house on Schulstraße Street was sandwiched in between two houses of other Jewish families. Our local Conservative Synagogue was on the other side of the street. Next to that there was a pharmacy. Near the pharmacy was a supermarket and a small kosher store, Kadesh. All our food came from Kadesh, and many Jews from our congregation bought their food there. Near that, there was a small apartment building that everybody simply called No. 19 Schulstraße.
Although I wasn’t a war baby, I was born in hard times. During my younger years, Papa saw a riot in the streets, and he told Mama about it. I overheard the conversation, and later asked her what a riot was. She said to me: “Don’t worry. Nothing bad happened.” However as I got older, I learned that riots were hard on my parents. Mama was only hiding the harsh truth from me. That was logical because she didn’t want to make me think that Mama had more stress than she did, having six children to worry about.
These riots were result of the clashes between two powerful parties which wanted to overthrow the government. There were the Communists, and there were the Nationalist Social Working Party, or the Nazis. The supporters of the parties fought each other in the streets. Many injuries, and even some deaths had occurred. During that time, the economy was unstable. The German Government tried to rebuild the economy and stabilize it.
The year was 1924 when prosperity and peace returned to Germany. More Jews came to our synagogue’s assemblies on shabbat, including some who were not even from our community. So much the better (according to Papa) because it would raise more money for the congregation. The synagogue was renovated, the ceiling painted, and a brand new top quality organ was bought. The services became majestic, as if God was really inside the synagogue, and that Uncle Jacob was actually singing prayers in Heaven. 1924 was a remarkable year, but the next year was the one that really stood out in my mind.
In 1925, there was a festival to mark a year after the prosperity began. It was organized by some Jewish families and led by my father, who as the high rabbi, decided to praise God for the good times. The party was not like any other party! We threw water balloons at each other, played leapfrog, hopscotch, hide-and-seek, and tag. It was so much fun, that I nearly died of laughter.
After the party, we were ready to go to a feast. The feast was made up of chicken, fruit, Kiddush wine and many Jewish delicacies. We all ate too much and had the time of our lives. I couldn’t join in the games after the feast because I was too full to play. However, my siblings were having a lot of fun. Hannah, who already had had her bat mitzvah wanted to help Mama and Papa, but they encouraged her to play with Eliza and the others. She reluctantly agreed.
In the next couple of years, we had parties like these whenever we could. We had another Jewish family join us in the synagogue, the Lameds. The Lamed family had lived in Britain during the Great War, and they had moved to Germany due to Mr. Lamed’s business. The Lameds had two sons, Yared and Avraham. They were around my age, and that made them the perfect playmates for Sigi, Eliza, and myself. We played with Yared and Avraham the games that we had during the first party. They made good friends with us over the years.
We all got used to the prosperity and thought that it would last forever. However, everything must come to an end, and the prosperity soon did as well. This was the beginning of a huge depression across the world. It began in the United States of America, when the stock market on Wall Street crashed on October 29th, 1929. It became known as The Great Depression. Many people were out of work for the second time in less than a decade, and the German government had no idea what to do.
Thankfully, my father’s job as the high rabbi in the synagogue survived. However, his pay was reduced by more than three-quarters, because the synagogue was losing money. The top-quality organ that had been bought in 1925 was replaced with a cheaper and lower-quality one. The Jews did not have enough marks to contribute, and after the Crash of 1929, the membership payments fell by more than a half. Fewer Jews came to our assemblies. Papa felt sorry for the poor people and he just couldn’t ask them for money.
Evidently, my Uncle Jacob’s job as head cantor was now in decline too. He had to move in with us because he couldn’t sustain himself in his house near the synagogue. And, worst of all, he moved into our house with our strict Aunt Kate! Kate was five months pregnant, and that made her even more ill-tempered and more strict than ever.
I shall now describe our house, and the predicament we were in. Our house had two floors. On the first floor there was a living room, a dining room for guests, a kitchen, and a small family room. On the second floor there were three bedrooms; one for my parents, one for my sisters, and one for me and my brothers. Uncle Jacob moved into the family room, where my sisters set up a bed for him and Aunt Kate.
Papa greatly disapproved of his brother-in-law living with us, mostly because of Aunt Kate. However, he felt sorry for Jacob because he was not only his colleague in work, but also because Jacob was now one of the poor Jews who had lost their jobs. Papa didn’t ask him for money when he let Jacob and Kate live with us. He tried to avoid the conflicts with Aunt Kate. Therefore, he spoke as little as possible to both of them. Whenever Mama called Papa down for family dinner, he didn’t come out of his room. He just waited until dinner was over, and when all of us dispersed, he came downstairs, made himself dinner, and ate it.
“Why don’t you come and eat dinner with us, Yonah?” Mama asked him one evening after we all went to bed. “You always have to eat alone. Why?”
“Don’t ask me,” Papa replied.
“Please,” Mama begged. “Tell me, what happened?”
“You know what,” he said.
“I know that you may not like Kate,” Mama pleaded. “But Jacob is worried. He said that he misses you, and that you’re hurting his feelings. He feels that the hamotzi is incomplete without the rabbi present. Please don’t make him feel worse. Jacob is my brother, and he has nowhere to go.”
“Fine,” Papa sighed. I had heard the conversation from upstairs in my room.
Since then, Papa joined us for dinner, but he was taciturn. Papa remained silent at throughout the meal, and didn’t join in the family conversation because he didn’t want to argue with Kate. Therefore, he always finished his dinner first.
My family became really poor. It was especially difficult for Jonathan to hold out, because he was the youngest, at only eight years old. Other members of the family shared portions of their food with him, even Aunt Kate, who never seemed to lose her weight because of her pregnancy. It didn’t help much. All of us got thinner and thinner. The same was happening to all of the families living around us. The Lameds’ business crashed and eventually, and Mr. and Mrs. Lamed lost their jobs. They decided to go back to Great Britain where they had a lot of cousins who could help them get new jobs, and maybe even get their business back on track.
I was desperate to help my family. When winter came, I started shoveling snow for the neighbors. I managed to earn a few pfennings for my hard work. My father went to a store that was still open and brought us food, which was mostly potatoes and bread. However, on the first day and second night of Chanukah, we had nothing to eat again. The Great Depression went on and on.
Aunt Kate gave birth to a son after nine months of pregnancy. She named him Friedrich. He was born with black hair and green eyes. I guessed that before Uncle Jacob went bald, he had black hair. Unfortunately, Friedrich died in infancy in late January of 1932, when he was just under two months. It was a terrible blow to my family, but Uncle Jacob and Aunt Kate were the ones who suffered the most. None of us know exactly why baby Friedrich died, but it’s most likely that he was too weak form the cold and the hunger. I would never have another cousin, nor would Jacob and Kate have any other children.
My father tried to cheer the congregation up in such times of despair. He believed that, as the High Rabbi, and the spiritual leader, he should try to raise the spirits of the Jewish community. He declared that these turbulent times would pass, and that this depression was only temporary. In a couple of years, prosperity might return to Germany, as it had after the Great War. However, most of the congregation wasn’t listening. They had begun to lose their trust in Papa. It was a miracle that prosperity had returned for a couple of years, and at this point some people even believed that it was only a dream.
Then, there came a worse trouble.
Remember the two parties in Germany, the Nazis and the Communists? Well, they started fighting for power again in 1932. I was 13 years old at the time, and I was very scared of the riots. The thing that frightened me most was the fact that during the election of July, the Nazis were getting a lot of votes for seats in the Reichstag. They were led by Adolf Hitler, an Austrian-born German politician, who wanted to become the Fürher of Germany.
On January 27th, I had my Bar Mitzvah, the Jewish coming of age ceremony. It was delayed, because Papa needed to raise enough money to make it happen. I was very nervous, because as a rabbi’s son, especially the eldest son of the High Rabbi, I had to remember my part very well. Making a mistake was not an option. Luckily, everything went smoothly. My uncle and Papa sang Mazal Tov after I finished reading and saying the prayers for the Torah and Haftarah. Then, Papa, Uncle Jacob, and two other rabbis from our congregation hoisted me up on a chair and carried me around the synagogue while everyone else sang and bombarded me with candy. After they put me down, I ate some of the candy, and drank Kiddush wine while everyone gathered around my seat, and they congratulated me.
That evening, after the ceremony, I went to Liesel’s room to listen to the news on her radio. I sat down next to her on her bed, eating the candy I had been thrown during my bar mitzvah. We listened to the news every day because of the tensions rising between the two parties. I turned on the radio, and the speakers exploded with Hitler’s loud, hateful voice. As I listened, I felt my heart sinking like the Titanic in the freezing waters of the Atlantic Ocean.
In his speech, Hitler expressed his beliefs. He said that if every Jew -every man, woman, and child- were expelled, Germany would be a better place. In my opinion, if Hitler and all of his Nazis were expelled, Germany would be a better place. Hitler said that the Jews, and other ethnic groups were not true Germans and that true Germans belonged to a pure and a superior race. Well, as far as I’m concerned, my family were true Germans. After all, I could trace back about seven generations of us living in Germany. We spoke German as our native tongue, and most importantly, we loved Germany with all of our hearts because we were born there. Those were the four qualities of true German people, whether they were Jews or not.
I couldn’t stand listening to that anti-semite’s voice, accompanied by “Heil Hitler” from his supporters so after a few minutes, I turned the radio off. Then, I asked Liesel what she thought was going to happen.
“I don’t know Carl,” she said. “But I think that dark times are coming to us. Hitler is probably going to become that strong Fürher he talks about… I hope that he won’t. Anyway, you should be happy now. You’ve had your bar mitzvah. You were the first boy in our family to have one. Enjoy your freedom as a man… while it lasts. I’m afraid that there’s going to be another war… possibly like the Great War, or maybe even worse than that.”
“Liesel, please don’t think such dark thoughts,” Eliza contradicted, coming from the doorway of the room.
“What if it’s true?” Liesel cried.
A smile spread over Eliza’s lips. “I know exactly what you need,” she laughed. “You need some joy!” And before Liesel could open her mouth, Eliza turned on the record player, and put in a record, turning up the volume to the highest it could go. It was the Ode to Joy, which began playing. The song went on for about five minutes before Liesel turned it off and yelled at Eliza. I had to cover up my ears, because she was yelling so loud.
“Why in the name of God did you do that?!!?” Liesel hollered. “Just because you like Beethoven’s music so much doesn’t mean that everybody else should like it!! You REALLY should start caring about others, and if I were you I’d start now!!! Now get off my bed and don’t ever come down here again!!!!” Then she took the record player and threw it against the wall. The player collided with the wall, and then bounced off before falling on the carpeted floor soundlessly. Fortunately, it survived the fall, although it suffered significant damage. Eliza’s eyes filled with tears, and she ran out the room, sobbing excessively. I also got out of Liesel’s room, because I didn’t want her to turn on me. Papa had to take the record player away to get fixed. After it was made as good as new, Papa was able to buy Eliza five discs with all of Beethoven’s nine symphonies on them. In the end, nobody, not even Liesel, stopped Eliza from getting what she wanted.
Hitler’s anti-semitic campaign grew because people feared growing Marxism. The Nazis formed what we called “The Green Police,” which stormed Jewish shops and intimidated Jews and other minorities in the streets. They were like real police; having cars and police stations under their control. One day, Hannah was out, doing some shopping on the street. When she came back, she had bruises all over her face, and a cut on her arm. Her traveling coat had rips near the bottom. Her shopping bag was gone.
I gasped. “What happened?!” I cried.
“I’m fine,” she said in a small voice. “Don’t… don’t worry about me.”
“You aren’t fine!” Mama exclaimed, appearing behind me. “What happened to you?”
“While I was going back home, they got me,” Hannah explained. “The Green Police saw me, and one of them stopped me on the street. He took my bag, and ran away with it. I tried to get it back, but, as I was going after him, another Nazi punched me in the face. ‘Thief! Thief!’ I called out. Some other Nazis gathered around, and they laughed at me. They gave me the boot all the way home. Just before I reached the other side of the street, the Nazis took out their knives, and one of them tried to stab me. I dodged, but I still got a cut here.” She pulled back a sleeve. There was a small but deep gash. It opened wide, like a red mouth.
“You’ve been wounded!” Mama cried. “Go upstairs, and I’ll bandage you.”
“Mama, no. Please don’t worry. I’ll be fine,” Hannah protested.
“You won’t be fine until your wounds are dressed. You must be treated,” my mother insisted. Hannah kept objecting, but all in vain. Mama dragged her upstairs to be bandaged.
Something that the Americans did in 1933 to help end the Depression was called the “New Deal.” It worked there, but the same could not be said about Germany. We had inflation that continued to skyrocket and unemployment that kept on surging.
In February, we held a chancellor election for the Weimar Republic. Our president, Paul von Hindenburg, was an old man, but was also very wise. He was a hero of the Franco-Prussian War and the Great War. Everyone listened to him. The president held a strong view on how the Nazis can help us through the Great Depression, and maybe even lift us out of it. After all, Hitler had promised to overturn the hated Treaty of Versailles. That treaty had made Germany take every single piece of the blame for starting the Great War and pay a lot of money for all the reparations after it. That was why we were in turmoil in the beginning. The Nazis vowed to end the reparations, to rearm Germany and return her to the former glory. They had promised a new and fortified government and stable economy. The Germans believed the Nazis. And in a state of belief like that, guess who was elected? If you guessed Adolf Hitler, then you’re right! He became our Chancellor and adopted the title “Fürher” after his victory over the communists. He became what he had wanted to become. As for President Hindenburg, he died a few months later.
After he was elected, Hitler began building a new German Empire. He tried to model his new empire on the previous two German Empires. In 800 AD, Charlemagne, the king of the Franks, united all the German States, and parts of Italy under the name of the Holy Roman Empire. That was what the Germans called the First Reich. It had lasted for a millennium until Napoleon conquered it in 1806. In 1871, Otto von Bismarck and Kaiser Wilhelm I have united all the German States under one flag, which was called the Second Reich. The Second Reich lasted until the end of the Great War in 1918, for less than fifty years. Now, the Fürher had begun the new Third Reich, which he and his supporters said would last… for a thousand years. Well, if the Third Reich would last for a thousand years, that would probably mean the end of Judaism.
Hitler applied the strictest policies to the Jews once he gained power. We couldn’t ride bikes, we weren’t allowed to go to the movies, we were banned from public places, we couldn’t do this, and we weren’t allowed to do that. The Nazis even took control of schools. They wrote books like Der Giftpilz, which means The Poisonous Mushroom, to spread anti-semitic propaganda. It was too dangerous, when Jonathan was bullied in his class. When my parents found out that Jonathan was called “son of a Jewish b****,” they immediately decided to make me and my brothers drop out of school. I had to leave during my 11th year.
I had a friend named Eugene who was not Jewish, but was sympathetic to us once he saw what the Nazis were doing to us. We spent time together in local parks, talking about what was happening to the Jews. I was in one such deep conversation with Eugene when I wanted to sit down on a bench next to him. As I was about to do so, he told me that I was not allowed. When I asked him why, he pointed to a sign on the bench, which I previously had not noticed. It read the following: “No Jews Allowed.”
“Now, that,” I cried. “That is just… that’s just mean!”
“Sorry Carl, but it’s true,” Eugene said. “Soon it’ll say ‘No Roman Catholics allowed.’ I won’t be able to sit on this bench either.”
“I know,” I replied. “I want to move away with my family. But they won’t do it!”
The Nazis continued to make things worse for the Jews. They “purified” German culture by burning all books that were against the Nazi principles. Books by Albert Einstein, Helen Keller, and Sigmund Freud were the ones that went up in flames. All Quiet on the Western Front was but a pile of ashes, as were thousands of Chumashim and Eitz Hayim. Torahs were also burned. In spite of all that, Papa still led the Kabbalat Shabbat every Friday evening. It was becoming increasingly unsafe to pray in a synagogue because of the Nuremberg Laws.
One of these laws was very uncomforting, and that was that the Jews had to be distinguishable from all other Germans. We were made a nationality, and had to have something to prove it. We had to wear yellow David Stars, with the word “Jude,” which means Jew, inscribed on it. It was the ultimate mark of shame in the Third Reich.
“Papa!” I said to him a week after we were rounded up and had the David Stars put on us. “Papa! We must leave Germany! We must escape from Hitler!”
“Carl,” Papa replied. “The Fürher is giving the Germans new jobs and he is improving infrastructure. I’m sure that after things stabilize, the prosecution will end. We’ll be free again.”
“We will not!” I screamed. “The Fürher is a monster! We must flee! Go into hiding! Hitler will murder us all if he wants to!”
“Calm down,” Eliza admonished. “You will only give us nightmares, little brother.”
“NIGHTMARES?!” I yelled back. “WHO CARES ABOUT ANY NIGHTMARES? I’M NOT GOING TO WEAR THIS NOISOME STAR! IT’S DISGUSTING!! I WILL NOT LIVE UNDER THIS IDIOTIC MARK OF SHAME!!!” I ripped of my David Star, threw it down on the ground and stomped on it.
“CARL!” Mama said sternly. “Calm down. Nobody will kill us. Stop being so paranoid, it’s all temporary. It will get better soon, I promise.”
Only it didn’t. Instead, it only got worse. I wish we could escape from Germany like we did from Egypt. Maybe the LORD could turn the water of the Rhine River into blood like He did to the Nile back in Egypt, or, even better, split it and let us go through it like he did to the Red Sea! Ha! Would the anti-semite Fürher win then? Only the Rhine did not turn into blood, nor did it split to let us escape.
The years came and went with more and more oppression. New anti-semitic laws were passed. Uncle Jacob and Aunt Kate had to move in with a another family because Papa had lost almost all of his income and could no longer support them. We felt even worse than we did during the Great Depression. By now it was virtually impossible for a German Jew to find a decent job. Jewish businesses and stores were disappearing. The kosher store where our food came from was closed. The Lameds were already in Britain, but their business in Germany collapsed. They had to restart the business from the beginning over in Britain. They couldn’t come Germany to salvage whatever remained of their old belongings, because Hitler had banned all European Jews from entering the country. The Jews who had emigrated from Germany did leave some of their possessions behind. Those possessions were stolen and sometimes burned by the Nazis. Some prominent Jews, like the scientists Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud fled from the country.
Hitler was not only targeting Jews. He and the Nazis had a whole list of people they considered “undesirable.” The Roman Catholics like Eugene were deemed “undesirable.” Other “undesirables” included Muslims, Homosexuals, Disabled People, Political Enemies, Blacks, and those who spoke out against Nazi Principles.
More non-Jews who weren’t classified as “undesirables” turned away from us. In the winter of 1936, poor little Jonathan fell ill with a high fever and my father sent me to the pharmacy to buy some medicine.
“We’re not selling medicine to you, Jewish b****!” Mr. Schülz, the pharmacist, spat at me. “You’ll make poison out of it to kill innocent Germans!” I left without buying or saying anything. There was no use to argue. The people in this country were going mad. Their brains have been poisoned by the Nazis. Luckily, Jonathan got recovered by February or March of 1937. By that time, Germany had become completely Nazificated.
It was the night of the 10th of November in 1938, more than a year later. My sisters were asleep and so was Jonathan. My parents were snoring in their bedroom. Only Sigi was awake on the bunk bed above me. At first, I heard a small bump. Thinking it was a dream, I went back to sleep. Before, I could, however, I awoke to a shattering glass. I sat bolt upright, almost hitting my head on the bunk bed above me. “Sigi,” I whispered. “What… What’s going on?”
“I don’t know,” he replied. “But I think they’ve come for us!”
“Who?” I inquired, trembling. Before Sigi could respond, another crash, louder than the first, was heard. SMASH! I ran downstairs to see what was going on. There I heard another glass shattering and one of the windows broke open. Two men stepped in. One of them was a soldier. He looked around before dropping a torch on the floor.
I screamed at the top of my lungs. “AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRGGGGHHHH! WAKE UP! WAKE UP EVERYBODY THE GREEN POLICE ARE HERE! OUT! OUT! GET OUT!”
Everyone woke up and, stumbling over one another, we quickly ran out of our house to the shelter of our Synagogue. No sooner had we reached its gates, we saw it was on fire, with nine of the ten of the windows shattered!
I stopped dead in my tracks. Dozens of Nazis dominated the hellish scene, with pieces of the synagogue walls raining down with tails of fire behind them. There was a meteor shower! The Nazis were busy burning the five Holy Torah scrolls from the charred ark. How dare they treat our holy book with such disrespect! Our house of worship had been completely decimated. We heard a scream, and then we knew that some people were trapped inside. Some of them were able to get out, only to be killed by the Nazis with knives. Those who didn’t escape had to be burned to death. Either way, they all died. Two of them, as I found out later, were my Uncle Jacob and Aunt Kate. A Nazi sergeant appeared. He raised the Nazi banner and cried out, “Revenge for Paris! Down with the Jews!” My father gasped, and Mama fainted dead away into Papa’s arms. Papa picked up Mama with the help of Hannah and Liesel, and all of us ran like headless chickens out of Berlin. Sigi, Eliza, and I had to carry Jonathan because he couldn’t run as fast as the rest of us.
Kristallnacht would haunt my nightmares for many years.
We left Berlin for Potsdam, which was the closest city to it. My dead uncle’s friends, the Achtenberg family, lived there. The Achtenbergs were not Jewish, but they were benevolent enough to offer my family a small but comfortable guest room as a shelter.
I felt bad about having to leave my hometown. I thought that I wouldn’t return there for a long time. Perhaps never! There was one comfort to me, though. The Star of David that I had ripped off in my anger had perished in the fire and nobody in Potsdam besides my family and the Achtenbergs knew I was Jewish, so I would be safe there. Then doubts built up in my mind. What if anyone found out that I was a Jew and have me put to death? What can I do to make sure it doesn’t happen? After spending one night in Potsdam, I decided that I should take a walk and clear my head so that I could come up with a plan. Papa objected to it first, but then I reminded him that I had no David Star on me. Papa agreed. So I went for that walk alone. I walked along the streets of Potsdam before I saw the girl.
A young girl, who was probably eight or nine, not much older, was sitting near the gutters. She had long, curly hair, and was dressed in a plaid coat over a rainbow skirt. Pinned on the coat was the mark I had hoped never to see again, that mark that was hateful to my eye. It was the yellow David Star that said the word “Jude.” The girl had her head buried in her arms. She was crying; I heard her. As I passed her, I saw one of the Nazi Soldiers coming up to her. I could feel tension in the air. The Nazi soldier came up to the girl, who lifted her dirty, tear-stained face. The soldier kicked her hard in the butt. The girl let out a cry of pain as she fell down.
“What were you picking at?” he demanded.
“S-sorry,” the girl stammered as she stood up. “I-I was just leaving.”
“You’ll leave yourself once you’re…” Then the soldier noticed me. He raised his right arm in a salute, “Heil Hitler!” he cried
“Heil Hitler!” I said, saluting him back. “What was that Jewish girl looking at?”
“I don’t know. She was separated from her family, my fine young friend. They were taken to a concentration camp, where all Jews like her belong,” he explained. Then after a short pause, he scrutinized me with suspicion, and said, “Listen, I don’t know you. Who are you?”
I did not want to answer that I was a Jew. Then, I decided to play along with the soldier.
“I… I am a member of the Hitler Youth from Berlin,” I lied. “I went to Potsdam to… find more Jews.”
“That wasn’t an order,” the soldier said. “Anyway, nice to meet you. I am Sergeant-Major Bauer. Now, let’s get that Jewish b**** back to her kennel!” We took the girl to a Green Police station. The Green Police said that they would “take care of her.” Judging from their evil smiles that didn’t mean anything good.
Bauer told me I’d make a great soldier. Then, I left him and went back to the Achtenbergs, where my family was waiting. I felt bad about the girl, but what could I have done? I had no gun, no weapon of my own. If I tried to protect the girl, it would’ve given me away and I would’ve been killed along with the girl.
After that incident, an idea came to me. I’d make a great soldier, Bauer had told me. Then that’s what I’ll do! I’ll MAKE myself a great soldier, and my family could join me! We could pretend to not be Jewish until the torments end. We can get enlisted in the army, get weapons and fight the Nazis from within their ranks! I told my family about my plan but, to my great surprise, they had different opinions. Jonathan wanted to join me, but the rest of the family thought it was too risky. Finally, they decided to go to Britain where they could be safe. They counted on the Lameds to help them.
Now, Jonathan and I had to find out how to enlist into the ranks of the Nazis. I took out our passports. Those were the only articles we saved before escaping. We couldn’t use them, because they said that we were Jews. Franz Achtenberg, the eldest son of the Achtenberg family, was a trader of fake passports. He sympathized with the Jews, because he thought that Hitler and his Nazis were being unfair, just like his parents. He gave us a couple of fake passports for free. The passports said that we were Christian and they also gave us new names. I was called Johannes Baumgartner under my passport, and Jonathan was called Ludwig Abeln under his.
Mama was afraid that Jonathan and I would never come back. She protested against my plans. “No Carl! No Jonathan!” she cried. “Don’t go! What if the Nazis find out you are Jewish? What if you die fighting? I couldn’t bear if anything happened to my boys! Please go with us to Britain where you could be safe!”
“It’s okay,” I assured her. “We are not going to be found out if we use our fake passports. I will fight the Nazis from within. I’ll try to kill Hitler. I want to make a difference, Mama. You’ll be proud of me, I promise.”
“And you’ll still have one boy left with you. You’ll still have Sigi,” Jonathan put in.
“You can’t go!” Mama sobbed. “I’ll die of a broken heart if I don’t see either of you again! Don’t go Carl! Don’t go Jonathan! Don’t make your mother older than she actually is! I won’t ever be complete without you!”
“Mama, we want to stay with you and the others,” I replied. “Really, we do, but we must go. Jonathan and I are doing what we feel is right. I must fight. You could return to Germany once this is all over. I’ll try to write letters to you.” Mama reluctantly decided to let us go.
“At least let me give you my blessing.” Papa said, putting his hands over my head. “May the LORD bless you and keep you. May His greatness shine upon you. May He light your way when it is dark. May He guide you and bring you peace.”
“Amen,” chorused my mother, my sisters, Jonathan, and Sigi. Father did the same thing to Jonathan, and Mother, Hannah, Eliza, Liesel, Sigi, and I responded with a hearty “Amen.”
Then, Jonathan and I were enlisted as privates. Our passports didn’t raise any suspicions, thanks to the help of Franz. We got our uniforms and our rifles. I was nineteen years old and Jonathan was seventeen, the average ages when people first join the army.
The rest of my family went to Britain. The Lameds were British citizens, they had the right connections in the embassy. Therefore, they were able to help all of my family to get visas. The boss of Franz Achtenberg also sympathized with the Jews, and assisted my family with leaving the country.
I felt sad and worried about seeing my family go, even more so about Jonathan and I joining in the Nazi ranks. What if the Nazis find out that I’m Jewish? I was so nervous that my whole body began to shake as I started off to Berlin followed by my brother. My brain almost went numb, as if I was already about to be hanged by the unforgiving gallows of genocide. Jonathan put his hand on my shoulder, and that reassured me.
We left Potsdam in the end of November, 1938. When we arrived in Berlin that evening, we saw that Hitler’s Nazis were doing more damage to the city. Not only had they destroyed many synagogues, but they were also storming every Jewish store. Only special Nazis were allowed to storm the Jewish businesses and stores. They were called stormtroopers.
When we got to the army post to be assigned for special jobs, I was separated from Jonathan. Jonathan was assigned to be a stormtrooper, while I was to become a private in a regiment that would be sent to Czechoslovakia. I picked up my gun, and prepared for the worst.
March 15th, 1939.
Today, my regiment attacked Czechoslovakia. The other soldiers thought that they would succeed just as they had when they were attacking Sudetenland in 1938. We advanced throughout the country, and it won’t be long before we get to the capital, Prague.
This was my first journal entry. I wrote it shortly after the battle, in which I got shot in my right leg. I was carried away to my tent by the field doctors. From there, I was transported to Berlin. In Berlin I was placed into an in infirmary, which was located in a former Catholic church. In 1939 there were not so many injured soldier yet, so I was able to get a single ward. At the infirmary, my leg was bandaged. The nurse gave me a pair of crutches, but I didn’t want to walk around, so I spent a lot of time in my bed, recovering from the wound.
A few days later, a first private came to me and told me that I had to go to an assembly with him and some other privates and corporals. A sergeant whom I did not know led it. First, the sergeant told us that our regiment had succeeded in invading the rest of Czechoslovakia, and that Hitler had established a protectorate there. He also told us that Hitler was going to annex Austria. I was not surprised, because Austria was Hitler’s homeland.
After the assembly was dismissed, I overheard a couple of privates discussing something. I decided to listen to the conversation before going back to my ward:
“So he’s a Jew…?” one of them was saying.
“It said on his passport that Ludwig Ablen was Christain,” another replied. “How could he be a Jew if it says the opposite on his passport? I hope we’re keeping him safe somewhere.”
“I don’t know,” the first one continued. “Anyway, he’s in the basement of this church, they keep some prisoners there. Ablen is gonna die!”
Jonathan! I thought in horror. They must’ve found him out! I didn’t wait to hear more. So I made it to my ward, lay down, and began reading Mein Kampf since it was the only book in the ward. My heart was racing.
That night, I couldn’t sleep. I longed to see Jonathan one last time before he died. I waited till everyone was quiet and snuck out of my room to find the prisoners. Near the basement a guard was sleeping soundly, with a key on his belt. I stole the key from him and slipped it through the keyhole. I opened the door, and crept inside. There, just in front of a small lantern, I saw my youngest brother. He was sitting cross-legged in front of the light. He was stripped of his Nazi clothes, and dressed in somebody else’s clothes with the Jewish star on it. The clothes were way too big for him. The clothes had rips in them, just like Hannah’s traveling cloak did when she came back from shopping several years ago, but these rips were bigger, and more open. Jonathan’s eyes were huge, and he looked terrified. His face was as thin as a line, and he had cuts all over it. Across Jonathan’s forehead there was a deep gash, which was wide open. When he noticed me, he was surprised, but glad to see me.
“How’d you get in here?” I asked him.
“They found me out, Carl,” he said. “When we attacked the store where Papa bought us food for Chanukah, I was ordered to burn it. I refused saying, ‘It has never done harm to the Germans.’ Because it used to be a Kosher Store, the Nazis decided to question my identity. They made me confess. And now here I am!”
“Jonathan!” I cried. “You may still try to escape. Be strong! Remember your promise to Mama and Papa. They’ll die of a broken heart if I tell them that you’ve been killed by the Nazis. Think of Hannah, Liesel, Eliza, and Sigi. They couldn’t bear if anything happened to you! Think about me! I can’t possibly be able to live in a world without you! Jonathan, please try to run away. I heard there’s a small escape tunnel from this place! We could find it, and… ”
“No. It would be suicidal to try and if you help me, we’ll both die,” Jonathan sobbed. “ You go on living. Keep up your best pretense, dear Carl. I always looked up to you and Sigi. You will still have a younger brother and three sisters. Keep your promise to Mama and Papa and stay alive. I broke my promise, but you still have a chance. Farewell, Carl.”
“Farewell, Jonathan.” I wept as I hobbled back to my room. Luckily, nobody heard me.
The next day I watched how the soldiers led Jonathan inside the train that would take him away to a concentration camp somewhere, and that was the last time I saw him.
I was so heartbroken, that all day I sat in my room, crying for him. My heart was like a tooth that had a cavity in it so big that it could not be corrected by any fillings. My leg was worse. The doctor at the infirmary had ordered that I was to remain in my room for at least five months because of my wounded leg. I had an infection there that would take a very long time to heal. My leg was in danger of being amputated. Of course, I couldn’t bear to have my leg cut off, so I agreed to stay in the infirmary. Not only because of my leg, but also because it gave me a lot of time to grieve for Jonathan.
Meanwhile, the German army took over the outskirts of eastern Czechoslovakia, followed by the annexation of Austria, Romania, Transylvania, and Hungary. By the time I recovered, they went for Poland. I was sent to join them.
During the first battle in Poland, I attacked the Nazis in the front line and tried to kill as many of them as possible. I fired from the sidelines of the enemy soldiers, which made it look like they were killed not by me, but by the Poles.I had to be very careful not to be found out. This was my first attempt at fighting the Nazis from within. I hardly made any difference, and by the end of the day, the battle was won. We had begun our invasion of Poland. Two days later, my commander gathered us all and uttered the following words:
“WAR has been declared on us by Great Britain and France. Your chance has come!. I hope you are all prepared for it. We will fight, we will win, we will destroy the Jews once and for all! Get ready, and the battle will begin tomorrow. Heil Hitler!” He raised his arm in a salute.
“HEIL HITLER!” We all responded, saluting him back. After the assembly, I snuck back to my tent, where I was alone. There, I let out what I actually felt about war.
“NOOOOOOOOOOO!” I cried. Luckily, nobody heard me.
* * *
After he annexed Poland, Hitler took Belgium. In mid-1940, the Nazis advanced on the Netherlands. I felt awful wearing my Nazi uniform but I couldn’t let anybody notice my feelings. I had to wear Edelweiß on my shirt too, and it made me feel almost as bad as wearing my David Star. My regiment had successfully taken the suburbs of Amsterdam, and therefore, I was promoted to a first-class private, and then to a corporal.
We attacked France from our bases in Belgium and Luxembourg. The Fürher besieged the cities with the weakest fortifications, which were near the border between France and Belgium.
I killed a few of Nazis during the battle. However, I had to kill even more Frenchmen to cover it up. The news of my bravery reached my commanders. One day, a general came to visit us. He summoned me to talk in private after the battle. I was escorted to his tent by Sergeant-Major Otto von Brückmann. When I went inside, I instantly recognized the general. It was my old acquaintance, Sergeant-Major Bauer. He had been promoted to General. I doubted that he recognized me.
“Corporal,” General Bauer said once I was in his tent. “Thanks to you, we have defeated the Frenchmen at Metz. We could use a fighter like you. According to your commander, your bravery was outstanding. Therefore, I decided to promote you to sergeant.” I bowed and rose again as he handed me a paper with the orders of my promotion.
“Heil Hitler,” he said with a salute.
“Heil Hitler,” I replied. Then, I left the tent. As Brückmann was escorting me back, I took out my pistol, and shot him twice. One bullet landed in his head, and the other in his chest. He was dead in an instant. This was the first time I killed a senior Nazi officer. The Nazis trusted me, and that’s why they had no reason to suspect me. I thought to myself that my mission was finally getting accomplished. Now, if I’m lucky enough to meet the Fürher, I would be able to complete my mission by killing him and ending the Third Reich. That time would come, but I had to wait for the right moment. I had to be very careful not to be found out.
Almost all of Europe was now occupied by the Nazis. Hitler had ordered the German air force, the Luftwaffe to bomb London, the capital of Britain. That’s where my family was! So much for them believing the Lameds’ idea of being out of danger in Britain! If the Luftwaffe bombs London, the British will bomb Berlin.
In 1941 Hitler invaded the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) using the codename Operation Barbarossa. Only two years earlier he promised he wouldn’t! The dictator of the USSR, Josef Stalin, trusted Hitler. That shows that even powerful dictators are capable of making mistakes. Stalin should’ve known that the Fürher is one person who can NEVER be trusted!
In that same year, the Nazi leader issued another blow to my hardships.
In one of his speeches, he expressed that he had come to his “Final Solution to the Jewish Problem.” What was that? Why, it was his plan to kill off all European Jews! When I heard his speech I thought that the Jews would soon go extinct, just like the dinosaurs had 65 million years before. Hitler also said that a world without Jews would be perfect, and that if all of them were killed, Marxism would die out, which was yet another lie.
In 1942, a year or so later, Bauer sent for me. He told me that I was going to be assigned to guard a ghetto in the USSR under the order of the Fürher himself. Our regiment had been there, and they had established ghettos. He told me that after three years of fighting, I should take a break. I didn’t know why, but it later became clear that Bauer was promoting me.
“You are ordered to guard a ghetto in Ukraine.” he said. “Make sure that none of them leave the area unless you are instructed otherwise by your superiors, or that it is time for the people to be sent out to be shot or moved. Do you understand?”
“Yes sir,” I replied. “Is there anything else I could do for you, sir?”
“Not yet,” General Bauer replied. “Gather all your necessities. Your unit is under my strict charges to escort you to the ghetto by a week from tomorrow morning.” He raised his arm in a salute.
“Heil Hitler.” he said.
“Heil Hitler.” I saluted him back.
September 3rd, 1942,
General Bauer had ordered some soldiers to escort me to the ghetto in Kryzhopil this morning. By the time they got me there, I suddenly wished that I was not appointed to that post! The ghetto was a huge area of a town which was surrounded by barbed wire. The Jews there were fed very little, and worked like slaves. They had to do the most grueling labor, including the children. The children were little more than a thin sheet of flesh drawn very tightly over their bones. I could see their ribcages and jawbones through their skin. I could see bones in their legs and arms. The work that the Jews had to do could only be described as the work that the Hebrew slaves had done in Egypt. They had to make bricks, haul stones, shovel snow, run, pull logs, and if that’s not enough, the Jews also had to attend to the Secret Service (SS) officers. Many of them were regularly taken outside to be either shot or moved to concentration camps, such as Buchenwald, Buna, and the worst of them all, Auschwitz-Birkenau. Those who lived in the ghetto had little more than two or three single potatoes, coupled with a piece of bread every day. I was told it was a promotion because I had more responsibilities now. Promotion… ha! It feels more like daily torture.
December 9th, 1942,
Today was the third day and the fourth night of Chanukah. It was the worst Chanukah ever. I had to watch six people being herded out of the ghetto. They were taken out to be shot. They were mostly the sick, weak and very old people. I looked out of the window and this is what I saw. The Nazis said no words, no sound escaped their thin lips, as one of them drew a gun, and one by one, he shot all six of them. The poor Jews fell to the ground, blood gushing from their brains or chests, and the six people lay in the snow, dead as doornails.
December 21st, 1942,
Today was the winter solstice. A snowstorm swept through the ghetto, so much that by the end of the day, a foot or two feet of snow were on the ground. I met a young girl in the ghetto who was named Sophia Drubetskaya, or Sophie, as I sometimes called her. She entertained me with puppet shows, which were very amusing. It reminded me of how Eliza used to show finger puppets to Jonathan and Sigi when they were very young. One day, I asked her friends why she was being so nice. They said that she wanted to distract me from killing her. When we were alone together, I told her that I was Jewish. However, she didn’t believe me, and therefore she kept the secret. Still, her puppet shows weren’t enough to cheer me up during such a time. I wonder, what will happen to Sophie? I’m trying my hardest not to think about it.
January 1st, 1943,
The Nazis at the ghetto wished me a Merry Christmas six days ago, and then they wished me a Happy New Year last night. I even received some presents, but these did not make me very happy. Instead, I had an Unhappy New Year, preceded by a Dismal Christmas. A few weeks ago, I caught a disease. There was always something infectious around due to the atrocious conditions in the ghetto. The Jews had diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis, and typhoid fever, to name three of the worst ones. I was lucky enough not to have any of those diseases, but I did get a fever. I only recovered from it this morning.
February 24th, 1943,
It’s getting harder for me to say “Heil Hitler,” instead of cursing him with the words “Straffe Hitler.” Speaking of the Fürher, he had ordered all Northern European Jews to be killed, using the next step of his “Final Solution.” I remember how the Fürher took power in Germany. The Nazis strengthened their regime on one central lie: The Jews Are Evil. This, to me, is an unforgivable lie because the Jews are not evil, the Nazis are. Who cares?!!? Hitler had bewitched everyone in Europe, and they are going on a one-way ticket to Hell led by one single guiding light, and that is none other than the Führer.
June 16th, 1943,
I hadn’t had much time to write until today. Previously, my superiors ordered me and some other SS guards to enforce extra labor on the adults and the children. We were building a crematorium. They had to do even more exhausting jobs. The had to transport concrete, and unload aircrafts from the nearby airport in Kryzhopil. A lot of the children helped with these jobs, and I always wondered how Sophie was able to do a puppet show after she finished working. Many Jews collapsed from the heavy work. Then, the SS officers would shoot them. All of the Jews were thinner than lines that were scribbled on paper by schoolboys with a pencil. As I saw them falling and working, I couldn’t help crying. I assured my superiors that I was crying because I had an infection. I think they did not believe me because today I was relieved of duty in the ghetto. They didn’t tell me why, but maybe I’m losing their trust. In any case I felt quite content about me being relieved of such horrors.
I wrote no more in my journal during the war. The latter was my last journal entry. I was sent back to Germany to rejoin my regiment before going off to fight in France again.
General Bauer had stationed my regiment in Normandy, near the port of Le Havre, in which we kept restraining rebellions and maintaining order.
One day, about a month after I was relieved of duty in the ghetto, I overheard a conversation between two Nazi soldiers, a private and a corporal. I knew neither of them, but they looked like they were sharing a secret. The private was saying that the late Sergeant Major Brückmann was killed under suspicious circumstances. The corporal agreed that the sergeant must have been killed when he was in the camp by a traitor. He said that they still didn’t find out who it was and that there would an investigation of every soldier in the regiment. The corporal concluded with telling him that the superiors would hear about the news, and make them reach the ears of the Fürher himself! I didn’t wait to hear more, because when I heard that, I ran quickly back to my tent. I began thinking that now they would suspect me. First I killed a sergeant. Then, I lost their trust in the ghetto when I couldn’t help crying, and both of them were a close call. This time, I would surely be killed! Of course, I didn’t want to meet the same fate as Jonathan. I had no choice but to escape from the Nazis!
What can I do? Where can I escape to? How about Britain? Of course I should try to go there! My family was there, after all. I decided that I would go on a ship that would sail to Britain across the English Channel. Then thoughts began to build up in my mind. How could I go on a ship that sailed to Britain? I had to know someone. Someone who sympathised with Jews and was also a captain of a ship. Did I know anyone like that? Then I remembered that I indeed knew a captain! I knew Abel von Strauss!
Once, when I was still a young boy, Papa had told me a bedtime story about a captain who sailed the high seas, and was a good friend of his. Before he turned off the lights in my room, I asked him, “Papa, is it true?” “It is indeed true,” he replied. “The captain’s name is Abel von Strauss, and the reason I told you about him was that he’ll be coming to visit us tomorrow.” The next day, Abel arrived from France, because he had some business to do in Berlin. He stayed with us for a couple of months. He knew German very well, because he was of German descent. Abel’s stay was a very good memory to me. He was a brilliant pianist, and he knew the greatest works of Mozart and Beethoven like the back of his hand. My sisters loved his interpretation of Beethoven’s “Pastorale” Symphony, which was Beethoven’s 6th Symphony. Sigi adored the story of how he had sailed around most of Europe. Jonathan was drawn to the humor of his jokes. I especially enjoyed his French lessons. During his stay we had grown to like him. Papa told me that if I ever wanted to visit him, when I was older I would have to find his address. “He currently lives in Rue Grande, Rouen, a city not far from the English Channel,” Papa had said.
I memorized Papa’s directions to Abel’s house very well. I easily found the road and the house. I went up to it and knocked on the door.
“Come in,” said the familiar voice. I opened the door, and there he was: Abel himself! He had become a bit older, his sandy mustache had begun to turn grey, but he still had the same blue eyes that resembled the sea, and the same salty voice.
“Heil Hitler!” he said in German, saluting me. “Looking are you, for some Francais Juif, no? I could turn one of ‘em in, if you want.”
“No, I’m not looking for any French Jews,” I replied. “I’ve been looking for you, Abel von Strauss.”
“How do you know my name, sir?” he asked.
“You know me,” I said. “Do you remember your friend, Yonah Avroch, Rabbi at the Berlin Conservative Synagogue?”
“Aye aye,” he answered, nodding.
“Well, I am Carl Avroch, his eldest son.”
“No, you’re not!” he retorted. “Carl he’s dead, and so’s his brother Jonathan. I heard about ‘em in a letter from my good friend, Yonah, who escaped to Britain. Carl and Jonathan stayed in Germany and Yonah hasn’t heard from them since, so they must be dead! Now go away!” I wiped a tear away, Now I knew that Jonathan must truly be dead.
“Listen,” I said after a moment of silence. “Look me in the eye, and you’ll see that I am indeed Carl Avroch, the son of Yonah Avroch, and that I am still alive and well after many adventures. You taught me enough connaissance du francais to prove it.” I took off my steel helmet to reveal my hair.
“You look a lot like that boy, only a lot older,” Abel remarked after looking at my face. “But I still have my doubts. Now let me ask you a question only the really real Carl Avroch could answer.”
“Go ahead,” I said.
“What did I play on the piano during my stay in Berlin?” he asked. I smiled, because I knew the answer to that question very well.
“Let’s see… you played a scene from Don Giovanni, the whole Moonlight Sonata, a scene from Pastorale, and all of Für Elise!”
“What?!!?” Abel cried. “You remember… after all these years…? Yes! Yes! You really ARE Carl Avroch! Whaddya know! You’ve grown up a lot!” he laughed.
“I know,” I said. “Tell me, can you still help me?”
“If you tell me what to do. So what brings you here?” Abel inquired. “Why’re you posing as a Nazi? Why were you looking for me?”
“I’m in big trouble,” I told him. “I pretended to be one of the Nazis under the name of Johannes Baumgartner with a fake passport. I think that they are suspecting me. I have to escape.”
“Where to?” the captain asked.
“Somewhere safe,” I replied. “If it is as safe as they say, I’ll try to escape to England. Are you planning to sail there?.”
“In fact,” Abel said, “I’m bound to sail there soon. Maybe I’ll go tonight. For personal reasons, you know.”
“What reasons?” I inquired.
Abel leaned in close to me. “I’m about to let you in on a big secret, only because you let me in on yours,” he whispered in my ear. “I’m fighting the Nazis too. I got enlisted into the French Resistance, and I have to go there on a mission. I could take you for free. I think you might be useful to our cause.”
“I’ll do whatever you ask me, sir!” I promised. Abel laughed, and then his face became serious once again.
“Go below deck once we get to my ship, and I’ll search up a cabin for you. Let’s go there right now, I don’t want none of them rotten Nazis to see us. C’mon.” He took my arm and led me to his ship, which was called Die Freuden.
I went below the deck, and then tripped over a rope. I hit my head against something that was as hard as rock before falling to the ground unconscious. The last thing I remember was the sound of footsteps, and then dreadful pain. Then, the world went dark.
When I regained consciousness, was lying on a small bench with Abel leaning over me. I noticed that I was in the captain’s cabin. It turns out that while I had been unconscious, I had developed a case of a severe fever. The captain said that the ship’s doctor ordered that I had to remain in bed for at least a week or so.
Later that day, I was moved to a new cabin. The cabin was a small wooden room, with one door and one window. It had a picture of a sailor hanging behind the bed. The window had a buoy encircling it, and it looked out to the port. I started feeling a bit better. It was then that the captain told me that our ship wasn’t able to land in England. While I was unconscious, the battleships at the English port fired at Die Freuden. She had almost been shot, but luckily Abel steered her away in time. On hearing the news, I began thinking that I would never see my family again. I felt like I was going to die, and once again, lost consciousness.
Finally, after ten days at sea, I was fully recovered. By that time, the ship was nearing a port. Was I imagining it, or were those palm trees near the port? Was it heavily raining? Was that a black person waving the ship towards the port? Was this a subtropical place? “I’m hallucinating,” I murmured. “Where the heck am I?” I rubbed my eyes and saw that it was no hallucination. That’s when I realized that we were no longer in Europe, or even the northern hemisphere.
I thanked Abel Strauss, who gave me an umbrella, a raincoat and some money before I left the ship. He looked tired. I thought that he must feel disappointed that his mission in England did work out. I asked him where we were, and this is what he said. “We’re in a place I know very well. You’ll be perfectly fine here. I had another special assignment from the resistance to arrive here in Africa.”
“Africa?! What do you mean, Africa?!” I cried.
“Yes,” Abel replied. “I can’t give you any more details. If anybody asks you about me, don’t mention my name. Good luck!”
“We’re not really in Africa,” I contradicted. “You’re joking right? Very funny.” And we both laughed before Abel left.
Feeling dizzy, I meandered about in the inland, wondering why Abel had abandoned me like that. I came to conclusion that it was because he was on some mission. The storm quieted down, and the clouds parted. I closed my umbrella and took off my raincoat. I stashed my raincoat and umbrella in my backpack. I looked around. There was not much to see, therefore I kept walking. A few minutes later, I met a young black man clad in a blue t-shirt, and a pair of shorts. He wore a pair of sandals, that I couldn’t tell what they were made of. I wanted to find out where Abel had taken me, so I asked him politely in German, “Can you please tell me where I am?”
The man said something that I didn’t understand with a puzzled expression. I guessed that he did not understand me as much as I didn’t understand him. The only words that I could articulate in his sentences were two words, “Zulu” and “English.” So I guessed that he knows English. I had learned that language in school, because it was the language most widely spoken in the world. It was a bit rusty for me, for I hadn’t been to school since 1935, when Hitler passed the Nuremberg Laws. Nevertheless, I asked the man in English, “Can you please tell me where I am?”
“Where?” he replied in perfect English, better than my attempt. “Why, you’re on the coast of South Africa.” Now I knew that Abel had not been joking, and that I was really in Africa. Why did I come here? So what if our ship had been rejected from landing in Britain? We could’ve gone to Switzerland, Spain, Portugal, or another neutral country. However, this was definitely not the time to question the improbability of what happened. I decided to find out who the man was, and if he could help me.
“Who are you?” I inquired.
“My name,” he said pointing to himself, “is Sfiso. Son of Zulu Chief. Who are you?”
“I am Carl Avroch,” I told him, pointing to myself. “From Germany. I was forced to escape, and now I’m looking for a place to stay.”
“In fact,” Sfiso replied. “I was making a journey to my tribe not far from here. My father awaits me there. If you want to, I shall take you there with me, and he will hide you, until you decide when it is time for you to take your leave.” So saying, he took my hand, and led me forward.
A few miles later, we entered a vast savannah, which looked a bit like a grassland. The grassland was sparsely dotted with some huts. The huts had frames that were made out of thin sticks. The sticks were held together with clay. Upon the frame, tiles of wood were placed, and in the center there was a doorway with a hanging made out of animal hide for a door. The roof was covered with hay, distinguishing it from the main part of the hut.
Around such huts stood men like Sfiso, dressed in leopardskin and antelope skin African clothes. They had wide shields in the shape of an eye, ornamented with skin of leopards, deer and cattle. In their other hand, they held spears with tips made out of iron. The leaf-shaped blades were very sharp, and could kill a man. On the side of the warriors hung a sword.
Sfiso addressed them in Zulu. The men took a few steps away from their posts near the huts. Sfiso led me to the biggest hut. After he pushed the hanger out of the way, Sfiso led me inside, and said something to a servant. At least I think he was a servant. The man bowed and left the room. A few minutes later, he returned with another man. This one had darker skin than the others. His cape and his front clothes were made of leopard skin. His bare breast was ordained with African beads. His dark eyes flashed in the room. Behind him, the servant lighted a fire. The man who entered with the servant turned to Sfiso and said something in Zulu. Sfiso responded in the same language, which seemed to be pleading to the man. Then, the man turned back to me. “Welcome!” he said in English. He had a booming and supercilious voice. “Welcome to our village, my friend! We are the Zulu tribe, and we welcome all who mean well, and are not enemies. My servant told me that you are not an enemy, and I sense that you have no ill will. I am Lunga, the High Chief of the tribe, and father of Sfiso, whom you chanced upon following your arrival. I know much about you, with the exception of your name, and where you came from. Be honest, and do tell us everything.”
“Sir, my name is Carl Avroch,” I replied. “I am a German Jew, and I’m hiding from Hitler and his Nazi soldiers.”
“Very well,” Lunga said. “You are welcome to stay with us. Hitler shall not find you here. I despise the Nazis, for I remember fighting against their predecessors in the Great War. We used to be a colony of Britain. That is how my people learned English. As long as you stay with us, Carl Avroch, you shall learn our culture, our way of life, and live with us happily ever after!”
Then, the chief asked Sfiso to show me to a tent, which was a few paces away. I settled down there, with some sheets of paper, and a spare pen that I always carried with me in my backpack. My backpack had all of my necessities, including my toiletries, some canned food, and a flask of water.
I wrote a letter to my family in London explaining my situation. Then, I handed it to a servant so that he could send it to them.
That night, for the first time in many years, was when I slept peacefully, knowing that I will be safe from the Nazis.
The High Chief Lunga had assigned me to stay with a family and I could to observe how they lived. The master of the house was a tall strong man. His skin was as dark as midnight, and so was his hair. He had brown eyes, which also were serious and dark. He was dressed in traditional Zulu clothes, made out of antelope and leopard skin. He wore a necklace with beads made from colored bones of deer. The master’s name was Lungile, and he taught me all I needed to know about Zulu’s way of life.
His wife’s name was Langa, which in the Zulu language means “sun.” Langa was very beautiful, now that I think of her. She had long black hair, which reminded me of Eliza. Her eyes sparkled like diamonds, with a tint of blue in her brown eyes, making them look green. Her brown skin was lighter than that of her husband, and her personality, was very gentle, like a flower. She cooked our meals and took care of their son Ganazi, which means “hidden” in Zulu language. He had green hue in eyes, just like his mother, but his skin was dark, like his father’s. Sometimes he went to hunt with his father or played with other boys. This family was very nice to me. I felt grateful to them.
The family also took me to religious and social gatherings, so that I could see more of the culture. I watched closely as they taught me. However, Lunga made sure that they weren’t going to force me to convert to their religion.
From what I learned, the Zulu religion was heavily influenced by Christianity, but it was still quite indigenous. The Zulu believed that there was a high god living in the sky who controls everything that happens. The high god was called Unkulunkulu. They also believed that Unkulunkulu was the father of all that lives on Earth, and the creator of everyone and everything. Also they said that there were ancestor spirits that live in the sky, and that the spirits controlled people’s lives, making them good or evil. If there was a problem which , as Zulus believed, could only be solved by the spirits, they would ask the high priests and the sangomas to call upon the spirits. The sangomas had to invoke the spirits using a special kind of “voodoo mixture.” I wondered what was inside the “voodoo mixture,” so I attempted to ask one of the sangomas but Lunga stopped me. He said that it was rude to go up to a sangoma during a spirit invoking. The sangomas themselves would not let me come near the mixture that they used! The Zulu believed that there was a life force that lives on after death. Once it leaves the body, it could live on as an ancestral spirit, if the person did not sin. If the person did, then the life force would fade away when the person died.
The food that Langa cooked wasn’t what I was used to. The dishes were made of vegetables and, if the tribe had a successful hunt, the meat from oxen, gazelles and antelopes. Some of the african birds like the ibises, and whooping cranes were hunted with bows and arrows, and later cooked and served to me. Langa sometimes added a sauce to the meat that made it taste more succulent than it really was. I had no idea from what the sauce was made, so I tried it without the meat. The sauce was very insipid. It tasted like the most bitter brussel sprouts combined with olives and sardines. With time, I began to appreciate Zulu food. However, none of it was kosher. Not that I complained or anything. Come to think of it, I haven’t tasted any Kosher food since I was enlisted into the Nazi ranks. The last time I ate true Kosher food was the night before Kristallnacht. I was hoping hoping that God understood why.
One day, Lunga asked me about the Jewish culture. He believed that if the Zulu had taught me their culture, it was only fair that I must teach him about my culture too. I was reluctant to that at first, but when Lunga insisted, I finally agreed to tell him. I told him about Jewish holidays and traditions, and then he asked me if the Jews believed in anything spiritual. I told Lunga that we were monotheistic. That means that we believed that there was only one God, and one alone. Lunga couldn’t wrap his mind around what I said. He told me that he didn’t believe me.
“How could only one single god have responsibility for everyone and everything that you see and touch?” he asked.
“He is a great god,” I replied.
“Our gods have a predominant god. He has many laws. Other gods have their laws too,” Lunga continued asking. “Does your god have any laws, or does he require you to ask permission for everything you do?”
“Not really,” I said. “We can do anything that is not against sin, or is not contrary to the Ten Commandments.”
“Ten Commandments?” Lunga echoed. “So your god does have laws?”
“Well… sort of. Yes, He does.”
“What are they?”
I briefly explained all the ten commandments that Moshe received from God on Mount Sinai. Lunga was surprised when he heard that Jews were supposed to remember Shabbat and keep it holy. He didn’t completely understand it, even after I explained it several times. Lunga said that Saturday was like any other day, so why should it be so special? I explained that God created the world in six days, and on the seventh day, He rested. Lunga was not impressed. He said that his god created the world in a single day. In the end Lunga also told me that my culture was very weird and never asked about it again.
I was leading a rather enjoyable life with the Zulus. However, I felt homesick and wanted to return to Germany. It had been seven years since I had last seen my family. They have received my first letter, and they wrote back regularly. But it wasn’t the same as being with them. If only I could hug them for at least a few seconds and tell them how much I missed them! I also longed to see Schulstraße Street again, and to be back in my house, the synagogue, and see everything I had left behind all those years ago. Although Zulus were kind to me, I felt very lonely. I was suffering from one of the worst sicknesses in the world: homesickness.
My chance to return to Germany at last came on May 8th, 1945, when Sfiso entered my hut, and said: “The war in Europe is over! The Allies have taken Berlin. I have heard that Hitler has committed suicide. If he is dead, then the Third Reich is dead with him. I loathe saying this, but I think that it is time for you to take your leave of us.”
I could hardly believe my ears. Surely that story was fictitious. However, Sfiso’s face was serious. Was he pulling my leg? It was hard to believe that he was lying. Eventually, I understood that he was indeed telling the truth. The war was over at last! I felt like I never had felt before, even during the times of prosperity. I was so happy, that I could hardly stand upright. I had to slither, while weeping tears of joy. Hitler had said that his new Third Reich would last for a thousand years. In fact, it lasted for only twelve years, shorter than the Second Reich. The First Reich had indeed lasted for a thousand years, and the Third Reich had lasted for just over one percent of that!
I had completed my journey at last. However, did I accomplish what I set out to do? That question was the hardest to answer. My mission had failed in a way. I wanted to fight the Nazis from within, and eventually kill Hitler. Instead, Hitler killed himself, and the Nazis got beaten by the Allies. Still, I believe that all of my efforts were not fully in vain. They were all worth something. I don’t really think my efforts made a significant effect on the war, but I did make a contribution. I had killed many Nazis, and if I hadn’t, who knows how many more people would have perished? Twelve million Europeans were dead by the end of the war. Six million of them were Jews, like poor Jonathan.
In June, just before I left South Africa, I received a letter from my family. It read the following:
Thanks for your last letter. Germany had surrendered yesterday and the Allies have taken Berlin! We decided that it is time for us to return to Germany. You should come back too. We miss you very much! Now, Schulstraße Street is almost destroyed, and to find where we’re staying you’ll have to look for the following address. It is No. 19 Schulstraße Street, which is one of the very few surviving houses. It is the old apartment building, remember? Johann, the owner of the building, was liberated recently and wrote to the Lameds, trying to find out if anybody from our street was still alive. As you might remember, he was friends with the Lameds. Avraham Lamed wrote to him that we were alive. Now, we asked Johann to lend us an apartment to us for a couple of months. The apartment number is #23. It took you ten days to get to Africa, and it may take you longer to get back to Germany. We are burning up with impatience to see you again!
Hannah, Liesel, Eliza, and Sigi.
I left South Africa a few days after I received the letter. I promised to visit my Zulu friends. I thanked them from the bottom of my heart for their hospitality and bade them a warm farewell.
Less than ten days later, I was back in Berlin. The city was virtually unrecognizable from the one I grew up in. Whole streets had been utterly obliterated. Many historical sites were gone, and so were many other buildings. Schulstraße Street was annihilated. Rubble paved what used to be the gravel on the street. I looked where our house used to be. Only the door remained standing on one of the charred hinges of what used to be our front doorway. The door creaked open and closed as if there was a ghost blowing on it. Our synagogue had long since been burned down. Nothing was left of it, only the burnt remains of a piece of the wall in the shape of the David star. For a moment, I thought that on the star it said the word “Jude,” but then my eyes refocused to see that the star had no word on it, only black marks that played on my eyeballs. The pharmacy on the opposite side of the street was gone. So too was the kosher store, and almost all of the houses. I heard a small crash. I turned around. Our door had fallen off the hinges. Now our old house was completely destroyed.
I stood there for a moment, in the midst of all the rubble, and then began to cry. I had no more home, no more synagogue. I felt like Jonah, who was trapped inside the belly of a whale. “Will I ever gaze upon thy holy temple?” Jonah had asked himself. Now I asked myself similar questions. Will I ever gaze upon another synagogue? Was our culture destroyed completely? Were the Jews extinct? Did Hitler finally get what he wanted? What if I was the last Jew left alive? How will I repopulate the world?
I looked around. Following the directions on the letter, I saw the apartment building with the sign: Schulstraße, 19. I walked up to the second floor, and knocked on the door which had the number 23 on it.
“It’s him!” called an excited female voice. “Come in now!” I rushed inside. I saw four men, three women, and twelve children. The women were none other than my three sisters: Hannah, Liesel, and Eliza. They wrote to me in one of their letters that they all got married. The three men, whom I never saw before, were then their husbands. The beautiful children were my nieces and nephews, and the fourth and last man was my brother, Sigi. I was so glad to be with my family again after all these years! I could tell they felt the same.
“Carl!” cried Sigi. He leaped to his feet and hugged me. “You’re back! You’re back at last!”
“We thought you wouldn’t make it!” exclaimed Hannah. It was her voice that told me to come in. “Mama and Papa thought that both of you were dead before we got your letter. We all read it, but we still don’t understand how you got to South Africa.”
“Abel von Strauss took me there,” I replied. “He helped me escape. Abel was fighting with the French Resistance against the Nazis, and he was sent to England but couldn’t make it. We had to go to Africa to escape. I didn’t write to you about him, because he told me not to mention his name while I was in hiding.”
“Yes. Wait! Abel von Strauss is alive and well?!!?” cried Liesel. “Impossible! I… I didn’t… Well, I thought he was dead too!”
“And what about you all?” I asked.
“Why, we stayed in London during the Blitz,” Eliza said. “We all survived, luckily. And now, we’re all here!”
“Wait…” I contradicted. “You’re not all here. Where are Mama and Papa?”
“Mama and Papa…” Liesel’s face grew sad, and her eyes filled with tears as she answered. “They’re… dead. ”
I began to cry. “Why didn’t you tell me?” I whispered.
“We didn’t want to upset you,” Hannah replied. “We wanted you to be happy that the war is finally over.”
“We’re very happy to have you back! At last we are together again!” Sigi said.
“But we’re not all together again,” I pointed out, in spite of my tears. “Jonathan is dead. Mama and Papa are dead. Uncle Jacob and Aunt Kate are dead. Their baby son Friedrich is dead. Our synagogue is destroyed… how could we go back to living as we used to before Kristallnacht? How?”
“We can do it. Stop crying. We can do it,” Eliza assured me. “Remember, we built the first temple in times of King Solomon, and the Babylonians destroyed it. But when we came back from exile, we rebuilt it with the help of Herod the Great. The Romans destroyed the second temple and scattered us. But then, we built a separate temple in each town where we were forced to live in, and we called it the synagogue. Now, on the orders of the Fürher, the Nazis had burned down our synagogue. So what? We can build it again. And we will build it again. We will remember our loved ones forever. We, our children, and even our grandchildren will never forget them. And now… we’re going to have a celebration!”
The next day we had a party. It wasn’t easy to set it up. All the kosher stores were destroyed, so we bought some potatoes, onions, beets and a bit of dark bread. My sisters had invited other families from our building to the party, and all her other friends.
It was during the party that I met my wife, Sarah. She was twenty-four at that time. She had blonde hair, and blue eyes. She wore a red dress, and nail polish of the same color. Her shoes were black. We couldn’t stop looking at each other, and fell in love. After about three weeks of dating her, I proposed, and she said yes instantly. We got married in less than a month. After losing so many loved ones we couldn’t wait to start a family.
We had yet another party after I got married. I had enough fun singing Jewish rejoicing songs with my family. Eliza once again got her wish; all of us sang the Ode to Joy. Leisel gave a speech which was about the end of the war in Europe. This was responded with a heartfelt “Mazal Tov!” followed by singing “Hevenu Shalom Aleichem,” with all of us joining in. I led the people in song, just like my Uncle Jacob used to.
Hevenu shalom aleichem!
Hevenu shalom aleichem!
Hevenu shalom aleichem!
Hevenu shalom, shalom, shalom aleichem!
Hevenu shalom aleichem!
Hevenu shalom aleichem!
Hevenu shalom aleichem!
Hevenu shalom, shalom, shalom aleichem!
Germany was in ruins both physically and economically. The apartment building where my family now lived was nothing more than a slum, much poorer than the house I grew up in. Still we were happy because the Third Reich fell. It was gone, and we could go back to living a normal life. At least so I thought.
* * *
One month later, the USA dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshimā, Japan. Three days later, they dropped a second atomic bomb on Nagasaki, a major Japanese port. Japan informally surrendered on the next day. By September 2nd, the peace treaty was signed, and that was that. World War II was officially over. No more running, no more hiding, no more Kristallnacht, no more “Death To Jews,” no more Nazis, and most importantly for me personally - no more “Heil Hitler.” We all truly hoped that World War II is truly the “war to end all wars,” unlike World War I.
A few months after the war ended, I let Sarah in on the secret I had been keeping for seven years. I told her how I had pretended to be a Nazi during the war. She asked me to tell her the whole story. After I finished, she looked worried. Sarah said that the German government would kill me because, now that the Third Reich was over, they would hunt down all Nazis and their supporters. Some, like my “old friend” General Bauer have already been tried for their so-called “unforgivable war crimes.” Most of them were found guilty and legally executed after their trials. Sarah was convinced that I might be persecuted as former Nazi. It wasn’t safe for us to stay in Germany especially with the Russians on the move. Again, I had to think of an escape plan.
At that time a lot Jews were going to Palestine where the British allowed them to settle. Sarah suggested that we go there. She said it was a place where Jews could live freely, and keep their religion, without fear of being persecuted.
At first, I did not want to go to Palestine. It was a land torn between many ethnic groups. It was also under British rule and I had fought against the British alongside the Nazis during the war. Sarah was right, but I still was unsure if Palestine was the best place. I thought that the British officials there might not be too happy about me living among them if they find out that I was a Nazi. Would I be able to prove to them that I was actually a Jew, and only pretended to be a Nazi? Then, I remembered that it was also the land of Israel, where all Jews came from. At last, with enough pressure from Sarah, I agreed to pack my things and go to Palestine.
We settled in the holy city, Jerusalem. Over time, I began to grow accustomed to Palestine, even though I never wanted to live there. I bought some land for us. We liked the climate because it was much warmer than Germany and not a single snowflake fell in the winter. I made friends with some other Jews, and so did Sarah.
After a couple of weeks, I found a job as a tour guide for tourists and pilgrims that visit Palestine. After all, it was packed with history that lasted for over 5700 years. Of course, I did not only have to know the Jewish side of the history of Palestine, which I knew from my father and uncle. The land was also sacred to Christians and Muslims. So before I began my career, I had to spend some time learning their side of the history. I think I was pretty successful, because, after the war, a lot of people visited Jerusalem in search of history, religious reasons, and freedom.
My wife got pregnant, and after nine months she bore me twins. The twins were a girl and a boy, whom I named Jonathan Avroch II and Anne Avroch II. Anne looked a bit like the female version of me, and Jonathan looked like my dead brother. I felt proud about having a son and daughter. God probably felt the same way when he created Adam and Eve. I wrote a letter to my family in Germany describing that happy event of my life.
Two years later, I was starting to feel homesick again. I wanted to return to Germany. I missed my family, even though I kept in touch with them through letters and telegrams. I had heard that the allies were starting to help rebuild Germany. I wanted to see how it was happening.
However, in May of 1948, the news that reached my ears convinced me not to return to Germany. I was awakened one day by a great shout from outside. I rubbed my eyes, and went out, still in my “nightcap and nightgown.” Seeing a long procession moving down the street, I asked Sarah what was the matter.
“Matter?” she cried. “Why Carl, didn’t you hear what happened?”
“No,” I said.
“Then, you should start waking up earlier from now on! The British Mandate of Palestine has expired,” Sarah replied. “Now Israel is an independent state!”
I was glad to hear the news. Israel was called Israel again for the first time in almost two thousand years! The new Israeli Flag had a blue David Star with one blue bar below and another one above it. The Israeli government declared that the new national anthem would be called Hatikva, which means “The Hope” in Hebrew. We sang it during the celebration. We knew the song because it was an old one, made up in the 1850s.
A year later, Germany was divided into East and West Germany, and so was Berlin. My brother and my sisters moved to Bonn with their families, because Bonn was West Germany’s new capital. My sisters and brother were happy living in Bonn with their families, especially Eliza. Eliza was the happiest because Bonn was the city in which Ludwig van Beethoven was born in 1770. I was happy to live in a country that was not divided, even though it was much poorer than West Germany. I began to feel as if Israel was now MY country, MY homeland.
I sometimes look up at the David Star on the flag. When I do, I remember the David Star that I had ripped off my clothes in 1934. As I look deeper into the star, I see in my mind’s eye a boy about nineteen, dressed in a soldier’s clothes, with a rifle strapped to his back. I am remembering a man in a tallis, dressed in formal clothes and a kippah on his head, remembering a woman with plaited blond hair, just like Hannah’s, remembering a cantor, wearing a kippah and a white suit, remembering a strict woman, the cantor’s wife, and remembering a baby, dying in his infancy… “Jonathan!” a voice calls out in my head. Other voices join in; “Mama! Papa!” I would then hear voices that call; “Uncle Jacob!” “Aunt Kate!” and sometimes even the shout, “Friedrich!” Six years of war had long since taken them away from me. I still miss them, but they will always live in my heart.
This murder of six million innocent Jews has now came to be called the Holocaust, which means burnt offering. Such horrors simply cannot be allowed to repeat again in history. Therefore, they must be remembered. Now, I do hope, that one day, all men, women, and children, will finally recognize each other as brothers and sisters, and that the people of the world will live in peace.