‘You Have a Mother’

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‘You Have a Mother’

Bags belonging to victims of the Nazis’ Auschwitz Camp I, in Poland, are pictured in 2013. (Photo: Shutterstock)

BROOKLYN, N.Y—Lola Mozes’ childhood came to an end in the fall of 1939 at a small bridge in Poland. She was 9—seated in a horse-drawn wagon, her back propped against her family’s silver Sabbath candelabra, which was wrapped in a blanket—when she saw the aftermath of a German bomb attack. The sight of human bodies, along with eviscerated horses gasping in pain and struggling to rise despite their gaping wounds, reduced her to tears and panic. Her mother, Helena Rewitz, born Schwimer, who would hover over her daughter like a guardian angel later in a Jewish ghetto and the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp, took the terrified child into her arms.

I sat with Lola Mozes at her dining room table in Brooklyn on Friday. Short and petite, with curly black hair and white gold hoop earrings, she had a soft, infectious laugh, an impish sense of humor and fine facial lines that she inherited from her father and mother. Her charm and warmth were girlish and slightly coquettish.

“I am the great pretender,” she said, smiling. “It is always there, what I went through. I am tormented by it. It keeps repeating and repeating itself in my head.”

Lola grew up living next to her family’s small grocery in Katowice, a city in southwestern Poland. The language at home was German. She learned Polish in school. Her parents, especially when they wanted to talk privately, spoke Yiddish. Her parents and older brother celebrated the Sabbath and went to synagogue on religious holidays but lived as secular Jews. Her father, Emil, who sang arias as he bathed in the mornings, dressed in imported German suits and spats when he left the house. They lived in a working-class section of the city. Catholic children in the neighborhood taunted her as a “Christ killer” and once pushed her brother Oskar off a tram and beat him. But nothing prepared the family for what was to come. A dark future was only hinted at when the parents, their faces knotted in consternation, listened to Adolf Hitler on the radio.

The bloody scene at the bridge would foreshadow a crucible of mass murder and extreme deprivation lasting six years. For Lola, playing with her favorite doll, skating, swimming and picking out candy from her father’s grocery was replaced by a bitter struggle to survive. Ogres—including a drunken SS officer in the ghetto who used to hold her on his lap and complain about his boots being soiled by the blood of his victims, including the infants he dashed against walls—rose up like monsters in medieval fairy tales. Concentric circles of death and life would radiate around her. Her parents’ fierce love seemed, often, no match for the murderous intent of the armed and the powerful who held the family in their grip.

Lola’s family was herded with other Jews in 1941 into the ghetto in Bochnia, along the river Raba in southern Poland. The ghetto was surrounded by a high wooden fence. It was divided in two parts—Ghetto A and Ghetto B. Ghetto A housed the 2,000 Jews who worked in German factories and workshops where they made shoes, underwear, uniforms, gloves, socks and other items for the German army. The Jews in Ghetto B had no jobs. Many were elderly and sick. They lived in extreme poverty and were malnourished. Many Jews pooled what little they had and formed communal kitchens. The Germans segregated the men, including the husbands and fathers, from women at night. Lola and her family lived with her aunt, who had been well off before the war, in a large wooden house that had been incorporated into the ghetto.

“At one point they told us to stay in our houses,” she said. “I don’t remember when. I peeked through the window and saw strong young men who used to work in the salt mines marching. Every 10th or fifth man was being shot. In the morning there was a strange odor. It was nauseating. We peeked through the curtains. There were wagons with dead bodies. They were stripped. There were puddles of blood in the gutters. We went back to work the following day. We worked 12-hour shifts. For the morning shift we left when it was dark. I remember [when we went back to work again] it was raining. I was walking with my friend. I was carrying my bread. It fell on the ground. My friend said, ‘It fell in the blood.’ We thought this was very funny. We started laughing. I picked it up and brought it home after work and we ate it. It was too precious to throw away.” 

Lola had a friendship with a gentle boy who lived with his family in the B section of the ghetto. He cut up newspapers and made a little book he lent to her. It was about a seventh-century rabbi named Sabbatai Zevi who claimed to be the Jewish Messiah and walked from town to town promising to save the people.

“He took me to where he lived,” she said. “It looked like a hovel. There were rags on the floor. It was dirty. There were a lot of people, especially old people. The stench was terrible. He was the nicest boy. I said, ‘How can people live like that?’ He was so embarrassed. I will never forget how embarrassed he was. He had been in my aunt’s house where each family had a room. My aunt’s house was clean. We had a stove. There was some heat. I don’t know what happened to him. Those in Ghetto B were the first to go in the transports [to the death camps].” 

Her father constructed a small, underground bunker in a wooden shed that was filled with sawdust. When the deportations began in 1942 the family would hide in the bunker. There was barely enough room to huddle together. They would wait breathlessly as the Germans with their dogs prowled around the shed. Lola’s father sneaked out at night to scavenge for food.

Jews could leave the ghetto only under guard. They were marched out of the ghetto in rows of five to work in German factories. Hans Frank, the governor-general of the territories in occupied Poland, ordered that any other Jews found outside ghetto walls be executed. Nearly 2,000 Jews from the ghetto were shot. Most of the others died from disease or in the death camps. Only 90 of the 15,000 people originally in the Bochnia ghetto survived the war.

Lola’s father and brother worked cleaning German offices. She and her mother knitted socks for German soldiers in a large red brick building on Floris Street.

“They sent us socks from the Russian front,” she said. “By the time the socks came to the factory they had been washed. The bottom parts had been cut off. Only the top part was left. We started knitting downwards to make a new sock. We sometimes found blood, toes and parts of flesh in the socks. That is how we knew the Germans were struggling someplace where they were freezing.”

One day the Jewish foreman at the knitting factory asked her to knit a pair of men’s gloves. He gave her gray wool. A few weeks later a high-ranking group of Nazis visited the factory. Among them was Frank, whom the foreman introduced to Lola.

“He was wearing the gloves,” she remembered. “He shook my hand. He smiled. He told me the gloves were keeping him very warm. He said they fit well. He thanked me. That evening my father came home from work. He was full of smiles. He told me everyone had been shaking his hand. They were congratulating him. Everyone said to him that because Frank shook your daughter’s hand it would save the Jews. We thought if they were pleased with our work they would let us live.”

A year ago she happened upon a picture of Frank. She learned, for the first time, that after the war he had been condemned and hanged by the Allies at Nuremberg. He was one of the very few Nazis at Nuremberg who, before being executed, expressed remorse for his crimes.

The photograph and news of Frank’s execution were devastating. “I cried hysterically,” she told me. “I don’t know why. I could not connect him smiling at me like a father, shaking my hand and thanking me and then think of him hanging dead.”

In the ghetto her parents arranged for her brother Oskar, who was two and a half years older, to study with a rabbi.

“My brother became, because of this rabbi, very orthodox,” she said. “He was about 14. He would be charitable to everyone because the Bible said to be charitable. My mother would get some potatoes and peel them. She would say that when she came home from work she would cook us potatoes. But sometimes the potatoes were gone when she got home. My brother would have taken them to a poor family and we would have nothing to eat. One day he came home in wooden shoes. We asked, ‘Where are your shoes?’ He had given them to someone who was barefoot. He became like that. He was like a monk.”

Once, hiding under the sawdust pile during one of the mass deportations, Lola crawled over to her brother. “We talked,” she said. “It was the first time we really talked. He had a piece of bread. He said, ‘I am not hungry.’ ”

Her voice broke. She began to weep.

“That is hard,” she said haltingly. “And he did give me that piece of bread. It was like a rind. We were not like sheep. We lived. When we finally left the bunker I saw him dressing. His belly was distended from hunger.”

The factories and workshops were closed in 1943. Large sections of the ghetto were emptied. Most of the ghetto residents had been executed or taken to death camps. When Lola’s father sneaked out of the bunker at night he would wander through empty streets and forage in abandoned apartments. It resembled a ghost town. The fence around the ghetto was being rebuilt and pushed inward to open the emptied sections of the ghetto to the non-Jews in the city.

Lola’s father decided to move the family, along with her aunt’s family of four and two cousins, to a basement in an abandoned part of the ghetto. He said that when it got dark he would take five of them at a time to the basement. He took Lola, her mother, Lola’s aunt and a young cousin to the basement and went back to get his son and nieces and nephews.

“He never returned,” Lola said. “He was captured by a Jewish policeman. It was Succoth. My mother and aunt lit candles in the basement. We found a deeper basement. There was an Orthodox man hidden in the attic of that house. He visited us. He told us stories about the Messiah. He told us when we died we would go to heaven. I felt better, even with that gripping fear. My cousin and I went out at night to a vegetable field to dig up something to eat. There was a well, but it made noise when you cranked it up. That was dangerous. We could hear dogs barking.”

One morning we heard a sound like someone scraping a stick along a fence,” she said. “My mother stiffened. She knew. They were shooting people. We could see the man in the attic make a sign with his arms like shooting. Then we heard singing. It was Shema Yisrael.”

She began to sing Shema Yisrael, the central prayer in the Jewish prayer book, softly in Hebrew.

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord.
And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.
And these words which I command thee this day shall be in thine heart.

“There were 200 people singing Shema Yisrael, including my father and brother, going to death,” she said. “I did not at the time connect the shooting with my father and brother and cousins. The shots became steady and constant. My mother held me tight.”

Lola read from a letter she wrote in 1981 to her four children:

Here is the essence of my story. To help my children grow, flourish and multiply without guilt or remorse, without a feeling that they are descended of people who went to slaughter like sheep. No song like Eli Eli or Ave Maria will surpass the chant of my father, my brother, my cousins and hundreds of others as they were led to be shot. It was the most powerful, courageous and victorious hymn. Their voices did not bleat like sheep. Their voices told of victory overcoming evil by dying like men without somebody’s blood on their hands. Their voices sang in unison a praise to the Lord. There was a might in them as if they were already one with their master. And it said Shema Yisreal, Hear Oh Israel, I will take you from your suffering and you will flourish. This was the message I received. That song was sung for me by my father. I flourished as I wish and hope my children will. My children, my dear sweet children. Your daily problems, which you try to solve with so much determination, are insignificant in the view of the awesome past of your ancestors. So you are told, but this is not true. Life is made out of difficulties and joys, of sorrows and utter happiness, but as long as your souls are not soiled with meanness which hurts others be proud of your life. Your life is the extension of the ones which are gone. And now they are immortal. Don’t pity them. They went peacefully because they had hope for the future, your present. My father’s mighty chant was meant as well for you and yours. With all my love, your Mom.

German soldiers discovered Lola, her mother, her aunt and her cousin in the basement. They were detained and, because hiding was a capital offense, waited to be shot. Her mother, holding her, told Lola they were going to the Garden of Eden to meet those in the family who had died. But they were spared and assigned to the last detail of 100 Jews used to clean up the remnants of the ghetto. The mother, working in a laundry, found her son Oskar’s shirt, apparently cut from his lifeless body. Josef Müller, the commander of the ghetto, had by then a Jewish mistress, a practice common among ghetto commanders and camp guards. The remaining Jews in the ghetto nicknamed her Mata Hari.

“She was quite beautiful, very tall,” Lola said. “She was dressed elegantly and wore makeup. She had a husband and a daughter my age. She ordered me around. I had to clean her room.”

Lola and her mother were then sent to the labor camp in Plaszów, a southern suburb of Kraków. Plaszów was commanded by Amon Göth, a brutal SS officer who routinely shot prisoners for sport and was portrayed in the 1993 film “Schindler’s List.” Göth was hanged after the war.

Lola and her mother were put to work with other prisoners digging up a Jewish cemetery. The headstones were used for paving roads and constructing latrines. After spending two months in Plaszów they were sent to work in a munitions factory hidden in a forest near Poinki. It was there Lola was forced to watch the hanging of four or five Jews who had tried to escape. She took her mother’s place in the front of the formation of prisoners to spare her the sight of the hangings.

“They were calm and collected,” Lola said of the condemned. “They had their hands tied behind their backs. They said something before they died, but I don’t remember what. We were ordered to look at the hanging. We could not turn away our heads. As I watched, I saw what a horrific death it is—you can actually see life being squeezed out of the body. The face purple, red, almost swelling, as the hanging body twitches in last rebellion. The wife of one of the men, belly swollen with child, stood by the gallows the whole week as the Germans kept the spectacle on display.”

Lola was eventually transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. The journey by train took three days. When she stumbled off the train with her mother, aunt and her cousin, she ran toward a ditch to get a drink of water. She visited Auschwitz-Birkenau years later and searched out the ditch. She said the death camp stripped of the emaciated bodies, stench, fear, shootings, barking dogs, beatings, smoke from the crematoriums, shouts of the guards, overcrowded barracks and foul, overflowing latrines failed to convey its reality. “They should plow it under and plant a field,” she said.

“I did not recognize my mother when we got off the train,” she remembered of her arrival at the camp. “She scared me. It was like seeing a ghost. She was drawn. She had big, round eyes.”

They were quarantined in Camp C after being shaved, sprayed with DDT and tattooed. She remembers seeing a group of dwarfs in the camp. “They were so beautiful,” she said. “I wanted to play with them. They were like dolls. On the second or third night they all disappeared.”

She and her mother spent about eight months working in Birkenau. At one point they were stripped and forced into a gas chamber with a large group of women before the execution was abruptly canceled. Lola had begged her mother before entering the gas chamber for their last piece of bread. “I said, ‘I don’t want to die hungry,’ ” she remembered. “My mother, said, ‘When we come out you will tell me you are hungry.’ I said, ‘I don’t care.’ And she gave me the bread. When we got out of the gas chamber my mother said, ‘I told you so.’

The women were later put to work twisting strips of oilcloth into braids to be used, she believed, to make plane doors airtight.

“Two guards would pull on the ends of the braid, and if it broke the workers would be beaten, often to death,” she said.

In January 1945, with Soviet forces advancing on occupied Poland, the Nazi guards began to plan the destruction of the crematoriums. They told the prisoners the Birkenau camp would be dynamited and ordered some 60,000 prisoners from Birkenau and the satellite camps to begin a 35-mile march through the snow to a freight yard. Fifteen thousand prisoners died on the march. Lola’s aunt and cousin, who survived the war, hid under a pile of corpses. Lola and her mother, shortly before joining the march, found turnips in a barracks and gorged themselves. The turnips gave her mother diarrhea.

“My mother ripped a piece of her dress and asked me very shyly the next morning if I could wash her off, and that is when I felt what love is,” she said. “She told me they would dynamite the camp and we should leave, that I could withstand the march. We walked through the night. We passed our town, Katowice. We saw the lights. The next day my mother wasn’t feeling good. She was dizzy. She asked me for a little sugar. We were not allowed to bend down for snow. If you bent down they would shoot you. There were bodies on the sides of the road. But my mother asked me for some snow. I bent down quickly to get her some snow. The women around us helped my mother for a little while. They walked with her. Then my mother couldn’t walk. There was a tree. She lay down. She told me, ‘Run quickly and maybe you will save myself.’ Then a German materialized. I fought with him. I told him, ‘You have a mother. You know what it means to have a mother. Let her rest a minute and she will be able to get up.’ He smiled. I will always remember that strange smile. Something amused him. By that time his pistol was drawn. The soldiers began to hit me and push me away. He shot her. I was on the road again. At one point my little sack fell down. I picked it up. I thought to myself, you picked up the sack but you did not pick up your mother. Years later, as I replayed the scene of my mother’s death, her laying, reclining under that tree with her arms a bit outstretched, I thought of her as being crucified.”

Lola made it to the freight yard and was loaded onto open cars. She was transported to Ravensbrück, a women’s concentration camp in northern Germany. She was then put on a train to the Malhof camp. As Allied soldiers neared Malhof, the Germans closed the camp. Lola was soon marching again. Then the guards began to disappear. She remembers the bloated and blackened bodies of soldiers in the fields. One morning she and the other prisoners saw the camp commander in civilian clothes riding away on a bicycle. The war was over.

There is, somewhere in the vastness of the universe, amid galaxies and stars that light emanating from our planet takes decades to reach, the airy image of a girl playing with a doll in the Polish town of Katowice, the image of a girl terrified and clutched by her mother near a bombed bridge, the image of a girl hiding with her brother under a pile of sawdust and accepting a small piece of bread, the image of a girl shaking the hand of the Nazi governor of Poland and the image of a girl in her mother’s arms in a basement listening to men and women about to die singing Shema Yisrael. There is, too, the image of a girl telling a German soldier with a drawn pistol, “You have a mother.”

“I believe in God and heaven,” Lola said last week. “I speak to my husband, who I lost three years ago, and my parents. My belief saves me from talking to walls and air.”

I did not write this story to say that Germans are bad and Jews are good. The line between good and evil runs through all hearts. It is, sadly, as easy to become an executioner as a victim. This is the most sobering lesson of war. And it is something the greatest writers on the Holocaust, such as Primo Levi, understood. There were, after all, Jüdische Ghetto-Polizei, Jewish Kapos, Judenräte, Sonderkommandos and Blockälteste whose contributions to the organization of the ghettos and the death camps kept the crematoriums functioning. The prisoners who lowered themselves to the moral squalor of the SS were soon lost. I did not write this piece to say that virtue or goodness triumphed after the Holocaust. The Nazi extermination of 12 million people, including 6 million Jews, was a colossal, tragic and absurd waste of human life. I wrote this piece to say that the fierce and protective love of a mother and a father is stronger than hate. It can overcome evil. After the war Lola met a young German man in Spain. “He could have been a soldier,” she said. He asked Lola about her wartime experience. She told him. She kissed him on the cheek in saying goodbye. 

Where time and light bend and twist in space, perhaps defying the known laws of physics, a mother and a father, fighting to protect their daughter and son from death, still exist in faint particles of light, making visible an iron bond of fidelity. They gave up life to save it. Scarred emotionally and physically—she rolled up her sleeve as we talked to show me her tattooed concentration camp number, A-14989—Lola would nevertheless marry a survivor to raise, love and nurture four children of her own. Emil Rewitz and Helena Rewitz, at least in this small house in Brooklyn, won the war.

Chris Hedges

Chris Hedges writes a regular column for Truthdig.com. Hedges graduated from Harvard Divinity School and was for nearly two decades a foreign correspondent for The New York Times. He is the author of many books, including: War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning, What Every Person Should Know About War, and American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America.  His most recent book is Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle.

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