‘It is not good to forget’ – The Guardian

Before the Nazis came, 6,000 Jews lived in the Romanian town of Targu Mures. Almost 5,500 died in Auschwitz. Now the few survivors want to tell their stories before they die – with the help of three Scottish teenagers. On the eve of Holocaust Memorial Day, Nick Thorpe reports on a moving encounter

‘There were three kinds of disease in Auschwitz,” growls Ladislau Grun, counting on his fingers. “The first was diarrhoea. The second was typhus. The third was giving up. Because when people said, ‘I’m not going to make it,’ they usually didn’t.”

At the other side of the sitting room in his Romanian apartment block, three schoolgirls are hanging on the old man’s every word. In the past hour they’ve heard how his mother was beaten and tortured until her hair turned grey; how the Nazis sent her crippled to the gas chamber; how his own 14-year-old life was saved only when his father lied to German officers that he was 17, old enough for slave labour. Their young faces – not much older than he was then – are a mixture of outrage and disbelief.

“The struggle was as much emotional as physical,” he continues, leaning forward in his armchair. “I was lucky that I had my father with me, and we fought for each other, trying not to lose hope. It meant washing in the snow, eating grass, eating coal, eating anything to stay alive. That’s what fighting meant.”

Nearly six decades later, however, the fight has changed. While once Grun struggled to shut out the hunger, the piles of bodies, the despair, these days he must remember them at every opportunity, while he still can.

“For many years I didn’t talk about what I had seen,” says the retired volleyball teacher. “I thought that way I would forget about it. But I realised a few years ago that I had made a terrible mistake. Neo-Nazis and other organisations were beginning to say that the Holocaust never happened. So we must keep talking about it, as long as we have strength to speak.”

But across the world, the community of haunted survivors is shrinking fast, and here in the Transylvanian town of Targu Mures the demographics are starker than most. Of its once thriving prewar Jewish community of 6,000, almost 5,500 died in the Holocaust, most of them transported to Auschwitz in 1944. Barely 200 now remain, the majority of them more than 75 years old and childless, their health failing. In a religious community that values the family and the oral tradition so highly, they are facing a cultural abyss.

Which is why Naomi Cowan, Stacey Cram and Lorna Gray are here – to help them bridge it. “My message to you and your friends is that you must fight – not with guns, but with intelligence and words,” says Grun, who at 71 is the youngest of the survivors. “Because the more people are aware of what happened, the less likely it is to happen again.”

The girls have flown out courtesy of the Targu Mures Trust, a charity set up by a Glasgow social worker to provide healthcare for the dying community. Their mission is to record individual testimonies on video for posterity, though the educational implications of the exercise are just as important. They are normal 16-year-olds – fashion-conscious, into Travis and S Club 7, already developing a crush on our minibus driver. So how will this new generation, untouched by the privations of war, deal with stories of unthinkable suffering? Stacey and Naomi are both Jewish, and all three have learned about the Holocaust at school and have written essays on it. But none of that prepared them for the emotional intensity of today’s meeting.

“It was like, so weird,” says Stacey, debriefing afterwards in the minibus. “I kept looking at him on the video monitor, like on TV, then realising I was actually in the room with him – with someone who was in Auschwitz.” Lorna is visibly shaken by the image of a tortured mother, grey with pain, taken from her son, while Naomi is confused by the Nazis’ tactic of playing Strauss waltzes over the loudspeakers at Auschwitz as they dragged their prisoners from cattle-wagons. “Why would they do that?” she says, frowning. “What kind of sick mind… ?”

Ethne Woldman, founder of the trust, nods sympathetically as they struggle over questions to which there are no satisfactory answers. “You listened well, girls,” she says, simply. At this stage, it’s all one can ask.

Outside the van window, fairytale Transylvanian architecture blurs into office blocks backed by distant forested hills. Mercs and Ladas veer round the occasional horse and cart. Different centuries collide easily here.

The next visit takes us to the home of Eta Tusa, a twinkly-eyed former doctor who hugs each of the girls warmly as they arrive. She never had children of her own, we learn later, due to her forced sterilisation at Auschwitz under the infamous Dr Josef Mengele.

“A so-called doctor!” she mutters, remembering his selection procedure, under which 10 members of her family died. “He chose who was to go on the right and who on the left, who was to live, and who was to die. My mother, who was a heart patient, went straight to the gas chamber. But my sister and I were selected to work, and we got our tattoos. Look! I still have it!”

She rolls up the sleeve of her blouse, shows us the dark bruise on her forearm, an almost illegible number. The girls crane their necks to look, shaking their heads wonderingly, and she smiles sadly back at them. “The trouble is that all the people who had this experience will be dead in a short time, and it’s very important that future generations should know about it. I’m the sort of person who could pardon anything, but it is not good to forget.”

But how best to remember? It’s a debate which flares up regularly, as it will this weekend with Britain’s second Holocaust Memorial Day. We may quote and requote Santayana – that those who do not remember the past are bound to repeat it – but how can we prevent the increasing distance and the vast, mind-numbing scale of this human disaster from abstracting it into another curriculum requirement, another edgy three-minute silence?

The survivors know only too well how quickly the human mind blocks out others’ pain. If they are nervous that their voices will be forgotten after they are dead, it is because they faced the same relentless dehumanising while they were alive, struggling day after day to believe they were more than the number tattooed on their forearms.

“The whole purpose was humiliation,” recalls 80-year-old Zsuzsa Diamantstein, who was deliberately given a high-heeled right shoe and a flat left shoe to work in. “They used to make us carry heavy stones uphill, then back downhill, with no purpose. It was a struggle to think. Occasionally people threw themselves against the electric wires.”

She too carries vivid memories like scars – the smell of burning flesh; the recurring dream of her mother’s final moments, framed at the entrance to the gas chamber – and like the other survivors, she seems half-traumatised by them, half-possessive, afraid to trust them to posterity. “I blame the entire world for what happened!” she says, angry and tearful. “The world should not have stood back and done nothing, allowed so many people to be murdered just because they were Jewish.”

I ask her what tactics prisoners used to cling to their dignity, to fight the relentless dehumanisation. She looks thoughtful and smiles shyly. “Little things, small kindnesses. I remember a Polish lady prisoner once gave us all Christmas presents – a little bit of toothpaste for each of us, a little piece of biscuit. It was enough to be alive, to have a little food, to be able to live until tomorrow.”

It’s a sunny winter’s morning in the Jewish community graveyard, and Rabbi Avrohom Weiss of Glasgow – the first to officiate in the 30 years since the community lost its own rabbi – is chanting prayers at a stone memorial. The Hebrew inscription on the memorial reads, “And the Lord said I will give to these bones a new breath of life,” but no bones are buried here, only a bar of soap.

“It’s one of many found in Auschwitz after liberation,” explains the rabbi. “The Nazis made them and imprinted them with the initials RJF – Reine Jüdisch Fett, Pure Jewish Fat. It’s all that remains.”

The girls blanch visibly as the implications sink in. Their drawn faces suggest they are reaching the point of overload. “The Germans used everything they could from exterminating Jewish people,” adds Ausch, an elder whose parents are “buried” here. “We heard that the hair of women was used for tapestry, and that the lampshade in Eva Braun’s room was made from human skin. They also pulled out all the gold teeth.”

It’s been a harrowing three days, reinforced by a visit to the nearby Valley of Tears, where in 1944 an entire village of 126 Jews were shot or buried alive, the screams of children echoing for hours. We’ve looked down the railway line towards Auschwitz, travelled to the abandoned brick factory which was once the ghetto. My mind feels scalded and numb from this vast and intricate evil, repeatedly dragged away from the humanity of its victims, down into this gothic charnel house of body parts and statistics that defy all comprehension.

Yet for three Scottish schoolgirls, understanding comes from a moment of simple human contact. At the frosty graveside, one of the elderly survivors begins to weep for his lost wife. Reaching out to comfort him, the girls too begin to cry, and there is hugging and sobbing all around. A single act of empathy suddenly seems more powerful than all the poisonous hatred of the Nazi “solution”.

Back in the 60s, turning angrily upon a postwar world still tainted by complicity or acquiescence, the ghetto survivor David Wdowinski wrote: “We do not want your commemorations! We, who do not even have graves to rest in peace – we do not need your easy tears, your empty words.” But he added: “One day, perhaps, some new, clean generation will remember our agony.”

Listening to the girls later, as they walk down the darkening hillside, it’s not so hard to believe this time has come. “It’s all so different from just reading about it in a book,” Stacey is reflecting. “I mean, six million is a number, but when you actually meet a real person, and see the emotion that comes with even one person dying, it puts everything in perspective… If I’d been living here 50, 60 years ago, it would have been me.”

 The Targu Mures Trust can be contacted at dhbglas@aol.com.

Link to article in Guardian website

Friday 25 January 2002

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