I cannot forget

1_birnbaum_4b_web Everybody out! Quick! Quick!“
They have discovered us. The last days, father has been reminding me time and time again to constantly change my hiding places in the small ghetto of Częstochowa. Last night, I found a spot in a cellar. I spent the night behind a board partition with about twenty men, women, and children.
Now, two SS-men are rushing down the stairs and are randomly smashing us with the butts of their machineguns.
We have to line up in the street. “Headcount. Otherwise keep your traps shut!”
Behind me is a woman with a small child in her arms. She is trying to hush its crying.
A German truck speeds up to us. I know what that means: We’re being hauled away – to be shot. My mouth is dry.
From the other side a horse-drawn carriage is approaching. Father! I want to scream. But father’s look forbids it. One of the SS-men shouts at him: “What are you doing?” “I am the wagoner”, father answers calmly. “I am supposed to wait here. Orders from Herr Scharführer!” Father grabs his whip and gets off the coach box.
Suddenly, the SS-men walk away. They command Polish police officers to guard us until they return. Father comes up to us. He does not run, but walks calmly without shaking.
“What are you doing?” screams one of the Poles. Father remains restrained. “I’m watching out. Just like you…”
The Polish policeman is unsure how to react to father’s response. Father turns to me and speaks quietly, yet decisively: “Run away, Shlojme! Otherwise you’ll be dead! Run as fast as you can!”
I run off. Right into the arms of an SS-man. He grabs me, pulls out his leather whip and begins beating me. Tears shoot into my eyes. I look at father. He is forced to watch as I am being beaten.
Finally, the SS-man stops maltreating me. He pushes me over to the queue and bellows: “You will not run away again!” Then, he straightens his uniform as if nothing has happened und and walks on. “Run, Shlojme! Run!!
“Tate…” I gasp “…I can’t…” “You must, Shlojme. Run! Or he will kill you. Run!”
Father’s instruction is stronger than fear and pain. Again, I run off. This time, I make it to the next corner. I hear the SS-man yelling: “The Jewish brat is gone again… After him!” I run on. The air burns in my lungs. When the pain becomes too big, I plunge into a house, push open the door to a flat and slip inside. With every breath I take my whole body quakes.12_birnbaum_2_web
Outside there is shouting. The door I am standing behind is pushed open. They’ve got me…
“He’s not here…” I hear my father’s voice say. “Look for him elsewhere. I want him!”, commands the SS-man. The footsteps move away.
I sink to my knees. Blood is pounding in my ears with every heartbeat. “Ha malach ha goel”… As a child I prayed to the “angel of salvation”. Since the Germans have come here the angels has disappeared.
But father remains. Father is always there whenever I think it is over. Always! Never has he been absent. He is my angel of salvation.



I am holding my first grandson in my arms. His name is Arie. The boy is born 1992. I look at this little creature and hope that the child will have a good life, a safe life, without prosecution. Automatically I recall the words of the blessing: “May the Lord bless you and protect you.”
I cannot forget and do not want to forgive – because as a survivor I may not. One cannot surrender – also not before one’s own grief and fear. Over the years I have regained hope. I owe that to my family. And also to a German woman and artist: Marlene Dietrich. The aging diva was living in her Paris apartment when she was asked from where she had drawn her strength to resist Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels’ allurements to return from exile to Germany to reap money and fame. She answered with just one word: “Decency.” This is what my father also taught me. Life is good and simple if your attitude is decent. My hope is that human beings will recognize how decisive decency is.



Shlomo Birnbaum & Rafael Seligmann, Ein Stein auf meinem Herzen. Herder publ.

Photo Credit: Familie Birnbaum, Herder Publ.

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