Because of the horrid news of the synagogue shootings in Pittsburgh's Squirrel Hill neighborhood, I ended up watching Schindler’s List last night. One of the (many) wrenching things in it is when Schindler has managed to basically buy the lives of his Jewish factory workers, and they’re arranged to be sent by train from Poland to a factory in Czechoslovakia. The men are on one train, women on another. By some mistake, the women’s train gets routed instead to Auschwitz, and the women are unloaded, get the haircuts and everything expected for that camp. Then Schindler finds out, and after some clever persuasion and more bribing, actually gets those women back — from a place you’d figure no one returns from. This was one of the places I cried.
When I first joined my writing group in Squirrel Hill, it was organized by a woman who co-wrote a book with Mark Stern, a holocaust survivor. He came to one of our meetings so we could read part of the book, which had already been published, and hear him speak. He’d been on international speaking tours, and had kept researching because he wanted to find documents for his family and many others. He was from one of the ghettos in Poland. He’d managed to locate a treasure trove of photos of people lost there, and brought them to the U.S. and the organizations serving Jewish families searching for their relatives and neighbors. He showed printouts of just beautiful photos, of young and older people who just were no more.
I remember that Mark Stern had been a young boy when his family was captured, and he'd traded a stamp collection and other things to convince a guard to let his sister and mother out of the line that would have sent them off to be killed. So they survived longer — but like must have happened to many, the mother and sister were taken anyway a little later on. He, I believe, was the only survivor of his family.
I know someone else, whose father survived one of the prison camps also, who told me a story about his father, who was a small kid then, pretended to know how to fix cars in order to avoid one of the death lines. It was some officer’s car that had broken down, when he jumped up and announced he could fix it, and when he tried — not actually knowing anything — just by luck the engine started up for him.