THE HOLOCAUST: WE MUST REMEMBER
30-Hour Series of Interviews broadcast on the Roger Fredinburg Radio Program
2-18-1998 Sixteenth Program in Series
Guest: Rachel Hager
Book: WHEN THEY CAME TO TAKE MY FATHER: Voices of the Holocaust
ISBN-10: 1559703059 and ISBN-13: 155970355
Roger Fredinburg interviews Rachel Hager, an editor at Parents magazine, about the book: “When they came to take my father.” This book is a compilation of stories and photgraphs from 50 survivors.
Roger: Welcome to the program, ladies and gentlemen! It’s a pleasure to bring you this series. It’s been a remarkable number of weeks now. It just gets better and better each and every week! It’s amazing, the things we learn when you talk to people who actually experience some of the worst nightmares of humanity; and to still have some of theses folks around to tell the stories is quite a blessing, indeed!
This week we’re going to talk to Rachel Hager who is senior editor with Parent’s Magazine. She edited the book, “When They Came to Take My Father: Voices of the Holocaust.” The book is incredible in itself because of the many stories that are told; but, one of the unique aspects of the book are photographs by Mark Seliger. The photographs tell stories that the words couldn never tell. You can see in the faces of these honorable people, the pain, the suffering, the joy and the fascination with life! It’s amazing to see them in this light!
What a wonderful book, Rachel! Welcome to the show!
Rachel H: Thank you! Thank you for having me.
Roger: Now, Rachel, for the sake of the audience, would you please give us a little biographical background—what you’re about?
Rachel H: I am actually a child of survivors myself. The title of the book is taken from the interviews I did with my father who was born in Vienna and experienced Kristallnacht which was a terrible night for all of the Jews in Vienna and Germany. It was also the night his father was taken to Dachau concentration camp.
As a child of survivors, you sort of see life through different eyes because everything that you experience is really experienced through the eyes of your parents, through their experiences. I think that Benjamin Mead, President of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors, really sums it all up when he says that, “When survivors get together they can be talking about carrots or flowers and inevitably the talk comes back to the holocaust.”
That’s certainly the way it was for me growing up — everything was before the war—during the war — after the war. I had a strong sense of the holocaust without every having been told much about it; as a child –there would be snippets of conversation gathered here and there that would suddenly work their way into my subconscious. I remember riding the subways at a very early age in Brooklyn and was completely terrified of being in the front car where I could see the tracks because although I had no real concept of what cattle cars were, that was instinctively what the subway cars reminded me of.
Roger: Oh, that’s really strange! I mean, it’s bizarre that you would even make that correlation, not having lived it!
Rachel H: Right! Interestingly enough, when I got to college I was very fortunate to have Helen Epstein as a professor who is the author of, “Children of the Holocaust.” In reading her book, I was very surprised to find that experience is actually shared by a number of children of holocaust survivors. They just have this instinctive “cattle car” feeling.
Roger: Maybe it’s from hearing those stories as a child. Now, were your parents pretty open about their story?
Rachel H: Yes, pretty much. Both of my parents were actually very fortunately not to have been in camps. My mother was born in Poland and was a child of two when her family moved to Antwerp, Belgium before the war. She was twelve when the war broke out. She and her family escaped to France. The train ride from Brussels to La Champs in the Pyrenees, normally a 1-1/2 hour train ride, took 7 days because of all the bombardment and the need to hide at various points. She and her parents spent the war on the run from one section of France to another. They had a number of close calls. In fact, when they were in Nimes, in the south of France, my grandmother had a dream one night that her father, who actually died before the war, and her brother came to her and said, “Raisa! Raisa! Close the shutters because there is going to be huge storm!” The next day they got word that the Jews in the area were going to be rounded up so they fled! In fact, the Germans came to their house about an hour after they had gone. The pots were still warm on the stove! So, there were a number of very close calls.
I grew up in a community of survivors, so for me this was not unusual. It was not unusual to have friends whose parents had numbers tattooed on their arms. I really thought that all Jews had been in the holocaust. It wasn’t until I got to college that I met any Jews whose families were not! So, it gives you a different perspective on life.
My father’s father, as I mentioned, was in Dachau and that severely affected him. My father says that when he got out, he could not sleep through the night for two years. He’d wake up screaming and shaking. In marches outside around the camp in freezing, sub-zero weather with no clothes on, he’d suddenly see people tied alive to trees and left there to die! He could hear the wails and the screams in the barracks!
As a result of some of these experiences, he had a lifelong distaste of stripes. I remember as a child, my mother would never dress me in anything with stripes when he was visiting because it brought back memories.
Roger: How was it your grandfather survived this, do you know?
Rachel H: My father’s mother had a cousin in Switzerland who actually had an acquaintance who was like a “deep throat.” They gave him the name, Shimon. I don’t know what his real name was; but, he was a friend of Himmler. So, this cousin used that connection and was able to buy a number of Jews out of Dachau.
Dachau was one of the earlier concentration camps that was set up and initially was one of the more severe ones. There were very few survivors from Dachau.
Roger: I didn’t realize that people were bought out of captivity.
Rachel H: It was not a common practice. It was a moral dilemma because you knew that on some level this money was going to finance the German war effort. At the time, if you had the ability to get people out, clearly, you would do everything that you could to save human lives. I guess it was at a time when that was still possible; but, it used up all of my grandfather’s money trying to get as many people out as he could.
Roger: Boy! What a story some of these folks have to tell in your book here. You’ve done a good job putting this book together, condensing the stories. The photographs! Tell me how you came to the conclusion that the photographs, which really are the major part of the book, would play such a significant role, because they do!
Rachel H: Yes! Actually, that is really to Mark Seliger’s credit. He was the person who conceived of this book and really had always wanted to photograph survivors. He is Jewish, from Texas, an American for several generation so there was no direct correlation. But, these people always held a fascination for him and he felt he really wanted to capture them before it was too late! This generation is aging and they won’t be with us forever. He has a unique way of truly, as you pointed out in you introduction, of truly capturing peoples’ souls. I really think he did an excellent job of that!
Roger: Oh, yes! I’m looking at these pictures and the faces just tell it all! It’s unbelievable! You can see these people and know they are Jewish survivors before you read a word! It’s just amazing how much you can get from a photograph, or at least, how much Mark is able to put into these photographs.
Your folks just kind of bounced around and hid out apparently?
Rachel H: Right.
Roger: They were able to escape some of the worst torment of the time; but, everyone in the book did not have that fortune.
Rachel H: True.
Roger: You have the Mengele twins in your book. What is their story?
Rachel H: That’s really an amazing story! They were among the youngest twins to have survived. In fact, Irene, one of the twins was devastated when people would kind of question her experience. Afterwards people would say, “you could not possibly have been a Mengele twin because you’re too young.” To have the double-whammy of going through the experience and then having it questioned is unimaginable!
I think the best way to tell her story is to just read some excerpts because her words —-the book is written in first person, that was intentional because of the way that we edited it. I really felt that nobody could tell these stories better than the people themselves.
Rachel H: Just to give you some background, Irene was actually the twin that was experimented on. Rene, her brother, was the control.
…We were with our mother for the first four months at Auschwitz, then one day, I guess, they decided we were old enough to do without her and we were separated. When it came time for them to take my Mom, she didn’t want to let go of us and we didn’t want to let go of her. We heard this horrible screaming and one of the guards just hit her and she fell to the ground. We never saw her again.
Rene and I were separated. Siblings of the opposite sex didn’t get to stay together. As part of Mengele’s great scientific plan to find a master race, he had a passion for studying twins. Usually one twin was the control and one was experimented on. I was the “lucky” one who got to go to the hospital for all kinds of experiments.
Could I pick Mengele out? Never in a million years! I only remember a doctor in a white coat. He once gave me candy. It was all so innocent. He was our savior and our demon.
You had this ambivalent feeling, wanting him to like you! I would think, “I’ll be really good and then he’ll be my friend and then he won’t hurt me.” But, it wasn’t like that! There were some things that I’ve never spoken about that I don’t think I’ll ever be able to speak about.
When you meet Irene, she is amazing; the fact that she’s managed to have a life at all after all of this! Actually, she struggles with MS and her condition is deteriorating; but, she is such a strong, unbelievably strong person.
… I remember once hiding among dead bodies. I knew that these were dead bodies; but, to me it was what you had to do. I could see the chimneys day and night. I knew something terrible was going on; but, I figured when my turn comes, it will be my turn.
It’s very hard to find the right words to explain what I felt as a child. I lost my childhood. I had no childhood. I was so scared all the time and I felt so alone.
One night I had to go to the bathroom and then tried to come back inside. It was dark and I got confused. I didn’t know where my bed was. I was groping trying to find my way back and people were pushing me away. “This is not your place,” they said. Grown people pushing me away! I felt so rejected, I can’t explain it. Finally somebody said, “okay, you can stay with me for the night.”
At the end she was, basically, just laying on the ground for days wondering what was going to happen. Finally she was taken by a Polish woman, a gentile, to her house. At that point, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee came to get her and she was adopted by a family on Long Island. When they found out that she had a twin brother, they really put themselves out trying to find him. As it turns out, when the war was over, he was in Czechoslovakia and they actually got him out in 1950, so they were reunited!
Roger: The stories that are told in the book, Rachel, are pretty hard, I think, for people to swallow without tears. I’m reading the book and just wondering how in the world something like this could happen. I was really fascinated with one of the quotes you highlights from Isaac Jarkowski,
“For each Jew that was denounced, people got 50 francs. 50 francs at that time was $1.00 – a Jew was worth $1.00”
I thought that was really a powerful statement! People would turn other people in, knowing they were going to be killed for a buck! It’s almost impossible to fathom that! I mean, really just unbelievable!
In this country, as you well know, people don’t really understand the holocaust. Really! It’s different, I suppose, in New York; but, out here in fly-over country, people really don’t get it! What do you think are the lessons from the holocaust?
Rachel H: Well, there are good lessons and bad lessons. I think that the…..
Roger: I mean, do you think humanity really learned anything from it?
Rachel H: There is a part of me that… certainly, I hope so! There is a part of me that thinks that there are people who have learned from it and who learn from it every day. I have met countless young Germans and young Poles, children of Nazis and of Polish sympathizers, who truly will go to their graves trying to make up for what their parents or grandparents did. So, I think that there are people that certainly have learned! But, I think as a whole, we haven’t because it happens all the time in different forms, whether it’s in Bosnia or …. not to equate it all because I actually am of the mind that the holocaust was unique, that it was very organized, very orchestrated and basically, the world was silent!
It wasn’t happening far away in one country, it was direct. Go to the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. You can see aerial photographs that American reconnaissance planes took. How do you explain that? I know that the response to that is, “we didn’t want to bomb the camps because we didn’t want to kill innocent people.” Well, guess what? People were being killed anyway! Maybe they could have stopped it sooner. So, I fear that we haven’t learned.
Roger: John Klein said this in the book, “Those who say we should forgive and forget, have nothing to forgive and nothing to forget. I cannot forgive and I cannot forget.” In my right-of-center political sphere, I’m always saying to political groups, “forgive and forget,” You know, move on! This put kind of a new spin on that for me. What do I have to forgive? What do I have to forget? Those are powerful messages that come from the heart and soul of those people that lived through this tragic time! Boy, I’ll tell you, you’ve done a wonderful job!
By the way, if people want to get the book, how do they do that?
Rachel H: They can get it at any Barnes & Noble or major bookstore, or call Arcade Publishing in New York 212-475-2633. The title of the book is, “When They Came to Take My Father.” Mark Seliger is the primary name.
Roger: The photographs are wonderful! Rachel, hang on, we’ve got to take a break. Folks, Rachel Hager is our guest this evening. She is the senior editor for Parents’ Magazine and also one of the editors for this wonderful book filled with some of the most impressive stories and finest photographs I’ve ever seen! The photographs themselves just tell a story that can’t be told in any other way. You can ask Rachel some questions. We’ll take calls after the break.
Roger: Welcome back, ladies and gentlemen! I’m Roger Fredinburg. Our guest this evening is Rachel Hager. She is senior editor for Parents’ Magazine and editor of this wonderful, wonderful book, “When They Came to Take My Father.” Photographic evidence of survivors and the pain, suffering and joy is all there in the pictures! Great stories with some incredible quotes; quotes that I think will give you whole new thinking on this issue — this one is from Irving Miltzberg, “The Poles had an expression, they’d say, “from now on soap is going to get expensive because there are no Jews from which to make it anymore.”
Tom Lantos, the democrat from California whose politics I have denounced here on this program many a time—- I did not know he was a survivor. Tom Lantos talks about being fortunate that he was a tall, blond Aryan-looking fellow. It kept him out of some trouble. He escaped 17 times from work camps! He describes situations where the Germans and SS would have you pull down your pants because only Jews were circumcised and then it was easy for them to tell—then they’d send you off to camp! Powerful stuff, Rachel!
Rachel H: Yes.
Roger: Now, Tom Lantos, I did not know he was a survivor. It’s a very interesting story, his wife is a cousin to Zsa Zsa and Eva Gabor? I always just disliked his politics, you know?
Rachel H: Ha, ha!
Roger: But, having read the story about him it gives insight as to where he’s coming from!
Rachel H: Does it make you regret denouncing his politics?
Roger: Oh, not at all! No, no! America is built on good discourse on politics; but, it gives me insight to the man. In other words, where I might have really disliked the man, I have a whole different feeling for him now. And, I wouldn’t have had that had I not read the book and had the opportunity to share his life story. So, that in itself is kind of fascinating. Do you want to take a few phone calls?
Rachel H: Sure.
Roger: Alright! Let’s go to John in Bemidji, Minnesota. Hello, John!
Caller-John: Hello, Roger! I don’t know a lot about this subject; but, from what I’ve heard, about half of the people who died in these death camps were part of the Jewish holocaust or genocide. When I was on a trip over there with my family, our one vacation to Europe, my kids wanted to go to Dachau so we went. I was looking in these books where they had the names of people who were inmates or prisoners there and their disposition; either they died, or they were transferred, or they were set free. I may have even been looking at her grandfather’s name there possibly! The clergymen were marked. I was wondering if you guest has and notion about how many of the inmates at Dachau were part of the Jewish holocaust, victims of the holocaust?
Rachel H: I’m afraid I don’t have precise numbers; but, I would say in terms of the holocaust in general, that the number of victims who were Jewish is more than half.
Caller-John: Well, I was just going by what they seem to be saying on TV when they talk about this sort of thing.
The thing that struck me, looking at these books, is that almost all the clergymen—almost every one—in these books I was looking at in Dachau—were Catholic priests. You mentioned that it was one of the earlier camps. My daughter has a doctorate in history and I was talking to one of her associates who’s a history buff. He said the Catholic centrist party in Germany resisted the Nazis, some of them resisted the Nazis—talked against them, along with other resistors or political dissidents. Dachau was one of the first camps the Nazis opened up and they threw them in there.
Rachel H: Um hum. That wouldn’t surprise me. Disagreeing with the Nazis would certainly be enough to get them placed there.
Caller-John: I think that’s how they held on to power. They were hanging on by their fingernails in the beginning. If you were a communist or a monarchist or some kind of conservative, they just threw you in the camp and that was it!
Rachel H: I think that people forget that this was very, very organized, everybody thought that they were safe. They started with certain groups; initially it was only German or Austrian Jews; but, if you were a French Jew in France you were okay. If you were a Belgian Jew who had run away to France you were not okay. It kind of kept people in constant guessing and constant fear of what would happen next!
Caller-John: Yes, I guess that’s true! You made a comment I thought was sort of disingenous, that the United States could have stopped that genocide earlier, almost implying like they chose not to!
I just disagree with that! The blood that was let, not so much by the United States; but by the English and the Russians fighting these Nazis — they saw tens of thousands of their people dying fighting these people! They poured the coal on and the United States poured the coal on; bombing every day! The British bombed every day and the Americans bombed at night.
Roger: You know, in the book….
Caller-John: The blew up factories right beside these camps and didn’t bomb the camps! I’m not sure if they knew exactly that they were death camps though. Eisenhower said that he didn’t know until they over-ran them!
Roger: John, thank you very much! I think they knew a lot more than they told. History, of course, will reveal some of the truths. We’re seeing that now with the Swiss gold and things that are going on, now finding out that American gold was melted down and recirculated in Nazi camps— a lot of things we did not know a few years ago. Now it’s really beginning to open up. It’s all most unusual; but, we’re seeing a lot more evidence and a lot more stories come to light, aren’t we Rachel?
Rachel H: Yes, unfortunately, that’s true. I’m very thankful to be in America. I am American. I am first generation American and very partiotic; but, I do think that each and every country knew a lot more than they…..
Roger: I was just reading a quote by Max Jukers. I think the guy’s got a little bit of sense of humor here. He says, “After the war we went out into the streets of the city and couldn’t believe what we saw, so many dead bodies; in the water, everywhere! I had to carry my horse on my back! He refused to go because of all the dead bodies.”
Rachel H: Right! He wasn’t kidding!
Roger: Ha, ha!
Rachel H: Ha, ha! Believe it or not! Beyond the bodies that were actually dead, there were countless Jews who went back to their lands of birth were greeted— my mother and her parents included, went back to Antwerp, Belgium and their neighbor looked at them and said, “What are you doing here? I thought Hitler killed all the Jews.” That’s a nice welcome home.
Roger: Isn’t that something? The spiritual aspects of this, the religious aspects — I know some Jews that really got more religious because of their experience; but, others became atheists because of it. In other words, if there was a God, how could this happen? What do you suppose the percentages are? I mean of the number of people that became more spiritual and those who denounced God?
Rachel H: I think that probably a somewhat larger percentage of people probably denounced God, although it’s probably more even than some people think, in terms of people who got more religious.
Frederick Cherna is an interesting case in point. He grew up in a very kind of intelligentsia, not a very religious environment to begin with. The war soured him completely. He was in Theresinstadt and several camps after that. He made a point during my interview with him, consistently saying that he was a atheist, that he didn’t believe in God. Yet, every Saturday —-he was married for the second time to a younger woman and had a small child — every Saturday he took this child to synagogue. He would sit there. He wouldn’t pray; but, he would sit there and suddenly feel peaceful. I asked him. I said, “Why do you feel drawn to a spiritual place of worship if you don’t believe that there is a God?’ He had no answer!
Roger: Maybe that was his answer.
Rachel Hager is our guest, ladies and gentlemen. She is senior editor of Parents’ Magazine and editor of this book, “When They Came to Take My Father: Voices of the Holocaust” photographs by Mark Seliger. What an incredible bunch of photographs they are!
We’ll be right back!
Roger: Welcome back, ladies and gentlemen. Rachel Hager is our guest. We’re talking about the book, “When They Came to Take My Father,” a wonderful book filled with just captivating stories about people who survived the holocaust with photographs by Mark Seliger, some of the finest photographs you’ll ever see in your life! Just amazing work!
Rachel, another wonderful quote, probably the one that was the most unsettling for me, was Flora Hagner’s quote, “I think I shut off all understanding. The only thing I knew was that my mother wasn’t there and I knew I wasn’t supposed to say I was a Jew. In some way, I guess I knew I wasn’t supposed to exist.” That’s a powerful statement because I think it really sums up the feeling that a lot of people must have had, that “we’re not supposed to exist!”
Rachel H: Right!
Roger: And they almost didn’t exist! Powerful!
Rachel H: But, these survivors are actually testimony to the fact that they do continue to exist and that Hitler was not successful! That was the driving force that really pushed a lot of people on. One man, Feldinger, said that the only thing that got him through was knowing that his father had said to him, when all this is over you have to go home. That was what kept him alive during Auschwitz.
Roger: Oh, boy. Let’s go to Larry in Fort Smith, Arkansas. You’re on the radio, Larry!
Caller-Larry: Good evening, Rachel and Roger! Rachel, my mother-in-law who is 89 now and lives with us, was in a convent in Budapest Hungary in 1937 going to be a nun. She had not taken her vows yet. She was a family friend with some Jewish people. To save this Jewish man’s life, who is my father-in-law, she married him! The priest there helped with paperwork saying that he was Catholic. Unfortunately, my father-in-law’s sister died at Dachau. My mother-in-law saved my father-in-law, saved his ex-wife and his son. I guess there are stories all over the world where people have really done a lot of things to save these people Of course, thank God for me, I got to marry their daughter! He escaped from the communists in Hungary in 1956 with his son. My wife came over in 1960.
Roger, you might remember this! It was on the news when Douglas Edwards did the news; my father-in-law knew Garst in Iowa who Kruschev stayed with back in 1960. Does that sound right?
Roger: I wasn’t there, Larry.
Caller-Larry: Well anyway, he wrote him a letter in 1959 and Mr. Garst talked to Kruschev and they made a big deal about letting my mother-in-law and my wife who was 13 years old at the time. It was on Douglas Edwards news. For some reason or other, I remember it even though I was only 13 years old.
I guess I’m going to get your book because I’m sure your book is full of great stories of people pretty much committed everything, including their life, to save people.
Roger: This is the kind of book, Larry, that you put on the coffee table in the living room and everybody is going to spend hours thumbing through it. They won’t be able to put it down! Just because the photographs add so much to it. It’s really a compelling book!
Caller-Larry: Awhile ago, Roger, you were talking about having trouble, even though you’ve never been on a cattle car. My wife, right now, does not talk about things like that. If it hadn’t been for my father-in-law and mother-in-law I would never have known because, even though she was born in 1947, she knew what her father had went through. He’d lost everything! He was a very wealthy man back in the 1930s and between Hitler and the Communists, they took it all! It was a bad deal all around. Like I said, there’s a lot of people in the world that have the same story.
Roger: Larry, thank you very much! We appreciate you sharing with us. Rachel, one more time, give the publisher’s infomration so people can order it that way if they can’t find it in their bookstore.
Rachel H: Sure! The name of the publisher is Arcade Publishing. They’re in New York. It’s an imprint of Little Brown. The phone number is 212-475-2633.
Roger: Alright, let’s go to Brian in Central Point, Oregon. Brian, very quickly because we’re running tight on time.
Caller-Brian: I understand. I was reading Einstein’s biography and some friends mine too, discussing things that are similar to that time in Germany here in the United States. With Germany, you could go to another country and get away from it all. What do we do in this country when you see the government doing things like this creeping up? It’s not as bad as the holocaust; but, you can see it’s eventually going to come with Christians and the anti-semitism and things going on. What do we do?
Roger: Well, we have to fight against it, Brian. You know, that’s a good question! Maybe real quickly, Rachel, before you go—-do you find when you interview these folks, did any of them have regrets they didn’t see it coming soon and fight against it harder?
Rachel H: I think they all live with intense guilt complexes for having survived, for not having fought even through they couldn’t have fought. And, mostly for surviving when others did not. But, I think your point is absolutely correct. What we do is we fight against it when we see the early signs. I think that at the time it was unfathomable that any human being could do these things to another human being. The point was that Jews were not looked at as human beings. They were demoted to animal status in peoples’ minds. So, it didn’t matter.
Roger: And maybe in their own minds because of the conditions were horrible! Rachel, I appreciate your being here. It’s been a wonderful hour! Your book is wonderful! Your work is wonderful! Mark’s work is fantastic! I just want to thank you folks for leaving this legacy!
Rachel H: Thank you!
Roger: Thank you and God bless! Alright folks, that’s Rachel Hager. You can order it at your bookstore, “When They Came to Take My Father: Voices of the Holocaust,” photographs by Mark Seliger. I’ll tell you something, you could have this on the coffee table and everyone would want to look at it! It’s that good! It’s really good!
Transcription is from MP3 file converted from original cassette with minimal editing by Chey Simonton.
Errors, if any, may be due to unintelligible sections of original 1997 audio technology. Unknown/unintelligible words are spelled phonetically.)