a holocaust memoir

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    “Feigela,” Papa’s eyes were moist as he spoke my Yiddish name. “I want you should write my story.” He was looking out a glassed-in porch, four stories above a deeply green manicured lawn where a serene blue river cut precise S-shapes throughout. Animating this Disney-perfect shoreline were dozens of bright white herons, while common hawks flew overhead. We were sitting on the terrace in one of several identical condominiums inside Papa’s gated community in Boca Raton, Florida.

“But it’s not just in the camps I had to survive,” Papa said. “All my life I’ve come up against roadblocks and had to find ways to push through. I lived my life always with my kids in mind. I want they should know my story so that they can learn to survive, too.”

Ever since I started writing for my college newspaper Papa had thought of me as “The Writer.” That’s why he wanted me to write about the personal struggles he faced in childhood, in the Holocaust, and then when he came to America. He had never told anyone these stories before. Not to his first wife nor his second current wife, nor to any of his five children, nine grandchildren or ten great-grandchildren.

“People should know,” Papa had decided, “so that it doesn’t happen again. I lost most of my family - parents, sisters, a brother, cousins, so many killed. I suffered conditions you shouldn’t know from. But I never complained. I’m just an ordinary man who lived his life.”

I took out a notebook.

Here is what Papa told me.

~ ~ ~

Felice:    Do you ever have nightmares of those days?

Papa:      Sometimes, but I try not to think about it.

                There are some mornings when I wake up and

                feel like I'm suffocating and I have to run out

                and take a deep breath. (Pauses) I want you

                should put all these stories of the concentration

                camps together, one after the other, how I


Felice:    Okay, Papa. I will.

~ ~ ~

Chapter 1 sample

    My name is Murray Schwartzbaum. I had a regular, normal childhood. At least it started off normal. I had the usual: a mother and father, one older brother, and four sisters. We all lived together, along with my grandmother, in a small house that had an extra room with a separate entrance that my parents rented to an older man. At night we closed off the kitchen with a curtain and my brother Joseph and I shared a bed on the other side. The four girls slept in one bedroom on two small beds and my parents had their own room. When my grandmother - my mother’s mother - came to live with us, we built a separate room for her and she had her own kitchen.

In our shtetl (village) in Szczekociny, Poland, not too far from Krakow, there were hundreds of families, almost half of them Jewish. But what everyone had in common, Jewish or not, was that they all had only a little money. Compared to most of them, my family was well off. We weren’t rich but we never went hungry. Not then, anyway. We did have enough money to pay for two women who worked for us, one to cook and one to clean and care for the kids. All of us went to school until we were thirteen and then we went to work.

~ ~ ~

Chapter 2 sample

    I remember that first night, Kristallnacht they call it, because of all the broken glass on the streets of our town. In one day, the Germans destroyed many Jewish businesses and burned down every shul. No one could believe it. We were in shock. I kept hoping I would wake up from a nightmare. It was a wake-up that many decided to ignore, thinking it couldn’t get worse. But my brother Joseph knew better. He paid someone to smuggle him to the border and he made it safely to Russia. He had begged me to go with him, but I stayed with my family. If we knew even a part of what was coming, we all would have gone with Joseph to Russia.

    By September 1939 when the Nazis invaded Poland, we realized it was too late to escape. We sent my grandmother to live with my mother’s sister Sarah, and she died soon after. Many old people died quickly as if they knew what was coming, as if they knew they’d be the first killed. Our family did not want to be separated again, so my father decided it was time for all of us to leave Bedzin. My parents, four sisters and I all went back to Szczekociny. We did not think Hitler’s army would come so fast, but we were wrong.