Soon there will be few people left who actually remember the Holocaust—how their families were taken in cattle carts to camps, how they were separated from their families, tortured both physically and mentally...how they're the only ones among their brothers and sisters...aunts, uncles and cousins, who survived—but remembrance isn't just about having lived through the Holocaust.
It's about commemorating the lives and deaths of those who suffered. International Holocaust Remembrance Day is April 19. Though most of us who didn't live through it tend to stop and think about the events between 1939 and 1942 only one day out of 365 per year, survivors will forever have those years embedded in their minds, hearts and souls.
Irene B., a Yonkers resident, is one of the strong, Jewish women who survived—and even stronger than her will to live, perhaps, is her willingness to divulge her story.
With blond hair, an infectious smile and an indefatigable drive that motivates her to attend fitness classes in Dobbs Ferry every week—Irene doesn't project any of what she endured in 1941 and 42.
"I was taken to a prison in Liskovac, Yugoslavia," she recalled stoically. "I was separated from my mother and put in a cell. Every day a tall, slim, red-haired prison guard came into my room with a gun and said, 'If you scream, I'll blow your head off.' And then he raped me every day for nine months."
Irene was born in Warsaw, where she lived with her family. When her parents divorced, she went to live with her mother, who moved to Yugoslavia to be with another man. Her brother stayed back in Poland with her father.
"We lived in a house for two and a half years in Belgrade, Yugoslavia," she said. (Belgrade is now part of Serbia.) "But once the war came to Yugoslavia, we had to escape."
At just fifteen, Irene literally ran through the woods with her mother to flee from the German and Czec troops.
"Nobody would take us in; they were too frightened," she said. "So we slept in the woods." While in the forest, Irene was bitten by a poisonous snake; to this day, her finger is still bloated and distorted.
The pair were eventually caught and taken to the prison in Liskovac.
"There, I was mentally and physically tortured," she said.
Every morning, Irene awoke to the screams of other prisoners outside being beaten with wooden boards. "They would scream and cry; that's what I remember most," she said. "And they weren't guilty of anything...other than being Jewish. That was my breakfast."
The physical abuse was the rape.
"Luckily I didn't get pregnant, or contract Syphilis or Gonorrhea, which were both common then."
Then again, it would have been hard for her to get pregnant, living off of one bowl of "potato" soup a day. "I never saw one potato in it—ever—but I never thought that malnutrition was what saved me from getting pregnant all that time," she said thoughtfully.
After being freed from prison, Irene remained in Yugoslavia for a time; but she was still not safe.
"One day, a group of Germans torched the building I lived in, locking all of us in the basement," she recalled. "I don't know where this came from, but I yelled in German 'Stop stop—there are young children here."
And someone opened the door.
"It just occurred to me recently that I saved all 45 people in that basement."
Though Irene and her mother survived, everyone else in her family died.
"I had two aunts: One went to Russia to escape with her family. They were all shot by Stalin's forces; my other aunt was in her apartment in Warsaw, when Germans came to the door"—
Irene's aunt ran to the balcony and flung herself onto the street.
"She broke both legs, and lived only another two years after that."
Irene's brother was shot while working for the Polish underground forces fighting the Germans in Warsaw.
Her father was gassed in a camp, Treblinka, she thinks.
How does Irene know all of this?
"A family friend—really more like a family member—came to Italy, where my mother and I were after the war. I don't know exactly how she found us to tell us what happened."
Irene was on the first flight to Italy from Yugoslavia after the war. "I think it's because my mother and I were in prison and not a camp—we had hair, everyone else was bald, so the Italians took us in."
There she lived in a "Displaced Person's Camp" in Santa Maria di Bari. "If Italy is a boot, this was in the heel," she said. "We had a good life there—[pause] relatively speaking."
Once the camp was liberated, Irene and her mother came to New York.
"Here, it was scary; there were Germans everywhere; when they looked at me, I shuddered."
It was years before Irene could speak to anyone German.
Sixty years later, Irene has two daughters and four grandchildren. Like any mother, she beams when she talks about them. "My youngest grandson is graduating from college this year," she said.
But not everyone's story has a happy ending like Irene's. That's why synagogues across the Hudson Valley—and the world—are taking the time to commemorate the tragedy that stole the lives of six million people.
"The enormity of what happened is still too much to take in; it simply boggles the mind and threatens to defeat all attempts to maintain faith in the goodness of humankind," said Rabbi Mark Sameth of the Pleasantville Community Synagogue. "What saves us from such despair is knowing that there were people who tried to stop it; that there were non-Jews who put their own lives at risk as they sought to save their friends and neighbors."
But even Irene's mother, who made it all the way through—staying strong for her daughter—faced a horrific end in America.
"Once she got here, she began to get paranoid of everyone," Irene said, demonstrating, her mother's scared cat-like movements. Since Post Traumatic Stress Disorder was not recognized at the time, it was virtually untreatable. Irene's mother died in a mental institution.
It's a fact: There won't be many more survivors from whom we can glean first-hand anecdotes as years pass. So it's invaluable to learn them now, document them—
There is a county-wide event at the Jacob Burns Film Center today and Pleasantville Community Synagogue is hosting a memorial service on Sunday at 3:30 pm.
Also, there will be a film screening and discussion tonight at the Mahopac Public Library.
If you know of other events, film screenings, discussions or services, please post them in the comments section below.
*Editor's note: Irene B. asked to have her last name withheld for purposes of confidentiality.