The two women who once shared a plank for a bed in the squalid bunkers of Auschwitz and now, miraculously, live down the path from each other at the same senior complex would rather talk about their doctor’s appointments than the unimaginable experience they endured.
Retelling the story of jumping from a train to avoid a hail of Nazi gunfire, or surviving in the Siberian tundra for three years with nothing but an ax, or dying your black hair red to look like a Dutch family’s 6-year-old son when the Nazi soldiers came?
“Nah, some of them just want their peace — they deserve their peace,” said Henry Blumenstein, 76, who is one of about 50Holocaust survivors living on the campus of the Charles E. Smith Life Communities in Rockville.
There are only a few hundred thousand Holocaust survivors left in the world. Israeli historians estimate that 32 survivors die every day in their country.
As they age, the memories become more gauzy. And sometimes, the resolve to leave the worst memories behind wins.
The fear, of course, is that as the survivors age and die, the palpable, very human retelling of that tragedy dies with them.
Blumenstein is one of the talkers. “I find talking about it is more healing,” he told me before we settled into comfortable chairs for the story.
It’s draining and emotional still, but give him a couple of hours and he will take you on his boat trip to Cuba as a 4-year-old, he’ll show you the picture of his little hand waving a handkerchief to his father below on land, where the passengers weren’t allowed to disembark.
He’ll take you back to Europe, where his ship had to return after two perilous journeys living in the stern’s lowest levels among the rats and the vegetables. And he’ll make you cry as he tells you his mother’s final words to him, when she left him to live with poor, Dutch farmers, who promised to hide him among their eight children.
“You’re not coming with me,” she told him, unlocking their embrace, gone forever.
“Gassed in Auschwitz,” the registry told him when he finally, 40 years later, learned her fate.
Not all of the survivors will tell it all. Some tell it reluctantly.
Gisella Simon, now 88, and her friend Sara Weich slept on lice-infested straw in their Auschwitz bunk, bracing against the freezing wind that tore through the shed. They existed on thin vegetable soup and worked all day, amid fear and outbursts of violence, they told Emily Tipermas, who works for the assisted living facility and is compiling the stories of survivors.
When they arrived in cattle cars at the concentration camp, there were 800 prisoners. They were among 200 left when the camp was finally liberated. The two women eventually came to the United States and stayed in touch, through children, moves and cancer. They both decided to move to the Rockville campus, which has Hebrew Home and a kosher kitchen and halvah sweets at the snack bar.