Guest blogger Shauna Stein is president of the Jewish Law Student Association at Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law and participated in the first cohort of the Valley Beit Midrash Jewish Leadership Corps. This piece was written Sept. 22, just before Yom Kippur.
As I write this piece, it is the eve of Yom Kippur. Earlier this afternoon, I received an email from Harold Minuskin, a Holocaust survivor. He informed me that the Polish government recently announced that former Jewish citizens of Poland who survived the Holocaust would be eligible for a small pension for the valuables and property their families lost during that period. To qualify, you must prove that you lived in Poland during the Holocaust. Harold relayed to me that he has applied, since he has about four Polish documents that prove that his family members were in or near their hometown of Zhetel (Zdenciol in Polish) from 1937 to 1945.
Harold has been sending me several thought-provoking materials since I first met him. Harold encourages me to continue my scholarship on this topic.
Though this article triggers many emotions and thoughts, I am choosing to write about an important cognitive strength that my correspondence with Harold Minuskin has taught me over the course of the summer: the power of wanting to live and the power of a positive outlook on life.
My relationship with Harold Minuskin began at the end of April when he read a piece that I had written for a law school course on moral leadership. I wrote about Tuvia Bielski and other Jewish partisans who exhibited great perseverance and other leadership strengths during the Holocaust. (Tuvia Bielski’s character was played by Daniel Craig in the 2008 movie, “Defiance.”)
Harold survived the Holocaust because of the great perseverance of his mother, Sonia Minuskin, and other Jewish partisans led by Hershel Kaplinsky in the Lenin Atriad in Nazi-occupied forests. It was a true and complete honor when Harold awarded me with a scholarship, in honor of his mother.
Harold attended the scholarship reception with his wife. He carried a big brown box, printed with my name in red Hebrew letters, and tied with string. The box was filled with books on the Holocaust. Shortly after I received my award, Harold whispered to me, “Now is your chance to ask questions. I will be having heart surgery soon.”
I felt a huge responsibility to help spread education about the Holocaust. All these months, I had an opportunity to write more about a topic I feel passionately about, yet I did not begin writing until this very moment. Honestly, however, I also felt overwhelmed. I selfishly thought to myself, “I have no time and I don’t even know where to start. I have law school finals, an internship starting soon, a clinic, summer school, etc.”
During the summer, however, I had an opportunity to read the book that Harold translated on behalf of his mother. He told me how awful he felt that his mother was never able to see the finished product, or see the book published. He relayed to me that it was too emotionally painful to relive all those memories and that he blamed himself for not working through it faster.
As I read the book, I realized what an amazing hero Harold’s mother was, and how Harold’s mother never really received recognition for what she did.
Harold’s mother had two little babies, Harold and his little brother. No one wanted Harold’s mother to hide with them, and no peasants were willing to hide her with two little baby boys, at the risk that their crying might give away their hiding place to the adversaries. I cannot even begin to imagine what agony Harold’s mother went through, and what great internal conflicts she had within herself. In her memoirs, Harold’s mother recounts how peasants thought she was crazy yelling at herself when she struggled with the decision to not abandon her babies, who were so eager to live. She said that what kept her going was seeing the desire to live in her babies’ eyes, when they stared at her. Quite simply, it was perseverance and the desire to live that kept them going.
Harold said the following to me, which gave me shivers:
“Just imagine that you are all alone with two very young children. You are trying to hide and escape from people that want to kill you because you are a Jew. You only have the clothing you are wearing. Even non-Jews who have known your family for many years shun you because they fear for their lives. No one is willing to help, to provide scraps of food or water.”
At one time, Harold’s mother wanted to give away her infant son to nuns. She thought to herself, “At least, one of us will survive if he is raised as a Christian child.” However, Harold’s mother changed her mind and was committed to survival. Essentially, failure was not even an option in her mind.
At that point, Harold’s mother had already witnessed the slaughter of most of her family and friends. Harold’s mother and her two boys were now in the ghetto where there was hunger and death all around them. The Germans created an atmosphere of death and reprisals for the slightest offense.
One example written in Harold’s mother’s memoirs is when the Jews of Zhetel were standing in line to give up their valuables. One Jewish woman was arbitrarily selected by one of the German guards. She was accused of withholding some valuables. Of course, this was not true. Nevertheless, the German guard persisted that the woman was holding back some of her family’s valuables. No amount of pleading would help this poor woman. The German guard pulled out his pistol and shot her in view of the rest of the Jews who were standing in line. Thus, the Germans continuously created an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty.
Writing this simply gives me goose bumps. We have so many frivolous things that we worry about in life. Harold survived and is here with us today because for days his mother, his brother and grandmother and other family members hid underneath a toilet behind their house. Harold’s father was smart enough to dig a deep hole underneath the toilet, as he knew that the sophisticated German soldiers would not want to look under a toilet. When Harold and his brother were dehydrated and thirsty as they were hiding there, Harold’s mother moistened Harold’s lips and Harold’s little brother’s lips with urine from their grandmother.
Harold spent the first several years of his life in the forest. Harold’s mother wrote in her memoirs that the Soviet Partisans would spend time with the little boys because it would bring them joy to remember their own families. When the Soviet Partisans would ask the little boys what a bicycle was, the little boys would point to a squirrel. Their lives were so far removed from the society they once knew.
I am only touching upon a hair of what happened, or the small amount of what I heard from my encounters with Harold. After the war, Harold, his brother and his parents returned to their home. It was used as an office for German soldiers during the war. None of their valuables, furniture or clothes remained in the home. One time, Harold’s mother even saw a fellow villager wearing her scarf that was taken from her home during the war.
Anti-Semitism still persisted. Harold’s parents engaged in the black market to make ends meet, and the surrounding villagers coveted their earnings. Harold’s family ultimately immigrated to the United States, and they resided in New York. Harold’s family would attend social events with Tuvia Bielski (the man, who initially inspired me to write about moral leadership during the Holocaust) and his family. Harold also sent me a picture of his cousin who had a picture taken with Bielski.
During our correspondence, Harold told me that during the later years when they lived in New York, his mother never missed a party. He told me, “She was the life of the party. She enjoyed herself as if to make up for all the bad years. Despite everything, my mother had a positive outlook on life.”
I think that Harold’s mother passed on a very positive quality to her son. A few weeks ago, Harold sent me an email that brightened my day. He wrote: “It has been a little over 3 months since my open heart surgery… I forced myself to begin walking, 1/2 mile each day at first. Now I am up to 1 mile each morning… When I was discharged I looked like one of the ghetto people; I had lost lots of weight. Now, I am gaining back at the rate of about 2 lbs each week. I should be good as new in another 3 months.”
With all this being said, why did Harold’s email today compel me to write this piece?
I think that the important takeaway is for the world to know that time and time again, wicked people have tried to wipe out, destroy and obliterate the Jewish religion, race, people and culture. However, at the end of the day, one thing is certain. They have not obstructed our desire to live, our commitment to living life and to all of life’s possibilities. We still clutch to our identities and we still fight for our rights. Moreover, the struggles of our ancestors made us stronger and made us persevere.
Essentially, these wicked people did not win. They lost the game.
I am forever thankful for what Harold has taught me. Harold has taught me to embrace life and to encourage others to think about concepts that might be difficult to acknowledge.
May you be inscribed in the book of life, this eve of Yom Kippur.
The producers of PBS’s “Genealogy Roadshow” are collecting family stories from viewers in the southwestern United States. Any residents of the Phoenix area with a burning question about their family’s history, or those with a family mystery that has gone unsolved, are encouraged to submit their story to genealogyroadshow.org/casting-page/ or by emailing directly to Casting@genealogyroadshow.org – for possible inclusion on the PBS program next season.
“Genealogy Roadshow” enlists members of the public and PBS’s viewing audience to help connect them to their individual pasts. The show’s genealogists dive further into the research of each participant and properly illustrate the process of how to put the pieces of the people’s life puzzle back together.
Stories must be submitted by Friday, Oct. 2, for consideration.
In a new online exhibit, Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial museum, presents a glimpse into some of the ways that Jews marked the High Holidays before, during and immediately after the Holocaust.
“Marking the New Year” – click here to see it in English – features approximately 50 items from Yad Vashem’s collections, including greeting cards, documents, religious artifacts and testimonies – all relating to the Jewish New Year.
Featured items include Rosh Hashanah cards written by children in the Bergen-Belsen camp, a shofar that survived the war and a Jewish calendar that includes illustrations by a man who did not survive the Holocaust. May their memory never be forgotten.
The exhibit is featured in English, Hebrew and Spanish.