BREMERTON, Wash. (NNS) -- Naval Hospital Bremerton's Diversity Council held a special recognition observance for Holocaust, Days of Remembrance April 17.
The theme of this year's event was "Choosing to Act: Stories of Rescue," highlighted by a very personal narrative and historical retrospective shared by keynote speaker Mr. Sheldon Balberman, from the Washington State Holocaust Education Resource Center. Balberman is a second generation son of Polish survivors from the Nazi persecution during World War II.
"The subject is a little bit difficult for me because it's about my family and my emotions are real," said Balberman, who addresses schools and specific groups five or six times a year educating audiences on the Holocaust.
With vivid details and visual aids, Balberman took assembled staff members 73 years back into the past, to Strykow, a tiny village in central Poland in 1939. He told how his mother, Shaindel Kuttas, was then a young 17-year old who was herded away by the Nazis to varied ghettos, then to toil in fields until the day came when she joined 79 others in a cramped railway cattle-car to be taken to Majdanek concentration camp.
"There was death inside that car. Someone said to her to fight, so she clawed and fought her way to the top over others so she could breathe. Only three survived during that ride out more than 80," said Balberman.
His mother's personal odyssey continued on a harrowing journey. She ended up at the infamous Auschwitz-Birkenau and Ravensbrueck concentration camps before being finally liberated in Germany by the Russians while on a death march from Auschwitz back into Germany.
"The death march was in mid-January during winter. They had no shoes and were all exhausted and ill. If any stopped to rest they were shot down by the Nazi guards," Balberman said.
It was one horror after another. Auschwitz-Birkenau was where the notorious Joseph Mengele, dubbed the 'angel of death,' selected 400,000 persons for death and conducted grotesque experiments. "Every morning my mother and others had to parade before him and have him decide life or death. Dawn to dusk they had to work. Women were so desperate that some of them would prick their fingers to draw blood in order to rub color in their cheeks to try to make themselves more attractive to their tormentor," said Balberman.
His mother faced death by execution on three different occasions. One time was due to being punished for stealing a piece of bread. She was made to knee forward, arms outstretched, holding a brick in each hand, with a rifle pointed at her head. If she dropped her arms, she would be shot. It was only because the guard took pity on her that she lived because he deemed that she was still strong enough to work.
The only link, the sole memoir that Balberman's mother had of her family from that time was a yellowed photograph showing 48 relatives taken in 1934 that was then forwarded on to an uncle in Canada. Only five of that group survived the Holocaust.
"My mother always stressed the need to "never give up" and "never forget," said Balberman, stressing that notion applies to anyone.
Balberman's father Sender was also a victim of the time, with a tortuous trail similar in hardships but still different than his future wife. Following the Nazi blitzkrieg of Poland in 1939, Sender smuggled himself and his oldest brother (Moishe) across the border into Russia. He was ultimately arrested for not having any identification and was sent to a Siberian labor camp. There he spent three years working daily in sub-human conditions, often being forced to work outdoors as a lumberjack with minimum clothing in minus 50 degree weather.
"He was a guest under Joseph Stalin, then-leader of the Soviet Union. The difference between a Nazi concentration camp and a Soviet labor camp was that the Nazi camps were expressly built to kill people. The Soviets camps wanted to work them to death, in horrendous conditions," Balberman said.
While many fellow prisoners died, Sender found a will to live and overcame horrendous conditions of disease, severe cold and grossly unsanitary conditions. Sender was finally liberated from the labor camp when the Free Polish Army came searching for Polish citizens to fight the Nazis. He and his older brother were the only survivors of his family.
His parents met after the war's end in 1948 in Munich. They knew each other from growing up in the same village but never had a romantic interest back then. But that was another lifetime long ago. They courted for several weeks. Then Balberman's mother took the initiative. Shaindel proposed to Sender. She immigrated to Canada and he followed.
Historical evidence on the Holocaust shows that approximately six million European Jews that were persecuted and exterminated during the Nazi Germany reign of terror from 1933 to 1945 didn't follow Balberman's parents. Adolf Hitler, leader of the Nazi party, exploited anti-Semitic feelings during his rise to power and then ordered what he termed a "final solution to the Jewish question." Most Jews in countries like Poland that were overrun by the Nazis became victims of the Holocaust.
"The one who does not remember history is bound to live it through again," said Balberman, quoting Spanish-born U.S. philosopher George Santayana. "It is up to us all that anytime we see anyone stereotyped we speak up because that's a cause for concern. If it is not you today, it could be tomorrow."
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