The Soul Survivor

How did so few hold up under the horrors of the Holocaust when so many were annihilated? In an interview with her father, a veteran of Auschwitz, Smadar Reisfeld tries to get to the roots of survivability.

Tomer Appelbaum

Any Case / Wislawa Szymborska

It could have happened.

It had to happen.

It happened earlier. Later.

Closer. Farther away.

It happened, but not to you.

You survived because you were first.

You survived because you were last.

Because alone. Because the others.

Because on the left. Because on the right.

Because it was raining. Because it was sunny.

Because a shadow fell.

Luckily there was a forest.

Luckily there were no trees.

Luckily a rail, a hook, a beam, a brake,

A frame, a turn, an inch, a second.

Luckily a straw was floating on the water.

Thanks to, thus, in spite of, and yet.

What would have happened if a hand, a leg,

One step, a hair away?

(Translated from the Polish by Grazyna Drabik and Sharon Olds)

The poet Wislawa Szymborska, who wrote those lines, did not know my father and yet knew him well. Down to the last planned, random, trivial, fateful detail.

January 27, 2015, marked the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by the Red Army, and my father – prisoner No. A19023 – was there on that day. He survived because he had the good fortune to be critically ill. When most of the inmates, about 66,000 in number, set out on what later became known as a “death march,” he was confined to the camp’s hospital with severe pneumonia, which left him unable to walk. Thus it happened that he survived and became one of few who were liberated in Auschwitz itself.

But luck alone was not responsible for the marvelous story of the survival of Haim Gil, previously Gelipter, my father. As in every serpentine dramatic saga, many factors combined to drive the plot forward and bring it to its happy end. And it wasn’t just physical survival. It wasn’t only his body that survived; his soul, too, remained vital and loving, soft and life-craving.

He’s 88 now, his blue eyes unseeing but his vision unerringly clear. He harbors not an iota of bitterness. I have never heard him curse the Germans, Poles or, in general, the “goyim.” He is an incorrigible optimist, intensely curious and loves humanity. My amazement at his impressive power of survival was thus always overlaid by astonishment at his mental resilience and his ability to live in equanimity.

Tell me about the moment of liberation.

“It wasn’t one moment. We’d been hearing sounds of war for weeks, and a few months earlier the Americans bombed the facility at Buna. [The complex known as “Auschwitz” consisted of three main camps: Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II – also known as Auschwitz-Birkenau – and Auschwitz III, also called Auschwitz-Buna or Auschwitz-Monowitz]. I mention this, because the Americans are accused of not bombing Auschwitz. It’s true that they did not bomb the rail lines, but they hit the facility at Buna.

“On January 17, 1945, I was in the hospital in Buna. German officers entered and took out everyone who was capable of walking. I was not one of them. I was an 18-year-old ‘Muselmann’ [a prisoner assumed to be about to die] who weighed 27 kilos [60 pounds]. They left me there with the other seriously ill people, and it was clear that they were going to kill us. That was the only selektzia I didn’t get through. With my last remaining strength, I snuck out at night and made my way back to my original barracks, from which I had gone into the hospital.

“The next morning, when everyone lined up for the daily roll call, I stood among them and tried to create the impression that I was all right. I thought we would be placed on the trains that were waiting outside the fence, but when people started to leave I saw that they were walking, which was beyond me. My legs wouldn’t hold me.

“After five years, during which I struggled and evaded and improvised and endured, I realized that this was it. This time it was the end. I turned to a friend from my town who was standing next to me and told him I was going back to the hospital. ‘If you stay alive and get to Eretz Israel,’ I said to him, ‘Look up my older brother and tell him I stayed here.’

“I returned to the hospital and lay down on my bed. I heard the camp emptying out. Two S.S. officers came in. They scanned the beds and removed the patients’ cards. One of them said to the other, ‘We’ll wait a little. Let’s give them another two hours,’ and then they left. An hour later, the Russians began bombing madly. The camp started to burn. Everything went up in flames, except for one area: the hospital. After a while I staggered out. The camp was empty, the gates were breached, it was quiet.”

About 800 inmates remained in the hospital. One of them was the writer Primo Levi, who described his experience in his book “If This Is a Man” (U.S. title: “Survival in Auschwitz”).

“Suddenly we were alone,” my father continues, “without Germans and without Russians. Most of the patients just died; without medical care and without food and drink they couldn’t pull through. My condition was good compared to the others – I was able to drag myself to the kitchen, where I found remnants of food. I dug in the snow outside the camp’s fence to find potatoes that the farmers stored there. Water was not a problem: I took some snow, and it melted in the barrack.

“On January 27, 1945, 10 days after the Germans left, I went outside. At this stage, I couldn’t walk anymore, not even with difficulty; I crawled through the snow. A tank entered the camp and stopped in front of me. An officer jumped out. He asked me, in Yiddish, ‘Are you a Jew?’ ‘Yes,’ I replied. He kneeled down next to me and said, ‘I am also a Jew. Come.’ He picked me up and carried me in his arms to the tank. I spent three weeks in a clinic that the Russian army set up in Auschwitz, and then they told us to go home.”

But there was no home left to go to.

My father was born in Przytyk (pronounced pshitik), a small town in Poland about 100 kilometers south of Warsaw. Its population was predominantly Jewish. The town gained international fame in the wake of a pogrom perpetrated there in 1936: The assailants encountered unexpected resistance, including the use of pistols. The Nazis later studied the event in order to gauge the potential for uprising by the Jews against the “Final Solution.” The Yiddish song “Unzer Shtetl Brent” (“Our Town Is Burning”) was written about this pogrom.

I ask my father what kind of boy he was, and he answers with his perpetual quintessential innocence: “A good boy. I liked helping out in the house, I didn’t get into fights. A kind of geek. I only fought back when the shkutzim [gentiles] hit us on the way to school or threw snowballs with stones inside at us.” His father, who died before the war, was a watchmaker; his mother managed what’s known as a department store today

When I was a girl, I used to shower with cold water sometimes in the winter, to see whether I’d have been able to survive the Holocaust. Once in a while I skipped a meal. The results were dismal. How does one survive everything you went through?

“I’ll tell you something. When the train stopped at Auschwitz, I had no idea what that place was. On the ramp, I met someone from my town, who was already a veteran inmate, and I asked him where I was. He pointed to smoke that was coming out of a chimney and said, ‘See that? That is the only way you leave here.’ I told myself that if I had survived everything until now, there was a chance I would get through this, too. Because, before that I was in a labor camp, before that with partisans, and even before that, in the ghetto. Each place was harder than the one before, so there was time to adapt.

“I remember that when I was already in Auschwitz, a transport of Jews from Paris arrived. I saw them standing on the ramp, well-groomed and elegant, and I felt pity for them. I knew they had no idea what awaited them and that the fall would be devastating. And the truth is that they did not last long. But I went through things and knew it was possible to come out of even the worst situations if you didn’t lose hope.”

This conversation is taking place a few weeks after my mother’s death, and my father and I both contemplate the relevance of what he has just said. About the possibility of surviving at the age of 88 after losing the woman he lived with for 58 years. I remind him of his inner strength and of the love of life that never forsook him, not even after he went blind.

Privileged prisoners

You say that time is important for adapting and that you have to believe in yourself. What else?

“Resourcefulness and luck,” he says, “and neither one is enough by itself.”

What do you mean by resourcefulness?

“Resourcefulness means exploiting opportunities. Seeing that something is about to happen and taking action. Not sitting and waiting. For example, getting another slice of bread from the farmers who live next to the camp in exchange for a blanket that you wrapped around your waist and smuggled outside the fence. Or, by escaping when possible. At one stage, my brother and I were taken from the ghetto and transported to a camp that, according to the rumors, was absolutely terrible. When the truck stopped at an alehouse and the soldiers went in for a drink, we saw that the driver they had left to guard us was dozing, so we jumped out and escaped.

“For example, when I arrived in Auschwitz, and the ‘selection’ by [Dr. Josef] Mengele, began, I hurried to stand next to the shortest and thinnest people, so that compared to them I would look big and strong. You have to keep examining the situation and make it work in your favor.”

Sometimes, though, resourcefulness took the form of not exploiting an opportunity. In the ghetto of Radom, a large district capital in central Poland, my father worked in the house of a senior S.S. officer. Every morning a Jewish policeman came to the ghetto to take him and another youth to work. The two cleaned the house, shined shoes and fed the rabbits that were kept in the garden.

One day, when my father was arranging clothes in a cupboard, he stuck his hand into a coat pocket and encountered a hard, cold object. It was a pistol. He turned it over and over, ran his hand across it and thought what to do. Finally, he slid it back into the coat pocket. In life, a pistol in the first act doesn’t always have to be fired in the third act.

“There were also mistaken decisions,” he recalls. “When the labor camp I was in was liquidated and we were sent to Auschwitz, we were divided into groups. One group consisted of the well-connected and privileged people in the camp. I snuck into their group, thinking it would be useful to tie my fate to theirs. Mistake! In contrast to other groups, they were crammed into a closed cattle car, in which there were only two small openings covered with barbed wire. It was the end of July and unbearably hot. There were 120 people stuffed into a closed train car for three days without water.

“After a time, people started to die, so there was a little more room. Occasionally, when the train stopped at a village, there were farmers who pushed a bottle of water through an opening. One time, when I was about to drink from a bottle, someone hit me on the head with a pot. I fell to the floor and he got the water.”

But even that mistaken decision ended well somehow, because otherwise we wouldn’t be having this conversation today.

“Luckily, on the last night of the journey, something happened to the cattle car and we were moved into an open car. I remember how happy I was. Like I’d been reborn. So, resourcefulness and luck always go hand in hand; all the resourcefulness in the world is worthless without luck.

“Before Auschwitz, I worked in a munitions plant in a labor camp. One day, rumors started circulating that the camp was going to be liquidated. The Germans were edgy because of the Russians’ advance. A few of us decided to escape. We cut the barbed wire that was stretched across the wooden fence, so we would be able to pull it open and jump outside fast. But when I climbed the fence and was about to jump, one shoe suddenly fell off. It was dumb to fiddle with a shoe during a critical escape, but I hesitated whether to continue without the shoe or to go back and take it. I decided to go back, and as I was putting the shoe on, shooting started. Everyone who had jumped to the other side was killed.

“Two days later, we planned another escape, this time under the fence. For a few nights we dug a ditch in rotations. When one person dug, another slept, and then we switched. One night, when it was my turn to sleep, the diggers decided it was time to escape, but for some reason they didn’t wake me up. The moment they went out they were discovered by the searchlight in the watchtower. Not one survived.”

Movies in the mind

I remember, as a child, listening to these stories, which were recounted piecemeal and only from time to time. Not in an obsessive rush, but also without a feeling of tortured discomfort. Usually as Holocaust Remembrance Day was approaching, or in reply to a question. They always sounded unrealistic, the stories, and sometimes I turned them into movies in my mind.

In one, my father’s mother calls him and his brother when she sees that the old and the sick from the neighboring towns are being brought to the ghetto, and she understands what’s about to happen. She instructs them to escape to an uncle who lives in the big city, but the boys refuse to leave her and their grandmother. She promises to join them later, and they set out on a nocturnal journey of 32 kilometers, my father, a teenager at the time, with a high fever. Whenever a car with headlights on approached, they lay down in the ditch next to the road.

They reached the uncle before dawn. Anyone who was caught on the street without a work permit was being shot on the spot; they watched such an occurrence from the window of the house. During the day they hid amid old furniture in a storeroom in the courtyard. One day the door opened. Two soldiers were standing there. My father and his brother were hiding behind armchairs at the far end of the storeroom. The soldiers began to remove one piece of furniture after another. Suddenly, for no apparent reason, one of them said, “Forget it, there’s nothing here,” and they left.

Time and again, I imagined the two children hunched over, making themselves as small as possible at the far end of the storeroom, their hearts pounding in terror.

When we went to Poland and you told your life story there, someone said, “What a miracle. It’s obvious that someone was watching over you.”

“People are always telling me that ‘someone watched over me.’ Really, now. And why didn’t he watch over my mother, who was a far better person than I and was sent with Grandmother to Treblinka? And where was he when my brother was taken to a forced-labor camp, where he died two weeks before the liberation? I lost my belief in God in Auschwitz, in the place where I saw people being burned.

“When I got there, immediately after a number was tattooed on my arm, I was taken to what was known as the ‘Gypsy Camp’ – barracks housing Gypsy women, men and children. On the other side of the road. In the middle of the night we heard the noise of trucks approaching and stopping. Horrible shouts broke out – I can still hear them. All the Gypsies were removed from the barracks, loaded onto the trucks and taken to the gas chambers. In the morning, I and a few other prisoners were ordered to remove the belongings that had been left behind in the empty barracks: clothes, blankets and utensils.

“Suddenly, in one of the blankets, I found an infant. He was sleeping curled up, wrapped in rags. I picked him up, but as I was still hesitating about what to do, an S.S. officer who was standing at the entrance to the barracks saw us and screamed at me to give him the baby. He threw it into the truck along with the other belongings and said to the driver, ‘See to it that he joins his parents.’ So what kind of providence are we talking about?”

And after all that, you are an optimist who loves people. Explain to me how it’s possible.

“Because not everyone did me harm. Some were awful, but not all. There were the farmers who offered us water when the train to Auschwitz stood in the station, and there was the family that sheltered me and my brother when we escaped from the city after someone informed on the group of partisans we belonged to. I will never forget the taste of the soup we ate in her home. Not all the Germans and Poles were bad. Many were, but not all.

“Not everyone is an angel here, either, right? No one talks about gas chambers here, but there are Jews who don’t want to rent apartments to Arabs or who talk about ‘Betar, pure forever’ [referring to Betar Jerusalem, the soccer team, some of whose fans object to the hiring of Arab players]. What a shocking thing to say. In general, I think the Germans are not essentially different from the English, the French or the Jews.”

That’s a good reason for pessimism: No one is terrific, irrespective of religion, race and gender.

“There are people of all kinds everywhere, and much depends on home and environment. When I came to this country, I lived with my older brother in Tel Aviv – he arrived before the war, as I said. One day I went to the beach. I had blond hair and blue eyes. The lifeguard passed by with his surfboard, and asked me if I wanted to join him. Of course I did, and we started walking. But then he saw the number on my arm and quickly backed off. ‘Actually, this is not for you,’ he mumbled and disappeared. He didn’t want to hang out with the ‘soap’ from the Holocaust, with people who went ‘like sheep to the slaughter.’ Does that mean I’m supposed to hate them all today? That’s the way people thought back then in this country.”

He endured the horrors of the Holocaust, only to be mocked here for having come from “there.” When he got off the ship he was sprayed with DDT (as new immigrants were at the time), but he never grew bitter and never felt disadvantaged. He went back to school to make up for what he’d missed in the war, and he found a job shining silver utensils, then in the municipality and then with an insurance company. He rose through the ranks and became vice president for investments in one of the large companies.

He was one of the first Israelis to buy a Volkswagen Beetle, because “we know very well that they don’t fool around there – everything runs like clockwork.” He also supported the reparations agreement with Germany, in 1953.

“How would we have managed otherwise?” he asks now. “The agreement was the foundation for the economy of the young state, and today we have excellent relations with the Germans. They don’t hate us – on the contrary, they help us.”

Life’s tasks

What does it all add up to, then? Luck and resourcefulness, adaptability and self-confidence that comes with experience. Those traits perhaps account for physical survival. The inner resilience is more elusive; any attempt to pin down its welter of components would be pretentious. More likely it’s a mixture of genetic, congenital and other elements that were shaped by life’s experiences. That said, one tendency stands out in my father’s comportment: the focus on the present and on taking action that it demands. You have to visit, call, send, buy, eat, exercise. Busy yourself with the challenges of the present, never with the wrongs of the past or with worrying about the future.

Existentialism? Don’t make him laugh. He’s too occupied with the craft of life to formulate it. Even when he lost his sight, 12 years ago, he immediately turned the new difficulties into tasks that had to be done. He taught himself how to distinguish between the medicines he takes – the small elongated pill is for the heart, the grooved one for his blood pressure – to file banknotes in different sections of his wallet to tell them apart, and to count the steps in every building he enters, so he’ll know for the next visit. He kept on swimming and attending lectures, even traveled abroad, “because the air and the scent there are different.”

He never complains, never accuses and does not engage in self-pity. And it was probably the same then, in the Holocaust. I ask him if he agrees with what Viktor Frankl, also a Holocaust survivor, maintained in his book “Man’s Search for Meaning” – that what all those who survived the Holocaust have in common is some sort of meaning that they found in that hell – and he gives me a skeptical look. I elaborate: One person had a woman he loved who was waiting for him, another wanted to endure so he could tell the world, a third believed in God. My father smiles and shrugs his shoulders. “I don’t remember finding meaning. One had to live.”

He is meticulous about sticking to the facts when he tells his Holocaust story. Void of pathos, he tries to be accurate about the dates and to set forth the events in order. Those who listen carefully will notice that he never dwells on feelings. Every question about feelings is responded to with a description of an activity; every query about emotions gets an answer from the realm of the functional.

“What did you feel when you parted from your mother?” – “That we had to hurry, because evening was descending and we had a long way ahead of us.” “Weren’t you afraid to enter Germany from Polish territory before the war had come to end?” – “I went because I had to get food.”

It was the same in post-Holocaust life. “Were you angry with your colleague when he tried to oust you from your job?” – “Angry? What does anger have to do with it? He wanted to take my job, and I didn’t let him.” That’s maybe how you survive, apparently: Reduce emotion and subordinate it to action.

Which makes me wonder whether we too are a little like that, Israelis who “live in the mouth of the volcano,” as the Hebrew song goes. Maybe we too have developed techniques to cope with the emotional burden that life in a place like this demands, techniques entailing a diminishment of feeling. We extinguish the fear, but with it we also extinguish other aspects of the emotions.

At the same time, and as though to complicate matters further, my father is not rigid or insensitive. He is soft and filled with compassion for the oppressed and downtrodden everywhere (“But that’s not related to the Holocaust. A childhood friend who went through the Holocaust with me is on the extreme right”).

A happy moment in your life?

“There were many, but what’s appropriate in our context is perhaps the day in 1948 when I was given a Sten [submachine] gun, and sent to the front in the Tel Mond area [near Netanya]. I’m always being asked whether I wasn’t angry or wasn’t afraid. After all, I had just arrived in the country after being saved by the skin of my teeth, and here they were already sticking a weapon in my hands and sending me into battle. Again. But no way I was afraid. I was happy! Finally I would not be helpless. I would be able to defend myself. And also when my grandson got married. You know I don’t cry. But when he stood under the canopy and broke the glass, I cried. I don’t know why.”