Times Past

Dan Krieger: Childhood in the death camps

‘I would single out one of the lice, imagining it was going home to its mommy with good food waiting for it.” “Who Will Write Our History?” asked Emanuel Ringelblum, a prisoner in the Warsaw Ghetto.

Ringelblum and his friends preserved documents from the ghetto, including diaries, official decrees and posters. They knew they were doomed. But they wanted the memory of their community to live on and be told to future generations.

Together, they collected more than 25,000 sheets, concealed in buried milk containers and other vessels. These provide incredible material for scholars of the Holocaust.

For most of us, even in the digital age, the voice of a living witness has special resonance.

Two weeks ago, Sara Moses traveled from her home in University City near St. Louis, Missouri, to speak in San Luis Obispo. The Jewish Community Center at Temple Beth David sponsored the event.

A year old in 1939, Sara and her family were interred in the first of Heinrich Himmler’s ghettoes in Piotrkow, Poland. Amazingly, Sara survived six years of inhumane treatment, ultimately going on to the dreaded camps at Ravensbruck and Bergen Belsen, where Anne Frank died of typhus in March 1945. Sara was barely alive when a British-Canadian army unit liberated the camp on April 15, 1945.

Sara’s first childhood memory was of living in terror. No toys, no books. She created toys out of rags.

The best part of her childhood was when her mother would tuck her in and tell her stories — magical stories with happy endings. Sara would imagine that the happy endings happened to her.

Her parents, upon hearing rumors of the first roundup or transport, made arrangements for Sara to be smuggled out of the ghetto. She was placed in a strange home.

When the danger passed, Sara was returned to the ghetto, only to find that her mother had been sent to the Treblinka death camp.

She later found out that it was only two hours from the cattle cars to the gas chamber for her mother, but Sara refused to believe that her mother was dead until a visit to Treblinka in 2000.

On October 13, 1942, units of the SS and the Ukrainian militia surrounded the Piotrkow Ghetto, in which Sara says, “the Jews were termed ‘illegals.’ ” They began a door-to-door search, forcing all the inhabitants from their crowded living quarters.

Sara recalled, “Old and young, people carrying tiny bundles, were force-marched from the ghetto to the cattle trains. There was chaos at the depot as clinging families were separated by gender to go on different trains to different camps. There was no light in the stifling, crowded car, with no food and water,” as Sara traveled with an aunt.

I invited students from my Holocaust and Modern World History courses to attend Sara’s presentation.

Logan Grant, a civil engineering major, was moved by Sara’s comments on the role lice played in her survival:

“Holocaust survivor Sara Moses credited her vibrant imagination as a main factor of her survival through one of the most horrible atrocities in human history … she managed to mentally escape to a place that was safe — somewhere her mother was.”

Logan continues, “Sara’s life as a young girl gives testament to the endurance of the human spirit.

“Sara says, ‘To make change, we start with individuals. What do you do when you witness cruelty?’ ” Logan adds: “This is a powerful question, from a remarkable woman who has experienced this first hand.”

Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association. Liz Krieger contributed to this week’s column.