After spending the last few weeks going over Paula’s survival story, I am struck by so many things. From the mundane: I wonder if her enduring love of chocolate has anything to do with the comfort and pleasure it brought her when the Russian army shared the treats as the war was finally ending. She and her family must have felt some relief, there was light at the end of a very long, dark tunnel. Paula continues to crave chocolate and perhaps she finds comfort in it. Of course, she could simply like the taste.
I also think of the profound: how having her world turned upside down when she was just a child left her fearful for the rest of her life. She was able to take pleasure in life, she had loving relationships, but the cautiousness and the need to protect herself and those she loved was right at the surface. It was a huge price to pay as a child, an innocent.
I wonder how much of that reticence was who she was, even before the war. She described herself as an obedient child. She was likely shy before being thrust into the uncertainty and chaos that came with the Nazis. We will never know – she will never know – who she might have been, what she might have achieved. She was a smart girl with a sharp mind, good with numbers, a fast learner, quick to pick up languages. But she was growing up in a shtetl culture that didn’t encourage higher education for girls. I don’t know whether she felt that she hadn’t reached her potential or if she felt frustrated by her limited opportunities. Paula poured her energies into her family and they benefitted from that. I think her granddaughters feel an obligation to take up where she left off, to make the most of their opportunities and they have done just that. It is a blessing and a burden for them.
I can’t help but think of the many people, not just survivors of the Holocaust, but survivors of war crimes and oppression throughout history, who were and continue to be stifled. Not only is it a loss for that individual, but the world has been deprived. Paula and David were able to build constructive lives, so many others were not. Many were overcome by their sadness, their loss. We pay a huge price for humanity’s cruelty. Can’t we do better?
I think about the price she paid. About eight years ago we were visiting Paula and David in their condo in Florida. Paula was already on her Alzheimer’s journey, but she was still Paula. They didn’t need an aide yet. I sat at the kitchen table with her while Gary chatted with his Dad in the living room. Paula told me she was feeling troubled. I asked her what was on her mind.
“I keep wondering about my father,” she said.
Samuel had been killed by the Nazis more than 70 years before.
“What is it you are wondering about?”
She sighed, stirring her tea.
“I worry that he was buried alive,” she said.
I didn’t respond for a bit, taking it in, feeling so sad for her. Eventually I responded.
“I’m so sorry, Paula. That is an agonizing thought…but there is no reason to believe that’s what happened.” I said it almost as a question, wondering if she knew something she had not previously revealed. She mulled that over and shrugged.
I imagined her thinking about the story of the two men who came to Serniki, how they climbed out of the pit of corpses to escape. How could she not wonder?
“But what if he was alive?” she asked.
“We’ll never know…. I’m sorry.”
I knew I was out of my depth. I just wanted to comfort her but didn’t know how.
“But,” I continued, “I know you have good memories of your father. Let’s think about that.” I asked her about the stories he told her when she was a child. She didn’t mention her fear again, but I don’t imagine the thought left her.
Though the war took an extraordinary toll, Paula did reap the benefit of unexpected helpers, starting with the assistance provided by a Pole, Dimitrov Lacunyitz. I think about those Poles who stepped forward and those who collaborated and what made the difference. What pushed a person to choose to be on the right side of history? Unfortunately, in Poland today, there is a right-wing government which seems intent on whitewashing their history. They are making it increasingly difficult to acknowledge that there were collaborators. The mass executions could not have happened without local assistance. At the same time, we need to acknowledge those who overcame their fear and did the right thing. The Silberfarbs would not have survived without them. It is a tension that we in America face, as well. The impulse to ignore or sweep under the rug the ugliness in our history is strong, but we do that at our own peril. We all need to reckon with our past. We can’t only celebrate the heroism because it denies the experience, the reality of those who were mistreated.
I think about the importance of family. The Silberfarbs depended on each other; Lea was a tower of strength. There were times when there were tensions between them, but the bond was stronger. Their extended family offered support through the ordeal in Serniki, too. They regularly sought shelter with cousins during the unrest in town. And, in the ultimate act of generosity, Uncle Nachum opened his home in Cuba to his wife’s sister-in-law and her children. He gave them a new start. My father-in-law, David, also got support from his family – they may not have been quite as warm and welcoming, but they made a new beginning possible. Where would we be without family?
I think about luck. While their survival was made possible by their own strength and ingenuity, luck was a critical element, too. When bombs fell, the Silberfarbs were spared. When Lea chose to go right instead of left in the woods, they avoided violence. When she knocked on a door begging for food, she wasn’t killed. Was that luck? Intuition? Fate? So many times, things could have gone differently. All of it had to fall into place for them to make it.
I think about faith. One might emerge from the ordeal with faith shattered or strengthened. My father-in-law believed God had spared him. That faith doesn’t come naturally to me, but understanding how meaningful it was to David, certainly gives me food for thought.
There are so many lessons to be learned by studying the Holocaust. I wish more people would take the time to learn.