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A Painful Past Becomes a Lesson for the Future
On May 5 of each year, my father, Sol Finkelstein, declares, "Today is my birthday." Although he was born in September, Sol counts the start of his life from May 5, 1945 -- the day he was liberated from Mauthausen concentration camp.
On that day, he emerged from a stack of corpses, under which he had been hiding from the Nazis -- and he literally rose from the dead. He felt that his old life ceased to exist, and a new Sol was born.
Goldie Cukier Finkelstein, my mother, rarely speaks about what happened during the war. One day, however, she surprised me by saying, "The girl who was Goldie in Europe died over there; I am not that person, I am somebody else."
Both of my parents rebuilt their lives after the Holocaust. They decided that they would not burden their children, nor to the extent possible, their own marriage with painful memories of the past. So, as the second-generation children of survivors, my siblings and I grew up in America without knowledge of the life-and-death events our parents had experienced in Europe.
Nor did we dare to ask because we sensed that raising the subject would cause pain and open old wounds. If we questioned where my parents were during the war, we heard the names "Auschwitz" and "Bergen-Belsen," but without explanation or elaboration of what happened to them there. There were no details as to how they were mistreated or how they survived. We also could see the number tattooed on my father's forearm, which was scary, and never explained, except that "the Nazis did it to me."
I first learned the basic outlines in 1989, when I was 37 years old, and my parents were asked to tell their stories at a State of Israel Bonds dinner.
Gradually, my parents began talking about their experiences through oral-history projects and other media. With each successive retelling, I learned new details. I still did not break the unspoken family rule of silence, but I could listen as my parents told their traumatic stories to third parties in a safe setting. Without having to ask the questions myself, I was learning about a mysterious hidden past that had affected me so profoundly.
But still I felt the need to do more. My parents said that they wished they could write down their histories to leave a legacy to their family and future generations. I decided I needed to gather and preserve this information, and to ask my parents about it while I still could.
It was obvious, however, that despite the existence of prior interviews and collected information, many details were never revealed. Beyond personal memories, I wanted to make this book as accurate as possible. In 2007, original historical records became available, which had been held since the war by the International Red Cross. It was now possible to search through documents and sources at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.
In 2008, I went to Poland, and found my parents' childhood homes in Radom and Sosnowiec. I found cousins of my father in Israel, who had recorded some of the family history from Eastern Europe. I also explored the archives at Auschwitz.
I was able to discover details that were unknown even to my parents, including the dates of prisoner transports, arrival dates at different camps and lists of prisoners on which their names appear. Most significantly, I discovered the fate of my father's father, Jacob Finkelstein, which had been unknown to my father since the tragic day they were separated at Mauthausen, just a week before liberation.
In an emotional meeting, I told my father that Jacob had survived the march from Mauthausen to Gunskirchen, but died in a hospital a few days after liberation, and that he was buried in a cemetery in Wels, Austria.
I showed him a blown-up photo of the Wels memorial wall, listing the known names of the 1,035 who died after liberation and were buried there. On it, he could clearly see his father's name engraved: Jakob Finkelstein.
He was deeply moved. "This washes away all the guilt I've had," he said with a sigh. "I always felt responsible for my father's death. I thought he died because I left him alone and there was no one to care for him. Now I know that he was cared for, and died in a hospital, and it wasn't my fault."
How was it possible for children like Sol and Goldie to endure such unimaginable horrors, and then go on to rebuild their lives and start new families?
The answer, I believe, is that they refused to surrender to despair -- no matter how terrible the circumstances. When the only choice given to a Jew was death, they chose life. After liberation, they made that same choice, each and every day.
I rejoice in the choices and courage of people like Sol and Goldie. I take upon myself the legacy to help preserve the memories of what they endured. It is, indeed, the responsibility of all of us to listen, learn and educate the next generation.
Joseph S. Finkelstein, a lawyer in Philadelphia, collaborated with Jerry L. Jennings to write I Choose Life: Two Linked Stories of Holocaust Survival and Rebirth, from which this piece is adapted.