By Zev Kedem
When I was invited to the making of the film, “Schindler’s List”, I was skeptical of Hollywood and the Holocaust coming together. However, I did get involved and it was quite a profound experience, not so much the making of the film but the results.
I was born in 1934. And in September 1939 when I was five years old, I and my sister were on holiday in the mountains at a holiday village. We were in the care of a governess. We spoke German and Polish, and life was very, very good. Father was a cosmopolitan individual who traveled throughout the continent of Europe. We were having a great time when the Germans invaded Poland.
We children were not aware of this until mother arrived at our holiday resort and said the situation had changed and we must head for home. We got the last train and on arrival in Krakow, darkness had descended. War conditions were in the air with total blackout. The train was forbidden to move any further and we had to get out to find shelter. Fortunately, my grandparents lived there and we made our way across the darkened city. I held onto mother’s hand through the darkness.
Little did I know that this darkness would follow me for the next six and a half years of my young life.
We arrived at our grandparents’ home and within a short time, the Germans ordered us to leave. But first, let me tell you a little about my mother. Accept for our luggage, everything was at home in Katowitz, but the war had cut us off from our home. Mother was determined to return home. She, of course, was not aware yet of what lay ahead. Within the first few days the Germans brought out laws restricting civil rights from the Jews, which also forbade travel on public transport. Mother decided to try and return in spite of the ruling.
At the age of 5, I felt very responsible so I offered my services to go with her and protect her! She was a very petite Jewish woman, with dark hair and she was very beautiful. If she traveled as a mother with her child, she would be safer. Civil rights laws were abrogated; any Jew could be attacked and the attacker would not be held responsible at all.
So we made our way to the railway station and at the last moment jumped into the end car and hid, sitting down in a corner. Then a big uniformed German with a blanket coat and army helmet jumped in and yelled, “All Jews out.” This was my first acquaintance with a German. I was petrified and was about to start moving out when my mother’s hand came down on my shoulder to keep me quiet. We got to Katowice after midnight and again we had to make our way across the city in darkness. There was a curfew and we would get shot if caught.
So adventurous life started at the age of 5. Amazingly, mother managed to organize everything and actually Gypsies collected our furniture in horse-drawn wagons and took it through the back roads of Poland to our grandparents’ home at Krakow.
The way mother was able to talk and handle things made an imprint on me. I felt that the “impossible was possible” and my mother was the source of that inspiration. It was a very powerful influence during the rest of my odd experiences in the concentration camps.
Ghetto Life Began
We had to leave our grandparents’ home after 2 or 3 weeks; for a village life, a few months later, again new laws came out. No Jews were allowed to be free in Poland and they had to be held in designated areas. There were hundred of these areas, and they became known as ghettos. In 1941, we were taken into Krakow ghetto that was surrounded by barbwire.
Krakow had about 280,000 citizens, a quarter were Jews – about 70,000. They were all cramped into the ghetto. By the time we arrived, there were several families living in my grandparents’ home and we had to find a different apartment. Life then became different to anything we were used to. If a person went down to buy a loaf of bread in the street, he could be taken on a German truck with others that were picked up from the streets to do laboring jobs, digging ditches, clearing snow, etc. If he returned in the evening, it was the family joy that he’d returned safely. We realized that one had no control over one’s destiny.
Soon the Germans instituted the next stage of their murderous plan, and that was to issue work forms. However, work forms were only given to a limited few. I hoped to be productive to justify my existence. I was aware of the fact that I was not suppose to be alive, and so I worked hard in the concentration camp. I was smaller than the others; the bigger boys surrounded me to hide me from view of the guards. I sat up high on a box while working. A German guard came by and looked at me. I spoke to him in German and showed him my big pile of completed brushes. I was productive — he let me live.
Horror Reality, not “Movie”
There was a window, and outside the factory we saw on green slopes, and on a raise the mound with a moat going around it. Watching through the window we would see truckloads of prisoners brought into the concentration camp, about twice a week, 30, 40, 60 Polish men, Gypsies, different nationalities, but mostly Jewish men, women and children. They were brought to this sacrificial mount. The Nazis would take the prisoners, order them to strip and then command them to go down into the moat onto lime-covered bodies of those that had been previously executed. Then they also were simply exterminated.
This had a double purpose. One was to punish the Jews for attempting to hide outside their designated area. But it had also a psychological purpose of intimidating the prisoners in the camp to make them see they had no control of their own destiny, that the Nazis had full control over life and death. The stress on the individual person was such that one could not create any human contact with anyone else, and in starvation conditions, everybody became a competitive for the very limited food resources. The policy was one of systematic starvation.
And this wasn’t a drama like watching a one time horror movie or TV show. This was a real, regular occurrence. Even as a child, I had to learn to contain emotional responses, if only in hope of living another day, especially since I was illegal in the camp. I had no reference number and certainly was too young. [Children under 13 were not allowed to live and work in concentration camps.]
This went on for a considerable period of time. One day looking through the side window into the factory, a German saw a Chasid [a righteous Jew] in a dream like condition, thinking of the Messiah. The German ordered the Chasid out and simply shot through the head.
You might think that was a punishment for not working, but in actually there was a different purpose. Human beings were de-humanized, reduced to being only a product. The prisoner wasn’t allowed to speak to a German without permission or he suffered severe punishment. You were not allowed to use your name. You could only use your camp number. In other words, there was no semblance of humanity and certainly no semblance of culture. The culture had to be destroyed that you couldn’t even identify Rosenberg as a Jewish name. You could only speak when you were spoken to.
The purpose of the Germans was simply to instill greater fear on those in the workshop, to produce more for the war effort.
Where Was God?
When I was 10 years old I was in a concentration camp connected with Schindler’s List. Schindler saved the people from there. Working next to me was a Chasid, a religious Jew. One day he was silent though we usually conversed most of the time. Strangely, after a long period of time, he asked me, “Do you know what tomorrow is?” And I said, “Monday.” You really didn’t want to count days because you knew that the more days that went by, the sooner you were dead. He turned to me and said, “You don’t deserve to be here. You are not even a Jew. You don’t know what tomorrow is. Tomorrow is the holiest of holy days, Yom Kippur, and tomorrow the Messiah is going to come and he is going to take all the poor souls, the 30,000 in this concentration camp and will take all of us on the magic carpet over the darkness of Europe and the Holocaust and bring us to the safety of the Holy Land.”
I had learned to read in the concentration camp, but I knew if one responded emotionally to the systematic killing that we saw all around, one would be overwhelmed. Most parents, who saw their children being taken away, responded emotionally, thereby choosing to go to their own death. I learned that if I wanted to survive this hell, I had to cut off my emotions.
However, when I heard this offer to escape across the barbed wire and over the rest of Europe, something I could not have worked out as a child, I said, “Wow, this is a real opportunity.” I got very excited and very emotionally involved in this possibility that the Messiah would come. My heart grew and I expected it to happen. The next day came and we were still in the concentration camp, and I stayed in it for another one and a half years before I went on to other concentration camps and was finally liberated.
That day when the Messiah did not come was my most difficult and emotional day in the concentration camp — because of a child’s highly emotional expectation of being saved by God, then not being saved! Therefore, the rest of my life I have searched to understand God and to come up with an answer, because life without God is impossible. Life without God’s love is impossible, yet the reality of God in the Holocaust provides a real paradox, a seeming contradiction.
I’m speaking to you, wanting to share with you the problem: why the Holocaust survivor, a non-religious but cultural Jew would go to Israel 15 years after the Holocaust, which I did, not out of necessity, but out of choice; to rebuild Jerusalem, push the desert back, and restore the country for 20 joyful years — and still ask questions of God, about God and still search for God. Thank you. -