Holocaust Survivor, Research Forum

Holocaust Survivor: Zev Kedem Shares with Cohort V

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Zev Kedem and Hana Green

Earlier this year, Hana Green, a student in Cohort V, met Holocaust survivor Zev Kedem. She and Dr. Yael Granot-Bein invited him to shared in a Research Forum. We were very fortunate to hear his story. Here’s what he shared:

The Germans invaded Poland in 1939, Zev was only 5 years old. He and his sister were on holiday, which was cut short, his mother made them leave early. Zev remembers being so upset, he said, “Little did I know that this darkness of the Holocaust would pursue me for six years.” They took the train back which stopped short of home, he and his family had to walk through Krakow in the middle of the night, to their grandparent’s home.

Zev shared about another time they traveled together; they were walking when they came upon a German checkpoint in the road, many cars were lined up to go through the checkpoint. Zev’s mother was very beautiful and charismatic, she went right up the a German soldier’s truck and convinced them to give her and Zev a ride into Krakow. Alone, they would likely suffer at the checkpoint. As they got into the car, Zev’s mother looked down at him and said, “See, the impossible is possible.” He remembered this the rest of his life, and made it a sort of mantra.

In 1941, all Jews in the area were forced into the Krakow ghetto, before this Zev’s family was living outside Krakow in poor conditions. Zev and his family were hoping to live with his grandparents in the Krakow ghetto, but they already had three other families living in their apartment. Zev and his family moved into the apartment next door in order to be close, Zev said they were proud to had a whole, small, room to themselves, and even a bed. Food was scarce, life was hard and then the deportations started.

The deportations forced a division in the ghetto, those with a work permit lived in one section of the ghetto, those without lived in another section. Zev’s mother had a work permit, and she was the only one in the family with one. Hunger forced Zev to smuggle food. Children were less suspicious, so he snuck out of the ghetto with his head down and shoulders up. A habit, he admits, he still keeps today. While he was out two German soldiers called him out and started asking questions, but two pretty Polish girls came and talked to the soldiers, giving Zev an escape. He went to the farms he had stayed at, along with his family, and they gave him some food, not much but as much as they could afford. When he returned his mother was frantic but they had food.

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The square in the Krakow ghetto where deportations took place. The chairs were installed as a memorial to those that were killed here. (Photo was taken during Cohort V’s study tour to Poland) 

In March 1943, the Krakow Ghetto was liquidated; as Zev stood in the crowded square, a man was shot and fell next to him. His mother came and grabbed him from the crowd, she hid Zev, his sister, and his grandparents in his uncle’s pigeon coop. She told them to stay there, she closed the coop, locked the doors leading to the coop and went back to work. They could still hear the deportation for two or three more hours, then silence.

A truck came through and announced to anyone in hiding that if they didn’t come out they would be shot on sight. Then they heard shooting gradually coming toward them. Zev heard a Nazi making his way up to them. He stood at a metal door which his mother had locked, so as to look like no one could be behind the door. Zev’s grandparents had vials of poison but Zev realized they only had two, so he and his sister would have to endure what the Nazis had in store. Zev said, “You can’t realize how a child of seven or eight has to internalize the direct fear of death.” But the German didn’t come through the locked door, his mother had hid them well.

An announcement was made among the workers of the ghetto for volunteers to go through the quarter and salvage valuables. Zev’s mother, of course, volunteered. She came and saved them, Zev’s grandparents could pass as laborers but she knew she needed to hide the children. She negotiated with her wedding ring to hide them in a wagon which was used to bring the valuables back to a warehouse.

But he didn’t make it to the warehouse. He was pulled from the wagon and told to go to an unfinished barrack alone, it was dark and he heard someone moaning in pain next to him. He didn’t know this was part of the plan. Then his mother came in with a doctor, he said to Zev, “if you want to stay alive you will have to be silent and invisible.” Zev attached himself to a group of older boys; they became his camouflage. He followed them wherever they went.

He ended up working with them in a brush factory. He sat in the back row on top of a box to make himself look taller, and older. He was only eight years old, the age limit was thirteen, any younger than thirteen, and the children couldn’t work so they were killed. Zev shared his perspective while at the factory, he said “I realized I had no right what so ever to be alive in the concentration camp. Many of the inmates had lost their children, so they resented me.” In order to prove his worth, he made more brushes than anyone in the factory. He sat next to a man who had been a teacher, all of his students had been killed, he said to Zev, “If you survive, you won’t be a human being unless you learn to read and write.” Somehow he got Zev a Jules Vern novel, and taught Zev how to read.

One day in the factory, a man was shot by a German guard. The guard said the man was working slowly, the thought was that it would terrorize everyone to make them work harder. Then the small boy in the back, Zev, caught the eye of this German. Luckily, Zev spoke German, he told the guard admittedly that he was smaller, but this meant that he ate less, and he proved his productiveness with his hard work. The guard was conflicted but left Zev alone. Zev explained that he never gave himself the luxury of feeling like he was suffering, rather he told himself he was playing a game, and winning the game meant survival.

Dr. Gross, the doctor that Zev had met before, was on Oscar Schindler’s list, Zev and Dr. Gross became very close, he was something of an adoptive father to Zev. Dr. Gross pulled strings to get Zev, Zev’s sister and Zev’s mother on Schindler’s list as well. Zev recalled that they travelled all over the Third Reich to different factories with other people on the list. During one of the their travels the women’s train, where Zev’s mother was, was sent to Auschwitz but Schinder negotiated for their return before they were killed, he sent a train to pick them up. The train conductor took five boys with him to Auschwitz on this train meant to save the women. Zev was abducted onto this train.

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Crematoriums at Birkenau. (Photo taken during Cohort V’s study tour to Poland) 

Zev arrived to Auschwitz in October 1944, he remembers the gates were closed so they were ordered to walk around the entire perimeter of the camp to the crematoriums in the back. They were ordered to strip naked, Zev knew about the gas chambers and he was sure he would be killed. But they were taken to a table, and a man started tattooing a number on Zev’s arm; Zev cried, not because it hurt, which it did, but because he was so happy, a number meant registration to the camp, which meant a chance for survival.

He and the four other boys were taken to the children’s barrack. Zev explained that they were on reserve for Dr. Mengele’s experiments. He remembers a young handsome looking German coming into the barrack and offering sweets, Zev hid under a mud covered blanket, he didn’t trust this man. The children that left with, who he assumed to be, Mengele, never came back.

When the Russians were closing in on Auschwitz, Zev was convinced that those who couldn’t march would be killed: the sick and the elderly (and the young), so he volunteered to leave. Eventually he made it to Mauthausen Concentration Camp, he worked in one of the fifty sub-camps but towards the end of the war he returned to Mauthausen. In Mauthausen there were two fields of labor: the death industry, and the quarry. Zev knew he wouldn’t be strong enough for the quarry so he worked as a Sonderkommando.

One day, he recalls, he came out of the hospital (where he worked clearing dead bodies) and the gates to the camp were open. Soldiers were standing at the main entrance to the camp, and he was convinced they would kill him because he was still under thirteen years old, so he ran. He discovered that the kitchen of the SS was completely empty so he ate as much potato salad as he could, which wasn’t very much. He remembers, “To this day, I have never had a better meal.”

As he left, he came upon more soldiers, one of them threw him a chocolate bar, but he still didn’t trust them, because of Mengele and his sweets. He took a closer look at the soldiers and realized one of them was black, so he knew these soldiers weren’t German, and that he could trust them.

He left Mauthausen and sought refuge in nearby villages, but he says “I got shot at more during this time than ever before.” Austrians were afraid of the inmates because they were scared of them for two reasons: the truth they held and of their illnesses.

After the war, the American troops organized for Zev to be sent to the UK. There he grew up with an adoptive family, and received an Oxford education. After forty years, Zev met his mother again in communist Poland, on her deathbed. It was hard to get a visa to Poland, but he managed it. One of the after effects of the Holocaust was divided families, and this was very much Zev’s case as well.

Today Zev lives in Haifa, Israel. He lives a very active life sharing his education and experience with University students. We were pleased to host him and hear his heart-wrenching story.


Interested in applying for our MA in Holocaust Studies Program?  You can find the application and more information at our website

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Special Tours

Behind the Scenes of the Museum and Memorial Auschwitz-Birkenau

Walking through the gates of Auschwitz was surreal. The infamous camp sees about one million visitors every year. Each of the barracks have been renovated as exhibition spaces or offices, and many of the exhibitions have been organized by specific countries for the Jews from these respective countries. In 1947, Auschwitz became a protected site of the state with the purpose of remembering those who perished there. Since then, the staff has been preserving and conserving the site and artifacts found at the site.

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The man in the background of this photo is testing samples slivers of windows from Auschwitz barracks. 

We were fortunate to arrange a tour through the conservation lab with a specialist in paper conservation. Our tour guide took us through many different offices in the lab. In one of the offices, we met a man who was testing a sliver of one of the barrack windows. His test determined whether the windows were original; if they were he would have to establish a plan to preserve them, and if they were not original he would be able to take more liberty with replacing the windows, still making them looking as much like the original as possible. The test he ran took much longer than the time we spent with him, so we don’t know what he decided. The dedication to authenticity is remarkable.

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Different paper items in the paper conservatory lab. 

In another office, we saw a dozen or more paintings done by forced laborers in the camp. When artists entered the camp, officers would demand different paintings including portraits or copies of famous works of art. The Memorial and Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau organizes exhibitions of them periodically.

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The pieces of paper found in prisoners shoes. 

We also saw a room for the preservation of luggage and shoes. Each shoe was put into a special box for preservation. In some occasions, preservationists find papers stuffed into the shoes, maybe they were too big for the owner. The preservation lab keeps everything they find, even these small, torn slips of paper, as they make the image of the person more complete.

The last office we visited was the paper preservation room where they preserve different journals and story books found in Auschwitz and Birkenau. One of the most touching objects was a children’s Christmas storybook, with detailed and colorful pictures of Santa Claus and different scenes of Christmas including Christmas dinner, mistletoe and stockings hanging on the mantel.

This tour through the conservation lab was enlightening as it changed the way we looked at the different artifacts in the camp. Each of them was carefully cleaned, selected and placed. Each object belonged to a separate individual, and the attention given to each object reminded us of the individual to whom it belonged.

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Auschwitz archivist with our students.

We were also able to meet with one of the archival researchers at Auschwitz. He showed us different artifacts, including deportation lists, identification cards, etc. He also informed us of the process to identify individuals that had been at Auschwitz. People often send requests to the office and received either identification cards or deportations lists, as well as any other information that was collected. Generally, only an identification card with limited personal information or a deportation list is available. Those that were selected for forced labor had identification cards, while those who were sent to the gas chambers right away had no identification other than a name on a deportation list. However, the office also archives mail sent in and out of the camp, however this mail was extremely censored so it didn’t offer a real sense of life in the camp. Nevertheless, it still offers more information about the individual. When Nazis censored the mail, they would literally cut out the sections of the letter they didn’t like, which often resulted in a flimsy scrap of paper left to send to their families and loved ones. Oftentimes, in cases like those sent from Theresienstadt, those deported were forced to send postcards back to Theresienstadt saying they had arrived safely and the camp was similar to Theresienstadt. All these letters have been preserved.

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Our group entering Auschwitz-1 under the infamous “Arbeit Macht Frei” gate. 

Thanks to these offices and the hard work of those we met, the Memorial and Museum Auschwitz and Birkenau offers information that would have been lost about those who lived and perished there.

 

 


Interested in applying for our MA in Holocaust Studies Program?  You can find the application and more information at our website

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Guest Lecturers

Kapo in Jerusalem

 

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During the last session of the Research Forum class our students had the opportunity of seeing the film “Kapo in Jerusalem” and speaking with screenwriter Motti Lerner, who is a renowned screenwriter and playwright. Lerner teaches playwriting at Kibbutz College in Tel Aviv and his numerous plays have been performed in nine countries outside of Israel.

Lerner introduced the film prior to the screening. He shared that the Israeli attitude towards Jews who worked for the Nazis was very strict. They were regarded as traitors, some were put on trial, and some were killed without trial.  Lerner stated that the film was produced to explore Israeli attitude towards Nazi functionaries and that it was inspired by Story of Eliezer Greenbaum who was a block leader in Auschwitz in charge of 900 prisoners.  Following the War Greenbaum was tried twice for his actions as block leader and found not guilty. However, when he moved to Israel he was unable to get a job or maintain social relationships as a result of his past. Greenbaum volunteered in the 1948 War for Independence and was killed.

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The film Kapo in Jerusalem explores the role of functionaries by focusing on one functionary. The film takes place in Israel following WWII and most of the film is a series of monologues given by witnesses who knew Bruno, the former Kapo at the center of the film. Throughout the film witnesses such as Bruno’s wife, a doctor who trained him in Warsaw prior to the outbreak of the War, and former prisoners of Auschwitz speak about Bruno and how he acted in his position of power and collaboration with the SS. Some of the witnesses indict Bruno and others defend him. The resulting balance is so delicate that the viewer doesn’t quite know what to think about Bruno. In the end it becomes obvious that it is impossible to judge Bruno.  The film raises multiple questions but provides few answers. The viewer is left with an understanding of just how difficult survival was in Auschwitz and the tragic and complex choices prisoners had to make as they negotiated the narrow divide between life and death in hell.

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After viewing the film our students were able to speak further with Lerner about the film and the process of making it. A central question that was discussed was how do you make a film about Auschwitz? Lerner feels that it is almost impossible.  He believes you need distance and hence none of the scenes in the film were shot at Auschwitz. He also chose to focus on the personal experience of inmates as an audience can’t handle the horrors of Auschwitz and there is no benefit to reconstructing it. Lerner said the purpose of film is to put a question on Israeli society’s past tendency to put Bruno on trial, not to defend his actions but to question his condemnation. The film doesn’t give answers about what morality is or should have been in Auschwitz. It merely shows the complexities of survival in Auschwitz. Lerner reinforced the difficulties of the Kapo’s role and how it is hard to judge what people did.  He shared that Israeli audiences are more open now to understanding the tragic nature of Bruno’s role and more willing to recognize that it is difficult to understand, judge, and have empathy.

Lerner was asked about the process of writing the film and he shared that the first thought was to tell the story linearly but they realized that was impossible.  Then they incorporated the idea to use monologues to make the film more intimate. He wanted to give witnesses a chance to talk and say what they were never able to say and what others never wanted to hear. Lerner was asked about the extent to which the film was based on primary source testimony. His response was that the film is fiction – all the characters are invented, but he did extensive research prior to writing the film. He got inspiration from Primo Levi’s books, survivor testimony, and many of Bruno’s monologues are based on an essay written by Eliezer Greenbaum about what it meant to be a kapo. Hearing the screenwriter’s perspective on the film, what he intended, and being able to ask him questions enriched the experience of watching the film for our students.

Interested in applying for our MA in Holocaust Studies Program?  You can find the application and more information at our website: http://holocaust-studies.haifa.ac.il/

 

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Guest Lecturers, Holocaust Survivor

A Visit with the Livnat Family

image_1   Holocaust survivor Yitzhak Livnat came to meet the students in the 4th cohort and share his incredible story with them. Yitzhak Livnat was accompanied by his wife and four children. The Livnat family are generous donors to the program that is named in honor of them – the Weiss- Livnat International MA in Holocaust Studies.

Livnat shared his story of survival from Auschwitz with our students. He spoke about the deportation, the impact of his experiences on his family relationships and his faith, the death march to Austria, how he managed to survive, and his experiences in Israel after emigrating following the war. Livnat’s memories were vivid, especially the sensations including sounds and smells, and full of raw emotion. His ability to recall the names of the Kapo and other prisoners was remarkable.

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Livnat spoke about the horrors of the deportation and his time traveling in the confined cattle car. Upon arrival at Auschwitz he was separated from his younger sister who was murdered in the gas chambers. Livnat spoke about his anger at G-d when he realized what had happened to his sister and how he came to the painful conclusion that there is no G-d, and explained that if there was a G-d he wouldn’t allow such things to happen. After being condemned to death, Livnat was saved by a Kapo who put him in a different barrack so he would escape the fate of the other children he had previously been with. A Greek Jew from Salonika comforted Livnat that night; they were reunited in Israel years later and remained close friends.

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On January 18, 1945 Livnat was forced on a death march into Austria along with the SS officers that evacuated Auschwitz as the Red Army approached. Livnat described this as the instance in which he came closest to giving up. He couldn’t keep marching and sat down in the snow. Livnat hoped and waited for an SS officer to put a bullet in his head. Instead the officer kicked him and told him to get up because he was too young to die. Livnat shared that it took him awhile to admit that this SS officer saved his life, as he didn’t want to give him any “good points.” Upon arriving in Mauthausen Livnat was reunited with his father. Despite Mauthausen being pleasant compared to Auschwitz Livnat said this was a terrible time as his father could no longer be a father to him. Their roles had switched and this was very hard.

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After the war Livnat returned home only to find that his house was occupied by a woman who wouldn’t let him in, and his own dog barked at him. Following this experience Livnat immigrated illegally to Palestine but he was caught by the British and interned in Cyprus. Upon being released and coming to Palestine Livnat was separated from the other children on the kibbutz and told not to talk to them. People assumed he must have done terrible things to survive the Holocaust such as killing others. Livnat ultimately ran away from the kibbutz and joined the Haganah and later the IDF. Livnat recalled that he wanted to hold a weapon in order to feel safe.

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At the conclusion of Livnat’s story his eldest son spoke to our students. He compared speaking about the Shoah to the commandment from the hagaddah to tell the story of the exodus from Egypt. He said it is important to talk about the Shoah but never to be victimized, and that the main lesson is we can’t forget what happened but we must move forward. The night closed with our students getting the chance to speak personally with Yitzhak Livnat and thanking him for sharing his story and his support which has enabled their studies.

Yitzhak Livnat and his family have come to mean so much to our program. They have invested in our success, and embrace each cohort with warmth.  We know that the Livnat family’s visits inspire each of our cohorts to contribute high quality and meaningful research to the field of Holocaust Studies.

Interested in applying for our MA in Holocaust Studies Program?  You can find the application and more information at our website: http://holocaust-studies.haifa.ac.il/

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