Just last week, the Germans chased 77-year-old David Ferszt.
The Spokane man was young again. His heart throbbed. He sweated profusely as he tried once more to hide from the Nazis and escape a life of agony.
Then he wakes to the realization that he will never elude the black-shirted Nazis - their crimes against him and his people have haunted him for a lifetime.
The number 140934 is tattooed on his left forearm.
The slight Polish Jew cries quietly whenever he talks about the six years he spent in captivity, much of it at Auschwitz, the Nazis’ largest concentration camp.
“It just keeps getting me,” Ferszt said of the Holocaust, while pretending to stick a knife in his heart. “It always hurts.”
Fifty years ago today, the Russians marched into the town of Oswiecim, Poland, and stumbled across the mad slaughterhouse called Auschwitz. They liberated the 7,000 people who were left there to die. Slowly, over the next several months, the gruesome reality of the Nazi extermination camps became known.
Hardly a cause for celebration, but that’s what Jews around the world will do today. They will celebrate the survival of people such as Ferszt.
With the cry “Never again” as their anthem, Jews want to refresh the world’s memory - fading now after a half-century - of what they suffered and what they lost during World War II. To them, it’s a need to educate others to prevent the methodical extermination of any group.
“The Holocaust was about the death of onethird of the world’s Jewish population,” said Spokane Rabbi Jacob Izakson. “It’s about the death of 1.2 million Jewish children under the age of 12.
“We were robbed of whatever their contributions might have been,” he continued. “And we will never recoup that loss.”
“The Holocaust is a piece of who we are as Jews today,” he said. “It has sensitized us to the idea … of oppression. It extrapolates beyond the Jewish community to all persons.”
Russian liberators arrived nine days too late for Ferszt. The Nazis had rounded up as many as 65,000 prisoners and marched them across Poland’s harsh winter landscape.
Ferszt spent the next several weeks shuttled around Czechoslovakia and Germany in boxcars as the Germans tried to figure out what to do with their remaining prisoners.
He and two brothers miraculously managed to stay together throughout the ordeal, and they found themselves packed onto a ship in the North Sea.
When Allied planes bombed the boat, the three brothers jumped ship.
“I was not a swimmer and my brother, he had a vest and he gave it to me,” Ferszt said. “And I never saw him again.
“When I was liberated, I didn’t even know I was liberated,” he said. “I was 55 pounds.”
Auschwitz is a well-known icon of the Holocaust for several reasons.
Historians estimate that 1.1 million to 1.5 million people died at the camp, 90 percent of them Jews.
Auschwitz also is the camp with the
most survivors. It was the laboratory for Dr. Josef Mengele’s hideous medical experiments, including the torture of hundreds of twin children.
“It was the most sinister,” said Rabbi Izakson. “It was all the camps rolled into one.”
The Nazis ran three different kinds of camps, Izakson explained: Death camps, were people were sent to be killed; the labor camps, where people worked to death; and the show camps, used for German propaganda to show the rest of the world how humane they were.
“Auschwitz was all three,” Izakson whispers, incredulously. “They had the chutzpah to put all three in one place. As if no one would ever find out. And nobody did, until the war was over.”
Fifty years after the Russians made their discovery, Auschwitz continues to claim victims.
Austrian philosopher Jean Avery and Italian writer Primo Levi, both Auschwitz survivors, committed suicide decades after their liberation.
For David Ferszt, life has been a journey that may find peace only in death.
After liberation, Ferszt was sent to a camp for displaced persons. There he and his only two surviving brothers met their future wives and waited for passage to America.
It was not a story of romantic love, said his daughter, Mania Izakson.
“It was miracle they were alive, that’s what they had in common,” she said. “They weren’t murdered and they weren’t sick.”
But to get to America, you had to be married.
By the time the couple arrived in Corpus Christi, Texas, five years later, they had their first daughter.
They had no money, no furniture, nothing but the clothes they wore and the charity of a local group of Jews.
Although he knew seven or eight other languages, Ferszt did not speak English.
While Ferszt worked in a furniture warehouse by day and as a salesman at night, his wife worked out of their tiny apartment as a seamstress.
At times they couldn’t afford to feed their daughters. But never did the couple consider returning to Poland.
Again, Ferszt cried before speaking: “What we left over there … a clothing store, a men’s store that my family ran, my brothers, my sisters, their husbands and wives …” He cannot finish the sentence.
After a moment he tries again, “There is nothing there. It is like my family was never there.”
For Mania Izakson, growing up the daughter of survivors was a mystery.
“We really didn’t talk about it. I never really knew about it,” she said. “I just knew that we didn’t have grandparents or any other relatives, like everyone else.
“And I knew my parents were always sad. But I didn’t really understand what was so different about our lives.”
When his wife died 10 years ago this week, Ferszt lost his one intimate companion in a life of pain.
The grief finally took over.
He fell into a catatonic depression that lasted for three years before it was finally snapped through radical shock treatment.
Still, the wounds can be opened for Ferszt, when he hears Rush Limbaugh and others criticize minorities, immigrants and welfare mothers for who they are.
“The joker, he makes me sick,” Ferszt said of Limbaugh. “He makes jokes about everybody.”
That’s the danger of the “politics of otherness,” Rabbi Izakson explained. That’s how the Germans did it. That’s how it could happen again, he said.
“They actively worked toward marginalizing the Jews, making them other than Germans,” he said. “Other than Poles. Other than Russians. Other than Christians. Other than human beings. Once you begin to dehumanize them, it becomes conscionable to do things that were done.
“Can it happen today? You bet it can.”
ILLUSTRATION: 2 Color photos
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