My friend Leo is a very gracious man, a gentleman through and through, so when I asked him to come speak to my daughter’s class about his parents’ experience as Holocaust survivors, he, of course, agreed. But he was nervous. It is a difficult story to tell and a difficult story to hear. It was hard to know how much to share with such a young group.
“I hear you have been studying about World War II,” Leo begins, standing before a mixed class of 4th through 8th graders. He continues, “My parents grew up in Eastern Europe. Lithuania. My father, Nathan Freisinger, had four brothers and one sister. Mina Goldberg, my mother, had four sisters and one brother.” He pauses. “Like many Jews at the time, they were very poor.”
Leo explains to the class that even before WWII, Jews were discriminated against. They were not allowed to attend public school or hold certain jobs. “When my father, Nathan, was young, his family was so poor that they could not care for him. There was not enough food to go around. They put him on a train, with a note pinned to his jacket, and sent him to live with his aunt and uncle. He was six years old.” I look at the faces of the 4th graders who are just nine. One of them is my daughter. I grow cold wondering how desperate I would have to be to put her on a train and send her away.
Young Nathan was immediately put to work as an assistant in his uncle’s tailoring business, learning the trade as he labored. “My father grew up without a bed. He slept on two wooden chairs that were pushed together, and later, when he outgrew the chairs, he slept on top of the cutting table. He slept on the table instead of the floor because there were rats,” says Leo. The students are listening intently. Some are taking notes.
Leo tells them that by the time Nathan was 17, he was already a master tailor. He left his uncle’s home and struck out on his own. Around that same time he met his future wife at a theater group. Mina was only 14 years old, about the same age as the eighth graders sitting in the back of the classroom. By the age of 19, Nathan had established his own tailoring shop and was doing well, and shortly afterwards married Mina. But his business success was short-lived. Two years later the Russian Army invaded Lithuania and all businesses became property of the government.
Leo pauses. This is where the story becomes difficult to tell. Despite the hardship his parents had already endured in their upbringing, the worst was yet to come. Prior to entering the classroom, Leo had written out the story of his parents’ lives and emailed it to me. He needed to know what to tell and what not to tell. I took the pages of his parents’ story and highlighted the segments he should share with the class, leaving large sections of print untouched.
This is what Leo tells the students:
In the summer of 1941, the German army moved through Lithuania on their way to invade Russia. The Jewish population was rounded up and moved into Ghettos–walled and locked neighborhoods. The residents of the Ghetto were made to work without pay and with very little food. Leo’s parents survived the two-and-a-half years they lived in the Ghetto because of Nathan’s tailoring skills. He was in charge of a Jewish work group at a clothing factory that made German uniforms. He insisted that he needed the help of his wife, her sister, and as many other people as he could convincingly request.
This is what he didn’t tell them:
In August of 1941, the Lithuanian government rounded up the 40,000 Kovno Jews as the Russians retreated and the German invasion began, and killed 10,000 of them. Later that summer the Germans lined up the Jewish population and led another 10,000 Jews to the outskirts of town and shot them all, letting them fall into a large trench that would become a mass grave. Both Nathan and Mina lost family members in these mass executions.
But, the tenacity, intelligence, and skill that enabled Nathan to become a master tailor in his teens, served him well during his time in the Ghetto. Despite the dwindling Ghetto population, Leo’s parents survived. Nathan was involved with the Underground, and made a strap contraption that fit under his sister-in-laws dress so she could smuggle guns into the Ghetto, walking them in through the gate as they returned from work at the factory.
By 1943, the population of the Ghetto was reduced to 6500 due to starvation, illness, and a new policy of “liquidation.” More and more frequently, Jews were lined up in the street and selected to either live or die. Leo writes that his father “decided that any day he would be killed, if not sooner, then a little later…no one thought they would survive because there was absolutely no way to know that the Germans were not winning the war.”
But Leo’s parents were not part of the Ghetto population that was killed, instead they were sent to separate concentration camps: his mother to Auschwitz; his father to first Stutthof and then Dachau.
In a steady voice, Leo tells the class, “You have learned about the concentration camps, right?” The students nod. Leo says, “It was a very difficult place to survive. Many people didn’t. Some people were killed right away in the gas chambers. And some people died of illness and starvation.” He explains, “My parents were at the right age to survive. Not too young that they were immediately killed, but not too old that they couldn’t endure the wear and tear of hard work and starvation.”
And he left it at that. How much more can you tell such young children of the atrocities one human being can inflict on another. How to walk that fine line of forcing them to look at the horror of history in a hope to end the cycle, yet not shaking their faith and trust in the world at large.
But the story of Nathan and Mina was not complete, and here is where the serendipitous miracles began, lighting several candles within the darkness.
Dachau, the concentration camp where Nathan was prisoner, was liberated by the United States 7th Army Blackhawk Division. It just so happens that Donald Alban Butsch was a soldier with that unit. Donald later became the father of a daughter named Jillene, just as Nathan later became the father of a son named Leo. In a weird twist of fate, 56 years after Donald’s unit liberated Dachau, Donald’s daughter Jillene married Nathan’s son Leo in a ceremony along the Oregon coast. One father-in-law freed the other. As Leo tells this to the students, who don’t seem to grasp the significance, I feel my scalp tingle with the fragility of our connections, the thin white thread that stretches across time and distance to sew us all together as one.
The Jewish survivors of Dachau were told that all the female Jewish prisoners in Auschwitz had been killed. The Auschwitz survivors had been told that the male prisoners of Dachau had been liquidated. In a time of no cell phones or Web searches, and with a disrupted mail service, it was seemingly impossible to find friends, family, and loved ones.
“Once my father was liberated from the camp, his only goal was to see Berlin. He wanted to see with his own eyes that the capital of Germany was defeated. He had no hope that he would ever see his wife again,” says Leo.
Despite their weakened state, Nathan and three others set out on the long trek to Berlin. Eventually they got there, but Nathan was very sick with painful swelling in his legs and feet. He was taken to a hospital where there were other Jewish refugees, but no medicine. It was there that he recognized a woman from his old neighborhood in Kovno. She told him that there were survivors from Auschwitz and that she thought it was possible that Mina was among them.
Nathan got out of the hospital bed and headed to the Russian sector as the Russians had liberated Auschwitz. The Russians told him that they could not find individuals, but asked if Nathan had any skills. Leo tells the class, “My father told them that he was a master tailor, and he was sent to the Field Marshall whose name was Marchak. Marchak asked my father if he could sew in leather. My father said he could and when Marchak told him to prove it, my father asked if they had any German leather coats. When one was brought to him, he quickly ripped open the lining.”
Leo stops and shakes his head. “This was a very dangerous thing to do. My father was standing in a room of Russian soldiers, and he had just ripped open property that wasn’t his. But there, on the underside of the leather, was my father’s name stitched in thread.”
During the last months that Nathan worked in the clothing factory outside the Ghetto, he was making leather coats for German generals. Since he was convinced he was going to die any day, he began stitching his name on the underside of each garment. He thought it would be ironic if some day a victorious German discovered the name of a Jew sewn inside his coat. Perhaps it helped him get through those grueling, fearful days to have his own small taste of revenge.
“Marchak immediately ordered my father to oversee one of the clothing factories that the Russians had taken over from the Germans, but my father refused. He said he would not sew a single stitch for the Russians unless they helped him find his wife.”
I can imagine Nathan Freisinger standing before the Russian soldiers stubbornly refusing to lift one finger to help them. Nathan Freisinger who grew up without a bed. Nathan Freisinger who had survived as the Ghetto shrank from 40,000 to 6,500. Nathan Freisinger who beat the odds and walked away from Dachau. Nathan Freisinger who wasn’t going to do one more thing for anyone until he got what he wanted. And what he wanted was his wife.
Marchak must have sensed the steel in Nathan’s will because he took out a piece of letterhead and wrote an order that said, “Find the refugee Mina Goldberg and bring her to Berlin Russian Command using all means necessary.” There was some grumbling about the cost in personnel and resources it would take to carry out this command, but it was obeyed nonetheless. As it turns out, Marchak was a Jew. Was he thinking of his own wife as he sent out the command, or just moved by the wasted yet determined ethnic brother standing before him?
Regardless of the motivation, Mina was found. She and Nathan were reunited as many never were in the aftermath of World War II. Leo shares with the class that eventually his parents emigrated to America with hardly a penny to their name. In time, his father opened a tailoring shop in Los Angeles and made a comfortable living for his family.
After a long pause, Leo concludes his talk as we discussed the previous evening.
“After the Holocaust, my mother lost her joy. She spent most of her time feeding my sister and me because she had suffered such starvation.” Leo takes a deep breath, “As for my father, for the rest of his life, he divided the world into them and us. Those who wanted to hurt us and those who were for us.” For the first time Leo’s face looks pained. “The Holocaust completely destroyed my father’s relationship with God. I thought he was angry that God had let so many people suffer and die, but he told me he was angry with God for letting him survive, forcing him to live with the horrors of his experience every day. My father died when he was 92 years old, and his Holocaust experience shaded every moment of his life.”
When Leo stopped talking there was a deep silence.
“Are there any questions?” asked Leo. When no one immediately raised their hand, Leo departed quickly, as if shutting the memories within the classroom.
That night, I asked my daughter what she thought about Leo’s talk.
She knitted her brow and said, “What I don’t understand is why Leo is so sad about his parent’s story. They lived. Why was his dad so angry at God when he lived?”
My heart sank. We had walked the line too carefully. She hadn’t understood the terrible atrocities inflicted upon the Jewish population of Europe. We had made Nathan and Mina’s story too comfortable, and in some way, I felt, dishonored them.
“Terrible things happened to them, to their families,” I tell her. “Imagine if everyone else in our family was suddenly gone and we never got to see them again.” Even in my explanation I could not bear to use the word “killed.”
She listened, but insisted, “Mom, they LIVED. They found each other again.”
I looked into my daughter’s face and then hugged her tightly to my chest. Maybe it wasn’t that we told the students too little. Maybe what they saw within the painful tale of Nathan and Mina was the heart of courage tied to the wings of luck. The persistent stars above the cloudy night sky. Perhaps on some level they did understand the larger perspective that from the fight against inexplicable prejudice and genocide were born Leo and Jillene, who would eventually find each other and happiness.
It would be a better world if there were no Holocaust stories to tell, if we didn’t have to explain to school children the ideas of Ghettos, concentration camps, and gas chambers. But tell these stories we must. We must first face the dark, ugly truths, and then, as my daughter taught me, warm our hearts again by the gentle light of the miracles shining around the edges.