The Holocaust horror stories my parents told me as a young child forced me to shoulder a heavy emotional load. First I contemplated revenge against the Nazis. Later I tried escape into normalcy by blotting out painful memories. As the years passed, I discovered that going to the places where these terrible events occurred eased the psychic burden.
Traveling to Bendzin, Poland to see my father’s prewar home made me see, for the first time, that what had happened to my parents did not happen to me—the invisible number on my arm suddenly flew into the sky.
Witnessing my mother being hailed as a hero in Czechoslovakia—for having outlasted the Nazis who had forced her on a three-month death march—during the 50th anniversary celebration of her liberation taught me how viewing an event through a new lens can alter some of the bitterness of traumatic memory.
Accepting the International Committee of the Red Cross’s invitation to be part of a Jewish mission to the International Tracing Service in Bad Arolsen, Germany last March triggered my next epiphany.
When an archivist asked for a volunteer to demonstrate ITS’s digital retrieval system, I called out my name. Remarkably, within seconds the monitor displayed: Aron Manheimer, Polish Jew, born on January 29, 1948 in the Feldafing Displaced Persons Camp, U.S.-Occupied Germany. (Perhaps I was lucky. From my understanding, not all archival information is so easily accessible. ITS was unable to provide documentation on other names I had brought with me.)
Next I keyed in my father’s name, Wolf Manheimer. Again the results were stunning: his concentration camp record from Auschwitz to Mauthausen; postwar medical records; and his displaced person photo ID card, complete with fingerprints. Minutes later, an ITS staffer handed me the actual ID card (in mint condition) which my father had to turn in after receiving permission to emigrate to America.
What sadness I saw in my young father’s eyes. He had survived, but lost most of his family, his health, and his faith in a merciful God.
A simple list of dates on another document solved a mystery. My father had told me that at one point during the Holocaust he leapt from a cattle car transport and was shot through the chest by a Nazi guard. He lay on the ground until picked up by locals who took him to a hospital. Noticing the number tattooed on his arm, hospital personnel summoned the Gestapo. He was arrested and shipped off to the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria, where he was forced to do back-breaking work until he was too weak to go on. On liberation day, American GIs pulled him out from a pile of corpses.
There was so much I did not know: why my father was on that train, when he was shot, how long he had to recover before ending up in Mauthausen. ITS documents filled in the gaps. The train was evacuating Auschwitz inmates ahead of liberating Soviet forces because the Nazis didn’t want to leave behind any witnesses. My father left Auschwitz on January 25, 1945 and arrived at Mauthausen on February 16, 1945, only three weeks after being shot. Yet he managed to stay alive another eleven weeks until his liberation on May 5, 1945.
Amazingly, my mother (who by this time had been engaged to my father for four years but did not know whether he was dead or alive) was liberated on the very same day!
Even the uncovering of a single fact, such as my father’s liberation day, can alter the way one relates to the past. The perfect metaphor for me is tikkun olam—the mystical idea that to repair the world we have to gather the sparks of light that were shattered at the time of Creation and hidden throughout the world. Gathering facts that bring clarity to my parents’ Shoah stories has allowed me to remove haunting memories from the firmament of emotion and place them within the realm of knowledge and understanding, bringing me comfort and tikkun.
Aron Hirt-Manheimer is RJ editor.