A Different Thanksgiving Story

Lodz ghetto, circa 1939.

Hard to believe that anyone would be sitting around on Thanksgiving reading blogs, but here I am, writing one, so there are probably a few of you reading. Mostly recipes.

Last Saturday I was a little down. And sometimes, when things are going wrong for me, when life feels more than out of control, I like to read about the Holocaust.

Crazy coping strategy, I know, but it works every time. There are many collections of stories about the Holocaust, and I happened to have had one on hand, a survival story. Here's a mini-review, not on the level of one you might find at Jew Wishes, but it is what it is.

Sisters of the Storm, (from the Holocaust Diaries series), by Anna Eilenberg-Eibeshitz is the story of two young teens trapped in Lodz, Poland, a ghetto established by the Gestapo in 1939, a home to approximately 200,000 Jews, surrounded by barbed wire. According to DeathCamps.org
". . . inhabitants vegetated in wretched wooden houses comprising 31,271 apartments. Sanitary conditions were disastrous. Apart from the lack of food, only 725 apartments had running water. There was no sewerage, no coal or wood for heating the rooms, no warm clothes and shoes. As a consequence, 21% of the ghetto population died in various epidemics, of starvation or were frozen to death."
No turkey, baby.

Those who survived only survived to be deported to concentration camps, Auschwitz in particular, and the gas chambers. An estimated 6 million Jews were murdered in this war, another 6 million non-Jews fell to the Nazis, as well.

Here are a few hungry people on the way to Auschwitz in a rare photograph ostensibly to die.

Anna witnessed the torture and murder of family and friends, including her mother and brother. She survived the ghetto to be shipped like cattle, in a cattle car, hundreds to a car, little air to breathe, no room to move, certainly no bathroom facilities. From the crowding of Lodz to Auschwitz. You must know what happened there. I can't go into it now. It's a holiday.

It's hard to read these things, stories of survivors, but hard not to. On page 90 the author describes how her 22 year-old brother, before his death from tuberculosis, married knowing that the Germans intended to eradicate the Jews. Anna's brother contracted tuberculosis on the job, an occupational hazard, carrying human waste. He married with the intent to have a child, to stick it to the Nazis, to say, "You can't stop us. We shall survive, we will continue."

Ms. Eilenberg-Eibeshitzs writes (italics in parentheses are mine) :
My father came home one day with a very pale face. I tried to talk to him, but it took him a long time before he was able to speak to me. It seemed that he had seen Brocha (Anna's new sister-in-law)walking in the street, and she was obviously pregnant. I understood why my father was so firghtened; pregnant women were a favorite target for the Nazis. I offered up a silent tefillah (meaning prayer) that everything would be all right.

I grew more and more worried as the days passed by. . .I gradually came to understand that Brocha had been taken for deportation. (The Nazis killed mother and child as a matter of course. Babies filled in the gaps in mass burials before the Nazis came up with the Final Solution.)
Generally you hear a woman is pregnant and the response is joyous, gleeful. Happy.

Sisters of the Storm becomes more and more violent, more and more impossible to read, gut-wrenching. You wonder, you really do, when you read about such torturous conditions, starving people sleeping, if you can call it sleep, on dirty floors, punished with dirty (yellow) water for days at a time. Their simple crime? Genetics, race. You wonder how anyone can survive such conditions, always at the other end of the boot, slapped, beaten, waking to new corpses in the barracks. Grieving, fearful.

Do you become immune? I don't think so. Do you become skeptical? Suspicious of others? Jaded. Certainly. But many survivors kept their religion, stayed observant even within the camps, to the degree it was possible. Their faith somehow kept them going.

Survivor stories are told less often these days. The survivors of World War II are in their 70's, 80's and 90's. They are leaving us. We go to museums to hear them speak to us from videos, through headsets, or we read books to remember them. My cousin works for the Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, travels all over the world to tell the story of the Holocaust, tells people that history can and will repeat itself. He recently spoke in Mumbai, a city on the watch for terrorism, bombs. It is the most heavily populated city in the world, the trains are mobbed at all hours of the day. We must not forget. Everyone is vulnerable to hatred.

Everyone takes something different from survivor stories. For me it's how amazingly little we need to survive (when it comes to food) and how precious survival, life, really is.

Lo aleinu
, we say in Hebrew. Such things should not happen to us. We mean, really, that these things should not happen, and we're thankful, that we're not suffering, not like they did in the camps. We feel better somehow, telling ourselves, whispering some kind of talisman, a quick nod of thanksgiving. No one, none of us, should ever have to be hungry like that, should ever have to suffer like that. No one should. Lo aleinu. The downside of life can get pretty down.

My favorite journalist, Peggy Noonan, writes for the Wall Street Journal, and last Saturday she wrote a piece about being thankful. We're Still Here After a Rough Year--We're serving up a new gratitude this Thanksgiving. I liked it very much and am copying it below because we are thankful this week, as Americans. Last year was a difficult year. Our country, once a super power, is less super, we all agree. We don't trust, we are afraid of the future. But it's better now, today, than it was a year ago. We survived, she's suggesting.

And all I can think is,

Survival is surely relative.

Happy Thanksgiving.


*For those of you new here, shul is Yiddish for synagogue. I wrote this last Saturday night.

Here's Ms. Noonan's piece.

Last Thanksgiving, it looked as if a hard year was coming, and it was and it did. The holiday was shadowed by a sense of economic foreboding—Wall Street failing, companies falling and layoffs coming. It isn't over—no one thinks it's over. But the mood of this Thanksgiving looks to be different.

An unofficial poll of a dozen friends yields two themes: "We're still here," and, "I am so grateful." Almost all experienced business reverses, some of which were deep, and some had personal misfortunes of one kind or another: "I am thankful that my mother's death was fast and that she did not have to suffer," wrote a beloved friend. But something tells me that a number of Thanksgiving dinners will be marked this year by a new or refreshed sense of gratitude: We're still here. I am so grateful.

I felt it the other night, unexpectedly, in a way that reminded me of the anxieties of last year. I had been away from the city. I was in a cab going down Fifth Avenue. I hadn't been there in months. I looked up and suddenly saw, looming in the darkness to my right, the white-gray marble and huge windows of the Bergdorf Goodman building—tall, stately, mansard-roofed. Its windows were covered, but some lights were on, and there seemed to be people inside. They were preparing its Christmas windows. Something about the sight of it caught me—proud Bergdorf's, anchor of midtown commerce. It looked exactly as it looked 10 years ago, 20, only better. Because it's there. New York has been so damaged by the crash, and last year at this time small shops, the ones with the smallest margin for error, were closing. And now I see more that are opening, and Bergdorf's is preparing its Christmas windows. The sight of it came like an affirmation. We're still here. I am so grateful.

What are you most thankful for in 2009? I asked an old friend, a brilliant lawyer who lives in a New York suburb. "I saw my 6-year-old son run a mile, and catch a bunch of fish," he immediately replied. He saw his wife, a journalist, "dodge the firings" in her office. He still has a job, too. All of this sounds so common, so modest, and yet, he knows, it is everything. A child caught a fish, he ran, his father saw it. "Broadly," he added, "I am grateful to America for its freedom, for its yeastiness and, at times, its noise. Dee Snider belting out 'I Wanna Rock' is so America."

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Heidi Stevens

My friend Robert wrote, "I am thankful that I lived to see a person of color sworn into the office of President." He takes heart that America has set a new face toward the world. "I am thankful and proud when I am in London and people ask me about my president and show great interest in him." And, "I am thankful that my friends survived the global financial disaster. I am thankful America survived it."

A real estate lawyer in Washington emailed, "Whether you agree with the policy decisions made by the new administration or not, let's be thankful that our economy did not fall apart since last Thanksgiving."

A Washington journalist: "I am thankful that this is still a normal country, with predictable common-sense reactions to excesses. The American people served as a counterweight to the excesses of the Bush years, and are now serving as a counterweight to the excesses of the Obama years."

A friend who emigrated from Nicaragua 21 years ago and lives now in New York knew right away what she was thankful for: her still-new country. "I'm mainly grateful that I could raise my son in freedom. I could vote for the first time in my life. I could express my opinions without being shot on the spot, jailed, or exiled like my grandfather. I could sleep through the night without fearing for my life. I could work and buy food without rationing."

My friend Stephanie is grateful that she got health insurance despite a pre-existing condition. Another friend, an academic, was grateful to have been raised in America that taught well the rules of survival—perseverance, discipline.

Jim, who owns a small business, told me that as 2009 began, with all its troubles, "the number of frowns" he saw on the street "was overwhelming." He decided to take action. "I now make a conscious effort to smile at people in the street, in a bus, while waiting in line. It's such a simple form of connection, and it only takes one smile returned to make a difference in my day, and I hope the same is true for the other person smiling back." He hopes to start "a smiling epidemic" in Chicago.

My friend Vin said, when I asked him what he was most grateful for in 2009, "I remember reading that survival rates for breast cancer have been improving. I remember thinking: Thank God."

I am grateful for a great deal, especially: I'm here. I'm drinking coffee as I write, and the sun is so bright, I had to close the blinds to keep the glare from the computer. When I open the blinds, I will see the world: people, kids, traffic, dogs. Too many friends have left during the past few years, and it reminds us of what death is always trying to remind us: It's good to be alive.
More Peggy Noonan

Read Peggy Noonan's previous columns

click here to order her new book, Patriotic Grace

And after that, after gratitude for friends and family, and for those who protect us, after that something small. I love TV, and the other day it occurred to me again that we are in the middle of a second golden age of television. I feel gratitude to the largely unheralded network executives and producers who gave it to us. The first golden age can be summed up with one name: "Playhouse 90." It was the 1950s and '60s, when TV was busy being born. The second can be summed up with the words "The Sopranos," "Mad Men," "The Wire," "Curb Your Enthusiasm," "ER," "24," "The West Wing," "Law and Order," "30 Rock." These are classics. Some nonstars at a network made them possible. Good for them.

I leave it to others to dilate on why TV now is so good and movies so bad, since both come from the same town, Hollywood, in the same era. But there is a side benefit to televisions's excellence, and that is the number of people who follow a show so closely, and love it so much, that after it's aired they come together on long threads on Web sites and talk about what happened and what it means. People use their imaginations and unfocused creativity to add new layers of meaning and interpretation. "You know that was a reference to 'Chinatown.'" "Did anyone notice what it meant when Peggy told Mr. Sterling 'no' when he asked for the coffee? A whole revolution captured in one word!"

Those threads are golden. We rightly discuss the fact that media now is fractured, niched and broken up, that we no longer watch the same shows or have the same conversation. But what's happening now on the Internet after a good show is a conversation, a new one, and it's sprung up from the technology that helped do in the old one. How ironic and predictable, and another cause, however small, for gratitude.


blogbehave said…
Just this morning, Thanksgiving morning, I visited a brand new baby, days old. Seeing the excitement, love and adoration of the first time parents contrasted against the tragic story of pregnancy in your post, I am at a loss. Except to say, an entire new dimension of thankfulness sits with me now. And a wish that there was some way to end similar atrocities ongoing in the world right now.
TechnoBabe said…
Knowing what is real and living in that reality helps to understand true thankfulness. Not a flippant "yeah, I want all that I want", not following the push to commercialism. Thank you for sharing you have down times and reminding us to be actively working those down times. This is quite a post.
Lou said…
I'm still here, and am I ever grateful!
Isle Dance said…
Relative, indeed. Bless everyone.
Leora said…
I guess sometimes when one is down ready about really tragedy like the Shoa puts it all in perspective.

I certainly have a lot to be thankful for! As my mother z"l used to say, "May all of your cherries be bing!" I have no idea what that means, but I think about her on Thanksgiving.
April_optimist said…
Growing up, I found it incredibly reassuring to read about people who surivived the concentration camps able to hold onto their humanity in spite of what was done to them. It gave me hope that I could be the kind of person I chose to be and gave me a model for courage and resilience, too.
Lisa Marie said…
Sometimes it takes a little tragedy to help put your life in perspective. I completely understand your coping technique.

Today I stared at the empty chair at the dinner table. My 13 year old cousin should have been there. Knowing she wasn't put such a sting in my heart, but it helped me to appreciate the ones that were there even more than normal.

Blessings to you and your family!
Anonymous said…
Thank you for reminding us what to be thankful for and also that we'll always need to be vigilant.
Anonymous said…
Thank you for this post. Reminding us that on any given day no matter who we are we have so much to be grateful for. A friend's post yesterday made me wonder how many children may have gone hungry in my little town last night. I am so blessed.

I have been doing the smiling thing too. One day I noticed a lady all by herself in her car smiling and just looking happy. It made me smile so I started to do it too. I started to make others smile. It really feels good! Happy Thanksgiving
Shattered said…
I just found your blog and I have enjoyed reading it today. I have read accounts of Holocaust survivors in small doses and for me, they are truly inspiring to keep going. I recently visited with a survivor at the Jewish Community Center near my home and I have yet to really be able to put into words what that visit stirred up inside of me. No matter how difficult our situation or life is, there is always something we can be thankful for.
Charles said…
Sometimes authors use a novel or screenplay to support political or social beliefs; or to cry out for morality and ethical principles. This is no more clearly evident than with Holocaust books and films. Whenever we stand up to those who deny or minimize the Holocaust, or to those who support genocide we send a critical message to the world.

We know from captured German war records that millions of innocent Jews were systematically exterminated by Nazi Germany - most in gas chambers. Despite this knowledge, Holocaust deniers ply their mendacious poison everywhere, especially with young people on the Internet. Holocaust books and films help to tell the true story of the Shoah, combating anti-Semitic historical revision. And, they protect vulnerable future generations from making the same mistakes.

I wrote Jacob's Courage to promote Holocaust education. This coming of age love story presents accurate scenes and situations of Jews in ghettos and concentration camps, with particular attention to Theresienstadt and Auschwitz. It examines a constellation of emotions during a time of incomprehensible brutality. A world that continues to allow genocide requires such ethical reminders and remediation.

Many authors feel compelled to use their talent to promote moral causes. Holocaust books and movies carry that message globally, in an age when the world needs to learn that genocide is unacceptable. Such authors attempt to show the world that religious, racial, ethnic and gender persecution is wrong; and that tolerance is our progeny's only hope.

We need books and films that allow individuals to comprehend the terror experienced by Holocaust victims on a personal level. They reveal the horror of genocide and the triumphant spirit of humankind.

Charles Weinblatt
Author, "Jacob's Courage"
Anonymous said…
You read holocaust stories--to bounce you back?--when you're feeling down. You're stronger/healthier than I am, Doc.
therapydoc said…
Thanks everybody, and Charles, I'm getting that book. Fact is, everyone copes differently. I'd much rather watch TV than read about atrocities, okay? But there are times when reading these dark absolutely TRUE stories just puts everything into perspective.
Syd said…
Thanks for sharing this TD. I cannot imagine how humans do these things to others. Yet, every day there is some evidence of our insanity--crime, drugs, genocide--it all adds up. Yet, I remain hopeful. I am grateful for that. Maybe one day each of us will feel hope and put aside differences and pull together for the good of all.
Jew Wishes said…
Thank you for this heart-felt and heart-wrenching post, TD.

"It's hard to read these things, stories of survivors, but hard not to." I concur with that statement of yours. It is hard not to read about the survivors, and as you know I have a deep sense of necessity, and an intense urge to read about them. It is my way to keep the memories of those who are no longer with us, and those who won't be with us much longer alive.

It all started with one Holocaust memoir written by Elie Wiesel. "Night". It is such a slim book, but such a compelling and intense one, and one filled with such horror and devastation. From there it has escalated, and now I find myself deep within over one thousand volumes of Holocaust memoirs lining my walls. The books are treasures to me, books of love, loss and hope, and within the pages lives are born, lost, disillusioned, and also enriched.

In the beginning of my Holocaust reading I would wonder how the individuals could be enriched by their experiences, but after reading so many survival stories, I began to understand that Judaism is what kept some of them alive. Their steadfast belief in their faith saw them through the worst of times in humankind's history.

The bits of actual food were not the staples that held them together. It was their faith, their Jewish faith that was the food that sustained them.

The memoirs sustain me through the hardships I have encountered in my own life. I am thankful to have read them, thankful that such individuals once walked on the Earth, thankful for those that are still with us, thankful that I can remember them through reading. I am hankful for bloggers such as yourself who bring thoughts to ponder to others.

Thank you for mentioning me.

Thank you for this well articulated post.

Thank you...

porcini66 said…
You managed to carve out that sweet spot and nestle right into the core of me with this post. We have much to be grateful for. Very powerful post, TD. Thank you.
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Anonymous said…
Meanwhile, in modern-day America, it's considered torture to show porn and play loud American music to people caught engaging in armed combat incognito.