Abe Mazliach has spent most of his life searching -- searching to feel comfortable in the United States and in school, searching for understanding of his parents' experiences, searching for himself via travel throughout the world, searching for job satisfaction, and searching for connection with other 2Gs. Mainly, he has been searching for a purpose, which he did finally find.
Here is Abe's story:
My father Leon was born and lived in Salonika, Greece. In 1942, the Nazis took him to a slave labor camp in Lamia, Greece. In 1943, he was taken to Auschwitz, Poland. Three months later, he was moved to the Warsaw Ghetto. When the Russians came into Poland, he was moved to Dachau and then a death march from Dachau to Mildorf. He was in Mildorf for five months, from November 1944 to April 1945.
My mother Lola lived in Szydloweic, Poland. When the Nazis came, she volunteered to work as a slave laborer at a Nazi munitions factory in Skarszysko. Then she was taken to Bergen-Belsen and from there to Dachau. Finally, she was liberated from Dachau in May of 1945.
My parents met in a truly unique manner. In Feldafing, the DP camp, my father was working in the kitchen when my mother came in and asked for an extra potato. He said that he would give her the potato if she would go into the back room with him. She responded that she would not do that unless he married her. Hence, they got married.
Actually, this story is not all that unusual as many quick marriages took place right after liberation. What makes Leon and Lola's union strange is that they could not talk to each other. Leon spoke Greek and Ladino; Lola spoke Polish and Yiddish. (I guess Leon spoke enough Yiddish to invite Lola into the back room!)
I was born in Feldafing and was raised speaking mostly Yiddish. We came to the United States when I was five. I struggled in school as I did not know English well and found growing up in the U.S. difficult. I felt different and lost.
At first, we lived in Camden, New Jersey as my dad had a job in Philadelphia. We eventually ended up living in the Midwest, in the town of Calumet City in Illinois. Calumet was a Polish Catholic town. My father did not want to live in a Jewish community. Perhaps survivor's guilt played a role as he may have feared that Jews would question how he had survived. Or perhaps he expected, as a Sephardic Jew from Greece, to feel uncomfortable among Ashkenazic Jews from Poland, who made up the bulk of the Jewish communities in the area. Even though we were part of a temple, I never felt close to American Jews.
My parents were definitely affected by their backgrounds but in different ways. My father was quiet, kind, and worked very hard. In fact, I believe he survived because he was a hard worker and the Germans respected and appreciated that. My mother, on the other hand, had screaming fits and would threaten suicide. She was finally diagnosed as schizophrenic.
While I was away at college, my younger brother took my mother to the German Consulate to be evaluated by a psychiatrist there. If the determination were to indicate that her schizophrenia was caused by her concentration camp experiences, she would be entitled to larger reparations payments. The psychiatrist at the German Consulate, however, declared that she had had schizophrenia from before the war.
Fortunately, my brother then took her to an independent psychiatrist, who concluded that the concentration camp horrors my mother experienced were indeed the cause of her schizophrenia, and my parents were able to receive additional reparations.
At any rate, by the time I was ten, I was involved in swimming and scouting and I felt better about living in the U.S.
My father's survival, I believe, depended on three lucky coincidences. The first one took place when he and his brother arrived in Auschwitz with other Greek Jews. At the selection, his brother was sent to the work line and he was motioned to the other line. My father protested, pointing desperately at his brother and saying (in his best German), "My brother, my brother." The German guard turned his head at that point and my father quickly joined his brother on the work line.
The second lucky break came after the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Because so many Jews had been killed there and the buildings destroyed, the Germans needed more labor. They took 500 Greek Jews from Auschwitz and sent them to Warsaw. He worked in the Warsaw Ghetto, rebuilding, for about six months. Most likely, the Germans selected Greeks because they did not speak the same language as the Polish Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto and would therefore not be able to plot any revolts together. Leon then survived the Death March from Warsaw to Germany when the Russians were advancing.
The third break arrived in the form of a German train conductor. Near the end of the war, Leon was put on a train which was headed to a place where the Jews on board would be exterminated. The conductor, who was German military but apparently not a Nazi, knew the war was winding down and decided to wait for the Americans instead of following orders and taking the train to its destination. He probably concluded that he would be treated better by the Americans if captured were he not to take part in transporting the Jews on the train to their deaths. Thus, the train waited.
The moment the doors of the cattle car opened, what Leon saw filled him with joy and immense relief. Right there, standing outside the train, were American soldiers. What a welcome sight! One of them, a captain, spoke to Leon and told him to try to put the terrible experiences of the war behind him and work on building a new life. Leon remembered this piece of advice, which was extremely meaningful to him.
He was then on his way to Feldafing, the DP camp, where he met my mother and planned his emigration from Europe.
While in college, I decided to get my parents to tell their stories. I realized that they were getting older and their stories would be lost if they never related their experiences, so I videotaped them. When my father was relating the story of his survival and he got to the part where his train was liberated by the Americans, he tried to explain how everyone was so overjoyed, they started running around and raising their hands in the air. At this point, my father broke down in tears. It was so emotional. I had never seen him cry before. This was a revelation for me -- seeing the intense significance of that moment to my father.
After my interviewing them, I discovered and read the book Children of the Holocaust by Helen Epstein. In this book, Epstein writes of the lives and struggles of a number of 2Gs who dealt with their upbringings by survivor parents in diverse ways. Reading this book was a pivotal experience for me, as it revealed to me the fact that I was not alone in my struggles as a 2G. I remember thinking: I am not the only one.
I majored in math in college and eventually learned computer programming, working as a computer scientist for several companies, first near Calumet City and then in the Bay Area of San Francisco. I had always felt attracted to the California lifestyle and aspired to live there.
As a working California young man in the late seventies, I was entitled to a three-month leave of absence from my job. I decided to travel. In fact, I needed to travel as a way to find myself. I needed to go back to Europe as I wanted to feel a belonging. I spent those three months traveling in Europe, and decided I wanted to live and work in France. I was searching for myself and believed I would find myself in Europe, where I was born. While I was in Europe, my father wanted me to look up relatives of his that he believed were in France. I tried and also tried at the Greek Consulate but could find nothing. I applied for various jobs in France but then returned to the United States.
Ironically, through an ancestry website, someone contacted my son Steven whose mother was somehow related to my father. We conversed and discovered that they had survived the war by first going to Egypt and then to France. Thus, a family connection was ultimately made and my father's belief that he had relatives in France was verified. I am still in contact with these second cousins in France.
The travel bug had bitten me, however, and I moved to Colorado, finding a job at a computer place while living as a ski bum. During that period, I heard from one of the companies in France that had received my resume. They wanted me to come for an interview.
So I went to France again and was hired. (The person hiring me wanted to meet someone who wanted to leave San Francisco for Paris, as he declared he would rather live in San Francisco!) At any rate, I lived in a Paris suburb for two and a half years, working at CII Honeywell Bull there. After that time, I was ready to come back.
I then lived in northern California and began to feel interested in exploring the experience of being a 2G. I joined a 2G organization. After a while, I realized that most of the people attending those meetings were treating the meetings as therapy sessions, and I wanted to move on. Listening to others complaining was not what I wanted. So I stopped going. The best thing that came of that experience was the fact that I met my wife Miriam there!
I believe that I was always searching to find who I am. I am a determined person, and I have strong opinions. I believe these aspects of my character stem from being a 2G. I also think sensitivity, anger, and depression are part of inherited trauma for many 2Gs. I dealt with anger myself and worked on it. I do believe it is part of a 2G life.
My yen for travel was revived years later when my son Steven was in Europe during his sophomore year of college. He called and told us he wanted to go to Poland. Although my wife was upset, fearing for his safety in Poland, I was proud of him and decided to meet him there. The trip we took together was extremely meaningful.
We found a guide who took us through Warsaw, and then we went to Lask, where my wife's mother had come from. We visited the "killing fields" of Chelmo, the place that bears the notorious distinction of being the first place where people were packed into trucks and the gas was poured into the trucks, killing them right there. Many members of my wife's family lost their lives that way. My wife's cousins put up a monument there, which we saw.
I felt awful in Poland, just knowing what was done to people there, and how many are buried there. We went on to Krakow, and then to Auschwitz. Steven and I were both very deeply affected by the Auschwitz visit. My son, who was 20 then, became very angry and did not want to talk about it. I do feel that the visit connected me to my parents and to the Holocaust itself.
We also went to the town where my mother was born and discovered that her house was no longer there. A Polish non-Jewish woman from the town, whom we got to meet, had put up a monument across the street where the old synagogue used to be. Knowing that my parents endured such horrible things, I feel I have the challenge to keep Holocaust survivor histories alive.
As a result of this feeling, I joined an organization called Facing History in Ourselves. The organization works with teachers to guide them in making sure the students are ready to learn about the Holocaust and have done the necessary background reading. They bring speakers in who can talk to students about their Holocaust experiences.
This organization helped me quite a bit as it has motivated me to have a purpose in my life. The head of the northern California group suggested at one point that I speak to high school students. He pointed out that not many survivors are around any more and the students would probably find it easier to relate to me rather than to an elderly survivor.
Thus, I began speaking to students. The two questions high school students tend to ask me are: What was your life like growing up? and: Would you ever forgive the Germans? My response to the second question is that I am in no position to forgive.
At some point, I realized that the "stand-by syndrome," which allowed people as well as nations to do nothing to stop the Holocaust, was still playing a role in our lives. People -- and nations -- could easily say: What can I do? Why should I worry? It's just too big a problem!
This is human nature, to be a silent by-stander. Every day of my life, I ask: How could the Holocaust happen? Why wasn't it stopped? I began to see that the same reaction was taking place in the area of climate change. Once I recognized that link, I was led to discover another purpose in my life. I have become very active politically in the Citizens Climate Lobby and I am leader of the Silicon East chapter. I was always active politically in some way, protesting the Vietnam War and working on the Clinton campaign, but this mission, working with this organization to reduce our carbon imprint, has taken my purpose to a new level. I am a motivational speaker and I encourage people to call their Congressional representatives to put the solar plan into President Biden's Build Back Better bill.
My son Steven has taken up this mantle as well. He works for a company that aims to reduce energy consumption, and I am extremely proud of him.
Several years ago, I started a Facebook group for children of survivors of the Feldafing DP camp. There is also a Facebook group for children of survivors of the Bad Reichenhall DP camp, the one in which my wife's parents lived. We all started posting photos of our parents in the DP camps, and it was quite interesting. Recognizing our parents in other people's pictures was an eye-opening experience, as it showed us that in spite of what they had endured, the families they had lost, and the uncertainty of their futures, we see them partying, swimming, laughing, and generally enjoying life at last. Years after my father had passed away, I suddenly saw him in a picture of a music band at Feldafing with fellow Greek survivors from Thessaloniki. It was a surprise to see this part of my father's past and to appreciate the relief they were all able to feel.
From research, I discovered that Feldafing had originally been the site of a Hitler Youth School. In addition to the irony of it becoming a DP camp was a double irony as I also learned, from contact with others in the group, that many Germans later became workers in the DP camps. After the war, it was difficult for the Germans to find employment, so the tables were turned. People who had been taught to hate Jews and consider them sub-human and who did not want Jews living near then were now doing menial work for Jews in the DP camps.
Last November, a group of us from both Facebook groups were planning a trip to Germany, to visit both Feldafing and Bad Reichenhall. Unfortunately, due to Covid, we decided to cancel. However, we are now planning the trip for this May. We have been in touch with the mayor and a historian, who will meet with us there. I will get to visit the place where I was born.
This upcoming trip is surely a part of my purpose, and I look forward to all I will learn and the people I will meet. Finding my purpose and devoting myself to it has definitely given meaning to my life.
NOTES ON GREEK JEWRY
The once-thriving Jewish community in Greece is most likely the oldest Jewish community in the world. The community originally consisted of Romaniotes, who spoke a dialect of Greek and were from the Mediterranean area. It is believed they arrived in the fourth century B.C.E., possibly earlier. They are neither Ashkenazi nor Sephardic but have their own rituals and practices. In 1492, when Spain expelled Jews during the Inquisition, a large population of Sephardic Jews from Spain and Portugal escaped to Greece, where the Ottoman ruler, Sultan Bayezid, welcomed their arrival.
The majority of these Sephardic Jews, who were cultured, educated, civic-minded, and connected in the world of trade, settled in the port city of Thessaloniki (also known as Saloniki) They spoke Ladino (Judeo-Spanish), coexisted with those of other religions (Muslims, Greek Orthodox, and other Christians), and established Thessaloniki as a hub of trade and a center for printing, culture, and education. In fact, the city became known as the "Jerusalem of the Balkans" and the "Mother of Israel." The Jews were left alone, for the most part, during the Ottoman period.
In 1941, Greece was invaded and split into three zones -- German, Italian, and Bulgarian. The Germans immediately instituted their usual persecutions -- ghettos, the yellow star, confiscation of businesses and property, and public humiliations. They then deported the Jews to Auschwitz.
Over 60,000 Greek Jews were ultimately deported. About half of them died en route, as they were packed into the trains so tightly that they had to remain standing for the three-day journey. Many went mad. Greek Jews died in greater numbers in Auschwitz than did members of other Jewish communities. 87% of all Greek Jews perished, and 98% of Thessaloniki's Jews. Of the approximately 70,000 Jews living in Greece at the beginning of the war -- 50,000 in Thessaloniki -- only about 10,000 survived. Most of them, discovering their communities destroyed and some of their homes occupied by Greeks after the war, emigrated to either Israel or the United States.
Some acts of heroism in Greece deserve special mention. In Athens, Archbishop Damaskinos directed the Greek Orthodox Church to issue false baptism certificates to any Jews requesting them. He also encouraged the population to shelter Jews and help however they could, which many bravely did. Many Jews had fled to Athens from other cities in Greece, and they were thus saved.
Princess Alice of Greece, who was the mother of Great Britain's Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, hid a Jewish family in her home in Athens. (She is buried in Jerusalem)
On the island Zakynthos, Germans ordered the mayor. Loukas Karrer, to hand over a list of all the Jews on the island. In response, Bishop Chrysostomos handed the Germans a list with two names on it -- his and the mayor's. If you are taking the Jews of Zakynthos, the bishop said, take the two of us as well. The 275 Jews of the island had been hidden in the mountains, and they all survived.
In 1953, the island suffered a huge earthquake. Israel sent aid, indicating its gratitude for the residents of the island who had bravely saved its Jewish population during the war.
The above-mentioned heroes, Archbishop of Athens and All Greece Damaskinos, former mayor of Zakynthos Louis Karrer, late Metropolitan of Zakynthos Chrysostomos, and Princess Alice are among the 352 Greeks honored as Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem.