WRITING THROUGH PAIN
Mirla Raz knows what it is like to write about something upsetting. A retired speech pathologist who had written speech-related books (Help Me Talk Right series), Mirla was no stranger to writing. But her latest project was in a different category. Writing about her parents' Holocaust experiences was difficult and painful, yet she felt it was important that the record be preserved. An active member of the Phoenix Holocaust Association, Mirla understood the value of documenting and sharing her parents' stories.
Her mother had written poetry after the Holocaust, expressing in her poems things she could not express verbally. Mirla shares her mother's moving poetry in the memoir she produced.
Writing is a means of exploration and expression in three generations of Mirla's family, as her eldest daughter wrote her college senior thesis, entitled "The Third Generation," on Mirla's father's wartime experiences. This thesis ignited Mirla's interest in getting her parents' stories written down, as difficult as that would turn out to be. Writing about upsetting events and writing while feeling the pain of these events turned out to be an experience shared by Mirla, her mother, and her daughter.
I have always known that my parents survived the Holocaust. My father, nee Gedalia Geclewicz, was under Nazi rule from September 1939, when the Germans entered the city of Lodz, to May 2, 1945, when he was liberated. My mother, nee Charlotte Gersten, was “luckier” because the Russians ruled her city, Lvov (today Lviv) from September 1939 to June 1941, at which time Hitler broke his pact with Stalin and invaded eastern Poland.
Here are the short versions of their harrowing experiences as Jews under the Nazis. My father and his family were in the Lodz Ghetto from March 1940 until August 1944. My father lost his father, Itzhak Lazer and a brother, Hirsch, to illness in the Ghetto. At the end of August, the Germans liquidated the entire Ghetto and shipped the Jews to Auschwitz. There, my father was separated from his mother, Mirla (after whom I am named), his sister Haya, her son Yossel, and his sister Leah. His mother, Haya, and Yossel were gassed and cremated. After the war, my father learned that his sister Leah was murdered on a death march. My father survived Auschwitz and six other concentration camps along with his brother Leon. He witnessed the deaths of his brothers Meyer and Shmiel in the camps.
My mother and her sister Ella escaped the Lvov Ghetto with identification papers that their parents were able to purchase, identifying them as young Catholic females. As a Jew disguised as a Catholic, my mother’s life was a daily terror. Many of the Catholics in Lvov were eager to help the Nazis capture Jews. She was constantly blackmailed and running from one apartment to another to escape being caught. After one particularly harrowing experience, my mother and her sister decided that living in Poland was too risky. Along with other Poles, they found employment in Germany. My mother worked as a maid in a well-to-do German household. Ella worked on a pig farm nearby. Towards the end of the war, my mother was forced to dig trenches for the retreating German Army. She was liberated in January 1945. My mother’s parents, Marcus and Sara, her sister Fanny and her brother Leon were murdered by the Nazis.
My parents immigrated to the U.S. in January 1950. I was born six weeks later. Three years later, my sister Susan was born and 17 months later, Phyllis was born. We grew up in a very loving household. Needless to say, my parents' early years in the U.S. were a struggle financially. My father was a cabinetmaker and my mother was a homemaker who worked out of the home as a seamstress. My sisters and I were the center of my parents’ universe. Their friends were mainly other survivors.
Growing up, I was envious of my friends because they had grandparents and many cousins. I, on the other hand, had no grandparents and only three first cousins. I always thought to myself, I would have had 11 aunts and uncles but...
As the oldest child, I automatically acquired the role of trailblazer. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that I went to battle with my parents and their European values, especially during my teenage years. Why can’t I wear make-up? Only cheap girls wear makeup. You don’t need it. I want to go away to college. Why do you need to go away? You can live at home and go to a college nearby. We’ll get you a car.
As my parents got older, they began to talk about the Holocaust quite a bit. It seemed to me that every conversation eventually led to the Holocaust. We could be talking about an excursion to the mall and somehow the conversation would derail to the Holocaust. Now, I notice, in my senior years, I also talk more about it as well. Do I talk more about the Holocaust because I am involved with the Phoenix Holocaust Association? Perhaps it is because, like my parents in their older years, my children are grown, I am retired and have more time to think about it? Some may say it is a manifestation of inherited trauma. Perhaps all of the above.
Pictured above is a belt Mirla's father found in the street before the Germans arrived. A precious item, because it would signify his transition to manhood as it would replace suspenders, he was overjoyed to find it at age 13 since his parents could not afford to buy him one. He was able to keep this cherished item through the war. The difference between his waistline before the war and after his time in Auschwitz is obvious, and horrifying. As Mirla writes: "Each notch on the belt is the eyewitness to my dad's worsening condition" between 1939 and 1945.
After my parents passed, I came upon my oldest daughter’s senior thesis. She had written about her grandfather’s Holocaust experiences. Having recently retired, I decided that future generations of our family should know about my parents’ lives during and after WWII. I began by transcribing the videos I took of their testimonies in the 1990s. Then I began to write. It was not easy. I found that after about two hours of writing, I started to become agitated. I wrote either in the morning or early afternoon, always stopping before four o’clock. After I began writing, the book took on a life of its own as I wrote about their lives during the Holocaust, marrying after the Holocaust, their reception in the United States by the American Jewish community, reparation issues, and the trip we took to Poland in 1990.
My oldest daughter, Keren, wrote about her painful trip to Poland with the March of the Living and her take on my father’s experiences. My mother expressed her emotions about living through the Holocaust in her poetry. I took the title of the book, The Birds Sang Eulogies, from one of her poems. The book is a three generational account of my parents’ lives during and after the war.
The cover of my book came to me by coincidence. I had no photos of my father from Europe. In 2017, my husband and I visited the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, where an exhibit featuring photographs taken by the photographer Henryk Ross of life in the ghetto was featured. Years before, I had looked through Ross's book Lodz Ghetto Album with my father. My father pointed out which pictures were fantasy, as the Germans had hired Ross to take photos of healthy looking Jews to use as propaganda, and which were real, photos Ross took clandestinely and hid. There were two worlds depicted in these photos.
At this exhibit, one photo caught my eye. The man in the picture was being herded, with other ghetto Jews, out of the ghetto and onto a train to Auschwitz. Staring at that photo, I became convinced that the man was my father. So many aspects of his face were familiar. Studying it later under magnifying glasses confirmed my opinion. I sent the photo to a specialist in facial analysis to compare it to a photo of my father taken in Germany after the war. The conclusion: it is indeed my father.
Looking at the photo, I could not help but despair over the horrors that I now know awaited him, horrors that would nearly kill him. His expression seems to betray his sense of that. This photo, discovered in a museum exhibit, became the cover of my memoir.
Above is the cover of Mirla's memoir. With her father's picture on the cover and her mother's poem in the title, Mirla has honored both parents with her book.
My parents always said that America was the greatest country in the world. They remained forever grateful for the opportunity to build new lives and raise their children far from the killing fields and hatred of the country of their roots.
My mother began writing poetry many years after living in the US. She wrote them in English, not in her native language, Polish which, to me, is amazing. My mother was an intelligent woman and excellent writer. Had the war not broken out she most likely would have gone to university.
My mother was a quiet woman who found it hard to express her emotions verbally. I think poetry made it easier for her to express her emotions about the Holocaust and all that she witnessed. To an extent it was therapeutic. My mother loved reading poetry. She found solace in it. When I read her poetry, I can feel the emotions she found so hard to express verbally. She shows her anger, frustration, sorrow, disgust with the Nazis and those who assisted them, the unspeakable tragedies that she witnessed, how the horrors of what she witnessed and lived through haunted her all her life, the wickedness of prejudice and the resulting destruction of all that was good in her life.
I would like to share one of my mother's poems about the Holocaust. This one is titled "Thorns of Remembrance."
THORNS OF REMEMBRANCE
Eighteen years of age was I
When all of us were doomed to die;
We broke the law that every man
Of the same crime be guilty can.
Our right to life had no excuse,
For we were born to the creed of Jews.
Three girls were we and the youngest boy,
We loved him like a precious toy;
Abounding curls upon his head,
Angelic face in sunshine clad.
In those early days but no one knew,
What bitter fate awaits the Jew.
We never thought that nature's palm,
So soft now, so serene and calm,
Would turn into a stony fist
And fling our lives into dark mist.
That torrents of wild hatred grew,
And mortal tides approached the Jew.
We never thought the blessed grounds,
That man has trod, would bleed with wounds;
And sunshine's bright and golden ray
Would paint dead bodies with decay.
We didn't know how close time grew,
When men will strike the helpless Jew.
My brother now only seventeen,
Was tall and fair, his body lean,
His eyes like skies, dark azure blue,
Reflected all that's good and true.
The German who my brother slew,
Thought him too fair to be a Jew.
The skies have paled (they told me so),
The raging winds lamented woe,
Sun rays through clouds winding, spired,
Shrouded the body where life expired.
Swallows mute upon the bough,
Palsied watched the crime below.
He was the youngest of us all,
Yet, death came first on him to call.
Oh, how my heart for him had pined,
It broke my soul, it writhed my mind.
I loathed that foe, his poisoned dart,
That killed my brother and chained my heart.
Suffering tends to build a wall,
After disasters take their toll;
A wall of strength and moral force,
To aid you on your tottering course.
I bore the strength one only has,
Whose heart has heard the voice of death.
Now I was the youngest of us three,
But by some measure of degree,
My zest for life, my fear to die,
Led all my senses to defy
The foe, who in a torturing way
Stood ready to attack the prey.
I felt my passions rise and grow,
I saw the light of hope still glow;
A beam of light that stayed with me
On my blind road toward destiny.
I had to run, run for my life,
Hence to escape their jagged knife.
I ran, I ran, and didn't look,
When horrors earth and heaven shook,
I panicked when I heard the calls
Of trembling shadows on the walls;
A kind of agonizing fear,
When panic at your senses tear.
For when I threw a backward glance,
I saw the devils laugh and dance;
My mind pursued by the voice of doom,
Resounding from the earth's womb,
Turned silence into piercing scream –
A nightmare, mortifying dream.
My older sister shared with me,
My rocky road that destiny
Prepared for us in a time,
When the ferocity of crime
Was raging over war torn plains
And clanged the sorry song of chains.
My parents then were still alive,
Their lives but had no strength to strive,
In a hole they hid beneath the floor,
The place they learned to abhor.
No air to breathe and void of light
A cursed dungeon would seem bright.
Until betrayed they were brought to die;
Now in an unknown grave they lie –
Torn from the roaring, maddening screams,
Injustice echoed in endless streams
Of vanished young and old alike,
When man came other man to strike.
Sixty-three years upon me lie
With memories that refuse to die;
The memories of my tender years
Passed away in grief and tears;
When faith in man was lost forever,
In violence and madness fever.
Madness, which for long decried
Man, who had ferociously defied
Basic human rights which nature
Gave to every living creature.
Men who with contempt and scorn,
Brought this earth to weep and mourn.