In the past 72 years, I have thought long and hard about what lessons for human survival could be drawn from my Holocaust experience. You may not agree with my conclusions, but I do hope that you find them stimulating.
How it All Began
My dad was a chemist at the University of Warsaw. He was researching heavy water, which is used as a critical coolant in nuclear reactors. Just before the war, he received a U.S. visa to work on the Manhattan Project, but he would not leave without us. The war arrived before the new visas.
My mom was a mathematician. She used her good looks and her cunning to keep my dad and me alive through most of the war.
I wasn’t always old
I was five years old on September 1st, 1939, when the Nazi army invaded Poland and set up martial law.
Six months later, we and 450,000 other Jews in Warsaw and surrounding areas were ordered to move into the Jewish section of Warsaw under penalty of death.
Most had to move in with strangers. My parents and I were fortunate to move in with my grandparents who had a large apartment in the Jewish section.
Eventually, we noticed certain streets being blocked to traffic, and sections of walls going up here and there. Eventually, the walls were joined and topped with strands of barbed wire. On November 16th, 1940, The Warsaw Ghetto became a reality.
Life and Death in the Ghetto
The 450,000 of us were crammed into an area of barely 5 sq. km. This works out to about ten times the population density of most downtown areas.
Crowding and food shortages became unbearable, leading to a Typhus epidemic, with victims lining the streets. During the first year, an estimated 80-100,000 died of starvation and disease.
We did our best to cope with these hardships. There were workshops to manufacture and recycle clothing. Durable goods were traded outside the Ghetto for food and smuggled in by children.
There were even health clinics, public soup kitchens, libraries, a Jewish theater, musical performances, an orphanage, and a rudimentary school system.
A Jewish Council, collaborating with Nazi authorities, maintained a semblance of order through a Jewish police, medical responders, and a woeful food distribution system.
The Final Solution
On July 21, 1942, the Nazis launched implementation of Operation Reinhardt, known today as “the final solution.” In the next two months, they dragged 300,000 people from their homes to the infamous Umschlagplatz, then into packed cattle cars for a trip to the death camp of Treblinka.
A key element of the operation was thorough deception, to prevent a mass revolt. We were told that we were being resettled in the East, away from hunger and disease. We were instructed to bring along our suitcases and to label them clearly with our name and address, in the event we became separated from our luggage.
The Treblinka gas chamber was even decorated with a Star of David to simulate a synagogue. , and the path leading to it was dubbed “stairway to heaven.” The inside was disguised as a shower compound.
An estimated 800,000 Jews were murdered in Treblinka and millions more in Auschwitz and other death camps.
They left behind only piles of shoes, glasses, hair, and charred bones – silent memorials to thousands of sentient, living beings who were no more.
On April 19th, 1943, several thousand Nazi troops, supported by tanks, returned to wipe out the remaining 56,000 residents of the Warsaw Ghetto. They were met with vigorous resistance that lasted four weeks.
That date is now observed throughout the world, on the 27th day of Nissan in the Jewish calendar as Yom Hashoah, or Holocaust Day.
On May 16th, after leveling every building and massacring the survivors, Nazi General Jurgen Strop reported to Hitler that the Warsaw Ghetto was no more.
Today, a monument to the uprising bears lone witness.
A Tale of Survival
I am alive today because my grandparents had two crucial blessings: a substantial collection of gold jewelry and a Russian live-in maid named Yuliana.
Yuliana had been with them for many years, spoke only Russian, and became part of our family. When the Ghetto was formed, just as Jews were forbidden to live outside, gentiles could not live inside. But Yuliana refused to leave us because we were the only family she had.
Some years earlier, Yuliana had joined a society of White Russians in Warsaw to maintain her Russian heritage and culture. White Russians had fought against the Red Army during the Russian Revolution, and many escaped to Poland. The Nazis cultivated White Russians, with the expectation that they would become their collaborators and puppets when the Nazi armies conquered Russia.
So the White Russian society was able to secure two special permits allowing Yuliana to not only live with us, but to bring us food as well.
That became our path to survival. We would collect clothing, jewelry, and other valuables from friends and neighbors. Yuliana would strap these items around her body, trade them for food outside the Ghetto, and bring food back for us and for our friends and neighbors.
One of the mass roundups in the fall of 1942 snagged Yuliana during one of her food runs. She was barely able to extricate herself, even with her White Russian permits. My grandmother decided that the situation had become too dangerous and that Yuliana had to leave us, her only family, and move outside the Ghetto.
Yuliana refused at first, but after many tears were shed, she finally consented, but on one condition. Her condition was that she would take me with her as her son, so that I would live. She did this knowing full well that harboring a Jew was an instant death sentence.
My grandparents gave Yuliana three batches of jewelry: the first was for the guards at the Ghetto gate, so they wouldn’t ask too many questions about her new “son.” The second was for the Polish hooligans hanging outside the gate extorting money from escaping Jews. The third was to allow Yuliana to start a new life outside the Ghetto.
My dad had a sister, a famed dramatic actress in the Polish theater. She married her Christian director, taken on his name, passed as Gentile, and never moved into the Ghetto.
Yuliana brought me to my aunt’s apartment, and we never saw her again. Eventually, my mom and dad were able to join me. None of the rest of our large family made it.
From the Frying Pan…
My aunt’s partner was active in the Polish underground, and was able to get us fake identity cards and a place to stay.
Thus began a 2.5-year ordeal of life in hiding. It was a life of constant alerts to any suspicious sounds, statements, or glances, and occasional close calls.
My dad lived separately from us, under a different name, so we wouldn’t implicate one another, if one of us got caught.
I was only 8 at that point but was trained to report any unusual statements or events to my mom, so we could react instantly.
A number of close calls followed. In each case, we were saved by my mother’s ingenuity, as well as by righteous gentiles who were willing to risk their own life to save two Jewish ones.
Eventually, we were all separated by the Warsaw uprising of August 1944, and my mother was deported as a Gentile to a labor camp in Western Germany. Upon liberation a year later, she found me in a Polish orphanage.
We then spent five years in an Italian refugee camp, I emigrated to the U.S. and my mother spent her remaining years in Israel.
Finding a Meaning
Once my life was no longer in danger, survivor’s guilt set in.
The questions I kept asking were:
Why was I spared when so many good people were not?
How can I repay the debt for my survival?
Is there some valuable lesson that we can learn from this terrible tragedy?
I became involved with several national movements, for religious freedom, environmental conservation, and other social justice causes. But none of those engagements seemed to hold the answers I was seeking.
In 1972, I moved to Washington to work for an environmental consulting firm, specializing in hazardous waste treatment. I was assigned to do a wastewater inventory of a Midwest slaughterhouse.
As I was walking around making notes in the waste storage areas, I suddenly came across piles of hooves, and hearts, and heads, and discarded bodies – all bearing silent testimony to the living, sentient beings who were no more…
I recoiled in horror, as most of you would. Instantly, pictures of death camp piles of body parts came flooding into my mind. I tried to dismiss it as mere coincidence. “They’re only animals,” I kept repeating to myself. But, it didn’t work. I just could not get those images out of my mind.
The Dreaded Comparison
As I became more familiar with animal farming and slaughter operations, I noted other striking similarities:
the skin branding or tattooing of serial numbers to identify the victims
the use of cattle cars to transport victims to their deaths
the crowding and housing of victims in wood crates
the arbitrary designation of who lives and dies: Christian lives, Jew dies; dog lives, pig dies
the constant objectification and abuse of the victims to make killing more acceptable
the deception about the horrors behind the death camp or slaughterhouse walls.
My head was reeling. If killing animals was somehow comparable to killing people, how can my enlightened society sanction this? Was I losing my mind?
Then I saw a quote by 1973 Nobel laureate, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and it suddenly all made horrifying sense. He wrote: “To the animals, all people are Nazis. To the animals, life is an eternal Treblinka.”
This is when I finally realized that there was a valid reason for my survival, and a valid way to repay my debt. This is when I resolved to devote the rest of my life to fighting all forms of oppression, starting with our own oppression of animals raised for food.
Well-meaning folks have challenged my decision. Why animals, they countered, when so many human problems remain unsolved? When nearly 800 million people on our planet go hungry, and 21,000 die of hunger each day? When half million Syrian men, women and children are massacred before our own television cameras over the past five years?
Why animals? Because animal oppression is the key to all oppression. Animals are the most defenseless, most vulnerable, and therefore, most oppressed sentient living beings on earth. When oppressing animals becomes socially unacceptable, so will all other forms of oppression.
Theologians have long debated whether there is life after death. When it comes to our oppression of animals, we need to wonder whether there is life before death.
As millions of male baby chicks are hatched, they are ground up alive or suffocated, because they don’t lay eggs.
The females are crammed five to a small wire cages that tear out their feathers and cut their feet.
Mother pigs suffer in tight metal cages, as their babies are torn from them and mutilated with no anesthesia.
Dairy cows cry for days for their babies torn from them at birth, so that we can drink their milk.
Why animals? Because oppressing animals is the gateway drug to oppressing humans. When we tell a child that the family dog on his couch is to be loved and cherished, but the pig on his plate is to be tortured, slaughtered, dismembered, and consumed as food… That society can arbitrarily decree that one sentient living being can live, but another must die… Each time we do that, we are planting the first seeds of discrimination – the essential precursor to all oppression.
Why animals? Because they are an integral part of our fondest childhood memories. Toy animals were the very first objects we handled. Our favorite fairy tales revolved around animal lives. Our family dog gave us unconditional love, when our schoolmates or even our siblings would not.
Walt Disney made a fortune bringing back those cherished memories. It was only the greed and insensitivity of the meat and dairy industries that turned our favorite living beings into a commodity to be exploited and oppressed.
Why animals? Because they share our own feelings of joy, affection, sadness, and grief. Because they can suffer, just as you and I do. This is why they deserve our empathy, consideration, and respect.
Lola was “only an animal,” an adorable Yorki. But you couldn’t convince my daughter, who assured me that Lola was the only grandchild that I would ever have. She took Lola everywhere – on plane trips, to restaurants, to concerts. Lola was able to relate to my daughter in ways that I could only hope for. When Lola got sick, my daughter spent thousands of dollars on veterinary care. When Lola died, my daughter grieved for months and never really forgot.
Undoubtedly, many of you have had a similar experience. The refrain “they’re only animals” doesn’t seem to work when it’s a four-legged member of our family.
Finally, why animals? Because I can. Because, each year, I have the awesome power to spare 100 land and aquatic sentient, living beings just by choosing a diet that also happens to be better for my personal health and the health of our planet. And, if I can get just one of you to follow suit, I multiply my awesome power twofold. Unfortunately, I don’t have that same power to save human victims of oppression.
Oppression Is Not About the Victim!
My friends, the sacrifices of my family and my people in the Holocaust must not have been in vain. It is for us, the survivors to draw some meaningful lessons.
The first and foremost lesson is that oppression is never about the victim, but about the oppressive mindset.The oppressor doesn’t care whether his victims are black or white, Christian or Muslem, human or animal. The genocides of Rwanda, Bosnia, and Syria, as well as our own abuse and murder of animals raised for food provide vivid examples.
People who accuse me of comparing Jews to pigs are making this very mistake. Making it about the victim and the resulting cult of victimhood hobbles us from developing our personal potential.
Rather than competing in a meaningless hierarchy of moral worth, we should mount a united front against the very roots of discrimination which make oppression possible.
Even our instinctive reaction to oppression is not really about the species, race, gender, religion of the victim, but about our personal relation to the victim. We may be horrified by equating oppression of people and animals, yet we will spend a small fortune pampering our family dog, but not a cent on feeding a starving human child in the Sudan.
No nation, race, or religion holds a patent on oppression. We’re all capable. The Holocaust was perpetrated by the descendants of Beethoven, Brahms, Goethe, Kant, Nietsche, and Schiller. By upstanding, church-going, respected members of their communities. And so many of us not only tolerate, but actually subsidize animal oppression every time we shop for food.
Oppression begins subtly, even imperceptibly. And, like some forms of cancer, by the time it becomes manifest, it is too late.
And finally, oppression can never succeed without the silence of the witnesses. Many upstanding Germans knew about the death camps in their midst, but did not speak up. Just as we are aware of the factory farms and slaughter houses in our neighborhoods, yet remain silent. As Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel so aptly noted: “Silence favors the oppressor – never the victim.”
Deuteronomy tells us: “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now, choose life, so that you and your children may live.”
Every time we shop for food, we literally make a choice to subsidize life or to subsidize death.
We can choose healthy, life affirming plant foods. Or, we can choose animal products, with their deadly impacts on animal oppression, our health, and the health of our planet.
As a Holocaust survivor, I have made my choice against silence. I have made my choice against oppression. I have chosen life.
I invite you to join me!
Come to the Animal Rights National Conference —> click here.