Sunday, October 28, 2007

'Explaining is sacred'

I don't think I've ever met an extermination camp survivor before.

On the face of it, that doesn't sound like a pleasant beginning for a four hour plane journey from Tel Aviv to Frankfurt, which I was taking on the way home from a trip to Israel. But it didn't feel like four hours in the end.

Sara Gottdiener was twelve when she was liberated from Bergen-Belsen camp. She'd been there a year, her family one of many thousands of Hungarian Jews sent to the camp for 'processing' under the Hitler grand plan to cleanse the world of 'undesirables'.

Some 60 members of her family were murdered in various ways and she saw her father die in 1944 in Auschwitz, where the family had been shipped prior to going to Belsen, from the deprivations he had suffered in a forced labour camp to which he had been taken some four years before. But of 16 of her siblings, 13 survived. With her on the flight from Tel Aviv to Frankfurt were her husband Uri, and two of her sisters still living.

That her father had died was in an ironic way fortunate for Sara and her brothers and sisters, because they were allowed into Palestine while children who were not orphaned were turned away.

When she arrived there, four months after liberation, her weight was just 17 kilos. "Our food in the camp had been bread made from wood dust, and soup made with grass," she says. "There was sometimes meat, but the meat came from the crematorium attached to the camp. So we were made cannibals too."

She recalled how one of her sisters had a birthday in the camp. "I gave her a piece of my bread ration as a present, it was the only thing of 'value' I had."

Having reached Palestine she felt so lucky that she 'wanted to run around shouting that I was alive and that I was a free Jewish girl'. She learned Hebrew and with others of her age also learned how to fight, with sticks because under the British occupation of Palestine weapons were not allowed to the refugees.

In 1948 that changed with the formation, under a League of Nations declaration, of the State of Israel for the Jewish nation and Palestine for the Arabs. The British left, and the two new nations were immediately embroiled in the Israeli War of Independence.

Sara graduated from high school in 1949 and studied at night for her further education. It was in those classes that she met her husband to be, Uri Atzmon, a young soldier. The son of a German Jew who had come to Palestine in 1932 as a British soldier and settled there, Uri today is a retired Lieut-Colonel who has fought in every subsequent Arab-Israeli war in a tank division. Sara, who also did a stint in the Israeli Army, is an artist, whose paintings of her recollections of Belsen are world-renowned.

The paintings didn't happen in her early years of marriage and raising six children. She didn't want to talk about the Holocaust and blanked it from her mind.

"I only started painting after my first return visit to Hungary 20 years ago," she told me. "I met Hungarians who asked me why I had left? I got angry because they didn't seem to know anything about what had happened."

That anger led to her first painting, which featured a red child's shoe because during her time in the camp she had one red shoe and the other was a women's high heel. She didn't paint again immediately.

"Then the first Gulf War broke out and I felt we were in danger, and that triggered me into painting more. It got so that I couldn't stop painting. You need to deal with the stories that stay in your mind."

Sara has been on a mission ever since then, to tell in her own particular way the truth about the greatest cataclysm to happen to an ethnic group of people in the 20th century. She lectures particularly in schools because she feels the young people don't understand fully what had happened during WW2.

Her use of paintings as a medium is ironic in one way, in that the Jewish religion doesn't allow sculptures or paintings in its iconography. "Visuals are things that all people understand. They speak alone, without the need for different languages. You need to use all things that you can to describe the turmoil."

That need has led her to experiment with short film and audio in recent times. A seven-minute documentary she produced uses the clacketing of railway travel as a background, reflecting how most of the Jews who died in WW2 were transported by cattle trains to their deaths. The piece has had profound results when she shows it in schools. "I am looking all the time for ways to come close to the souls of the young people."

She exhibits around the world, and speaks in every country she gets a chance to. She is pictured above on a visit to India earlier this year.

When I met her a few days ago, Sara was flying from Israel to speak at the opening of a new museum in Bergen-Belsen this weekend. She had prepared a short address, outlining her background and her reasons for continuing to try and keep the details of the Holocaust in the minds of generations who weren't even born when it happened.

"We, who were here in real time, lost parts of our body and soul," she will say at Belsen later today. "Every time that I arrive, I search for that childish happiness of mine that was lost here.

"In my mind I hear the prayers and souls of the poor people that could not hold on, still hovering around in this space. In hearing the prayers of these white naked skeletons screaming with open mouths, I am once again that little girl watching in fear, hoping that maybe they will come back to life. But this does not happen. At night time, just as I heard my neighbours weeping after seeing their dear ones led to the altar, my fears prevail that we will all die then and there.

"But we survived, and maybe we are here to tell this generation, who will pass it on to the next generations, that these victims, in their death, ordered us life and screamed the outcry of the Jewish Nation."

Sara makes the point that the survival of the 13 Gottdiener siblings meant that 200 children and grandchildren were born to the family subsequently. "Therefore, when history states that six million Jews had been murdered, one needs to understand that nowadays they would be more than 60 million."

Her mission is based on her belief that the 'duty of explaining is sacred'. "We must explain to today's youth that they are the last to meet living survivors, that they are our hope that the message to the next generations will be passed on because they are the ones that met survivors. We are the remaining living evidence."

Sara is adamant that she and people like her do not hate as a result of what was done to them. "No, we do not hate, and we do not teach our children to hate. We saw and learned what hatred leads to."

Sara's website.

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