International Day of Commemoration for Victims of the Holocaust
Memorial Ceremony, General Assembly Hall
27 January 2012
Dr. Robert Krell, Child Survivor, Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry University of British Columbias
I was born in The Hague, Holland on August 5th, 1940. After nearly three years in hiding between 1942-1945, I was returned to my parents who had miraculously survived. I heard the stories of returning survivors who came through our living room telling their tales of unrelenting horrors. What could a child possibly say about his or her experiences, of the loss of childhood or adolescence, of deprivation and fear, of separation from family? We remained silent, as silent as when we had been in hiding.
We were ordered to report for “resettlement to the East” on August 19th, 1942. My parents, Leo and Emmy Krell, were aware that none of their friends who obeyed had returned.
We fled the house, taking nothing with us, not even a photo album, especially not a photo album. I was placed with former neighbours and through a series of miracles ended up in the home of Albert and Violette Munnik and their twelve-year old daughter, Nora.
For nearly three years they risked their lives simply because “it was the right thing to do”. At the Munnik’s my memory begins at age two and one-half. I am leaning against my father in a chair learning to call him Uncle as in a close friend of the family. I must not be able to identify him as my father.
I was warned to stay away from the front window. I was a little boy with a mop of dark-brown hair in a sea of blondes.
And I quickly absorbed a sense of danger and of fear, especially when Nora took me out in a buggy. That was so unusual that I remember it vividly. We reached a viaduct that was partly flooded. A German soldier came over to help carry the buggy. I had pulled the blanket over my face. I was perhaps three years old.
Many years later I asked Nora where we were going. She at first denied my memory but I would not give in. Then she acknowledged that we were going to visit my mother. I asked if we got there for that I could not remember. She said we did but unfortunately that was the day the Gestapo showed up to search the tiny apartment. We hid under the bed and my mother succeeded to turn them away.
So Nora had good reason to forget because she had endangered us all. Except for that lapse, she proved to be a wonderful older sister, hiding my existence from her school friends and coming home early to teach me how to read and write. And I was a terrific little brother, quiet, co-operative, obedient. I never complained, not of pain or illness. And I did not cry, ever. Not until liberation.
Then I protested having to leave the Munnik’s to return to my parents. The three of us made it. Almost everyone else had been murdered, my mother and father’s parents, brothers and sisters (my grandparents, uncles and aunts). My aunt Mania’s son remained in hiding similar to mine. But Mania was killed in Sobibor and her husband in Auschwitz, so my cousin was orphaned and remained with his rescuers. Liberation was not particularly liberating for Jewish children. A new set of challenges arose, how to survive survival.
At this point in 1945, we knew so little. The news spread quickly. Over 80% of Holland’s 140,000 Jews had been murdered. Of those deported via Westerbork to Auschwitz and Sobibor, only about 5,000 returned.
I did not yet know I was a Jew. In fact, my first postwar school was in a Catholic kindergarten where I was the Mother Superior’s prize pupil, or perhaps, most promising convert.
I learned about being Jewish from hearing the stories of survivors who gathered in our home. They spoke of Auschwitz and other mysterious places, in Yiddish, ably translated by my second cousin, Milly, who had returned from Switzerland to which her family had escaped. We heard stories no child should ever hear and therefore listened all the more attentively. As a result of our experiences we had grown up too quickly, too seriously. We had become elderly children.
Apparently, there were children willing to speak. Some tried to be heard. Few were asked, “What was it like for you? What did you see? What happened to you? How did you feel?” Adults assumed that children were lucky, lucky not to have memories, lucky not to have suffered unless they were in concentration camps, lucky not to have understood what was happening. Most of the assumptions proved to be wrong.
Pre-war mental health professionals who had been preoccupied with even a single trauma visited upon a child were nowhere to be seen. Jewish children subjected to a relentless series of traumas for months and years received little help. Perhaps the problems of brutalized children were simply too overwhelming even for healers. We remained silent. It was expected.
Therefore we were alone, struggling with fragments of memory that were painful and made little sense. Most of us thought we were a little crazy and kept that, as well as other secrets, to ourselves. The reality of being hunted left many with a sense of shame. Who but the guilty are pursued with such ferocity? But we had not done anything. The Jewish people were the target of a genocidal assault on its existence and genocide demands the killing of children.
The Nazis and their legions of enthusiastic collaborators achieved near success. In the countries under German occupation, 93% of Jewish children were murdered.
We emigrated to Canada in 1951. There I felt liberated. This was my chance to become normal. We children learned the language and we learned to fit in.
I returned to Holland in 1961. I knocked on the door to the Munnik’s apartment. The neighbour’s door opened. “Is that you, Robbie?” he asked. “Yes, it is, Meneer de Vries”. “Here to see your Moeder?” “Yes, of course”. He continued, “You know, Robbie, I was very disappointed in you.” “Oh, why is that, Meneer de Vries?” “You never thanked me for not betraying you”.
I encountered the murders of Jewish children in the eyes of Holocaust survivors who were friends of my family. In our Synagogue, Anshel sat in front of me, a broad-shouldered, powerful man. He would turn to greet me with a huge smile and firm handshake. But on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, his shoulders shook as he mourned the murders of his first wife and two children, aged three and five. And I would cry with him. There were others there who had lost children. I learned from their tears how to cry in silence just as I had learned to live in silence. Silence is the language of the child survivor. Unlike the older survivors and their second-generation children, we maintained our silence for forty years.
In 1981, at the First World Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors in Jerusalem, I heard Rabbi Israel Meier Lau state that at age eight he was the youngest survivor of Buchenwald. It was like a bolt of lightning. He was eight, I was five, and my cousins were six and nine. We were all child Holocaust survivors. Within a year I helped found the Child Survivor group of Los Angeles, organized a panel of child survivor psychiatrists and psychologists to speak at the American Psychiatric Association meetings in 1984, and served on the Advisory Committee for the First International Gathering of Child Survivors here in New York in 1991. 1600 persons attended, the majority, children who had been hidden and a smaller number of child concentration camp survivors.
We found our voice and we found each other, those who truly understood the impact of those terrible years. Just in time. We were pursued by our memories, not pleasant childhood recollections but memories encompassing darkness and fear, hunger and cold, and the endless grief and mourning for lost family and lost childhood.
We have gathered annually under the auspices of the World Federation of Jewish Child Holocaust survivors and their descendants. We have met in Los Angeles and Toronto, in Prague and Amsterdam, in Montreal and Jerusalem, in Houston and Cracow.
And together we tackle the issues that plague us, the meaning of faith, the struggle with our identity, the intrusion of fragments of memory, and the nightmares. Oh, yes, the nightmares that never leave and which we seldom mention. Mine reek of death. Death remains close to those who survived. My mother discovered late in life that her parents and little sister had been hiding in a hole dug into frozen ground in a forest in Poland. Local Poles discovered them and murdered them with shovels and axes. From then I was burdened with the thought of who was the first to die. Did 13 year-old Raisel, my aunt, see her parents murdered or were they witness to their daughter’s death? How were such things possible? I remain haunted by their absence.
The Jaeger report on the killings by Einsatzkommando 3 in Lithuania lists cities and villages and the numbers of Jews killed as follows:
Merkine 223 Jews, 355 Jewesses, 276 Jewish children
Varena 541 Jews, 141 Jewesses, 149 Jewish children
Kaneu-FIX (Kaunus, Kovno Fort 9) 2,007 Jews, 2920 Jewesses, 4,273 Jewish children (mopping up of Ghetto of superfluous Jews)
And so this list continues. The total of 137,346 Jews and a few others (non-Jews) killed by Einsatzkommando 3 under the command of SS Standartenfuhrer Karl Jager was summarized by him in these words “I was always a person with a heightened sense of duty.”
And children were burned alive, in pits. With their families they were driven into wooden synagogues, then set on fire. Others were buried alive. Babies were killed in ways too brutal for words, words that I cannot speak. And this was done by people inspired by teachings from the pulpits in the churches they frequented.
As a consequence, perhaps we have come to view death differently. My father never set foot in a Jewish cemetery, not even for the burial of friends. He suffered from an overdose of death. Elie Wiesel, author, Nobelist, and survivor of Auschwitz and Buchenwald, captured its essence when he was asked about his re-adjustment to life. He said, “Our educators after the war thought they had to help us adjust to life. Our problem was how to adjust to death. Death was an everyday phenomenon, we were used to death. We woke up with corpses. After the war we had to develop a new relationship of respect, awe and fear in the presence of death.” How true. Death had lost its meaning. What is the meaning of the murders of 1.5 million Jewish children? What is the meaning of the murders of nearly one million Rwandans in 100 days, a rate of some ten thousand per day? The meaninglessness of the killings is intensified by the arrogance of the killers.
As one survivor in our own speaker’s program once told me (she took me aside), “Robert, I must tell you something. In Poland, in my village, the Germans arrived. One with a camera posed a little girl for a photo. She was of course, Jewish, the daughter of a friend of mine but she had blue eyes and curly, blonde hair. He placed her by a tree, gave her an apple, walked away, turned and shot her in the head. The apple fell. He picked it up wiped it, and ate it. I can still hear the crunching”.
It is the meaninglessness that must be addressed in what we do in order to confer our meaning, not that of the perpetrators whose sole purpose was murder.
His excellency Richard Sezibera, MD, former ambassador of Rwanda to the USA addressed the Houston Forum on “Children and Genocide” that formed part of our annual gathering of child Holocaust survivors in 2001. He stated, “Memory is the highest, and perhaps the most meaningful tribute one can pay to the victims of genocide. Those who commit genocide do not only intend to kill but to erase their victims from the collective memory of the world.” He continued, “The theme of this conference ‘From the Holocaust to Healing the World’ says it all. --- We survive, and we remember. We heal and we become agents of healing. For personifying this, I salute all the survivors of the Holocaust. I thank them for honouring Job’s anguished cry that the blood of the innocent departed should not be covered by the earth, but should continually sear the memories of the living!”
I am so proud that Holocaust survivors have spoken out and have been faithful to memory. They have struggled to find meaning and thereby enabled others to speak of their own tragedies. Our insistence on preserving memory has not prevented other genocides but perhaps has reminded those in power to make it harder for the killers to kill. It is clear that we must remember that which we would rather forget. But we cannot, we are not allowed to forget. We must not participate in the murder of memory, the ultimate objective of the murderers.
We must teach and that confers the awesome responsibility to veracity and truth. Teachers cannot talk of Anne Frank and her belief in the goodness of mankind without including details of her betrayal and gruesome death in Bergen-Belsen. We do not know what she might have said had she survived. And we must pursue justice for in genocidal murders, the perpetrators have not only killed and left behind wounded survivors but they have torn the fabric of human society.
On this day, we remember our losses. The murdered Jewish children have left a tremendous void. We will never know what they might have contributed to human existence. But we can guess. Of the thousand children found in Buchenwald on April 11, 1945, 426 were brought to Ecouis, France, for their recovery. They were told they would never recover. They were labelled as psychopaths. Who else could survive the camps? That small group produced Rabbi Israel Meier Lau, recently Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel, his brother Naftalie Lavie, a former Israeli Consul to New York, Rabbi Menashe Klein, the physicist Kalman Kalikstein, a colleague to Albert Einstein, many physician-specialists here in the United States and France, medical directors of hospitals, numerous teachers and businessmen, most of whom raised families and supported their communities with dignity and passion, and of course, Nobel Laureate Professor Elie Wiesel. Few, if any, became a burden in the countries where they settled. Not one exacted revenge unless revenge includes the successful recapture of a meaningful life against overwhelming odds.
But why do I feel so uncertain, so insecure, so vulnerable, even now, after the gift of a successful life denied to so many? Could my insecurity derive from the hatred of Jews being preached from new pulpits? Are we hearing Holocaust denial not from some misguided individuals but from Nations represented here in the UN? The world’s longest hatred has found new practitioners. Has anti-Semitism found fertile ground once again? Will the words that are heard today lead to genocide tomorrow?
Fortunately, you have chosen to mark this day of Holocaust remembrance as a reminder of what is possible when racism and prejudice run wild. In remembering the Shoah, you have ensured that all those who deny this tragic event in order to write their own fictional version, are exposed for the world to see. No longer can a fascist leader with mass murder in mind dismiss his critics, as did Hitler, with “Who remembers the Armenians?” You have chosen to keep hopes and dreams alive for our people as well as your children and grandchildren. For surely we have learned that hatred directed towards the Jewish people never stops with Jews. We are your warning, we elderly children now grown old. Listen to us carefully. We carry a message from “over there”.