8 Missed Birthdays
People often ask me what it is like to be a Holocaust survivor. They often call me "Super Jew" or "their hero". I don't get it. I am not a "hero" and for heaven's sake I am no "Super Jew." I'm not anything or anybody anymore. The Nazi's took away these things from me. I am the only one who knows the history of my life. I never told anybody about my past experiences, not even my husband or my children. I mean, they all know that I survived the Holocaust, but they don't know about how I lost my faith, they don't know about Ruta, they don't know about the diary in which I managed to write on every birthday, and they don't know about the Torah. I am dying, and for my own good...someone needs to know. My eldest granddaughter Lily is becoming a Bat Mitzvah this November and I'm going to tell her. Her Bat Mitzvah present... It is my life.
November 22, 1935: Warsaw, Poland, My 12th birthday
"Happy Birthday dear, Celia! Happy Birthday to you!"
That was the melody my adoring family sang to me tonight! It was such a magnificent birthday! All of my family and friends were there to celebrate with me. Oh dear, I'm so sorry, I haven't introduced myself. Hi, I'm Celia Hurwitz, and you...you are my diary! I got you for my birthday, which if you can't tell...is today! And let me tell you Miss Diary, you smell awfully nice...like a rose. Of course everything my Nana gives me smells pleasant because she's always squirting her stuff with the little perfumes she buys.
Let me tell you a little about myself, Miss Diary. The year is 1935 and I live in Warsaw, Poland. My Papa is the Rabbi of our local synagogue and my Mama cares for us children and maintains our home. I have two siblings, a sister Lucille and a brother Samuel. As well, both of my grandparents, Nana and Pa, live with us. We're all one happy family... (Well except when my brother and I argue of course!). I am tall, around 5' 6", and have dark brown hair that, in my opinion, is way too curly. Yes, I go to school and all that stuff, but I spend the most of my time playing with my BEST FRIEND in the whole wide world Ruta Kosczinski. We've been best friends since we were little toddlers, and if we had it our way, we'd be sisters. She's basically a part of my family now because she's here with us so often. I feel so lucky because she lives right next door to my family's duplex.
As splendid as birthdays come, this was the best one. I am TWELVE today. Almost a woman! I only wish that we women were allowed to have Bat Mitzvahs as the boys in my town do; but hey, I'll get over it. My whole family was here with me today, and I bet...if God wasn't too busy taking care of the rest of the world today and doing all of his "Godish" things, He would have wanted to stop by and celebrate with us too. Oy vey, I'm sorry that this has been such a short entry. My grandma just walked into my room to tell me a story and to do our nightly prayers. Shema Yisrael Adonai Elohenu, Adonai Echad. "Hear oh Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One." There, now I'm done Nana!
Sweet Dreams, Miss Diary!
November 22, 1938: Warsaw, Poland, My 15th birthday
Hi, Miss Diary,
Well, today I am 15 years old. I am still living in the duplex with my whole family. Everyone I talk to is scared. The Nazi's have just annexed Austria. I know this because my Dad is a Rabbi and the news has spread through the rabbinical community like lightning. It's just so hard! It's hard to see everyone around me this frightened. Some of the strongest people I know, including my own Mother, seem to have lost hope in the future. They expect that the Nazi's will soon invade Poland and kill us all. Of course my Mama doesn't tell me this, but I overhear her and Papa talk about this when all of us kids are supposed to be sleeping. (I guess they haven't realized it yet...I'm a teen. We never sleep.)
My Papa...God bless him. He still has faith. In synagogue, he still gives sermons about how lucky we are. How are we lucky, Papa? He says all the answers are in the Torah. I don't know if I agree. Earlier this month, a series of dreadful nights happened, later called "Kristallnacht." You see, we have very good family friends in Germany. The father was a Rabbi like my Papa, and he had a very sweet family. The father was killed. Wait, a better word: murdered. He was trying to protect his family from crazy German rioters who were trying to invade his house. The family managed to survive, but news has spread that the Nazis were out to get us. All of Germany was out to get us. Will the Jews of Poland be next, Miss Diary? What do they want from us? What did WE ever do?
I still say the "Shema" every night, and let me tell you Miss Diary...I hope God hears it.
November 22, 1939: Forest near St. Paul's Church and Graveyard, My 16th birthday
Hi Miss Diary,
I am afraid. Today is my 16th birthday; it was the first year I have not gotten any present. Poland was invaded...and people say that a second world war has officially started. The Germans have decreed that all Jews are to be put in Ghettos. My father and the whole congregation agreed that we would NOT be put in a Ghetto. The problem was that no one of our neighbors would hide us; they were all too scared for themselves. But thank God, the Partisans were willing to help us! One of them was a Priest at a local church located near the forest who said he would hide us. Since his Church had been abandoned because of the upcoming war he said that no Nazi would suspect JEWS to be hiding in a church. So we packed up our most important belongings and the congregation met the Priest at the church. My Dad was carrying in his arms an old Torah that had been in our synagogue for generations. We lived in that old broken down church for two weeks...and then they found us. The Nazis found us. Death found us. No one knows how they found out, but I think that someone must have tattled on the Priest. When the Nazis were marching through the forest to get us, everyone was in a panic. One man was on lookout, while the rest shuffled around trying to find a good place to hide.
My grandparents...they were sitting and praying. My brother and my sister...I couldn't even look at them. My mother...she was sitting in the corner crying. My dad ran over to me, I could see the panic in his eyes. "CELIA! You and Ruta must hide the torah!" he exclaimed, "Save yourselves!!" He cupped my face in his hands and held me close...we said together as I wept, "Shema Yisrael Adonai Elohenu, Adonai Echad!"
He handed me the Torah. He looked at me; he was tearing for the first time I had ever seen. "I love you Papa!" I said. I waved, tears rolling down my face like rocks. I turned my back to him as Ruta and I tumbled down the stairs to the back exit of the Church. That would be the last time I saw my Papa, or any of my family again.
November 22, 1940: Warsaw Ghetto, My 17th birthday
Dear Miss Diary,
It has been a year since Ruta and I buried our Torah. Once we got out of the church we ran as far and as fast as we could to get away from it. We found a Christian graveyard somewhere in the woods and we hid in a mausoleum that an angel carved on the top. In the building there was a bench that Ruta and I sat on. I was still hugging the Torah like a baby and Ruta just stared out the window. It was the only piece of my dad, my family, my life I had left.
"What are you looking at?" I asked, wiping away some of the tears from my eyes.
"I see smoke," she said, her eyes were filled with horror, "it is coming from the direction of the Church."
Suddenly we heard screaming and yelling coming from the church. I heard little children crying, people banging the doors trying to get out...I heard death. That was the second time I had ever felt death's presence. Right after that, Ruta and I buried the Torah in front of the mausoleum. After about a day in the cemetery, Ruta and I knew we couldn't make it if we didn't have any food. When the coast seemed clear, we ran out of the woods and onto the street. I glanced back at the carved angel on the mausoleum and whispered a prayer to God. "Please protect the Torah," I asked looking up at the sky. We went to several people's houses asking for shelter...no one would even open the door. Starving, there was nothing else we could do but sit on the road and wait...wait for something to happen.
Well, soon enough we were caught by the SS and here we are...here in the Warsaw Ghetto. Ruta and I have been able to take care of ourselves so far. We've managed to get food and water and we sleep in the shelter of a friend of my Papa's. Like my father, the friend is also a Rabbi; his name is Rabbi Goldman. He was good friends with the Priest and with my Papa. He told me, "Don't worry, you're safe with me. I will tell you all of the news I hear as well."
Well, so far he's told me one thing: a camp has been opened. It's not a happy camp. They call it a death camp. It is called another name: Auschwitz. He tells me that it's said that people are killed there—one by one—murdered. Just like that. I'm scared, Miss Diary. I still say my "Shema" every night. I am 17 years old today. I'm one year older, I'm one year wiser, and I'm one year stronger.
But yet, Miss Diary, I am one year more afraid.
November 22, 1941: Warsaw Ghetto, My 18th birthday
Hi Miss Diary,
It's been a year since Auschwitz opened. I am 18 years old today. Ha ha! Can you believe that normally people my age would be graduating from school this year? What a thought! Well, to catch you up, Miss Diary, here's what has happened: Germany has just invaded Russia. They broke their peace promise so now Russia has declared war on Germany. I'm in a way glad because the more people against the Nazis...the better. I've also been forced to wear this yellow Jewish star on all of my clothing. I hate it. It's like a uniform; it makes you just like everyone else in the Ghetto. But...it also isolates you from the rest of the world. I want to pick this rude reminder off my clothing. It reminds me of who I am, or who I'm said to be: a filthy JEW.
Life has gotten really hard in the Ghetto. It's November...it is freezing...and there is barely any food. Every time I scrape up some food I like to share it with the starving little kids on the street; their mothers have been deported to the camps and they're all alone. They're as thin as straws, and if I had enough energy I'd cry for them. I wouldn't just cry for them, Miss Diary, I'd cry for my people.
I hear the bells ringing.
They're calling my name, Miss Diary! They're calling Ruta and me! I'm afraid I won't be able to write in you. I'm sorry! I must leave you here. Stay safe, Miss Diary!
November 22, 1942: Bergen-Belsen, My 19th birthday
It's been a year since I was sent to Bergen-Belsen. When the Nazi soldiers called Ruta and me out of our shelter, they had also called out the Rabbi and his wife. We were told to wait in a line. The line was very long and we saw that it led to a cart with one window completely hung over with barbed wire. In the line Rabbi Goldman gave me some news. "I have learned of the order given to the SS from Hitler." He looked at me; there wasn't a single speck of emotion in his eyes. "Hitler has come up with The Final Solution: All death camps are in full operation. All Jews must go." That's when I understood. We were going to be sent to a camp, I prayed it wasn't Auschwitz.
I never saw the Rabbi again. When we were all thrown in the cart, while Ruta and I stayed together, I couldn't see the Rabbi. I called out his name and received no answer. All I could hear was the crying of my people. After three days and three nights in that terrible cart we finally arrived. The only stops we ever made were to throw out the dead, and believe me, in almost no time our cart got emptier and emptier.
Once we got to Bergen-Belsen we were all shuffled out of the freight cart. "MOVE IT!" the SS officers would shout. Once all of the people were out of the cart, we were forced to get in a line again. I guess the Germans have a thing with lines. Anyways, Ruta and I saw that the line ended in front of a Nazi and another man, I suspected he was a translator. We waited and waited. I looked around the camp: there was no housing. I wondered where we were all going to stay.
When we got to the end of the line, I was first and Ruta waited behind me for her turn. The Nazi in front of me scanned me with his beady eyes. He only asked me three questions. Religion: Jewish. Age: 19. Occupation: student at a culinary school. I responded to the translator in Polish. He let me through, telling the Nazi soldier what I understood partially that "I went to the best culinary school in Europe and that I had cooked for Hitler himself." Wow, do these translators feel bad for us?
Anyways, there wasn't much time to settle in once Ruta and I got through the line. We were told to walk to the left while the old man behind me was sent to the right. We were put straight to work. Since Ruta also "went to the best culinary school in Europe and cooked for Hitler himself", we were both put in the head kitchen (as in the kitchen that cooks for the German captains, generals, and all the "authorities"). In this kitchen, I met a woman who grew to be almost like my mother. Her name was Gemma LaGuardia. Gemma was in reality 61 years old, but she was able to pull it off as being 50. Her brother, Fiorello LaGuardia, was the mayor of New York City. Because of this, the Nazi's hadn't been as cruel to her, because they knew someway or somehow, Fiorello would find out and potentially arrange for America to attack Germany.
Gemma worked in the kitchens with us, for she was an excellent cook. She even sometimes gave us tastes of the pastries that she would serve the soldiers. "Those Nazis are already sick in the minds, so I really don't care if your germs go into theirs." I loved Gemma. She and Ruta were really the only family I had. Today, since it is my 19th birthday Gemma managed to get me paper and a pen, and because of her I am able to write this journal entry.
Shema Yisrael Adonai Elohenu, Adonai Echad. God—I hope you hear me.
November 22, 1943: Maidenek, My 20th birthday
Today's my 20th birthday. Why should I celebrate? I was shipped to Maidenek yesterday. It's an extermination camp. Thank you, God, for still keeping Ruta with me. Yesterday was my last day with Gemma...I miss her so much. I hope she's okay. Ruta is the only person keeping me alive, keeping me sane.
It seems I have no one else.
Do I still have God?
November 22, 1944: Maidenek, My 21st birthday
Well I've been at Maidenek for a year now. I still work in the kitchens with Ruta, and I think about Gemma so much. I hope she's safe. Earlier this year in my camp, on March 7th, all the people at work burst out in song. We all began to gain hope; for rumors spread that the Russians were on their way to liberate us. On that cold, murky day, gradually everyone put aside their work and started singing the Hatikva with whatever energy they had left. People cried, smiled, and supposedly began feeling the presence of God.
"Do you feel it?" Ruta asked me excitedly, looking at me with her shining, blue eyes.
"Yes" I said. It is almost funny how one can say things, but not mean them. Believe me...I wanted to mean what I had said, but my heart was lost in a world of confusion and negativity. How could Ruta believe that God was around us when so many of our people were being ruthlessly murdered?
I didn't get it.
The next month, April of 1944, I overheard two SS soldiers talking. One said, "Hitler is going crazy. The United States has captured photos of Auschwitz and other camps. They're on their way." Later on, the Nazis gathered us up. They said we were going on a march. I knew for a fact that this wasn't planned to be a pleasure walk...we were going to march to our certain deaths. Ruta was suffering with typhus. She had a really high fever and every time she coughed I thought her lungs would fly out of her mouth. The night before we were to leave was one of the coldest nights ever.
Ruta died that night.
She wasn't strong enough to carry on. Her last words were said in a gasp, "Celia, you can make it. Save the Torah. Don't lose faith."
She died in my shaking arms. "Don't leave me!" I cried out. Right then and there I lost all faith. God...he was nonexistent.
Ruta had died on July 22, 1944. Maidenek was liberated July 23, 1944.
November 22, 1945: United States of America, My 22nd birthday
What's the point?
September 23, 2003: United States of America, My 13th Birthday
As my Nana and I drove toward our hotel, the rickety car we were driving in wouldn't stop bouncing. My grandma was pretty much asleep. She was eighty years old and she was very tired. However, even though we had just flown on a plane for 14 hours, I was as energetic as could be. You see, I am to become a Bat Mitzvah on November 22nd, and for my Bat Mitzvah gift my Nana (after loads of begging) said she'd take me on a trip to Poland.
My grandma is a Holocaust survivor, my best friend, and my hero. I was so grateful that she'd take me to the place I wanted to go to most. We drove and drove. Our taxi driver (who was able to speak English) said, "And now we are going pass St. Paul's Church and Graveyard. Do you know this church has been up since the early 1930's?" Suddenly my grandma woke up and sat up immediately, as if she was being woken up from a nightmare.
"Stop the taxi!" she exclaimed. Reluctantly but without question, our taxi driver pulled over. My Nana ran out of the car and sprinted (no joke, she was sprinting) into the forest from where the graveyard was visible. I got out of the taxi too and followed her urgently. She ran into the graveyard and got on her knees right in front of a mausoleum with a beautiful angel carved on the top. She started digging furiously. She dug and dug, and I knelt down to help her still not knowing what she was digging so passionately for. Finally, we both felt something and together we pulled it out. We pulled out a Torah.
It was wrapped up in several sheets, and when we removed the sheets my grandma started to cry. She was hugging the Torah like her baby...her baby she hadn't seen in decades. Right then and there she explained to me her story. She told me about Ruta, about her family, about the war, and the significance of this Torah that she herself buried 64 years ago. I was in bitter shock and in the end even I was weeping.
"When Ruta died, I had lost all faith in God," she said slowly. "My heart had been ripped into pieces, and I had no hope for the future." We carried the Torah back to the taxi. We climbed in.
For the next two weeks I learned a lot about my Nana. She was born and lived in Warsaw, Poland until 1938. Her family and congregation moved into a church to hide from the Nazis but they were eventually captured. Only she and her best friend Ruta were able to escape; the only thing in their small hands was the Torah. When we visited Warsaw, we stopped at a duplex that was very familiar to my Nana. It was her old duplex. My grandma went up to the door without any fear and knocked. (I thought she was out of her mind! Many Poles are not comfortable with Holocaust survivors.) A man in multi-colored robes with a cross around his neck opened the door; he was obviously a Priest. Nervously my grandma said that she used to live there and that she came back to see the house that was taken from her. The Priest gave her a funny look, but then...he smiled. "Ahhhh...you must be Celia Hurwitz. I've been waiting for you, give me one minute, I actually have something for you." I was very confused as my grandma and I waited at the door while the Priest scrimmaged through one of his closets. He pulled out what looked like a ripped up journal and carried it over to the front door to where we were. He smiled at my grandma and said, "Here is your diary."
After handing her the diary the Priest invited us in. My grandma looked at the diary and began to weep. She flipped through the pages like it was the holiest book in the world, and I cannot tell you how many times she kissed it. She gasped, "I never dreamed I would see this diary again. I wrote in this so many years ago but I remember it so vividly."
"You left it in the ghetto when you were taken," the priest said. "A person found it and mailed it to the address on the front of it. I was living here when it came and I kept it, hoping one day you would come. I figured this diary meant a lot to you." My grandma kissed the diary once more. She looked at the priest and said, "My gratitude towards you is immeasurable."
The Priest, my grandma, and I ended up having a wonderful time. I got a tour of the house, and my grandma excitedly explained what she used to do in it. I could see how much this house meant to her. It was such an amazing experience for me; I wish I could live it over 1,000 times.
After two weeks of exploring and reminiscing, my Nana and I flew back to the United States. We rested on each other's shoulders; I could feel her steady heartbeat. When we got back to America and disembarked from the plane, I had a very important question to ask my grandmother. I had thought about it on the plane and I knew I wanted to do this. I asked her, looking into her beautiful green eyes, "Nana, will you share a Bat Mitzvah with me?"
Weak tears started to fall gently from her eyes. She put her hands on both of my shoulders and said, "The greatest gift and honor is having you for a granddaughter, and yes, my dearest, I would love to share a Bat Mitzvah with you."
Our Bat Mitzvah was one of the best days of my life. With my Rabbi's permission, together we, my grandma and I, read from the Torah that she recovered in Poland. There was only one word I could possibly use to describe this event...magical.
December 22nd, 2003
"You can shed tears that she is gone,
or you can smile because she has lived.
You can close your eyes and pray that she'll come back,
or you can open your eyes and see all she's left.
Your heart can be empty because you can't see her,
or you can be full of the love you shared.
You can turn your back on tomorrow and live yesterday,
or you can be happy for tomorrow because of yesterday.
You can remember her only that she is gone,
or you can cherish her memory and let it live on.
You can cry and close your mind,
be empty and turn your back.
Or you can do what she'd want:
smile, open your eyes, love and go on."
- by David Harkins
Soon after the Bat Mitzvah, my grandma grew very weak. She was not able to take care of herself, and after giving up on a retirement facility, she was admitted to the hospital. I visited her every day; when I walked in she always had a smile on her face. Let me tell you, when she smiled...well, the whole world smiled with her.
We'd talk about the most random things together.
But yet, they were the most relevant.
She'd say how lucky she was to have a granddaughter like me; but yet...I was the lucky one. I had her as a grandmother.
The last day of her life she told me in her bedroom, "You know, at our Bat Mitzvah when we sang the "Shema" together...I believed again."
"You believed in what?" I asked.
"I believed in God." She said, "I began to feel His love again."
After that we just sat together, holding hands in silence. Abruptly yet calmly, my Nana started humming the Hatikva. She seemed at such peace as her eyes closed slowly never to open again.
She died with a smile on her face; she believed.