The spring of 1943 remains the most prominent memory of my life. Most part of the country was plush with beauty. Seed plants, mosses, liverworts, lichens and colorful fungi surrounded the wooden house that we lived in. We? Me and my parents.
The Schulman's had lived in our house for more than half a century. My father Ethan Schulman was a person of limited vision and his marriage to my mother Lydia Breslau had rendered him some apparition in the society. I am Valentia Schulman, their only daughter.
There is this thing about happiness many people tell me, "You can never appreciate your own." I'd bet to differ. Have never felt that way. In fact I have always been the person who believed in measuring one's own happiness by one's sense of being and not by comparing it with anyone else around. Till date, I prefer to be like that and it is something I am really proud of.
Maybe it is because of this that despite my personal unfulfillments I have always made a conscious effort to spread happiness around me. I do not like to sulk, no matter what. And when I am in environments where there are people always ruminating about something or the other, giving unwarranted sympathy or delving in unfruitful gossip, I find it detrimental to me. Always have.
But then, I realized there are enough such people out in the world…
In September of 1943, like every year, the street that took us to the local market was decorated on both the sides with pine and spruce trees. I was only beginning to absorb the pleasing change in the weather that year when my father announced one night that we have to vacate our house and leave for Mexico in a month.
I wasn't particularly happy or sad about his decision. As if it mattered! I and my mother started to wind up things around the house. There were too many things… Getting a leaving certificate from high school, clearing off pending local financial accounts: milkman, grain store, etc.
I had always thought I belong to a toxic family. More so, I felt I had a toxic mother. Always wanted to run away from her. She had the capacity to manipulate everyone around her to suit her own needs. Always expecting of others, overtly calculative and verbally mean. I would feel I am in a toxic situation when around her despite the fact that outwardly she had a loving demeanor.
For years I had rebelled against her, fought with her, made her understand that she should try to be a little more considerate, loving, empathetic, caring… That she should not take me for granted. But I stopped after a certain age. I was tired of not being heard. And, she never appreciated me despite I always being there for her. God alone knows what more she wanted. A perpetually unsatisfied soul she was.
Something in me could see her through. Just like I could see through my father. He was very giving and helpful. Yet, very controlling and opinionated without himself really having achieved anything great in life.
Father never really paid attention to the matters of the house. He was indifferent, more concerned with his job, seeing to it that his was the final word and that it was taken well. He never really bothered to earn his respect. Many a times he would tip off from fulfilling his responsibilities and those were the times that gave my mother the leverage of claiming her prominence. And must I say, she used it well.
She used me too. In all those years when my father was unavailable. Only to dump me like some piece of shit when they started getting along together. I took it. I took it because I needed a mother. Because I wanted love from a person called 'mother'.
But there comes a point one cannot put up with someone else's unwillingness to change for progress. I am that person. I try my best to work through situations with a lot of patience, but then if it goes overboard, I discard the situation and the people in it. In a way I had done that for my family many years back. Not literally, just in my head… I mean how long can you deal with self-obsessed, negative, compulsive, controlling, stupid, non-progressive people? My soul screamed for peace in that house. Until… Until those catastrophic turn of events which catalyzed a change in my perspective towards life. Until, I experienced something grave, more horrifying. Something that made me question if God really existed…
Those early years of my life led me to understand that the peace that I have been looking for outside or in my house or in the society is actually there inside of me. And this realization sort of liberated me and thereon the impact of the surroundings on me started to become lesser and lesser.
I stopped bothering about people who did not matter. I started loving deeply those that do…, including my family, despite I not liking them, because, I was in love with the concept of a family. Always.
Most importantly, I stopped hurting myself for those who did not value my presence in their life, including my parents, relatives and close friends.
And, I learned to forgive but not forget.
So… I was talking about the September of 1943…
The day I went to school for my leaving certificate, I made it a point to meet my close friends and pick up a few old photographs. It hurt me that my father had imposed his decision of going to Mexico all of sudden on me and my mother. But then in light of the Second World War that had already begun, it was getting difficult for us to stay in Poland day by day. We had no choice but to relocate and fortunately my father did get a work opportunity in Mexico, something that he was trying since a long time.
Five days to our departure my father was told by his higher ups that he would have to report to their office in Mexico earlier than anticipated. He left three days before me and my mother making all the arrangements for us so that we could follow the plan.
But nothing happened as per plan.
One night before our departure from Poland, I and my mother were about to go to sleep when we were seized and put on the last but one transport to the Auschwitz concentration camp built by the Nazi Germans for the extermination of the Jews.
We reached there in the middle of the night in the cattle car train and were encountered by officer Mangalay who would select people. At the time I wasn't aware that it was selection though. I was just observing that there were some people going to the left and others, to the right…
I went to the left and since I never met my mother after that day, I know that she went to the right which was meant for gas chamber killings. Realities are harsh to accept and I only hoped that my mother was still there, somewhere… in some displaced camp… and that I would be able to meet her… I wanted to.
The next morning all of us, the new arrivals were taken into a huge hall and were told to undress. Then, someone shaved all of our hair and took us to another room where we felt that maybe we were also going to be killed despite the selection to be safe the previous night.
There is one thing that I remember discreetly from that room. A wooden board with a list of all nationalities on it. The last two in the list were the Gypsies and the Jews. It struck me. The hatred or disgust or whatever that it was… So much of it that it was made obvious even on an inanimate wooden board. As if, what was happening … the killings, the exploitation, the slavery… was not enough!
For the next two years or so I was moved to different camps in Auschwitz until the war ended.
Life in Auschwitz was very difficult. One had to take every day as it came. There were too many uncertainties and unbearable brutalities. I had eventually learned to find peace despite all that was going around. The day used to be spent working in the market garden and at night I would return back to my camp.
There was not enough food for anyone. It was never given. Sometimes I would smuggle cucumbers in my bra or potatoes in my stockings and get them to the camp. With tomatoes it was slightly difficult as they would squash and there was a fear of being caught.
Fortunately, the camp where I was placed had a good cultural mix as learned people, well-known actors, musicians and writers were taken in. Soon I realized that life for me was not as bad as it was for the others. That was when I first compared myself to anyone else… It was a grave situation. Really grave. One could smell fear in Auschwitz. I used to feel sorry for the older people who had lived a full life and had seen it in all of its glory. For them the feeling of being deprived something so very close to them … their family, household, work, social life…their existence, was far much intense than for younger people like me. I was more of a clean slate. That helped.
Surviving the holocaust at large and Auschwitz in specific was largely possible if one could resort to their inner core. It was in no way livable. In fact, it was far from it. From 1940 until January 27, 1945 when German occupied Poland was liberated, about 1.3 million people were taken into Auschwitz.
1.1 million amongst them were Jews of which 9 lac 60 thousand were murdered in the widespread extermination centers. There were more prisoners from Hungary (4,26,000) than any other country. The next largest national groups were Poland (3,00,000) and France (69,000).
Once taken in, there used to be two story barracks for the prisoners which were built with a capacity for 700 people, but, in reality, they used to hold at least 1200 people.
The number of children killed from the 2,32,000 that were captivated is ambiguous, yet on one of the days, 10th October 1940, I had witnessed mass gassing of 800 children. I had gotten used to seeing piles of dead bodies accumulate and them being disposed at large, but that scene of those little children being killed was ripping.
When the end of the war and the liberation of the prisoners was near, I was almost numb. It was as if I didn't know how I felt or what I wanted from life. I just knew that I was alive and I had to continue living after being released. There were very few remains of my previous life and I dreaded the thought of starting over.
Of the 7000 of us who were to be liberated, some were ill-fated as they either died or were very close to death. A few weeks before our release about 60,000 prisoners had been evacuated and forced to march west towards Wodzislaw, away from the camp as the Soviet forces had started taking rule. Today, those marches are referred to as 'death marches' as more than 15,000 people died due to cold weather, starvation or, were shot. I wasn't one of them.
After being released I came to England to a high school to continue my education. Some of the girls in my school used to ask me to share my experience and I used to feel what sort of people are these? Have they not read the newspapers or heard news on their radios? How can they be so trivial and ask me to relive my past? I really did not like it.
Honestly, when I think about my life retrospectively, I realized that even today it isn't that I love my family. The feelings are the same. I don't know if it is good or bad but I never found my father after my release and till date I do not know where he is. Yet, my belief about the importance and value that one needs to hold for one's family, no matter what, which already existed, has strengthened. Not out of need or compulsion, but out of a subtle realization and respect of the very edifice that a family can offer. It's isn't love. Not really. It's a broader understanding of what it means to be surrounded by people who care for you in their own ways although you may not like it.
Auschwitz taught that to me.
I met many strangers at Auschwitz who helped me at so many points when I was in danger or in immense pain. My family wasn't there. Just like it wasn't even when we lived together.
There were moments in Auschwitz when I had to put up with the most gruesome things for saving my life. If I would not undress when I was told to, I would be shot. So, I had to do everything that was told to me to keep myself alive. Literally everything was taken away from me, my clothes, my body, my physical existence. But they could not touch my inner self. My soul remained intact.
There are times, even today, after so many years, I remember those days. I remember all that the experience gave me. It gave me the ability to understand that whatever it was that was happening, it was outside of me. It had nothing to do with me as a person.
I also feel a sense of compassion for all those who suffered and at the same time a sense of content; that, unlike many of the other inmates in the camps, I do not have the need to avenge myself because I have survived. I never felt like a victim. I am a survivor and that is way too different, although, not many can understand the thin line of difference between the two.
There were many fellow prisoners who thought of the ruling officers and of Hitler as being inhuman. But I never felt that way. I also never let myself become inhuman in any way. I had understood one thing… People deny they are nasty when they do not want to feel that they are nasty. All of us have capacity to be sadistic and horrible with other people but we don't do it. People are born neither good nor bad, but the badness comes from how you are treated as a child. If you are treated well as a child, you can't become a Hitler.
Despite my horrid experience I could forgive that man under the influence of whom millions of innocent people were slaughtered for no fault of theirs.
I could forgive him, although, I will never forget!
Paradoxically consequential as it may seem, I was never loved for who I was in my family. There were constant efforts made to see to it that I fit into the conforms of its orthodox structure which I had resisted for a very long time and continue to do so even today. But now, the resistance is not as much. There are two reasons. First, my family does not exist anymore. Second, and more important, the concentration camp took away all the shackles that had kept me bound in pain and opened me up to a new way of life as a whole. It taught me to love myself because no one else was ever there for me. Today, I don't need others to do things for me because I know that I may never be on the same page with anyone. I know now that I cannot be silencing my own needs just because I want to be seen as a good person or be accepted by everyone around me. And although, I may want all those things, more importantly, I want other things that really feed my soul.
Like… spending time with my grandchildren, making music, speaking to my old friends and at the top of the list is my freedom. Freedom to be myself while still accommodating people around me. I just can't tolerate getting swept away in anyone's crazy at the cost of my individuality.
Some say I am too selfish.
I feel I am myopic.
I had known this long back…
But what happened in September of 1943 strengthened my understanding of self.