I had been sitting in a high school auditorium, complete with hard seats, the inevitable dusty black curtains drawn across the stage, and the aging podium. About a hundred people were present. Most were teenagers, some teachers, some were parents.
We had just seen a film depicting the liberation of Dachau. Two men were going to speak after the film, men whose stories had been part of the film’s subject matter. One was Don Greenbaum. Now in his early nineties, Greenbaum was a boy of 18 when he joined the army. He was part of the invasion of the Normandy coast during D-Day. He survived the Battle of the Bulge. He was one of Dachau’s liberators on April 29, 1945, a witness to the Final Solution.
The other man was Ernie Gross, who was deported at the age of 15 to Auschwitz, where his parents and younger siblings died. He spent a year at various labor camps, became ill, and was sent to Dachau to die. On the day he was marched toward the gas chambers, the Americans liberated Dachau and saved his life.
The film was devastating.
Afterwards, there was a short intermission before the two men spoke. Refreshments were also served.
I sat in the school lobby wondering, as I always do, how it is that anyone can speak, much less reach for a cookie and soda after witnessing the kinds of scenes we’d just such films depict. But the question is stale and unhelpful. One might as well ask how any of us go about our lives given the trauma and horror occurring in our world in any given moment.
Still, it seemed to me that we could have taken a moment for silence. We could have asked those present to sit or stand quietly for just a few moments. We so rarely offer ourselves the silence we need.
When the two elderly men made their way to the stage, I wanted to stand. I wanted us all to stand, in silent recognition of the story they carry, the narrative they tell.
Don Greenbaum began by noting their age and acknowledging that they would not be able to tell their stories for very much longer.
Ernie Gross told us that when he first tried to speak about the Shoah, he was barely able to get the words out. So, he added, he learned that he would have to use humor now and again to get through everything.
Astonishingly, with delicacy and care, he did exactly that, interspersing a tale from his early childhood or his later adult life to make the years he spent in Auschwitz tellable. After he spoke, he gave students dollar coins for answering single questions. When a young man answered the first question correctly and came up to get a coin, Ernie said: “You can’t spend it; it’s for a memory.”
Don told the students that he was talking about what had happened for as long as he could so that they would tell the story after him.
Every survivor I’ve known wants to make “never again” a reality. They believe that explaining what they know must make it so. It seems so rational: If humanity only heard the cries these survivors are muffling inside, we would cease our crimes.
They are not wrong. It is just that humanity is hard of hearing. To listen to those cries, you would need to be silent.
Tomorrow night we will sit at our seder tables and we will recount a tale of slavery and human oppression. It is not the tale of the Shoah. But it is a tale of truth. We will celebrate our freedom and we will eat well. We will enjoy the company of friends and families and know security and safety denied our ancestors, denied our people, denied human beings each day.
Perhaps we could listen to our story and be silent for a little while. Silence, too, could be part of our seder.
To Ernie and Don: Thank you for speaking.
May we listen, and acquire some knowledge that does your courage justice. May we honor it in deed in the year to come. May our Pesach be a lesson in the freedom that is due to the earth itself and all who live upon her.