A different kind of birthday

I know when my birthday is. I know the date, the year, and
the time of day – I even know what music was playing in the radio on the way to
the hospital (Louis Armstrong).
My mother’s birthday is more like a machlokes achronim.
For years we celebrated Lag Ba’omer because that’s what my late grandmother
said it was. But when we visited her hometown of Kharkov some years ago, the
local Chabad shliach researched the issue at the local hospital and they
recorded 21 Iyar instead. Now it’s become something of a sfaika d’yoma.
My father’s birthday, on the other hand, is an entirely
different matter. His passport says November but he celebrates January. For as
long as I remember, the year was 1926, but lately, even that has been revised. It’s
hard for us to imagine life in a shtetl in Poland. There were no birthday
parties in school; no barmitzvah bash with a parsha laining and a party. Most lifecycle
celebrations consisted of some lekach & bronfen in the back of the shtiebel
after davening. During the war, one’s age was very important, yet fluid like so
many other things. To go into slave labour rather than be sent to the gas
chambers, it was better to be older, so he was older. After liberation, to
qualify for Red Cross assistance it was better to be younger, so he was
younger. Life (if it could be called that) in a concentration camp, or on the
Death March, or being shuttled from one camp to another in crowded trains, was
more about day to day survival with barely a thought of milestones.
One date, however, was very important. On 11 April 1945, the
US army “liberated” my father and many others from the concentration camp of
Buchenwald. By that time, my father was extremely ill, and barely conscious. He
went on to spend several years in hospital and convalescent homes until
eventually migrating to Australia.
Our family marks the anniversary of liberation with a
special celebratory meal. There is lots of bread on the table. The food is
hearty and wholesome rather than gourmet cuisine. It is the type of food that
satiates a deep hunger, to remind us of the times when my father and those with
him were starved. Some of us reflect on what my father’s liberation means to
them, and sometimes my father will recount a particular wartime experience. This
meal actually has many of the elements of the Pesach seder – it is a family gathering
to commemorate a historical redemption; it is a important instrument of transmitting
the message of the Holocaust to the next generation; and it’s based around food
and ritual.
My father has called this day his “birthday”, and in the
absence of any records that would prove otherwise, it certainly has all the
requisite elements of a birthday. It is the day on which his life was renewed
after being so close to death; the day on which an entirely new chapter – one
so different to the first – began for him and many others.
But unlike regular birthdays, this one isn’t all smile and
happiness. The liberation brought with it relief from the horrors of the
concentration camps, and soon after, an end to World War II. But only with the
end of the war, did the survivors begin to get word of the magnitude of the
Holocaust. As they searched frantically through records for relatives who may
also have survived, the discovery of a surviving relative was more than often
tempered by the confirmation of the loss of so many more.
With this, came the common feeling of guilt among those who
remained that they survived the war and others – their family and friends – did
not. This is a medical condition known as “survivor’s guilt”. As unfathomable
as the destruction of so many lives is the survival of the few. So many
survivor stories are filled with miraculous turns and sliding-door moments
where if not for one small thing, they too would have been counted among the
six million who perished. It is simultaneously something to be thankful to G-d,
and a huge burden to bear. Why me? What did I do to merit survival? Was it more
than my parents and siblings who did not survive? These are feelings that many
Holocaust survivors struggle with regularly and especially at Holocaust-related
milestones.
So as we sit around the large table, my father surrounded by
three generations that he and my mother have rebuilt from the ashes of
Auschwitz, we can only hope that we serve as a reminder and a comfort that as a
survivor he did his utmost to be true to the memory of his departed relatives.
They live on through us. Hashem Yinkom Damam.

This article was first published in the Yeshivah Shule Community Magazine – Shavuot 5772-2012 edition.
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Join the discussion 2 Comments

  • Anonymous says:

    Fantastic article!
    – Ash K

  • Ilana Leeds says:

    B'H
    Excellent article. I hope you are working on his and your mother's story. These stories of survival and rebuilding of lives are very worthy of recording and preserving. Unfortunately too many of them are lost for a number of reasons. The most obvious one, being the emotional anguish and hardships endured during those years, it is very hard for some to revisit those times aned experiences.

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