We will remember … Lena Goldstein, née Midler. Photo: Tim Bauer
An elderly woman is remembering her past. She is standing in her little kitchen, a comfortable, well-loved space that is awash with mid-morning sun, and completely at odds with the terror she is describing from her youth. As a young Jewish woman in wartime Poland, she and three other adults had avoided deportation, and almost certain death, by rushing one day from the bathroom in which they had been hiding for months and cramming themselves into a tiny pantry, whose miniscule dimensions she is recalling now, 70 years later, against the backdrop of her suburban Sydney haven.
Her story of survival, and of outliving the Nazis, is miraculous, detailed and horrifying, lurching from extraordinary luck to savage beatings. "We were waiting for our turn," she says plainly. "Nobody was dying. Everybody was being killed." She talks for three hours, without a hint of self pity. Not once does she cry.
And then, inexplicably, she stops. It happens as she is pondering her compulsion to keep telling her wartime story; a sort of eternal penance to the memories of those she loved and who never made it to even half her age.
All there in black and white … Lena Goldstein's wartime diary and ID papers. Photo: Tim Bauer
In the desk in her front living room, beneath the precious few photographs of her parents and siblings she smuggled out, a drawer is stuffed with thank-you letters from school children who have listened to her unlikely tale of survival over many years. With each retelling, her voice is mostly contained and she is cautious not to reveal too many gruesome details. And yet invariably, at some point but at no point in particular, she is forced to pause, as she does now.
"Every time I speak," she says slowly, finally accepting the glass of water she has refused all morning, as though drinking might interrupt her memories, "there's a moment where I can't talk any more. I don't know why. I always thought that if you talk so many times about something it becomes normal." She puts the glass back on the table. "But it doesn't."
Lena Goldstein was a young law student in Warsaw when Nazi Germany invaded in 1939. Over the next terrifying six years, she survived every event to which her family succumbed, sheltering beneath a pile of Nazi uniforms as her mother was taken off to a death camp, hiding in almost total silence in a bathroom for a year and a half, and existing for six months in virtual darkness in a canal below the city. For a long time, every thought she formed was prefaced by the words, "If I survive." At war's end, her family had been decimated. Only she and her sister were alive.
"You still think, 'Why did it happen to me?'" … 92-year-old Eddie Jaku shows the tattoo he received in Auschwitz. Photo: Tim Bauer
Today, at 94, Goldstein is a singular story of survival. She is bright and energetic, and lives a comfortable life in eastern Sydney with new generations of her family. But the past has always shadowed her. "I can talk about the beautiful sun," she says, "and I will find something to connect with the Holocaust. It's not my own sickness. It's all these Holocaust survivors. We always connect it with something that happened then."
For a long time, she kept her memories to herself. Like many others, she remained silent in the postwar years as she and her late husband Alex, also a survivor, concentrated on living. Long after arriving in Australia in 1949, and a delay of more than a decade in having children for fear of losing them, too, Goldstein began having nightmares. Where could she hide her boys in Sydney if they were hunted? It was not until the 1990s that she finally spoke up, recording her story for posterity with Steven Spielberg's Shoah Foundation.
Having spoken once, she found she could talk again. She became a guide at the Sydney Jewish Museum and with Courage to Care's anti-racism travelling exhibition, recounting her wartime horrors repeatedly, always conscious of not terrifying her audience. "It's not a pleasure," she concedes now of those endless retellings, which are invariably followed by a sleepless night, despite her mostly calm disposition. "It's not that I have to do it. It's something that I am obliged to do, for the memory of all the people that I loved and I lost."
Her response - a mix of stoicism and anguish - is not unusual, but it was not until 2005 that staff at the Jewish museum conducted a pilot program with some of the survivors who would regularly guide visitors through the exhibits. Says volunteer manager Rony Bognar: "The question we asked them was, 'Now that you've been telling your story for 10, 15 years, how is it for you?' And we were really shocked by the responses."
By opening up to the public about their intensely personal, traumatic experiences, survivors gained a strong sense of validation, helping to enshrine their memories in the public's conscience. But the price, it emerged, was also intensely personal. "One survivor guide said, 'When I finish here, I go home and I drink for 24 hours.' Another said, 'This is my personal torture chamber, but I can't stay away,' " recalls Bognar.
So she suggested establishing a support group for survivor guides - an idea that was met with some resistance among those who had spent a lifetime recreating fractured lives and trying as much as possible to look forward. "They said, 'What? We don't need a psychologist. You think we're crazy. Fifty years after the Holocaust, why do you think we need it?' "
Bognar and clinical psychologist Renee Symonds could see the therapeutic value of exchanging memories in a safe, closed environment - discussing the past as opposed to simply reliving it - and soon every month or two a small group of survivors began meeting at the museum and revealing stories they had not imparted in decades. Sometimes they argued. They also laughed. To the amazement of many of those who attended, the results were cathartic.
"It's like feeling a brotherly soul," says Goldstein, who attends regularly. "Sometimes in life you either remember or you want to talk about certain things. And there's very seldom anybody who wants to listen ...We can't tell the family what we want to talk about because it's, 'Oh, again the Holocaust. I don't want to hear about the Holocaust any more.' Here, nobody will say that. I can talk about it as much as I want ... Here, they listen."
They meet every second month in a bare room beneath the museum, a quiet space far from the regular tour groups bustling through the centre, and sit in a semi-circle marked by old hands, sensible shoes and weathered forearms baring the unmistakable tattooed numbers of concentration camp inmates. Their average age is 88.
While some survivors claim to have blocked out the past or are unable to broach it, here they talk: about first loves, starvation, the absence of joy at liberation. They talk, too, of loss - not just of family and community, but of dignity and freedom, opportunities and education, and how they pushed their own children so hard to study because they had learnt that, unlike so many other things, education could never be taken away from you. "They enjoy the talking," says Symonds, who sits in on every session, "because it's the only thing we have as human beings that dispels trauma."
More often than you would expect, they laugh, finding black humour and a belated camaraderie in their wartime experiences. "Sometimes they tell us that because of their hunger they used to cook in their heads," says Bognar, who, like Symonds, is a generation removed from the participants whose memories she is helping to explore. "And one will say, 'You need 200 grams of butter. And then another will say, 'No, no, it will come out too creamy, you've got to use 100 grams.' This is a conversation they had in the camp. They laugh now about these ridiculous conversations they had. And Renee and I feel we can't laugh."
Eddie Jaku has been talking for years. He is one of the oldest and longest-attending members of the support group, although he looks considerably younger than 92 as he sits perfectly straight, dressed in a tie and sports jacket on a warm day, and tells the group some good news: he has just been awarded an OAM for his services to the Jewish community.
For 21 years, Jaku has volunteered as a guide at the museum. Born in Germany to a large family, he survived only after he was interred multiple times, escaped to Belgium, escaped from a train en route to Auschwitz, hid in an attic until he was discovered, and eventually arrived at Auschwitz where the number 72338 was crudely tattooed onto his left forearm.
"They close your mouth," he says evenly. "They give you a piece of paper so you don't bite your tongue. Your arm is in a sling so you can't move anyway. And once they start it hurts like an injection." He stretches his arm and displays the crude blue number that has not disappeared with time.
He endured the brutality of concentration camp life, then in 1945, during the final months of the war, he was twice forced on death marches. He escaped from the second march, hid in a pipe and was shot but survived, and ended up alone in a forest where he lived on snails and slugs. He developed cholera and typhoid, and, near death, took all day to drag himself 400 metres to a road. "And as I put my head on the highway I came in front of an American tank." It was June 1945 and the war had been over for weeks.
His is an extraordinary story, but he could not tell it for a long time. "The first 30 years were the hardest," says Jaku, who came to Australia in 1950. "First we had to establish ourselves. My family came first and I had to make a happy family. I am a happy person, but my past is not a happy one." Like all the other participants, he too, feels obligated to speak of the past, hoping that somehow history might not repeat itself. "I would never refuse to tell if you ask me."
Still, he has not yet found a way to talk to his adult sons about his terrible past. "I wanted to give my children a good life, and talking about the Holocaust is not a good life," he explains of his initial reticence. "We didn't want to forget. But I didn't want to press it on my family and my sons who were studying hard, to bother them with it. If they asked, I answered. But the whole story, they never knew." Once, decades ago, his son Michael snuck into a talk he was giving at Sydney's Great Synagogue. It was the only time either of his children has heard a first-hand account of his story. "When I see my son Michael I see my father ..." he explains, and his voice trails off.
Jaku started speaking to others in the 1970s, and since then, he says, has told his story more than 1000 times. Today his diary continues to be littered with speaking engagements: to tour groups, teachers and students, people in Sydney, Adelaide and Brisbane, to future leaders, university graduates, gatherings of 150 senior defence-force personnel. "I speak about life, how precious life is," he says of his endless circuit of talks. "I go there for me. It's my contribution. I feel that I have to give back to the community or to the society. I have to show you what can happen if you are ignorant, if you follow a fanatic."
There is no joy in his retelling, yet he keeps fronting up and accepting invitations well into his 10th decade, even though the talks invariably leave him exhausted. "In your head, sometimes you cry. You still think, 'Why did it happen to me?' " He is yet to be able to recite his own narrative without being affected. "I see my mum or I go to Auschwitz and see the fellow who stops me in the middle of the way and punches me with a knuckle duster and breaks my nose and says, 'What are you?' and I say, 'A person.' And another punch and blood comes out of my nose and ear ... I had to say, 'I'm a Jewish pig', in German or he will kill me then and there." Sometimes he is left feeling shaky, his heart pounding, his blood pressure rising.
So amid his speaking engagements, every two months he comes to a quiet room below the museum, sits down with this small group of people who have come to feel like his siblings, and shares what he cannot talk about anywhere else. "It feels good, like we're holding hands sometimes. It feels good to be together," he says simply. "People who have been in Auschwitz ... they understand what no one understands, understand feelings, feelings of a person who has nightmares and dreams. We have our ups and downs. Sometimes we feel rotten. Sometimes I wonder why didn't I get to spend more time with my mum, why didn't I have aunties and uncles like anyone else? Why are my children deprived of grandparents?"
He lost everyone to war, bar his sister.
No matter how many times Bognar hears their stories - sometimes snippets, other times the same long narrative, recited virtually verbatim - she is amazed at the resilience of these elderly survivors, and the care they show their listeners, always mindful to not leave the worst till last. "They always leave their students or their visitors with hope."
Over the past decade, she has seen the benefit of their unlikely group therapy. Before they came together, this once-disparate group of survivors "almost thought they were alone in their suffering". Now, long after they lost so many relatives in the war, many have come to consider the group members as siblings.
But the passing of time carries its own new burden. Australia has been the refuge for more Holocaust survivors per capita than any other country, apart from Israel. In the years immediately after World War II, around 30,000 made their home here. Now, their numbers are thought to be down to between 3000 and 5000.
For those who have survived into their ninth and tenth decades, the future brings its own troubling question: what will happen to their stories when the last survivors have died? "Slowly, slowly it will be forgotten - and I don't want it to be forgotten, because it should serve as a lesson for all the future generations," says Goldstein, imploringly.
"With us gone," worries Jaku, "I don't know if the momentum, the importance, will be there." No matter how much they talk, this question of memory and legacy continues to plague. Asked recently what single message he would like to leave the world, one participant replied simply, "Remember me."
A few months ago, Bognar and Symonds asked their elderly participants to write down what their group meetings meant to them. The results were similarly moving. One man, George Sternfeld, wrote of life and death. "None of us will die because of a great virtue, none because of a great sin. We will die because one dies from exhaustion. Our loved ones died because guns kill, because gas kills. We lived as best we could." Eddie Jaku wrote about solidarity: "People die. Flowers wilt. Iron and steel break. But not our friendship." And Lena Goldstein quoted a passage from one of her most coveted possessions: a diary entry she had penned at 21 on a scrap of paper as she hid beneath the streets of Warsaw.
"For us freedom is a word which has become alive: it is our goal and our dream. It is the sky above us and the sun and the stars and the ground under our feet and the air for our lungs. It is a full stomach and a fearless look. It is the end of a hunted dog's existence; everything that we are missing and everything for which we strive. That is freedom; because to us freedom means life."
Talking, says Jaku, is hard, no matter how many times he speaks. But sharing memories is far better than keeping the past locked away in his soul. "I say the people who can't talk have not been liberated properly. They can't talk because they're bitter. They haven't passed these barriers yet. They're not free. I am free." And he opens his arms wide. "I talk and I am sad. But I also give you hope that life is beautiful if you want it to be."
Lead-in photograph of Lena Goldstein by Tim Bauer.
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