This year, Yom HaShoah—or Holocaust Remembrance Day—began on Sunday at sundown and ended the following evening. To remember the 11 million Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, disabled persons, and other individuals who perished during the Holocaust, the Holocaust Initiative of Brown University, the Judaic Studies Department, the History Department, and Brown RISD Hillel hosted their second annual “Surviving the Unthinkable” panel.
The event, which took place on Sunday night in the List Arts Center, featured Alice Eichenbaum and Rosaline Granoff, two women whose lives were deeply affected by the Holocaust. Alice Eichenbaum was in Bulgaria during the war, and her husband was in Auschwitz. Rosaline Granoff’s parents were members of a partisan group that lived in the forests and retaliated against the Nazis.
With each year that passes, the amount of Holocaust survivors and others that can relay first-hand accounts of that time dwindles. Here’s what we took away from the stories of Ms. Eichenbaum and Mrs. Granoff.
Mrs. Granoff spoke about her parents and their unorthodox romance. They were partisans, a group rarely discussed in Holocaust history. An estimated 20,000 to 30,000 Jewish partisans fought back against the Germans and their allies:
“Imagine being a 21-year-old young woman… in a small town who is left alone in the street in the ghetto, and hears her mother calling out to her as she is headed off to the death camps in a cattle car.”
Mrs. Granoff’s mother was raised in what we now know as Belarus, where her parents owned a home goods store. In 1939 and 1940, her mother’s relatives were taken away into the Soviet Union. They all “disappeared,” never to be seen again. When their small town was completely demolished, Mrs. Granoff’s mother survived. 6,000 people were killed in that attack.
Her mother and a cousin dug under the fence that surrounded their ghetto to meet a man in the partisan group. When they ran into the woods, the partisan group was already completely assembled.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Granoff’s father was living in another small town in Belarus. The Nazis rounded up his village in three rounds. By the third round, the village had been completely obliterated. Almost everyone was killed. The survivors in the Jewish underground revolted; this attack became the first documented uprising in a Jewish ghetto in World War II.
That day, her father and the rest of his family perished. Mrs. Granoff’s father and a friend of his tried to commit suicide in the attic of an abandoned house. Their first attempt failed. At their second attempt, a wall shifted. Suddenly, 11 people emerged, crammed in the eves of the house. Mrs. Granoff’s father and his friend joined them. Just after they hid and replaced the wall behind them, officers entered the attic but found no trace of the stowaways. The 13 Jews stayed in the attic for 24 hours.
When Mrs. Granoff’s mother arrived in the forest, Mrs. Granoff’s father was already there—eventually, he had escaped there from the abandoned house. Her mother had a cooking pot and needed a lid. Her father had a lid, and needed someone to cook for him.
“Coupling was part of the survival strategy. Those that had boyfriends ate a little bit better.”
The Soviet Army liberated the couple and their partisan group in July 1944. They made it to Italy through Hungary and Czechoslovakia by foot. Eventually, they got to Rhode Island. Mrs. Granoff’s father passed away the winter before they had arranged to tape his stories. They were able to tape Mrs. Granoff’s mother, but she couldn’t manage to look into the camera while doing so.
After Mrs. Granoff spoke, Ms. Eichenbaum took the podium. She had a big voice for such a tiny woman. Her accent was thick and unmistakable.
“My name is Alice Eichenbaum and I will talk about myself and about my husband. I do this just to show you we came from a middle class family, more or less the same age, we were at the same time with the same people, but in different places, and thats the way our life shaped.”
Ms. Eichenbaum is from Vienna but spent most of her youth in Bulgaria.
“I always said I had three lucks that changed my life, [so] that I can be here.”
Her first “luck” was leaving for Bulgaria just as the Germans came to Austria.
“I had a wonderful youth when I look back.”
In 1940, they started to hear rumors from the west: things were changing for the worse. In March 1941, Bulgaria allied itself with the Nazis, and the Germans marched in. Ms. Eichenbaum was the only Jew in her class at school.
“Suddenly, the girls that used to play on the playground with me had turned on me.”
Then at the podium, Ms. Eichenbaum held up a photo of the yellow Star of David she wore. Hers, as a Jew in Bulgaria, was one-quarter the size of the star those wore in western Europe. Jews had to wear their stars all the time. They were subject to a strict curfew, and town stores were plastered with signs that forbidding Jews from entry.
Bulgarian Jews were put on three boats and sent to Palestine. Only one of the three boats actually made it.
“I don’t know, and my parents never told me how our name was not called and we were not deported [on the boats].”
This is Ms. Eichenbaum’s second “luck.” At night, the Jews were rounded up, almost naked, in schools. Another group was put in cattle cars and sent to Vienna. The Gestapo (Nazi police) were mad that they were in such poor shape and couldn’t be used for slave labor, so they sent them off to be executed in a camp.
One night, the police came to Ms. Eichenbaum’s home and told her family that they had 48 hours to pack one suitcase weighing less than 40 pounds and get to the train station. They got on a train and were sent to a small Turkish town. Three families lived together in one room with no plumbing and barely any electricity. They were only given two hours a day to leave the house.
“As long as I was with my parents, I was always protected.”
Luckily, Ms. Eichenbaum was able to go to Vienna, where she studied to become a chemist.
“I still, even looking back—even the years that were tough with the yellow star—I still have a very pleasant memory of the Bulgarians. They saved us.”
“I have gone back to Bulgaria many times… it was the last time I was with my parents. It was home.”
After studying in Vienna, Ms. Eichenbaum went west to Poland. Ms. Eichenbaum then resumed her story from the perspective of her late husband. In 1939, the Germans marched into Poland. Her husband was 10 at the time.
“He would always say ‘things changed overnight.'”
“Between the malnutrition and the severe Polish winter, people were dying right and left.”
“There were signs outside of the concentration camp. It said ‘War makes you free.'”
Mr. Eichenbaum ended up in Birkenau, where people usually didn’t stay too long. Upon arrival, men and women were separated. Mr. Eichenbaum was separated from his sister, and he never found out what happened to her. If you could not do labor-intensive work, then you were sent to be gassed in the “showers.”
“The showers were nothing else than cyanide.”
“He will never forget the scream of the people and the smell of the flesh that was going through these camps day and night.”
Mr. Eichenbaum and his brother were put on a cattle car and sent west to a coal mine. Every night, he was sent down the mine with dynamite strapped onto his body. His brother, who was larger than he, was in charge of dragging heavy coals. They stayed here until January 1945.
Again, the brothers were put on a cattle car and went to Mauthausen, a quarry where prisoners were sent to work. The laborers had to climb 77 stairs to the top of the quarry.
“He said many times people would just jump off the 77 steps. They had enough. They couldn’t do it.”
The Fifth American Infantry Division liberated Mauthausen. At liberation, Mr. Eichenbaum weighed 51 pounds. He was hospitalized for malnutrition and depression…
“…realizing that he was the only survivor of his family.”
Mr. Eichenbaum was put in a displacement camp and then came to America, where he ended up in Providence.
“People have asked me if the bad times… if we have recollection. Of course we do.”
“It was always the little things that came back to him.”
The evening that Mr. and Ms. Eichenbaum took their first son home from the hospital, Mr. Eichenbaum awoke in the middle of the night, worried the Nazis were going to come and take their child.
“After all these years—70 years—I still sometimes can’t understand how a nation like Germany, [which] gave the world the biggest composers… to the biggest literary people, to the scientists, could do something like this against humanity. You know like they say, yesterday is history, today is a gift, and tomorrow is a mystery.”
Image via Marshall Einhorn.