Turning the recording up to maximum volume, I can hear a voice, speaking softly, but deliberately: “My name… is Sara Boden. I was born in Lodz, Poland. I’m the oldest of five children… And with being the oldest, comes great responsibility.“
And so begins the nearly hour long interview that my late grandmother recorded on a simple audio cassette in 1981, her testament to the greatest atrocity in human history, the Holocaust.
Listening to the interview itself opens up some conflicted and painful feelings. Not only because the recording details the horrors that my grandmother experienced as a Jewish concentration camp survivor, but also because of the personal relationship that I had with her.
As a little girl, I wondered at times why my Grandma Sala wasn’t like my other grandma. It bothered me. Why was she always complaining? Why was she so melodramatic? What was wrong? Yes, of course I loved her, and I knew with no doubt whatsoever that she loved me immensely, but nonetheless, it was difficult to relate to her, to get close to her.
“Blood is thicker than water!” she would often lament, as I secretly wanted to roll my eyes and leave the room.
Many years later, my grandmother developed dementia, and often experienced anguishing, graphic flashbacks from her days as a prisoner in both Halbstadt, where she was finally liberated in Czechoslovakia by the Soviets in 1945, and from arguably the most infamous death camp of all, Auschwitz. It was difficult to watch her deteriorate until she died in 2005, and even harder to find out, when I was truly ready, what her story really was.
To say that piecing together my family’s history is a challenge would be an understatement. I am no longer in contact with my father, nor his side of the family; my mother’s family is the only one that I really have; to whom I can truly belong. Now that I, myself, am a mother, I am beginning to understand and value what family means. But in order to pass down my legacy to my son, I have to know my roots and where I really come from.
My grandmother starts her story in the tape recording in 1939 Lodz, Poland, one of the first cities to fall under Nazi control within a matter of just a few days. Her father, Nathaniel Stern, a textile manufacturer, had sent her to a place called Glówno in the countryside, where he believed she would be safe, hoping that the war would soon be over. While living there, she went by the false name Sabrina Szpylka and successfully hid her Jewish identity. Having blond hair and piercing, blue eyes undoubtedly helped her in this endeavor.
As my grandmother goes on to name various towns and cities in Poland, I pause the recording every few minutes to check Google Maps to better visualize what exactly happened and where. Alas, between her heavy accent and the different possible spellings from Polish to English, in some cases, I can only make educated guesses.
In any case, eventually, there was no more correspondence, news, or letters coming in or out of the Lodz ghetto. Ultimately, my grandmother decided that, despite much discouragement and many pleas, she needed to be with her family. She took a train back to find that her former city surrounded by walls, barbed wire, and German soldiers. She approached the perimeter which was being guarded by a German, described in the recording as looking “pretty reasonable,” and boldly declared, “Ich bin jüdisch.”
“I am Jewish.”
Let that sink in for a moment.
His initial reaction was that incredulous silence, as he gave her a look of what I can only imagine was a combination of shock and disbelief. ““Ich bin jüdisch,” my grandmother told him again, “I want to go in.”
“You can’t go in. Can’t you see the barbed wire? You can’t go in,” he finally told her.
“So how do I get in?”
The German guard wasn’t quite sure what to do with her, nor was the gestapo whom she was later taken to. “She’s either a very clever person, or she is as stupid as she sounds,” concluded the gestapo…. “But he never found out either way,” notes my grandma, as the recording continues. I can almost visualize the slight smirk on her face.
In the end, she spent more than ten long days in a police station’s holding cell, and was then taken to a Jewish prison. Finally, after the gestapo had received orders all the way from Berlin, my grandmother was finally permitted to enter the ghetto to be reunited with her family and what she called, “her people.” This was not because they were really convinced that she was Jewish, but rather because they were really convinced that, if anything, she was “touched in her head.”
At this point, my grandmother declared herself, “the luckiest girl in the world,” after being able to spend another two years with her parents and siblings in the ghetto, before being sent with them to Auschwitz in 1944.
Ironically, “lucky” is a word that she uses quite a bit in her interview.
Upon their arrival, it was exactly what has been described in history books. Families separated forever, personal belongings confiscated, head shavings, and so on, but “luckily,” for the first couple of weeks, my grandmother, her two sisters, and their beloved mother, Deborah, somehow managed to remain together. Until my great grandmother was “chosen” from a line up and perished in a gas chamber.
“Please, don’t go with me. Your sisters will be better off if you stay with them, you know how to take care of them.”
The tape nears its end, but omits the vast majority of the unspeakable horrors of the concentration camps. Sadly, there are many questions that I will never know the answers to, too many to mention.
My grandmother and her remaining siblings that survived immigrated by ship (called the Marine Perch) that left Breman, Germany on June 17, 1946 and arrived in New York on June 24, 1946. Their nationality is listed as “stateless” according to the passenger list.
So ended a horrific chapter not only in her life, but in world history. But I know that it is still not over.
After listening to the remainder of the tape, my thoughts are racing, but I have no words, only an extremely heavy feeling in my heart.
“The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing.” – Albert Einstein