Keynote Speaker and trainer, Dr. Rick Brinkman, reveals his mother and father’s story of survival of the Holocaust and their miraculous reunion.
In this unique mass event that we are all experiencing, I think of my mother who always was able to keep things in perspective by comparison to a mass event she experienced.
My mother was from Lodz, Poland and an identical twin. My father was a German thrown into the ghetto in Lodz, Poland, and long great movie script story later he and my mother met and were married. In August 1944, they were sent to Auschwitz. Identical twins were usually turned over to Dr. Mengele for experiments, but they would keep separate and managed to escape his laboratory. My father was selected for the gas chambers three times, but his ability to speak perfect German and his electrical skills enabled him to survive.
In January 1945, the Red Army was advancing quickly. The German military and German civilians were fleeing west toward allied forces. Auschwitz was liquidated, and my mother and her sisters were among 1,000 girls they took on a death march through the snow. They were the tail end of the German retreat. On a so-called rest break, they were ordered to dig ditches in the frozen road to slow down the Russian tanks.
It was January, bitter cold. They were hardly dressed and were starving. They had no food and would eat frozen grass. They were weak, the ground was frozen, and it was very difficult to dig.
One night, as they stopped to camp, my mother broke down and began to cry. A German officer called her over and demanded to know what she was crying about. My mother said, “I can’t stand it anymore. I’m freezing, starving. Just kill me. I want this to be over.” He said, “Look at me.” She looked into his blue eyes—blue eyes she would see in her mind for the rest of her life. He was wearing glasses without frames. He was older than the average German soldier, maybe in his late forties. He said, “This is not the time to die. The war is almost over. It is us who will die and you who will live. You can make it, just watch yourself.” He then tore his sandwich in half and handed it to her. Then he ordered her to stand guard in front of one of the fires at the camp.
The next day my mother had renewed hope. She looked for an opportunity and noticed two things: when she marched through deserted German towns and the road curved in a crescent, there was a point where the guards couldn’t see her. That night, when they stopped to camp, she noticed that there were many minutes at a time when there were no guards to be seen. There were only 70 guards and about 1,000 girls. At one of those moments, she just got up and walked away.
She entered an evacuated German village. Looking for a place to hide, she found a house and scratched the frost off the window to peek inside. There was a Christmas tree with ornaments, but even better, there was fruit hanging from it: apples. She broke into the house and devoured an apple, but before she could feel the joy of freedom, she realized that she had left her two sisters back at the camp. She was certain they would think she was dead, which could be “the straw that breaks the camel’s back” for them. She also knew they couldn’t make it much longer either. But what should she do? She had already escaped! It was only a few seconds before she thought, “I cannot live the rest of my life knowing that maybe I could’ve done something. If I can do this once, I can do this twice. I’ll sneak back, and we’ll get away together.”
So, she hid some fruit on her person and snuck back to where her sisters and friend were. She explained the two opportunities. They made a pact that they would do it.
On the march the next day, when the road curved just right and the guards couldn’t see, they made a break for it. My mother found a barrel and hid for hours. It was nightfall when she came out. The first thing she noticed was silence, and that’s when she realized, “I’m free. Just like that. All things pass.”One by one they all appeared, and after a jubilant reunion, they went into a nearby house.
It was decorated for Christmas. The table was set for four, with fine Rosenthal china for the holidays, as if they were expected. They found food prepared in the kitchen. That’s how quickly German civilians evacuated in fear of the advancing Red Army. They sat down to a meal the likes of which they never thought they would eat again. When they were done, my mother looked at the fine hand-painted Rosenthal china and thought, “I didn’t live to wash dishes.” They wrapped everything up in the tablecloth and threw it out the window.
My mother eventually made her way back to Lodz, and she got a job with an organization that registered returning refugees, connecting them with their families if alive or helping them find a place to live.
One day a refugee came in, still wearing a concentration camp uniform. He recognized her, although my mother didn’t recognize him. It turned out that he was their next-door neighbor and a close friend of my mother’s older sister, who was 20 years older than she. He broke down and started to cry, “The war has taken everything from me. You didn’t even recognize me. My daughters are dead, my wife is dead, I wish I were dead. Why did I have to live?”
My mother said, “They’re not dead. They came in last week. I can take you to them.”
The man fell on his knees, grabbed her hand and started kissing it, and said, “What can I do for you? How can I repay you?”
My mother, just to get her hand back, offhandedly said, “Maybe someday you can bring my husband to me.”
My father, on the other hand, had been transferred from Auschwitz to concentration camps in Austria, and he wasn’t liberated until the day after the war ended, five months later than my mother. He was traveling back to Poland with another refugee, who had family in Lodz. The other refugee’s family owned a pharmacy there, so when they arrived, that’s the first place they went. When new refugees came to town, people crowded around, asking them who they were and whom they were looking for. My father named the person he was looking for. A man stepped forward and said, “I know Simone. I can take you to her.” And it was that man whom my mother asked to bring her husband.
And so a single decision of a German soldier in 1945 has come down through time to meet you in this moment now. All the miracles of my parents’ survival (and there were many more) and the multitude of miracles in your life, both known and unknown, have brought us together, to this blog.
It is my hope that this story will empower you to keep perspective in this time and make a positive difference in the world.
From the McGraw-Hill book by Dr. Rick Brinkman:
“Dealing with Meetings You Can’t Stand, Meet Less and Do More”