Surviving The Holocaust

How does a Holocaust survivor cope with grief? Guilt? Depression? Is it by cultivating hatred for his oppressors? By oppressing others? By downing anti-depressants? Here’s the story of a survivor who has found a more constructive, a more meaningful, and a more compassionate way.

I was five years old on September 1st, 1939, when the Nazi army invaded Poland and set up martial law.

Life and Death in The Warsaw Ghetto

In the following year, my parents and I, along with 400,000 other Jews in Warsaw and surrounding areas were ordered to move into the Jewish section of Warsaw under penalty of death. Gradually, we noticed certain streets being blocked to traffic and sections of walls going up here and there. Eventually, the walls were joined and topped with strands of barbed wire. On November 16th, 1940, The Warsaw Ghetto was transformed into a concentration camp.

Crowding and food shortages became unbearable, as a Typhus epidemic raged. During the first year, an estimated 80-100,000 people died of hunger and disease.

On July 21, 1942, the Nazis launched Operation Reinhardt, known today as “the final solution.” In the next two months, they dragged 300,000 people from their homes to the infamous Umschlagplatz, then into jampacked cattle cars for a trip to the newly constructed death camp of Treblinka.

A key element of the operation was through deception to prevent a mass revolt. We were told that we were being resettled in the East, away from hunger and disease. We were instructed to label our belongings clearly, so they wouldn’t get lost. The Treblinka gas chamber building was decorated with a Star of David, and the inside was disguised as a shower compound.

An estimated 800,000 Jews were murdered in Treblinka and millions more in Auschwitz and other death camps. They left behind only piles of shoes, glasses, hair, and charred bones – silent memorials to thousands of sentient, living beings who were no more.

On April 19th, 1943, several thousand Nazi troops, supported by tanks, returned to wipe out the remaining 50,000 residents of the Warsaw Ghetto. They were met with vigorous resistance that lasted four weeks. That date is now observed throughout the world, on the 27th day of Nissan in the Jewish calendar as Yom Hashoah, or Holocaust Day.

By late 1942, it became clear that leaving the Ghetto was our only option for survival. I was smuggled out by my grandparents’ Russian maid, although she knew that harboring a Jew meant instant death. My parents were able to join me later. None of the rest of our large family survived.

One of my dad’s Christian friends, active in the Polish underground, was able to get us fake identity cards and a place to stay. Thus began a 2.5-year ordeal of life in hiding, constantly alert to any suspicious sounds, statements, or glances, and a couple of close calls.

Eventually, we were all separated by the Warsaw uprising of August 1944, and my mother was deported as a Gentile to a labor camp in Western Germany. Upon liberation a year later, she found me in a Polish orphanage. My dad has never been heard from.

Following a five-year sojourn in an Italian refugee camp, I emigrated to the U.S. in 1951, while my mother joined her brother in Israel. Eventually, I earned a Ph.D. in chemistry, spent a couple of years visiting in Israel, got married, and engaged in a long and fruitful career in research, teaching, management consulting, and social justice advocacy.

Searching For A Meaning

Once my survival was no longer a daily challenge, grief, guilt, and a quest for meaning set in. Why was I spared, when so many deserving people perished?  How could I repay society for the gift of my life? And, most important, was there some valuable lesson to be drawn from my people’s supreme sacrifice?

In 1972, I was assigned to develop a wastewater treatment plan for a Midwest slaughterhouse. While conducting an inventory of the waste areas, I suddenly came across piles of animal hooves, hearts, heads, and discarded bodies – all bearing silent testimony to hundreds of sentient beings who were no more…

Instantly, pictures of death camp piles of shoes, glasses, hair, and cremated human remains came flooding into my mind. I tried frantically to dismiss the analogy by reciting “they’re only animals,” but it didn’t work.

Upon becoming more familiar with animal farming and slaughter operations, I noted other striking similarities between what the Nazis did to us and what we were doing to the animals:

  • the skin branding or tattooing of serial numbers to identify the victims
  • the use of cattle cars to transport victims to their deaths
  • the crowding and housing of victims in wood crates
  • the arbitrary designation of who lives and dies: Christian lives, Jew dies; dog lives, pig dies
  • the objectification and abuse of the victims to make killing more acceptable
  • the deception about the horrors behind death camp or slaughterhouse walls. 

I was very confused, as my world was turning upside down.  If our treatment of animals bore any similarities to the Holocaust, how could my enlightened American society sanction this? And why was I so alone in my thinking? Was I losing touch with reality?

My salvation came from Jewish Nobel laureate, Isaac Bashevis Singer who wrote: “To the animals, all people are Nazis; to the animals, life is an eternal Treblinka.” This is when I realized that I was not alone in my thinking and not losing my mind. This is when I finally knew that there was a  valid reason for my survival and a valid way to repay my social debt. This is when I resolved to devote the rest of my life to fighting all forms of oppression, starting with our own society’s oppression of animals raised for food. 

Dr. Hershaft has lectured extensively about his journey from the Warsaw Ghetto to his struggle for animal rights at Israeli universities and Jewish assemblies in Washington, New York, Baltimore, Denver, and Pittsburgh. His moving story made the front page of Israel’s largest newspaper.

Some of Dr. Hershaft’s lectures and interviews may be viewed on YouTube. A more extensive biography may be found on Wikipedia.