It was one of the most moving stories I have ever covered -- the first gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors in Jerusalem. This month as the world remembers the Holocaust , I recall that historic meeting.
In 1981, for the first time ever, survivors of Nazi extermination camps, their children and, in some cases, their grand children came together in Jerusalem to talk about what for years many had refused to talk about.
"It was a unique moment in history," Ernest W. Michel, the New Yorker who organized the gathering, told me. "There will never be anything like it again."
Journeying from countries throughout the world, these victims of the Holocaust who survived, had agreed to get together in Jerusalem, the center of Jewish history through the ages.
For a reporter, it was a strange experience. For years I had found that people who had escaped death in Nazi Europe didn’t want to talk about their histories. Many children were stunned to hear about what their parents had gone through. For the first time they listened to stories of how whole families, their families, were almost destroyed as 6 million Jews perished in Nazi death camps.
Somehow, on this occasion, 36 years after the liberation of the camps, the survivors had found their voice. They wanted to talk. Indeed, by the dozens they approached me and my camera crew. Some would take my arm and plead for me to listen.
They told harrowing stories of how many mothers and fathers and children had been taken to the gas chambers immediately after arrival at the camps. They spoke of how the more fortunate ones had secured a temporary reprieve from death because they were able to perform work. But, after they lost strength, many were also consigned to the gas chambers and ultimately dumped into the furnaces that went full blast at concentration camps throughout Poland and Germany.
I remember how eager some of these people were to tell their stories. And each survivor had a terrible story to tell. Some had witnessed their parents or children taken away to be killed. In some cases, three generations of a family had been wiped out -- 50 or 60 people was the average count -- and only one remained to tell the story. Many survivors had lost their spouses and re-married after they settled in the United States.
I did a half hour documentary called "To Bear Witness." And indeed that was the underlying purpose of the gathering. As Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel has said: "I believe fervently that to listen to a witness is to become a witness."
Years before, I had visited Auschwitz, the notorious death camp in southern Poland. It was January, 1949, and the Poles had left everything intact just as it looked when the Russians liberated the camp. There were mountains of hair shaved from the heads of women who had been gassed. Some of the hair still bore the smell of Zyklon B, the gas administered to victims in the execution chambers. There were gold fillings pulled from the teeth of victims after their deaths. And the shoes removed from the feet of the dead were saved. Most poignant were the baby shoes that were in a separate pile. On a regular basis, this material was shipped back to Germany for re-cycling but, as the camp was liberated and the SS guards fled, this batch had been left behind.
In Jerusalem, many artifacts of the Holocaust are exhibited at the museum called Yad Vashem. And the delegates to this unusual gathering visited there with their children. Yad Vashem has some archives -- and it was in that library during that solemn week that I encountered two middle-aged women, who had emigrated to the United States as children.
They were looking at a large book, with tears in their eyes. At the height of the war, as the Nazis were purging the Jews from Europe, these were two little girls living with their parents in southern France. Their parents had to stay behind as the little girls were spirited away in a bus and ultimately taken to Britain and, later, America. They recalled waving to their parents as the bus pulled away. They never saw them again.
But here in this book, kept by the Nazis who were meticulous record-keepers, was a list of the people who had boarded one train for one death camp. And their parents’names were on the list. It was like they were finding a piece of their past. "I am happy," one of the women said, "because now we know that they lived and exactly what happened to them. It means a lot to see a record."
Many survivors said of their stay in the camps that they had lost faith in God because they couldn’t understand how He could tolerate what was happening. One notable dissenter was Menachem Begin, then Prime Minister of Israel. "I’ll tell you why I believe in God," he told me. "If there weren’t a God, Hitler would have developed the atomic bomb before America and he might have destroyed us all."
Considering how much of the world ignored the Holocaust when it was happening, Elie Wiesel, a chronicler of this epoch in history,wrote: "The opposite of love is not hate. It’s indifference."
I remember, after I saw Auschwitz and Yad Vashem, half a century ago how I wrote my mother about it and expressed my hatred for the people who carried it out. She wrote back to try to quiet my youthful passion: "I’m not worried about what your hatred of the Nazis will do to them. But I am worried about what it can do to you."