Monday, April 25, 2011

Excerpt: Broken Birds, The Story of My Momila by Jeannette Katzir

Jeannette Katzir, author of the book Broken Birds, The Story of My Momila, stopped by to share with us an excerpt from her book.

An Excerpt from Broken Birds, The Story of My Momila
by Jeannette Katzir

The walkway near the curb showed little evidence that such a gruesome place lurked just a short walk away. Pleasant and clean, the area outside the camp resembled any museum entrance. As we got closer, we found a monument that ac knowledged that this was indeed a camp, but upon further study, we noticed its message was incomplete. It mentioned only that this was a place where Jews, gypsies, gays, and po litical dissidents had been kept and put to hard labor. Absent from the description was any mention that these people were murdered systematically—that their bodies were burned to ashes, and their shoes, hair, and gold teeth filled large collec tion bins. And that those bins were the only hard evidence that these unfortunate souls had ever been there. The en trance had been sanitized so that visitors could feel better about the “camp” experience. To me, it seemed like just an other effort to cover up the stark truth of what had transpired here, and once again, I felt defensive and frustrated. 

We walked beneath the main office’s archway to a tall, ornate gate. Arbeit Macht Frei, “Work Makes Freedom,” was forged in iron in the metalwork. However, we all knew the brutal reality: work staves off death…for a short while. Sim ply touching the gate shot pain through our hands. How many people had walked through that gate and never walked back out? I could not imagine what it must have felt like for my father to open that gate after all these years and walk back into that camp. We entered without uttering a word. What could we say? It was clear from the look on his face that the memories had raced back, and that he once again had inhab ited his own private nightmare. As much as we wanted to support him and to understand, we all knew that we could never even begin to grasp the reality of what he had gone through. 

My first impression of the camp was how clean it was, almost parklike. The pathway was covered with gravel, and the outlying perimeter was carpeted in freshly mowed grass. In the center of the grounds stood a lone barrack, the others having all been torn down. This structure stood as a reminder of what the housing was like.

“This wasn’t what it looked like at all,” Dad said, shaking his head. The only indications that other barracks had ever stood on the grounds were large cement blocks with numbers chiseled into them. There was no explanation of what the numbers represented, but Dad knew. He walked across the gravel with his head down and his hands behind his back and then stopped at block number seven. He stood there quietly.

“This was where my barrack was,” he explained with des perately sad eyes. Part of him had never wanted to return, but he also needed to come; he needed to show us this place. He also needed to show himself and the world that the forces that had destroyed his family and threatened his very life had not won. He had lived on and triumphed. We were his living proof.

We walked the full circumference of where his barrack once stood, Shlomo a few steps behind the rest of us. All around the grounds, encircling the concrete slabs, was fencing with spiral razor wire bunched up in multiple rotations at the tops and bases. Every twenty feet or so, a solitary sentry structure stood. Each one was identical to the next. Each contained a single door, a single four-paned window, and a viewing platform. I easily visualized some Nazi smugly sitting there, well-fed and cozy, his gun pointed at the walking skele tons below.

We made our way to the lone exhibition barrack. The wooden door had a plain metal pull handle that clicked the door open when pressed. There was a single step up, and suddenly we were inside, walking on plain wooden plank floors that creaked with each step. The small entrance area was spotless, with windows that cranked open to the court yard. Opposite these windows was a wall filled with lockers.

“There were no lockers!” Dad blurted out, disgusted. “They took everything from us; we didn’t have anything to put in lockers!”

The walls were spotless and even appeared freshly painted. A small area off to the left featured five brown toilets lined up against the wall. Again, Dad shook his head. 

“These weren’t here either! All we had were holes in the floorboards!”

But the biggest farce was the sleeping accommodations. They were clean, newly constructed wooden bunk beds. Where were the original beds? The ones stained with urine and blood? Where were the original bed frames, carved with messages for the new arrivals? Where were the bunks that broke under the weight of two or three men trying to sleep in a bed wide enough for one? No, this was not a realistic repre sentation of Dad’s death camp, but an advertisement for a children’s summer camp.

When a young German guide walked through the barrack, reciting her script about this “work camp” to a group of Eng lish-speaking tourists, Dad could not contain his anguish.

“Why are you lying to these people?” he asked loudly.

“Excuse me?” she answered with a German accent.

He held out his papers. “I was here in barrack number seven. I am a survivor of this camp, and what you are showing and telling these people is a lie!”

Shocked by his accusations, she walked off without a word, taking most of the tourists with her. But some visitors remained behind and spoke with Dad. They asked him ques tions about what it was really like to be there, how he had escaped, and what his life had been like to this date. Some had Jewish stars hanging from their necks. They seemed to be close to my age and were there to see what their family mem bers had had to endure. Two tourists asked if they could have their photographs taken with him. He stood proudly with his papers in his hand as his photo was taken repeatedly. Steven pulled the video camera to his eye and captured every mo ment.

Dad was not happy about the way the camp was por trayed to the public, but he felt vindicated that day, if only by a small number of people. As I watched my father, then looked at those bunks and out the windows to the common areas, my eyes welled up. I hated that my father had to suffer so, and as I stood right where it had happened the reality hit home. Man is so cruel, I thought.

There was one other building we had yet to see…the one with a chimney.

“I’m going to stay here,” Dad told us as he sat down in the shade of a tall eucalyptus tree. “I don’t want to see it.”

We understood. A part of me did not want to see it ei ther, but I needed to. I needed to see the horrible place where the individuals who had been so important to my dad had been so unimportant to others.

The crematorium was hidden from view, sitting beyond another collection of gates and further shielded by tall trees. From the exterior, it looked like a charming little cottage with dark, red-brownish bricks and a lovely chimney that reached to the heavens. The building’s purpose was still concealed as we entered. The entry room was the area where the prisoners were supposed to undress so they could take their “showers.” It seemed pocket-sized for the number of people it had had to accommodate, with no real place for them to put their things. Then again, they did not have very much. I followed a tour group into the next section, which was the shower room. Mock showerheads protruded from the walls, hiding the gas piping behind them. The room was so clean. Where were the scratch marks on the walls from the dying who had tried to claw themselves upright? No, these walls were plastered, pretty as you please. I tried not to listen to the tour guide’s blathering; she did not marginally represent what had really happened here. Instead, I stood for a while looking at the walls and tried to envision what it must have felt like. 

We left the gas chambers for the oven room. Two brick pizza ovens with iron doors sat on the cement slab floor. Again, it was cleaner than clean, with no hint of the innocent ones who had been burned to ashes. My stomach turned. 

“These ovens were used to dispose of persons who died while in this work camp,” the guide recited dispassionately. 

“Death camp!” I said, correcting her dim-witted state ment. “If this was only a work camp, then what were the gas chambers in the other room for?” I added, knowing I would get no honest reply here. The guide ignored my correction and continued delivering her memorized diatribe. I was in creasingly enraged as I looked around—this sanitized version of the camp was an insult to the survivors, as well as the dead.


About the book:

Broken Birds, The Story of My MomilaThere is a truth in war: Every survivor has a story to tell. Sadly, it is very true. They have remembrances of evil too horrible to talk about, but unable to be forgotten. But, what of their children, the second and third generations? They too have stories to tell. Fortunately, their tales are not of prison guards and ovens, but of parents, who because of the war, were badly broken. 

Channa, a Partisan Fighter during World War II, prepares Katzir and her four siblings to survive a war that ended before they were born. Channa's rules are unbreakable: Failure means Death. Strangers mean Danger. Anyone who is not blood is a Stranger. When Channa suddenly dies, the unexpected contents of her will force her adult children to recognize the affects her guidance has had on their relationships with one another, with their created families, and with her. What was once a close-knit family is now led down the road to emotional destruction.  

About Jeannette:

As a child of Holocaust survivors, Jeannette Katzir’s life has been a study of the lasting effects of war.  Inspired  by her own family experiences, Katzir has dedicated years to in-depth research of the impact of World War II on survivors and  their children.  She currently resides in the Los Angeles area, not far from her two children and grandson, with her husband.


Sun Singer said...

I enjoyed the book. Nice to see the excerpt here.


Jeannette said...

I"m glad you enjoyed the book Sun. I am penning a fictional prequel about Anna's time as a partisan.

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