Ursula Zadik’s German passport, issued by the Nazis on December 9, 1936.
This is the second page, which shows the
Nazi insignia stamp.

My parents, Ursula and Erwin, didn’t leave Nazi Germany until 1939. By then my father had been in a concentration camp and my mother in prison. Growing up, I couldn’t fathom why they hadn’t fled earlier. After all, Hitler was elected in 1933, and they stuck around for another six years. My mother tried to explain, “Oh, we just thought Hitler was crazy, a clown. We never thought anyone would take him seriously, or that he would stay in power very long.” At the time, I couldn’t wrap my head around that. Today, I have a better understanding. For the past five years I ask myself daily, “How do you know when it is time to leave?”

Rising anti-Semitism is putting me on alert. How can it be that synagogue shootings and bombings are happening today? Happening here. I am shocked to discover white supremacists’ slogans and acronyms. The Proud Boys are wearing T-Shirts emblazoned with 6MWNE—code for “6 million wasn’t enough.” At the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, they were shouting “Jews will not replace us.” Racism, xenophobia, and Islamophobia seem to be shooting up like geysers all around me. Refugees are turned away at borders, allowed to drown on sinking ships, or put into detention camps. How did we get here? Eighty years after my parents barely managed to escape being murdered, here we are. Have I just had my head in the sand all this time, avoiding reality?

Seeing danger and looking for answers, I attended a panel discussion on anti-Semitism. Two professors describe their approach to Jewish history as one that emphasizes how Jews have lived and flourished. This is what they love to study. They explicitly state that they prefer not to focus on anti-Semitism in their academic work. Jewish history is so rich, and there is so much more to delve into. Yet, here they are, talking about the thing they would rather avoid.

Growing up in a New York City neighborhood of German Jewish refugees, I wasn’t conscious of anti-Semitism. My parents were creating a new narrative for us. I had a relatively carefree childhood. Even as we hid under our desks for Cold War “shelter drills” in elementary school, I did not fear for my life. Yet, the old stories, the accented English, the pain of what was lost, and the traumas and scars, both physical and psychic, were not totally eradicated. My childhood was wallpapered with these unerasable details, and they became embedded in my subconscious.

In 1967 when I was in my teens, my parents took me to Europe to show me their birthplace. They wanted me to understand where they came from. They wanted me to understand my history. My mother was filled with enchanting memories of her idyllic childhood pre-Hitler, but that was a long-gone time and place. My parents were absolutely clear that they never wanted to live in that place again. Where we stood was no longer home.

After World War II, the Breslau, Germany, of their youth had transformed into Wroclaw, Poland. Little evidence of its former identity remains. We were able to find the White Stork Synagogue where my parents got married in 1938. It had survived attacks and bombings and was still standing—an amazing sight in the midst of rubble still strewn around the city over twenty years later. Stepping through the doorway of what was once a beautiful building when it was constructed in 1829, I found myself in a dark damp space with a dirt floor, paint peeling off the walls, and a single lightbulb hanging despondently from the ceiling and threatening to detach itself from a frayed wire. A few old men cowered in a corner. My parents walked over to them, gave them some money, and we left. Quickly. No lingering. No recalling what the place had once looked like. No remembering their wedding day twenty-nine years earlier. Not a twitch of emotion pierced my parents’ stone facade. I was stunned. Where was their pain? I was in tears, my feelings overpowering me, while my parents maintained their detachment, acting as if nothing unusual had occurred. They avoided any distress. That was how they survived everything they had been through. I suppose that strategy served them well.

Ursula and Erwin Zadik on their wedding day, September 8, 1938

Recently, I traveled to Germany with my partner Laura, who was tracing her ancestry. Her father also was a Holocaust survivor. We visited archives and began excavating the past. Our explorations took us through cities where there no longer is any Jewish community, but where townspeople had restored old synagogues and created museums as a way to preserve history. I found myself imagining these buildings filled with people and music, celebrating weddings, bar mitzvahs, and holidays, and voices soaring in joy and prayer.

In Kronach, a group of citizens banded together to save the synagogue where Laura’s great-grandfather had been the cantor. It had been desecrated and used as a garage for vehicle maintenance. City-owned, it was slated for demolition. The group raised money and put much time and effort into beautifully restoring the building, guided by an old photograph depicting what the interior had once looked like. Part of the structure—the recessed niche in the wall where the Torah Ark had been—was intentionally left partially destroyed, to preserve the memory of the building’s defilement. Since there is no living Jewish community here now, the building no longer functions as a synagogue. It is used as a community center for lectures, concerts and events. Some exhibits highlight the Jewish people who had built and inhabited the building.

In other villages, we saw memorials to Holocaust victims and exhibitions focused on the persecutions and deportations. Occasionally, they displayed a few old religious objects or photographs, but what I missed seeing portrayed was the joyousness of Jewish life that had once existed in those places. All traces of that had been wiped out, and with no living Jews around, the current population has no way to truly understand the former Jewish community, how it had thrived, or what that even looked like. They know what happened was wrong and want to ensure it never happens again. Paradoxically, by focusing on the disappearance and murder of Jews, they avoid honoring the now-gone Jewish way of life. They avoid showing what was annihilated. They avoid acknowledging that their community today is deprived as a result. They avoid understanding that they lost something valuable.

In many of those towns, we met with mayors eager to extend a hand of friendship. It is symbolic that rather than offering us keys to the city, they instead handed us keys to the old Jewish cemeteries. We were, in fact, searching for dead people. We wanted to understand who had lived where. We hoped to find lineages, trace ancestors, and pay our respects.

Looking for Laura’s great-great-grandfather, we visited the Ermetzhofen Jewish cemetery. It was established in 1654 on a hillside quite a distance from any town. The stone wall surrounding the cemetery is today topped with a chain link fence. The entrance is guarded by a metal double gate adorned with a Star of David on each side. Just inside stands the Tahara House (where the deceased were prepared for burial), built of stone and crowned with a clay-tiled roof. Decades have passed since its last use, probably sometime in the 1930s, when there still were Jews inhabiting the area. During the Nazi era, the cemetery suffered severe desecration. Part of it was cleared away and gravestones used for road construction. The cemetery was restored in 1959, and today a sign announces it is federal crime to vandalize the property. About four hundred graves remain. Surrounding towns do basic maintenance, as there is no one else to care for these old burial grounds. It is interesting to note that in Germany today, except for those at historical sites, individual graves are not maintained long-term but are recycled every twenty to thirty years.

The stone slab in the Tahara House at Ermetzhofen, 2013

We unlocked the gates and entered the Tahara House, which still has the stone slab on which the dead were placed and washed before being wrapped in a shroud. It was hard not to imagine the centuries of bodies that had once lain on that stone. As we walked up the hill to the rows of gravestones, the sun lit up the thigh-high grasses. A few of the headstone inscriptions were readable, but most were worn away with age, no longer decipherable. We could not locate Laura’s forebears. They were silent, not revealing themselves to us.

Gravestones at Ermetzhofen, 2013

Standing in the quiet, it occurred to me that for some Germans today it is actually easier to deal with dead Jews than with living ones. Dead Jews don’t ask too many questions. Dead Jews don’t confront them with how they are thinking about things. Dead Jews don’t challenge the status quo. Dead Jews don’t demand anyone take action. Dead Jews keep quiet, keep their secrets—secrets no one really wants to know. Interactions with living Jews might require acknowledging growing anti-Semitism and perhaps even their own anti-Semitism. It might require them to act.

Although unable to escape my legacy as a daughter of Holocaust survivors, I still have accomplished my fair share of avoidance. I have an aunt whom I never knew, except through letters she wrote from a Nazi prison. My mother and her sister Helga smuggled anti-Hitler newspapers hidden in their ski poles as they crossed the mountains from Czechoslovakia into Germany. Both were caught and tried on charges of high treason. While my mother managed to get acquitted, Helga received a three-and-a-half-year sentence. After serving her time, Helga was not released but was sent directly to the Ravensbrück Women’s Concentration Camp. She did not survive.

Helmut Glatzel, Sophie Kalisch, Helga Beyer, and Ursula Beyer in 1937. This photograph was taken in Petzer, the German name for what is now Pec pod Sněžkou in the Czech Republic. It is located in the Giant Mountains, what Helga and Ursula called the Riesengebirge in German, a part of the Sudetes range. This photo was taken prior to Helga’s arrest in January 1938. It was on these trips to the mountains that they met members of the Oppositional Communist Party (KPO) who had fled Germany earlier, and who gave them newspapers that they smuggled back into Germany in their ski poles.

My mother kept all of Helga’s letters. She had written to my mother, to their aunt Klara who stayed behind in Germany, and to their parents who had come to America on visitor visas hoping to find a sponsor and get Helga released from prison before her trial (no luck with that). For decades, my mother was unable to look at Helga’s letters, which she had safely stashed away. She avoided that wound—a sister she had to leave behind and who was murdered. By the 1980s, enough time had passed, and she brought the letters out of exile. My mother transcribed Helga’s undecipherable (to me) script and typed it up on her manual typewriter, using carbon paper to make three copies. She recruited me to help her translate the letters into English. We sat with the transcription, a rough translation my mother had done, two German dictionaries, and a thesaurus. We enmeshed ourselves in Helga’s words. Trying to comprehend her thoughts, we argued over what Helga was attempting to sneak past the censors inspecting her correspondence.

My mother wanted the world to know about this courageous sister of hers. I tried to get the letters published but was unsuccessful. This added a new layer of pain. I had failed to get Helga’s story out into the world. I had failed Helga. Her voice was again silenced. It was as if she had been murdered a second time. At that point, I put the letters back into storage. I avoided looking at them again. Despite a nagging desire to do something more with the letters, I was paralyzed by a fear of sinking into a quicksand of grief and not being able to extricate myself. The only solution was to avoid thinking about Helga.

A letter written by Helga on November 18, 1938 (translated in part below)

Nevertheless, I acquired books about the Holocaust; in fact, I have a small collection of first-person accounts. I haven’t read a single one. I heard of a book by Germaine Tillion, Ravensbrück: An eyewitness account of a women’s concentration camp, published in French in 1973. When it was translated into English, I got a copy on interlibrary loan and carefully made a photocopy of the entire book. Then, just as carefully, I put it away and never read it. I still have it. I acquired a more recent book entitled The Jewish Women of Ravensbrück (2004). I have not read that either. I don’t want to know about how they tortured women there. I would prefer to avoid those details. Like those Jewish Studies professors: it is not what I want to study.

That is one example of how my avoidance instinct persists. I suppose it is an automatic reflex to shield myself from pain. It would be so easy to just give in and not fight it, but I am not able to do that either. Helga demands I pay attention to her.

My one regret when my mother died in 2013 was not having done more with Helga’s letters while my mother was alive. It was so important to her to get Helga’s story into public view. In my avoidance, I had not only failed Helga, but I also failed my mother. With my mother’s death, I inherited a stockpile of papers she had been safeguarding—photographs, decades of correspondence, all of Helga’s letters, paperwork from Germany, including driver’s licenses, emigration documents stamped with the Nazi insignia, and much more. As I sorted through box after box, I found myself holding a yellowed sheet of lined paper filled with an illegible script. It was a letter Helga had written to her father on November 18, 1938. But this letter was one my mother and I had somehow missed; we hadn’t translated it! And now, I no longer had my mother to decipher Helga’s handwriting. I was sucked into this challenge. There was no avoiding it.

Helga’s words were calling out to me from this “new” letter. To help me decode it, I enlisted a variety of people, including an old family friend living in Germany and a German woman I knew from work. In this letter, Helga reveals her anguish over her sister Ursel (my mother). Helga had been sitting in prison for months since her arrest in January 1938 and desperately wanted to believe that the Gestapo wouldn’t go after my mother as well:

Dear Paps,

. . . Last week I received the indictment and also the bad news that Ursel will also have to go before the court. You can imagine that that hasn’t exactly lifted my spirits, where I had so firmly hoped that at least Ursel would get off lightly. A lawyer was appointed for me by the court. I hope that it won’t be too much longer now so I will finally know where I stand. However, I don’t think that the trial will take place before the end of the year. In any case, as soon as something is certain I will write you right away or get word to you. Altogether I already wrote you twice, did you not get the letters? . . . Write me again soon, as long as I am still permitted to receive as much mail as I want (later I think it will be only every 14 days or 3 weeks). Regards to Emmi! [her stepmother]

1,000,000 Kisses
Your Helga

It pained me to see Helga’s vulnerability so exposed, but I was glad to have pushed through my resistance and allowed Helga’s voice to reach me. There would be no more hiding from Helga. It was time for me to take a deep breath and dive into my relationship with this aunt who had been dead for ten years by the time I was born.

I am now working on a memoir about my relationship with Helga. In my story, the horror of what happened in Ravensbrück is not what I want to focus on. My Aunt Helga is so much more than that. Her aspirations, idealism, and courage are what interest me. I prefer not to delve into the details of Helga’s suffering, humiliation, vulnerability, and her powerlessness to stop them. Yet, they are part of the story.

Further thrusting myself past my paralysis, I began reading a book about Milena Jesenská (the great love of Kafka’s life) who was deported to Ravensbrück in 1940 and also did not survive. It was written by Margarete Buber-Neumann, whom Milena befriended there. Over a period of four years, the two women formed a special bond that helped them survive. They planned to write a book together but made a pact that if only one of them survived, the other would bear witness. Through Margarete’s writing, I am gaining insights into daily life in the camp. She describes how they managed to sneak time together and keep each other going, and how they secretly obtained additional food rations:

With the complicity of the young Polish woman who handed out the bread, I managed, thanks to a complicated system of miscounting, to filch several loaves of bread under the eyes of the SS overseer . . . For Milena I managed to steal margarine from the kitchen in spite of the overseer who was standing right next to it. Milena, however, far surpassed me in daring. One morning during working hours, when the camp street was deserted, she carried a bowlful of coffee with milk and sugar—the gift of a Polish woman who worked in the kitchen—all the way from the infirmary to my barracks, taking care not to spill a single drop. If she had been caught, she would have been beaten and locked up in the camp prison . . .

From: Milena: The Story of a Remarkable Friendship
by Margarete Buber-Neumann (translated by Ralph Manheim)
Seaver Books, 1988

The book is a biography of Milena and thus isn’t focused exclusively on the evils of the camp. Even so, I go through periods of being able to read it, then put it down, find everything else that I need to be reading instead. I still haven’t finished the book. I know how the story ends, and I don’t want to have to face it in black and white on the page.

My avoidance also manifests itself in my inability to remember facts, details, and stories. On a visit to my parents’ apartment in Riverdale, New York, in the 1990s when I was in my forties, I sat with them eating dinner at the kitchen table overlooking the Hudson River. Something was mentioned about my father having been a prisoner in Buchenwald. I put my fork down and tried to swallow. I looked into my father’s dark brown eyes. “What do you mean in Buchenwald? You never told me that!” My mother turned to me in surprise, “I put it all in the story I typed up for you.” I couldn’t believe it. When I got home, I dug out that document, which she had written in 1978. Sure enough, there it was, clearly spelled out in her account of growing up in Breslau as the Nazis came to power. She described how my father and his brother Benno were arrested by the Gestapo on Kristallnacht (the Night of Broken Glass) on November 9, 1938, and deported to Buchenwald:

In the six weeks that Daddy was there he could not once wash, there was no toilet paper; latrines consisted of wooden planks spread over holes dug in the ground. Food was scarce and miserable. They got whale meat, which caused diarrhea. People had to stand at attention for hours, without being excused to use the latrines, and in ice-cold weather. No mattresses, no blankets. Lots of people died there just from the cold and exhaustion . . . When he was released his head was shaven, and he left his winter coat for Benno.

Why did I have no recollection of ever reading that? Was it so horrific that I purged it from my memory? Was my mind trying to protect me, trying to insulate me from my father’s trauma, trying to avoid the reality of what he actually went through? Of course, my father never talked about it. Or had he, and I just don’t remember? Even on that day, over fifty years after the experience, all my father did was shake his head. The only words about Buchenwald that he could manage to get out of his mouth were, “Terrible, terrible.”

A decade later we were clearing out my parents’ apartment. I was moving them closer to me in western Massachusetts. I still marvel at how much my parents had managed to cram into that small one-bedroom residence. Saying my father had an overabundance of clothing is an understatement. His shoe collection could rival that of Imelda Marcos. He was such a sucker for bargains. Alexander’s in the Bronx was one of his favorite haunts. Many of the shoes were in their original boxes, never worn, price tags still intact. The closet was two rows deep. Each hanger held two or three jackets, and the closet rods were bowed and sagging from the weight. We had to go through all the pockets, as my father often hid money there. I knew that was kind of crazy, but that was just who my father was. It didn’t seem odd or unusual.

As I write this, it dawns on me for the first time that there may have been a deeper meaning to all the garments my father was hoarding. Perhaps he was making up for the shoes and clothing he didn’t have in Buchenwald, when he and the other prisoners were forced to stand outside in freezing weather, in ill-fitting, blister-causing shoes, without warm enough clothes, or in clothes that were too small or too large, with rough fabric scouring away their skin. Perhaps all the jackets in his closet were needed to keep Buchenwald Erwin warm, so he could try to lose the body memory of what it felt like to have your head shaven, with no hat, in the brutal cold. Now, I also remember how he collected those big, warm Russian fur hats. For six decades, his body was unable to give up the need for a closetful of jackets, and sweaters, and coats, and scarves, and pairs and pairs of wool and fur lined leather gloves, even though he avoided ever speaking of Buchenwald. For him it was not a luxury to have all that excess clothing. It was a necessity. How could I not have realized this before?

I’ve never read much about Buchenwald, and I don’t want to either. It was shock enough to see the beautiful Klimt painting titled Buchenwald and realize the meaning of the word: beech forest. I also have no desire to visit the place. I have no need to see a once serene sylvan scene that was turned into a torture and death factory. I have no need to see what today is a stark hilltop, the barracks that once housed thousands in squalor long gone. I have no need to walk the guard path, a trail encircling the camp, or see the stone plaques that memorialize prisoners. I would prefer to avoid seeing the memorial exhibitions, the faces of those murdered, and the crematorium.

Am I too sensitive to the pain of torture? What is wrong with avoidance? It is so easy for me to ask these rhetorical questions. That is my go-to, perhaps another great avoidance strategy. It works. I successfully distance myself from the pain. I dodge thinking about the horrors that the name Buchenwald was masking. I can forget what my father lived through.

Still, I hate it when people talk about victims of the Holocaust and say, “Anne Frank died in Bergen Belsen,” or so and so “died in Auschwitz.” Nobody just died in any of the camps. They were murdered. Even if they weren’t gassed or their bodies stuffed into crematoria, they were murdered. Keeping people underfed such that they die of starvation is murder. Keeping them in conditions that spread disease that leads to their death is murder. Working people to the point of collapse is murder. Even those who managed to escape and hide, but still died of pneumonia or typhus were murdered. It was not a passive event with no one to blame for their deaths.

I know it is not easy to use the word murder all the time. It is hard for me too. Although I make an effort not to say, “Helga died in Ravensbrück,” or “Helga died before I was born,” I’m not always successful. When a doctor asks me about my medical history—Who else in my family had heart disease? Cancer?—I cannot answer those questions. Sometimes, I would say that except for my parents, all the rest of my family died of unnatural causes. That usually gets a quizzical response. So, I decided I would just grit my teeth and say the harsh truth, “I don’t know about that aspect of family history as most of my family was murdered.” I have to add “in the Holocaust,” as otherwise people might think it was a drive-by shooting or something. My words usually leave the health care providers speechless. I can’t blame them. I’m not angry at them, but I am angry when I read a newspaper article, and it mentions how someone “died” in the Holocaust. I understand that it is not easy to face the truth, but I also know what happens when we avoid it.

I struggle to find balance between the need to know and the need not to know. A battle rages between my avoidance reflex and the urge to search and dig and find the truth. Although the latter feels vitally important, as soon as I sense it being too painful, I run as fast as I can. I rationalize that I’m only trying to protect myself. Sometimes that is a good instinct, other times the avoidance response may be dangerous.

Neither of my parents would have been set free if they hadn’t provided proof to the Gestapo that they were leaving the country. After my father was arrested on Kristallnacht, my mother heard that the Gestapo would release those who were leaving Germany. By that time, Shanghai was the only place that would take in Jewish refugees with no money and without a visa. My mother immediately purchased tickets for a steamboat to Shanghai and showed them to the Gestapo. She also secured an official character reference that was needed to be allowed to leave. By the time my father was released, my mother was sitting in prison awaiting trial. She was more vehement about denying any wrongdoing than her sister and miraculously was acquitted. My father then used those tickets to show the Gestapo that they were heading off to China. My mother got out just in time to board that ship.

Ursula Zadik’s character reference, issued by the Nazis on November 21, 1938

My parents taught me to always be on the alert, to know what is going on, and to speak up and fight for what is right. They believed that we need to have our eyes wide open if we are going to create a future that avoids what has gone so terribly wrong before. Heading off that peril would be the most positive form of avoidance. We watched the news every night. My parents read several newspapers, including one in German. Gatherings with friends always included heated discussions about world events. My mother relentlessly wrote to newspapers and had letters published in the New York Times. She called elected officials, trying to ensure her voice was heard. She supported organizations fighting for justice. She was outspoken politically. After 9/11 when the Patriot Act was passed, my mother sounded the alarm. She said it was starting to look like Germany in the 1930s.

I thought she was exaggerating. I realize now I was avoiding the truth.

Ursula and Erwin Zadik in Shanghai in 1942

Madelaine Zadik

Madelaine lives in the wooded hills of western Massachusetts. A former botanic garden educator and editor of Botanic Garden News, she now devotes herself to writing. Currently, she is working on a memoir about her relationship with her Aunt Helga, whom she never knew except through letters Helga wrote from prison in Nazi Germany. In 2021, she was a speaker at Liberation75, an International Conference to mark the 75th anniversary of liberation from the Holocaust. Her work has appeared in DoveTales: A Writing for Peace Literary Journal of the Arts, The Write Launch, Shark Reef, the Still Point Arts Quarterly, Months to Years, Public Garden, Roots, and Being Home: An Essay Anthology (Madville Publishing, 2021).

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