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Miracle of Miracles

February 12, 2010

In a world that is still filled with too much hatred and genocide, we need to treasure the few survivors left from the Holocaust. As I quietly roamed the Zekelman Family Campus and witnessed the still photos of so many haunted men, women, and children staring at me, soon to be brutally murdered, I couldn’t help but imagine two young lovers in the same setting.

 

January 27, 2010 marked the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi death camp. The UN General Assembly in 2005 designated this day International Holocaust Remembrance Day (IHRD) to honor the victims of the Holocaust and to develop educational programs to help prevent future acts of genocide.

            That night, a unique photo album exhibit came to the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills, helping to commemorate the liberation of the death camp. The Auschwitz Album: The Story of a Transport displayed astonishing photos taken in 1944 of Hungarian Jews from Carpatho Ruthenia on their arrival at Auschwitz. Eighteen-year-old Lili Jacob accidentally found these photos in abandoned German barracks after she was sent to the Nazi slave labor camp, Dora, which was liberated by Americans. The photo album included heart-breaking images of her family and friends before they were killed in Auschwitz’s gas chambers.

Four days later, Nicholas D. Kristof reported in the New York Times about a civil war in eastern Congo which, he wrote, “is the most lethal conflict since World War II and has claimed at least 30 times as many lives as the Haiti earthquake” (“Orphaned, Raped and Ignored,” January 31, 2010). He wrote how millions in Africa have been slaughtered by Hutu militia, only to face a “pathetic international response.” It was just like the 1994 Rwandan genocide, repeated again and once again hidden from the rest of the world.

            While I could hardly believe or stomach the devastating brutality on the other side of the world, I began to realize the hidden meaning of the Auschwitz Album, photos that were unseen for years, which will be displayed at the Holocaust Memorial Center through April 18th. I thought if we could only see those types of photos sent to us from journalists or other witnesses via email, Facebook, the world might be jarred enough to stop the thousands of rapes and murders happening in the Congo right now.

It’s hard not to feel despair after viewing faces of children right before they had their last moments of life and thinking that senseless genocide is happening again. But how can we give up now? And why should we stop searching for something uplifting?  

Sometimes, sparks of hope come from nowhere. One of those gifts showed up in an email from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, featuring an article about a young boy and girl who fell in love in the most horrifying of settings and miraculously found each other 65 years later (“A 65-Year Search Ends in a Tearful Reunion,” www.ushmm.org, February 1, 2010).

After a young girl’s parents were deported from Poland’s Tarnow ghetto, 15-year-old Renate Abend was left completely alone. But in a soup line, she met 19-year-old Kalmek Mahler, whose job was to keep order in the soup kitchen, and he made sure Renate’s bowl was filled first. Later, after she got a finger infection and then an amputation, Mahler found a hiding place for her so that Renate wouldn’t be shot or transported. He hid her in the ceiling of an abandoned shop and then he brought her food and a latrine bucket.

 After Renate was deported to the Plaszow forced labour camp and thought she would never find Kalmek again, she stood in the middle of the Plaszow labor camp and glimpsed her young friend through the barbed wire, “like God had sent an angel to look after me,” (“Love and hope in hell,” Adele Horin, Sydney Morning Herald, Dec. 12, 2009).

Kalmek smuggled a pillow, blanket, and food for Renate. And when they were both transported to the Pionki labour camp in the middle of a bitter winter, he found leather to put on the souls of her shoes to ease her trek through snow to the ammunition factory where she worked. Mahler was even able to smuggle with the help of his friends a present of an angora jumper, boots and a skirt for Renate.

Renate and Kalmek promised each other that they would marry if they survived but in early 1945, they were both sent on separate death marches. Renate survived a final death march to Bergen-Belsen before the allied liberation and was evacuated to Sweden and then settled in Belgium where she was married, assuming Kalmek Mahler was dead. After her first husband died, she moved to Australia and re-married, had children and grandchildren and lived happily for 35 years until her husband’s death.

A few months ago, Renate Grossman’s daughter Helen and granddaughter Michelle, looking for information about her grandmother for a high school project, traveled from Australia to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC. With the help of a Registry specialist combing extensive historical records, they found Renate’s first love, Kalmek Mahler, on a list of survivors. He had changed his name to Carl and was now living in Canada. The museum contacted Carl who was thrilled to learn that his first love had survived.

Renate, who cannot fly because of her “bad legs,” learned from her son how to use a computer and use Skype so she could communicate with Carl. She laughed, “Of course I had in mind a 19-year-old…tall, good looking and full of go, and when I saw him on the computer, well, he was an old bald man.” But, she recalled, “he started to cry and I started to cry…he said I was still beautiful as ever.” And now, most importantly, Renate says, she is “very happy to have found him when he is alive to be able to thank him for saving my life.”

In a world that is still filled with too much hatred and genocide, we need to treasure the few survivors left from the Holocaust. As I quietly roamed the Zekelman Family Campus and witnessed the still photos of so many haunted men, women, and children staring at me, soon to be brutally murdered, I couldn’t help but imagine two young lovers in the same setting.

Those two children of the Holocaust somehow survived and found each other 65 years later. I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of hope and thankfulness, imagining two lonely survivors, now speaking across two sides of the world on an Internet connection, their faith restored in the possibility of miracles.

 

 

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