After survivors are gone, will the world still never forget

With more than five decades passing since 6 million Jews died in the Holocaust, fewer and fewer survivors remain alive to bear witness to its horrors.

Local Holocaust experts agree that 10 percent of the estimated 5,000 survivors living in the Bay Area are expected to die every year.

The same percentage holds true for the remaining 900,000 survivors worldwide, 140,000 of whom live in the United States, according to an Israeli government census.

Mark Schickman, president of the Holocaust Center of Northern California, said the numbers reflect a major dilemma: As all the survivors continue to pass away, so does their eyewitness testimony to one of the worst genocides in history.

"If there's no living connection, whether 60 or 300 years later, it becomes ancient history in people's minds," said Schickman, himself the son of survivors.

The Bulletin spoke to local survivors about their experiences this week as the world once again commemorated Yom HaShoah. Most survivors, well aware of their extraordinary perspective, are committed to telling their stories often and in as many venues as possible. But still there are others, who for one reason or another, will take their anguish to the grave.

"It's the responsibility of the survivors to speak out about the 6 million Jews who perished," said Julius Drabkin, an 82-year-old survivor who resides in San Francisco. "That way in five, 10 years when we're all gone, people won't be able to forget."

Survivor Linda Breder, a San Francisco resident imprisoned in Auschwitz at the age of 16, concurred.

"This will be the last generation to see us alive," said the Czechoslovakian-born survivor, now 77, who was forced to sort goods and clothing left behind by the murdered victims.

"We must repeat what happened to us so the younger generation sees what hatred can do to humanity."

Drabkin, originally from Latvia, was barely 89 pounds upon liberation and had lived through countless horrors — including a death march in the freezing cold from the Stutthof concentration camp in Germany.

He now has two grown sons, whom he said he never hesitated to educate about his past. He has also recently recorded a video for filmmaker Steven Spielberg's Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation.

"There are some people who never spoke out, but I always did, even though I had horrible nightmares," he said.

Gabriel Piotrkowski is a survivor who lives in San Francisco. His wife, Rachel Piotrkowski, a survivor of Bergen-Belsen, died last year. The two met in a displaced persons camp in Germany in 1947.

Piotrkowski stayed relatively private about his past during a telephone interview with the Bulletin.

Instead he focused on his neighbors in the Polish shtetl of Lask. His words danced eagerly across his Polish tongue as he reminisced upon the somewhat comic yet eerily tragic characters of his boyhood shtetl.

First he spoke of Josel David, a simple, illiterate man who did not know his machzor from his Haggadah. This old man and his wife, whom the town called "Crazy Sirel," were childless, but they had a horse he treated like a son.

"He never hit it; he kept it warm. Once when the horse was tired, he took the harness himself and pulled the horse, and a wagon full of borscht, all the way up a huge hill," he said.

It was a Thursday early in August 1942 that the Germans first entered Lask. They instantly shot a man dead and demanded all Jews turn in their horses immediately.

"Most agreed without a fuss, except for Josel David," said Piotrkowski. "He was beaten up by the Germans and died within a few days."

Most who lived in the shtetl of Lask could not remember why they'd taken to calling Sirel "crazy." When Piotrkowski stopped by her home to buy her sauerkraut or borscht, everything always seemed tidy, and she actually acted quite normal.

But he got his answer only a few weeks later when the Germans locked all 4,000 Jews inside a 100-by-100-foot church for three days with no bathrooms and no way to escape.

"That Crazy Sirel, she got crazy," he said. It wasn't yet the end of the second day before she stripped all the clothes from her tall, lanky body "and ran naked around the room."

Piotrkowski was 18 years old when he watched Crazy Sirel fulfill her cruel nickname. He had no idea at the time of the madness that he would never see her or most members of his family again. On the third day of the lock-in he and 800 others were taken away "to work."

Now 80 years old, he said he was relating the story of Josel David and Crazy Sirel for the first time. As he spoke vividly of the childless couple, he suddenly remembered those moments that led up to Sirel's breakdown.

He said that on the second day of the lockup a non-Jewish woman, who was married to the church's janitor, "a man with one short leg," sympathized with the Jews in the church and brought them a bucket of water.

"Once she came in they wouldn't let the woman back out, and she began crying. A priest came and told them, 'She is a Catholic lady,' so they let her out," he said.

"But nobody let us out," he continued. "We were lost and nobody helped us. That was the finish of our town."

Piotrkowski, who said he does speak at Yizkor services in Petaluma once a year, for the most part finds "it's very hard" to speak on the subject in any depth.

But the hard reality of the Holocaust is worse if it isn't spoken of, said Drabkin.

"Life is going ahead, and people want to be happy," he said. "They would rather forget, and we cannot let them."

Like Drabkin, San Francisco survivors Charles and Annie Glass, both originally from Poland, also make a point of lecturing quite often. They also told their two children "exactly what happened."

"They're the ones who are going to see that it never happens again," said Charles Glass, 77. "Like it says in the Haggadah: You should tell this story to your children. Your children should tell it to their children."

Charles Glass, who often lectures on his experiences throughout the Bay Area, recalled his liberation from Bergen-Belsen with a bone-chilling and haunting accuracy.

"We were laying there half-unconscious when all of a sudden there was a rumbling outside the gate," he said. "One of us lifted his head a little bit and saw something coming — but it wasn't the Germans. A tank broke through the gate and a British officer stood on top of it screaming, 'You are free, you are free!'

"It was a moment you cannot imagine. When I think about it sometimes, I start crying because there were so many people lying there dead or dying with a faint trace of a smile upon their faces."

The Glasses' message seemed to take hold, especially for their daughter, Zepporah Glass, who now works for Spielberg's Shoah foundation, interviewing survivors.

But Annie Glass, who survived Auschwitz, said this is not the typical outcome.

"If you don't live it, then you just can't imagine it," explained the 76-year-old. "The truth is, how much do I know about China, for instance? You hear about social injustices there, and then it just goes south."

Piotrkowski doesn't have to imagine the Holocaust; he lived through it. He spoke with animation of his friend Moshe the Baker, who often took in beggars, or shnorrers, to eat with him on Shabbat.

"In the cold of the winter, when the shnorrers were freezing on the streets, Moshe the Baker would go out and collect them and put them into his bakery near the oven," he said. "The police said that this was unsanitary, but Moshe the Baker gave them 5 cents; he bribed them."

On Aug. 24, 1942, Moshe the Baker was shot by the Germans along with 50 others. Piotrkowski watched from the distance as Moshe the Baker held his kippah tight upon his head, even as he fell to the ground dying.

But just before Moshe the Baker passed on, he scanned the crowd for Piotrkowski. And when the pair met each other's eyes Moshe the Baker begged, "Please — tell the world what you saw!"