Memories of a distant hell

It was Josef Stalin who allegedly said, “One death is a tragedy. One million deaths is a statistic.”

Well, he should know. But, in whitewashing his own genocidal purges of Jews and others, Stalin hit upon a salient point: How can a human being comprehend the concept of 1,000, 10,000 or 1,000,000 dead?

Sunday, April 15 is Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. And as Jews — as human beings — it is our obligation to stop seeing the zeroes in 6,000,000 and start seeing the faces.

The dead are long gone but the living remain among us. When they speak, we must listen. There are thousands of Jews with stories to tell, but fewer every day.

Here are three Bay Area stories:

Susan Greenwald

It felt like the entire city of Mukatchevo lined the streets the day Susan Greenwald, her family and every other godforsaken individual with a yellow star hastily stitched onto his or her shirt was ordered to take only what they could carry and march to the brick factory — fast. Schnell!

The townspeople laughed. They shouted. They threw things. They spit.

It was just like — school.

“We Jews were never allowed to sit together in school or on a field trip to walk with the rest. The others went on both sides of us and sang the most terrible, anti-Semitic songs,” she recalls.

Greenwald, now living in Walnut Creek, is 82 years old with wispy red hair and prominent cheekbones. Macular degeneration has cast a slightly cloudy film over her brilliantly blue eyes but her memories, those are clear. Yes, she remembers that song. She remembers every word.

“I will sing it for you and translate it: Jew, Jew, you stinky Jew, what are you doing here? And the last paragraph was a big curse that involved our mother. And we had to listen to that. You can imagine our faces burning, and we just looked down. And the teachers didn’t say a word. They let them sing what they wanted.”

She pauses for a moment while the bitter memory settles, once again, into the back of her mind.

“So, yes, it was a familiar feeling going toward the brick factory.”

When Greenwald was born, her home city was located in Czechoslovakia. Later, it became Hungarian. Still later it became Soviet and is now Ukrainian. Dinner table conversation resembled a linguistics seminar, and everyone in the family had Hebrew, Czech, Hungarian and, eventually, English names (if they survived long enough).

Things began to deteriorate when Germany broke up Czechoslovakia and awarded it to the Nazi-friendly Horthy regime in Hungary. Jews lost their businesses and were booted out of schools. But it wasn’t until the day after Greenwald’s 19th birthday — March 19, 1944 — that life began to transcend the bounds of human decency. The Nazis marched into Hungary and decided to do what the Hungarians wouldn’t: Liquidate the Jews.

First came the stars on the clothing. Then the ghetto. Then the march to the brick factory, which had its own rail line. Then the cattle car.

Seventy or 80 Jews were squeezed into train cars with seating for, perhaps, 10.

“In the middle was a bucket you could use when you had to go to the bathroom. It was all in the open. If you wanted to go to the bathroom, you had to do it before everybody,” says Greenwald.

With a definitive clang, the boxcar’s door was slammed shut. But then came another noise, one Greenwald was not expecting to hear. There was a sharp crack and a sickening pop. Blood streamed from a woman’s neck, and she fell forward onto the floor.

“People close to the door were trying to get people from the outside to open. It was like the balcony over there, a sliding door,” says Greenwald, gesturing toward the deck of her cozy East Bay apartment and the impossibly green trees just past the glass door swaying in the gentle breeze, absorbing the last rays of the setting sun.

The soldiers opened the hatch and dragged out the woman they killed when, for some reason — or, more likely, no reason at all — one of them had decided to fire his rifle into the crowded rail car. No one ever saw her again. The door was slammed shut once more, and everyone felt the cattle car shudder and begin to move.

As if on cue, a BART train rumbled past on the tracks a stone’s throw from Greenwald’s flat.

For decades, she didn’t think about the dead woman. After all, there would be plenty of death to come. But, just a few years ago, it all came back in a flash. The woman’s name was Schultz. She was a professor at the Hebrew Gymnasium. She died instantly. She never made it to Auschwitz.

After four days of creaking and groaning, the train slowed to a stop. Armed S.S. guards with snarling dogs ordered everyone out, and the Jews scurried out of the fetid car and into the blinding sunlight. The old, the young, the sick and the pregnant were separated into their own line. No one saw them again.

Greenwald’s mother, Margaret, was 39, but it never hurt that she was beautiful and did not look her age. The guards shoved her into the same line as her 19-year-old daughter. Greenwald’s slightly younger brother, Laszlo, was separated as well, and his mother and sister watched him grow smaller and smaller as he marched off into another section of the camp.

The women were stripped. They were shaved. They were herded into a shower room, one with real water and not deadly gas. They were handed dresses harvested from the dead and hurriedly put them on, with no underwear and little regard for size or fit. They marched under the infamous metal gate with its cruel lie of a logo: Arbeit Macht Frei, work makes one free.

“Around the gate was heavy electricity, and the wires, if you just touched it with the end of your little finger, you felt that,” says Greenwald.

“Later there were a few who couldn’t stand it anymore and just ran there to finish it all.”

But before that was the roll call. For hours and hours, the increasingly weak and sickly Jews were made to stand at attention while the hot sun blazed down on their bald heads. Those who lost their balance, fainted or suffered diarrhea from Auschwitz’s inedible food were dragged off. No one saw them again.

“Many times this was done by the famous Dr. Mengele. He was always looking for someone for his experiments. Sometimes it was a male S.S. soldier, sometimes a woman S.S. soldier. The women were all young and beautiful. And

they looked fantastic in that outfit, in that uniform with the beautiful boots from glove leather, and the hair is beautifully stylized. But I tell you, the cruelty these women had,” says Greenwald, shaking her head.

“One counted us many times, with her beautiful blonde hair and her blue eyes. Later when we came home we heard after the war they hanged her. She couldn’t have been more than 25 years old.”

On one occasion, Greenwald and her comrades scrounged a cardboard box to carry a dead Jew to the prison gates. When the female guard saw them coming, she brandished a riding whip she wore at her side every day and beat the dead body while giggling, a sadistic joy in her eyes.

“Luckily nobody said a word. She was looking at us, smiling, she wanted a confrontation. I have no doubt she would have used the whip on us. So she turned around and whistled some song and walked away. I just want you to know how these women were.”

At night, Greenwald, her mother and, later, her mother’s 30-year-old sister, Katherine, watched their shadows flicker on the wall illuminated by the fiery light of the camp’s central tower, which belched acrid smoke and flame all hours of the day. The Nazis explained away the unnatural odor and constant blaze by claiming the camp housed a “chemical factory.” It wasn’t until much later that Greenwald found out what — or, more accurately, who — was fueling the flames.

After three months in Auschwitz, Greenwald, her family and 1,500 other surviving Jewish women were once again ordered into the train cars. Three days later, the doors were unbolted and the women straggled into the Unterluss work camp. They were given clean new uniforms (Greenwald’s had a check in the pocket drawn from a Swiss bank account, but it was later lost). They had their own beds with actual straw mattresses and pillows, and one meal of potato soup and bread per day.

It was like heaven.

When Greenwald turned 20 in the camp, a friend smuggled her a gift — a used toothbrush swiped from a female S.S. guard. Greenwald reacted as if she’d been handed a tote bag stuffed with Tiffany necklaces; she hadn’t brushed her teeth in 11 months.

Not long afterwards, Greenwald awoke to an unusual stillness. In the middle of the night, the S.S. had pulled out, leaving the prisoners to run the prison. But then the trucks arrived. Armed German citizens forced the women onto flatbeds and drove them a shade under 20 miles to Bergen-Belsen.

The 1,500 exhausted Jewish women were prodded into a warehouse with hundreds of other female prisoners sprawled across the floor. Greenwald and her fellow prisoners joined them, collapsing on the cold, hard ground and descending into a fitful slumber. But when the dawn broke Greenwald realized the other women in the warehouse weren’t sleeping. They were dead. Bergen-Belsen was, in fact, a typhus death trap, and bodies were strewn about the roads, hallways and anywhere else a human being can lie down and die. In a few short days, the contingent of 1,500 Jews was winnowed to 700.

On Sunday, April 15 — Yom HaShoah this year — the Germans ordered Greenwald and the rest of the Jews into the field to dig mass graves.

“We decided we have nothing to lose. We shall not do it. If they shoot us it doesn’t matter, we cannot survive this. We all ran in different directions, but close enough to see what the other is doing. And around noon, we see tanks coming. Each tank has two soldiers in green uniforms — the German uniform was bluish gray,” she recalls.

It was the British. In true English fashion, within a couple of hours mobile kitchens serving tea, hot milk and cookies lined the roads, and “an hour later there were not even lines. You could go back again and again and again.”

Greenwald began exploring her surroundings, wandering into the vast warehouses in or near the camp. There were mountains of luxurious leather boots in one, and fur-lined winter coats in another. And the third was packed with rotting corpses.

“The bodies were just skin and bones. This is something whoever has seen it will forget only in life’s last minute,” she says, her cloudy eyes staring into the distance.

Greenwald, her mother and her aunt survived the war and returned to Mukatchevo. Her stepfather had been liberated from his work camp by the Soviets some months before and, as a doctor, the Russian soldiers soon found him indispensable — “He provided the penicillin. You know, there was a lot of venereal disease there.”

Every morning, Greenwald would look out the window toward the train station, hoping that would be the day her brother Laszlo strolled, grinning, up the path. But he never did.

Instead, she received a letter informing her of two things: First of all, her brother had a middle name: Dezso. She hadn’t known that.

And he was dead.

Laszlo, the most brilliant student Mukatchevo had ever produced, died of tuberculosis in Buchenwald, one week after the war ended. He was 18.

“I went through terrible things in my life. The camp was the first part. Then there was 23 years of communism in Russia with the anti-Semitism, and then coming to this country with my family and my mother, after two and a half years, we discovered my husband had a huge brain tumor. He lived another 17 years after that without being able to work and no memory,” she recalls.

“So it wasn’t an easy life. But there is something in me. I am an optimist in the most unlikely circumstances.

“I think this is what helped me to overcome it all.”

Eva Bluestein

The traffic jam started in Belgium and apparently ended somewhere around Marseille. Cars, donkeys and knapsack-wearing families carting all their worldly possessions stretched as far as the eye could see. If one were so inclined, he could easily have leapt from rooftop to rooftop of the idling, overheating automobiles.

The French called it l’Exode —Exodus — and the reference was not missed on Eva Bluestein and her family of German Jews, fleeing Paris in 1940, one step ahead of the din of jackboots marching in lockstep.

“People who had a bicycle did much better. They could get through — it was so jammed,” recalls Bluestein, an elfin El Cerrito woman with large blue eyes and a ready giggle reminiscent of Dr. Ruth’s.

After several days of driving at a crawling pace, the family ended up in Niort, a small town not far from Brittany in the west of France. With luck, the group landed a spot in a local inn and slept, exhaustedly, in the one room. But when they opened the windows in the morning, they were greeted by the sight of German soldiers peering back at them.

They drove back to Paris and an uncertain fate.

Bluestein was born in Germany 83 years ago next week. As an only child in an upper-middle class family, her early childhood memories elicit smiles and her infectious giggle. After Hitler came to power in 1933, her family still had ice cream at her ninth birthday party — an extravagance in April. But even a child could tell things were going to be different. For one, her father was home, having been fired from his job at German engineering giant AEG along with all the other Jews. And all of Bluestein’s playmates began attending Hitler Youth rallies — when they returned, they’d step on her feet.

Bluestein’s parents, unlike so many German Jews, decided to get out while the getting was good, and relocated to France. Along with some of the suddenly very available Jewish engineers in his family, her father opened up a small plant making electrical resistors for radios in Paris’ dicey suburbs.

When the war broke out, the vast majority of Bluestein’s family was placed in camps for “enemy aliens” by the French government. As a youth, Bluestein was spared, but government officials entered her home and documented every last item on the walls and in the shelves.

“They came and they inventoried every little item. Then they came back two months later and the guy said, ‘Where’s the little glass mustard jar? It’s missing!’ I said, ‘Oh, well, we broke it.’ And he said if that happened again I won’t be allowed to live at home,” she recalls.

When the Germans quickly conquered the north of France, the German citizens were released from the camps. The French business partners the government required the family to have at its factory were soon replaced by German partners. The family, like most Jews, began to struggle mightily. In Bluestein’s predominantly Jewish neighborhood, one prosperous former judge was reduced to selling his wife’s cookies on the street.

The German partner at the factory decided he’d like to have the place all for himself, and began to sic the police on Bluestein’s family. He knew the fleeing family would be burdened with Bluestein’s blind grandmother, so the German told the police to hunt down a family of Jews with a blind woman.

Just before Paris’ Jews were required to wear the yellow star, the family obtained false identification papers and headed south to Lyon in Vichy France. The blind grandmother, running across a rickety bridge, had to be told to take big steps, small steps, medium steps.

Once in Lyon, France’s second largest city, the family began to live as fugitives. They moved from hovel to hovel and would not even leave the house during air raids: Allied ordinance was less of a worry than being eyed by suspicious neighbors in the bomb shelter.

Soon the Nazis took over France in its entirety, and the family’s situation grew dire. Bluestein’s grandfather received a note in the mail demanding he appear before the regional Nazi commander.

Eva escorted the septuagenarian, never letting on to the Nazis that she understood every word of their German conversations or that she was the man’s granddaughter.

The Nazis eyed her grandfather’s papers and exclaimed that, with a name like Gingold, he must be either Flemish or Jewish.

They asked Bluestein to tell them a bit about her “elderly neighbor” and she replied in feigned halting German that he was old, sickly, had no family — and received occasional letters from Belgium.

“Oh!” the Nazis exclaimed. “Flemish!” That concluded the interview.

“You have to adjust quickly in these situations,” says Bluestein, her laughter echoing around her single-story home in the El Cerrito hills.

Bluestein’s ability to speak accentless French literally kept her family alive. The young teenager was the one who would deliver packages or scrounge for food. On one occasion, she was out at night when she heard German soldiers walking on the next street. Bluestein’s shoes were wooden-soled and loud, and she was unable to hide. So she stomped her feet and walked loudly, like a confident soldier would in his heavy boots, and the Germans paid her no mind.

The family moved as little as possible, except when an ally in the local police department told them a raid was imminent. Then they would clear out and spend the night wherever they could find.

Once, for an extended period, a friend’s father found space for the family in a convent. Later, Bluestein discovered that the friend’s father was a high commander in the French Resistance. And it didn’t take long to discover that this was a most unusual convent — the priest was married to the Mother Superior and their daughter was a nun. Years later, Bluestein returned to the convent with her husband. It had been converted into an old-age home.

The family lived in constant fear of the knock at the door, and some days it came without warning. The entire family figured the game was up one day when the French police came around, but a senile woman who lived next door and raised rabbits walked into the hall and told the police that the flat had been empty for weeks.

“So, as deranged as she was, she really saved us.”

Finally, the day came that hundreds of bedraggled Jews and resistance fighters ran into the streets — they’d caught the BBC report on their clandestine radios that the Allies had taken Lyon. But when the Allies quickly abandoned Lyon, the Germans swept through, took prisoners and executed many resisters on the streets.

The Nazis then blew up a dozen bridges (Lyon straddles both the Rhône and Saône Rivers) and left town — but not before they dealt Bluestein’s family a crippling blow. In a random raid, the Germans herded all the Frenchmen they could find into a pissoir, and forced the men to pull down their pants. All the circumcised males were put on, literally, the last train to Auschwitz. Bluestein’s uncle, Ephim Chapiro, was one of those men. He missed surviving the war by a matter of hours.

“So much of it was a matter of luck. One time I went to see this man who could forge signatures and he told me if I had come 10 minutes earlier … everyone in the apartment was taken away,” recalls Bluestein.

“All my life, everything I do, even small things you know, simple things, I do not give up. I try again and next time it will be better. So when people say ‘Never again,’ I say ‘Never give up.'”

Ben Sieradzki

Locked in a rancid cattle car with hundreds of other Polish Jews in the sweltering summer heat, Ben Sieradzki felt the train slow and then shudder to a grinding halt. Polish voices discussed mechanical details outside and Sieradzki raised his 17-year-old voice to ask where they were heading.

There was an awkward silence, and the Poles outside replied they were not permitted to speak with the Jews. But then one loudly replied, “May God have mercy over you people.”

Another chimed in, “You are going to a bad, bad place.”

“People started to realize. Some people started to pray out loud. It was an eerie feeling of fear and impending death,” recalls Sieradzki.

“I kept my eyes closed and I made believe I was already dead.”

Sieradzki opens his eyes. It’s a lifetime and half a world away in his Berkeley living room. He’s a tall, energetic man of 80 and far, far from dead.

“I don’t know why I survived. Young is too stupid, you know? You’re only thinking one minute ahead. Older people couldn’t. They thought too much and they died.”

Sieradzki’s parents ran a small textile plant in the Polish industrial hamlet of Zgierz, a stone’s throw from Lodz. Polish children would congregate daily outside of Hebrew school to beat the Jewish boys as they left, but, other than that trifling detail, childhood was comfortable and idyllic.

Following Sept. 1, 1939 things changed with a sickening lurch. Advance German soldiers dragged Sieradzki’s father and every other prosperous Jew in town out of their homes and beat them for days in the basement of the local Catholic church. The Jews who survived were released to their families, with a large ransom demanded from Zgierz’s Jewish community shortly thereafter.

Enterprising Poles and Germans soon availed themselves of the opportunity to walk into Jewish homes and take whatever they wished. A young former friend stole Sieradzki’s bicycle, informing him the Jews didn’t need such things since they’d all soon be dead.

“It was open season,” says Sieradzki softly.

The night before all the local Jews were compelled to assemble at the local train station, the Sieradzki family decided to skip town. It was freezing and Ben remembers the family slowly hiking around an icy lake before arriving at a remote tram line and, eventually, Lodz. His two older brothers, each a dozen years or more his senior, decided to go further, and escaped to the Soviet-controlled half of Poland. Taken for German spies, they spent the war years cutting lumber in Siberia. But they survived.

Soon, Sieradzki, his ailing parents and two older sisters were in the Lodz ghetto. Life was vile and surreal. Sieradzki heard ghetto elder Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski’s chilling “Give me your children” speech with his own ears. Earlier, Rumkowski himself had barged into the Sieradzki’s flat, demanded everyone leave, and when Sieradzki’s father asked who he was, the head of the Judenrat answered him with a slap across the face.

At one point, the young Sieradzki was carrying his family’s weekly ration of food back home when he came across his former Hebrew school teacher, reduced to a ragged, grimy transient. The teacher greeted his former student before wrenching the bag of food away from him and fleeing into the labyrinthine corridors of the ghetto. That was what hunger did to men.

In 1942, the family was awakened by Gestapo agents rousting the entire block hours before sunrise. Everyone would assemble outside in three minutes. Stragglers would be executed.

The young, weak or elderly were asked to step forward. One man refused to release his toddlers, hugging them tightly against a wall. As his shouts and women’s wails grew to a crescendo, the Nazis matter-of-factly shot him dead and tossed his carcass in the trucks along with his children.

Sieradzki’s father had never physically or emotionally recovered from his 1939 beating. His mother had been giving her food rations to the family and was now merely a wisp of a woman. She couldn’t even step forward at the Nazis’ command. They beat her into the ground with their rifle butts, and dragged and flipped her into the truck like a garbage man disposing of a mattress discarded on the street. Sieradzki would never see his parents again.

“This scene,” he says, his crystalline blue eyes unblinking, “will be forever indelible in my mind.”

He did not have much time to grieve. Two days later the Gestapo returned. A well-meaning ghetto policeman told the scrawny Sieradzki he would not survive the selection and the boy bolted out of line, raced through a courtyard and vaulted into a garbage dumpster. He buried himself in rotting, stinking trash as the Nazis collected his friends and neighbors only meters away. Large, hungry rats began to rip into his fingers and legs and he struggled to fight them off without raising a din.

It was only when he heard Jews straggling through the courtyard weeping over the loss of their relatives that he emerged from the filth. Not long afterwards, the Gestapo took one of his sisters. Like his parents, she was killed in a mobile “gas van” and burned in a pile of corpses at the Chelmno death camp. That camp is not a tourist destination and is kept up poorly these days; charred bones and burned rubble are underfoot. When Sieradzki recently visited, he took home some of the bones he found.

“Yes, I have the bones. My parents were killed there.”

So when he closed his eyes and foresaw his demise in the cattle car to Auschwitz, Sieradzki was already an old hand at dying.

Those able to leave the train cars were beaten and prodded into lines. At the lines’ terminus stood Dr. Mengele himself, indicating life or death with the direction he flicked his cane. Left, death; right, life.

Terrified Jews queried to the sonderkommando prisoners collecting their possessions what would be come of them — What goes on here? What are my chances?

“One of the prisoners replied, in Yiddish, in a low voice — and I will never forget this — that this is the end of most of us. And he would gladly have his arm and leg chopped off if that meant he would be able to get out of here,” recalls Sieradzki.

A prisoner “looked at me for a moment and said I should straighten up and pinch my cheeks to look ruddy and fresh and maybe I will pass my selection.”

Sieradzki stood up straight and pinched his cheeks. He told Mengele, in German, “I am 18 years old. I am a carpenter.”

Mengele stared at him, coolly, for what seemed like an eternity. But before he could move his cane, a soldier with a dog intervened. The Germans began to converse, and, Mengele absent-mindedly began playing with the dog. As the so-called Angel of Death stroked the dog’s head, Sieradzki surreptitiously sidestepped to the right and into the good line. He waved at his sister who had also been selected to live.

He never saw her again.

He was placed in a barrack full of teenagers, which the Germans had already cherry-picked for quality workers to be placed in labor camps. Sieradzki knew what happened to Jews the Germans didn’t feel could work, so he and a friend constantly attempted to crash other barracks and be selected for labor camps. Perhaps a dozen times they were forcibly expelled by fellow prisoners who didn’t want competition.

Finally, Sieradzki’s friend gave up hope. Ben tried, once more, and not only did he infiltrate a nearby barrack, he was selected to be a slave laborer in a German rubber plant. He remembers his companion’s shocked, sad face as he marched past toward the trains.

That night, everyone in Sieradzki’s former barrack was gassed.

He was put to work in the Continental tire factory near Hanover (Continental tires are still sold in the Bay Area, he notes). But the plant was destroyed by Allied bombs, so he was soon knee-deep in mud and jagged rocks building an underground factory in nearby Ahlem.

Unlike the professional miners, who had helmets and gloves, the Jewish forced laborers had no protection whatsoever. Expendable Jewish prisoners were often called upon to apply dynamite charges deep underground. Sieradzki’s hand was smashed open when it was caught between two mine cars, but the Germans refused to give him a bandage, as those were reserved for head wounds.

People died of accidents every day. Once, a massive boulder dropped from the tunnel’s ceiling, snapping Sieradzki’s shovel in two. His workmate was crushed flat, literally flat, and the poor man’s brains oozed onto Sieradzki’s pants like toothpaste out of a tube. Sieradzki was never able to get his uniform completely clean.

How many times did Sieradzki will the British warplanes overhead to drop a bomb on Ahlem and torment his tormentors? How many times did he gaze skyward and pray, “Come on, English boy, bring it down here”?

“Sometimes we were taken away to clean the areas that were bombed out. And this was a good job. You could find a potato here, or maybe some dog food in the houses that were smashed. And that was great.”

The burning, grinding hunger that drove Sieradzki’s former teacher mad was an ever-present specter in the camp. Young, strong Ukrainian prisoners of war, unused to the slow starvation of Jewish camp prisoners, resorted to butchering the dead bodies lying outside the infirmary and cooking the lumps of flesh atop their radiators or camp stoves. Sieradzki was once offered a piece of such meat but declined. He’d die first.

The more it was apparent the Germans could not win the war, the harder Sieradzki and his comrades were worked in their subterranean hell. But then, one day, the Nazis took all the men who could walk and left the camp. Those who could not march — and Sieradzki, suffering from tuberculosis, typhus and God knows what else, was among them — were left in the infirmary. They were told they’d later be shot. But apart from an abortive and incompetent attempt to burn down the camp, the Germans did not return.

Well-meaning villagers broke down the electric gate and brought food for the dying men. But it was rich, fatty food such as ham, and to the malnourished prisoners it was such a shock that many died on the spot.

Finally, American infantrymen passed by in a long column and were hailed by the shouting prisoners. The one Jew who could speak English asked for cigarettes, and the GIs emptied their pockets. Battle-hardened soldiers wept openly at the miserable, half-dead remnants of humanity strewn about the camp.

Sieradzki was transported to a hospital formerly reserved for high-ranking Nazi officers, many of whom were sitting on the streets and in the gutter when he was carried through the front door. He weighed only 80 pounds and would be in hospitals and convalescent homes for more than a year.

His dark days were over. He went on to earn an advanced degree in Sweden before moving to the United States where he worked as an engineer. He married, raised two sons. The folding chairs are still in the corner following a large Passover celebration with his three grandchildren.

It’s been a good life. But, in his dreams, he is still chasing his former teacher, screaming for his lost bread and his lost family.

“I kind of feel guilty. Why me? Other people were smarter and more brilliant,” he says.

“Listen, I’m 80 years old. This was only five years of my life. And there have been so many things since then. I managed to make a good living. I don’t know how I did it.

“You have to.”

Yom HaShoah events around the Bay

Cover photo illustration by Cathleen Maclearie

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is a columnist at Mission Local. He is also former editor-at-large at San Francisco Magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.