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Us, The Survivors

Clara and I

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Could you imagine if one ordinary day, a bunch of soldiers came up to your door, identified you and forcefully dragged you out of your house? Imagine they then threw you into a crammed car and took you to an unknown place… All this without giving you the chance to say goodbye to anyone, take any luggage or… anything.

What would it be like if you were forced to work an entire day in exchange for just a slice of bread? What would it be like to see familiar faces murdered for disobedience? Sleep in the same filthy bed as 9 other people? What would it feel like? What scents would you smell? What taste would you have in your mouth? What sounds would you hear?

Imagination is one of the most powerful weapons that we posses as human beings. Even though we are able to imagine countless things, we will never truly be capable to understand what the Holocaust was, how the Holocaust was exprienced.

Between 11 and as many as 17 million (source) people of different nationalities, religions and ethnicities were killed in the Holocaust. Six million people were Jews. Six million is just a number, a number hard to imagine. That means more or less three times the population of Bucharest. Imagine everyone you know in Bucharest was no longer there. Double that number. Terrifying? To say the least.

We soon commemorate 70 years since the end of the Holocaust. Survivors gradually leave this world, but happily, this time from natural causes, not brutally murdered. The witnesses of this controversial event are steadily disappearing. Now, more than ever, conspiracy theories are popping up, telling us the Holocaust never, in fact, took place.

We are now “the survivors” of the Holocaust – those whose grandparents or great-grandparents witnessed the horrific events. We – the Jews, the Gypsies, the Yugoslavs, the Poles… Those whose ethnic, religious or national groups were targeted by the Nazis, even if lucky enough not to have personally lost any family.

My great-great grandmother, Clara Segal, then Clara Cunea, was born on February 8, 1910 to a family of 12 or 13 in Brăila. I met her when she was almost 85 years old. An old age for many, but not for her.

Out of 12 or 13 of Clara’s siblings, her daughter, my grandmother, only recalls Moise, the eldest brother, Itzic, Leib, Herș, Tila, Ana, Bernard and Deborah. Most likely I will never know about the others.

Țila is still alive, living in a Jewish elderly home in Bucharest. She is very old. She does not recognise me, but she does know I exist. Bernard lives in Brazil. I don’t think he knows anything about me. Itzic, Leib and Deborah are in Israel, still alive. And Herș is long gone. He died in Brazil, where he was settled with all his family. Moise disappeared at the end of the Holocaust.

Clara, my great-grandmother, died in Israel on September 1, 2006, at the age of 96. Israel was where she was probably meant to die.

I have just few memories of Nanna Clara (as I always called her). When I was little, we used to play chess and backgammon. I was six-seven years old. She was already a precious jewel, a story, a life. I was too little to make the most of this relationship and our time was spent only playing games. I remember that sometimes my grandmother called Nanna Clara (her mother) a cheat.

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Nanna Clara, left, me at age 6 and my sister, Iris, 3 years old. Probably around 1997.

I clearly recall her saying “Come on, mother! Are you cheating even when playing the kid? Is this what you do at the nursing home as well?”

Sometimes Nanna Clara talked nonsense, other times she hid her pension money. There are certain precise memories that I keep of her.

I now realize that I never had the chance to actually know her.

Old Nanna Clara wasn’t always old. She was a very strong Jewish woman. She was young when Hitler decided to kill the Jewish people. She lived in Bucharest with her husband, Leibu (he changed his name in Arie once he got to Israel – that’s why my name is Ariel), near the current United Nations Square. Ozi, Suzana, Frida, Silvia, Liliana are the five children they brought into the world. Frida is my grandmother.

Being a Jew in Bucharest was not a problem before the Holocaust. On the contrary, Jewish people helped each other, they lived in communities; they knew how to earn an honest penny and live a good life. They knew how to make use of their traditions to stay united. And this, of course, not only in Bucharest, but all around the world.

“Daddy (my grandfather) lived with Grand Daddy (my great-grandfather), who owned a tin ware studio where they worked wheat separators for the mill – do you know what this means?”, my grandmother tells me through Skype: her in Israel, I in Bucharest. She knows that I am writing a text about Nanna Clara and the Holocaust.

“They worked a long time together to make sure we didn’t go without. Still, we were five siblings. Grand Daddy owned a house on ‘Obstei Entrance’ and we rented a place nearby. The house was demolished when Ceausescu built The Peoples’ Palace.”

Nanna Clara was the daughter of Brana and Rahmil Segal. And they say “Ariel” is a strange name! My grandmother kept telling me how Brana and Rahmil “kept to tradition, but moderately. They celebrated the holidays as a family, together. Leibu’s family, my grandmother’s father’s family, was more religious: “Those from Daddy’s side where zealots – Daddy even had two cousins who were rabbis.”

But in 1940 the events that triggered this text occurred: “They sometimes searched for Daddy to take him to prison for life, but he was hiding in Grandpa’s attic in Brăila.” “Sometimes the soldiers brought us candies and chocolate to bribe us into telling them where Daddy was hiding. We were young and for us everything was a game.” “Silvia (my grandmother’s sister) sometimes told them nonsense.  But we were careful not to give Daddy’s name away.”

Clara and I
Clara and I

My great-grandfather, Leibu, born November 7, 1907, and intensely sought out by legionnaires, was never found or deported. But still, his story does not have a happy ending. As I mentioned in the beginning, my grandmother Clara also had a brother named Leib. Around that time, Leib was visiting her in Bucharest. While he was there, the soldiers once again came looking for my great-grandfather Leibu (still hiding in the attic from Brăila).

Leib, my Nanna Clara’s brother, was instead deported because of his name. My grandmother tells me how the soldiers said: “So what if his name is not Leib Segal…? His name is Leib and he is in your house!”

He was taken to Transnistria, to work in a ghetto with “Uncle Eli, Grand-Daddy’s brother. They stayed there for two years. When they came back, they brought back a dog. Its name was Hîrtop (pot hole)”, my grandmother tells me from what she remembers.

It was no picnic in Bucharest either. In January 1941, a number of Jewish synagogues were destroyed with axes or burnt down. Dozens of Jews were arrested and tortured just like that, for no particular reason. Many randomly-selected men were shot. Ninety Jews were shot in the Jilava forest. Fifteen Jews were shot in the capital’s butchery and then hanged naked, on the hooks that were usually used for vines. 1274 Jewish stores, studios and apartments were extensively vandalized. But these are…just numbers.

It was nothing short of a miracle (I can find no better explanation) that my family got out without any major incidents.

After the experience of the Holocaust, which hit my family much lighter than it did millions of other people, it was time for Israel – salvation and anchor for the Jewish people.

On May 14, 1948, the Declaration of Independence of the State of Israel was signed – an enormous victory for the Jewish people of Europe. On April 1, 1966, Clara and Leib, my great-grand-parents, left for Israel. “Răducu was only one month old,” my grandmother keeps telling me. Răducu is my father.

Two years later my grandmother’s brothers left to Israel to reunite with the family.

From left to right: my sister Iris, grandpa Cirel, me, grandma's sister Liliana and grandma Frida. Snapped on June 2015.
From left to right: my sister Iris, grandpa Cirel, me, grandma’s sister Liliana and grandma Frida. Snapped on June 2015.

In 1990, my grandparents Frida and Cirel also left, along with my parents. I was born in Israel, point blank in the middle of a war. On January 3, 1991, the Gulf War started, and 21 days later I was born.

But the state of Israel did not entirely solve “the problem”. Throughout the years and up until today, Israel has been in a ceaseless war with its Arab neighbors. Yesterday, July 18, 2012, a terrorist attack took place in Bulgaria that targeted three buses with Jewish Israeli tourists. For the time being, there have been declared 7 casualties, 9 are reported missing and almost 30 injured. Again, numbers.

For many years I learned about the Holocaust as a plain massacre. It was taught to me through numbers: between 11 and 17 million victims, of which: 600,000 Yugoslavs, 500,000 Gypsies, 250,000  people with disabilities, 200,000 Masons, 200,000 Poles, 15,000 homosexuals, 5,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses and almost 6 million Jews.

We cannot visualize so many deceased people. We cannot realize what this truly means. It is massive to the extent that it seems surreal.

But my question is: how? How was that possible? How did we end up in this situation? Why was this allowed?

The answer is indifference. It took years for the world powers to start investigating the crimes, discrimination and legal inconsistencies.

And beyond all these colossal numbers, after millions of lives where changed forever, today, 70 years later, discrimination re-surfaces once again, possibly due to the same indifference?

Gypsies cannot find jobs, homosexuals cannot safely expose themselves out in public, and Jewish people are beaten on the streets.

On May 6, 2012, a Greek Neo-Nazi party got 21 representatives into Parliament – 6.97% of the votes! In Germany it is estimated that there are almost 6,000 Neo-Nazis ready to roll. In Sweden, another Neo-Nazi party totals more than 500 active members. All the while in Russia, people of darker skin, be them Blacks, Gypsies or people from Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan or other southern neighbours, are killed.

A recent study shows that there are 70,000 Neo-Nazis in the world, out of which almost 50% are in Russia.

Browsing Google for terms such as: Neo-Nazism, Anti-Semitism, or skinheads, we find tens of videos filmed in the last years – absolutely terrifying.

Romania is no exception: the New Right group reaches new victims constantly. Anti-Semitism is blooming. There is a general hatred for the Jewish people that I have felt on a daily basis in the last few years in Bucharest. But, even leaving aside the Jews, the concept of discrimination is held dear in Romania: we despise the Gypsies, we don’t like homosexuals as well as Moldavians, Arabs, the Chinese, people with disabilities, Hungarians, Turks – anyone who is not purely Romanian. Does this not resemble Hitler?

There’s no need for reasons. It is enough that in the common consciousness of our society Mr. Adolf wanted to purify the world’s population. It is enough to believe that we can have a similar mentality… It seems that for some it is enough.

But, from where I stand, this is not okay.

I want a homosexual gypsy president that is also Jewish, maybe a Jehovah’s witness in addition to that, with Chinese eyes and perhaps with some sort of handicap. We need to bring the people Hitler wanted gone into the spotlight.

The stereotypes we are surrounded by are not rooted in reality. They are subconscious ideas making their way in through racist sayings and preconceptions we hear all around: “You have a big nose! Are you a Jew?”

It will take generations to rid ourselves of this negative attitude so deeply planted in our subconscious. But all is not lost. And as long as I live, I will strive to break these prejudices, for the sake of my family, for the sake of my great-great uncle Leib, who, for two years, did forced labor on the sole count that he was Jewish.

My sisters and I, July 2016
My sisters and I, July 2016

From my great-grandparents all the way to myself, from past to present, from big to small, from diaspora to Israel, lots of things look alike: we have ‘special’ names, we love traditions, we are united, we are Jews and perhaps most importantly, we are the survivors of one of the biggest massacres in history. And as survivors, we are constantly put to a test of strength, and we often find ourselves in tensed, violent situations, on the edge.

I will probably never find out the whole story of my roots. The number of rabbis in my family or the number of relatives that die in the concentration camps is perhaps not so important. The little I know is enough for me to understand that what happened then and what is happening now is not acceptable.

As a “survivor” of the Holocaust, I have a modern responsibility to prevent history from repeating itself. Because, indeed, history has the bad habit of repeating itself.

It took me 21 years to realize that I am more Jewish than I want to be, that I am gayer than I actually am and more gypsy than many Gypsies today. I am, after all, one of the survivors. And this makes me responsible.

I am responsible to draw attention to every wrong-doing, to fight for equal rights, to stand up when I don’t agree with the way things work, to stop any violent act. It is my responsibility not to let people become ignorant.

History has the bad habit of repeating itself. But history is not alive. We are the ones shaping it. And the ‘bad habit’ is our ignorance.

1 Comment

  1. Dear Ariel, what a commentary on us all, me included. So moving, so beautifully written and expressed, I am so grateful for meeting you that day with your mum and spending the time we did talking about many things. The place of the Jews in history is one of the greatest conundrums of history. Why? why so hated?
    Questions that cannot be easily answered. Personally I think there is a time coming when Jews, and Christians who have not compromised the scriptures that your people carried throughout history, and which are the bedrock of my faith, will together be persecuted. This belief I gather from New Testament scriptures which speak of future events. There is I believe a spirit that hates, and that spirit has both power and personality and will be one day, not long delayed I believe, be seen upon the face of the earth. That is NT teaching. This spirit hates both the roots and the branches of what Jesus called the vine. The roots are yours, being Jewish through and through, we Christians believe ourselves grafted in to that vine whose roots are yours.

    Your work is profound, and I feel very grateful to have have come to know you a little. I hope we may come to know each other better in the future. If you wish to know more of me then the best of me is in the boom you have seen. The worst of me is not worth knowing. May God bless you. Chris

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