Speaking For the Dead:
The Story of Rachel Fastman and Chaim Weiser
Leonna Wreschner is the child of two holocaust survivors, Rachel Fastman and Chaim Weiser. When she was young, her mother would explain away the numbers on her arm as her phone number. “I just can’t seem to remember it,” she’d laugh and shrug but Leonna knew there was much more to it than that. Her mother’s nightmares told her so.
Yet her mother, Rachel Fastman, never spoke of her Holocaust experiences, and she carried her memories to her grave at the age of 74. Only through her father, Chaim, did Leonna learn of her parents’ experiences in Auschwitz. Chaim survived Bergen-Belsen, Mauthausen, and Plaznow. While her father spoke of the camps, her mother never would but Leonna remembers one Christmas when her mother took her to St. Patrick’s cathedral and told her that if another Hitler ever came to power, she should convert to Catholicism. And that God, in the face of such an atrocity being repeated, would understand.
Chaim passed away at the age of 91 and Leonna feels it is her duty..her obligation..to pass her parents’ story forward, because soon there will be no more voices to speak for the dead as the last generation of Holocaust survivors comes to an end. Efforts are being made to record the life experiences of the few remaining survivors so these stories can be passed on to future generations.
Steven Spielberg started the Shoah Foundation in 1994, to collect first-hand testimonies from the remaining Holocaust survivors so there would be a permanent record. Chaim was contacted and he agreed to write down his account. He wrote and wrote but became so distraught he ripped it up and never submitted his story. Yet Rachel remembers him for his optimism and for his love for life. The fact that two Holocaust survivors could meet and still have the capability to love another human being speaks volumes of their courage and dedication to overcome a life filled with horrifying tragedy (Wreschner, 2011)
I have always known about the Holocaust and Hitler’s rise to power. I learned it in school because I had to but I’ve made sure never to forget the stories because it is no longer an obligation to know them, I am blessed and privileged to know because the Holocaust transcends my need to turn away from this knowledge.
Knowing so it can never happen again far outweighs my horror and denial that we can be capable of such cruelty. So I read. I read the story of how new arrivals in Birkenau were told to “put their shoes in the cubbyhole and tie them together so you will not lose them. After the showers, you will receive hot coffee (Weiss, 1995)”. Then they went into the gas chambers.
How Alberto Israel could smell burning flesh as he exited the cattle car with his family. They arrived at ten in the morning and by two in the afternoon, his mother and father had been gassed (Cendrowicz, 2010). I read these articles not out of morbid fascination or curiosity, I read them because if I do not, then I am not aware of human nature and what we are capable of and to not be aware and to unknowingly participate in an event of this stature at some point in the future makes me an accomplice to what has gone before.
Most of today’s attention is focused on Iran and Iraq, Syria and home-grown terrorism. The majority of the United States population wants their military to come home, and say we never should have been over there in the first place. That this is a political war started by Bush and being used by Obama. But if all the political sparring is removed, and people open their eyes to see wider then their own backyard, these are suffering human beings and where ever human dignity is being denied, then we must choose sides, we must speak up and out because too many in the past were silent for too long.
To have our freedom, true freedom untainted by despair and shame, we must do whatever we can to alleviate the suffering of others. Suffering transcends all boundaries of race, color, and religion. We must not be silent.
Neither Leonna nor her parents ever blamed Germany and its people for the Holocaust. Chaim felt that the German people were nice and not the worst of all the nationalities and Leonna states that Germany has tried to make amends and has “mastered the art of apology” but she is quick to add that it can never be forgotten or excused.
Carved in stone at the entrance to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. are the words: “For the dead and the living, we must bear witness.”
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