At the weekend, I attended as I do every year Holocaust Remembrance Day at the Jewish Cemetery in West Park, Johannesburg, known as Yom HaShoah. I personally prefer the Romani term Porajmos, the Great Devouring, to the terms Shoah (Destruction) or Holocaust (Consummation by Fire), as it reminds me of a Kali-like devouring demon and in fact, an alternate Romani term is Kali Traš, meaning Black Fear, but this is merely a matter of personal resonance.
This year, the survivor’s testimony was given by Don Krausz, one of the fifty or so survivors who live in South Africa, a man I have often encountered at the Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre and who spoke on behalf of survivors at my event there last year commemorating the conclusion of the 22nd annual remembrance of the “Hundred Nights” Rwandan Genocide.
I had, however, never heard him speak before of his personal experiences, as a child between the ages of 12 and 14 as he traversed the concentration camps of Ravensbruck, primarily a camp for women and children, and Sachsenhausen, which had originally been set up to detain the politicals, but which Krausz described as a “destruction camp,” a final way-station on the way to the terrible terminus of the gas chambers.
There in Sachsenhausen, Krausz’ job as a teenager so wasted away that his hands could almost encircle his waist, was to remove the corpses of those who died overnight of starvation, disease or the extreme winter cold of -28⁰C so that they could be tallied with the morning roll-call of the survivors.
He recalled one day passing “The Bunker”, the camp’s Gestapo interrogation block, and seeing a woman stripped to her underwear in that icy weather and tied to the barbed wire as a punishment – but miraculously still alive. He recalled talking to the Sachsenhausen veterans which included old communists and anti-fascist fighters from the Spanish Revolution (there were likely anarchists among them, though most Spanish republicans were sent to Mauthausen where 10,000 of them died) about their experiences.
Eventually, after having survived a death-march where perhaps 500-6,000 were shot en route for not being able to keep up the punishing pace of 30km/day on starvation rations of a single potato and slug of water every three days, he was liberated and returned to Holland to find his mother and sister still alive – though his father and so many others had perished. By the Nazi’s own records, he said, some 12-million people died in their archipelago of more than 42,000 concentration, labour, and extermination camps.
Krausz’s moving testimony was followed by Rabbi Yossi Goldman who spoke of his late father’s escape from Poland through to Japan with the help of the Japanese diplomat Sugihara “Sempo” Chiune, the vice-consul stationed in Lithuania, and thence on to Shanghai and eventually to Johannesburg where, Goldman said, his father’s proudest achievement had been rebuilding his Shoah-decimated family.
Sugihara, who died in 1986, is today recognised by Israel as “Righteous Among the Nations” – an honorific for non-Jews who saved Jews from Nazi annihilation – for rescuing between 10,000-40,000 Eastern European Jews by giving them transit visas to travel through the USSR to Japan and China.
At the end of Goldman’s testimony, steeped as it was in his religious convictions, a lone voice – seemingly that of a frail old man – cried out from under the cypress trees, as it does every year, to the obvious discomfort of the mourners, though security made no move against him, probably knowing him to be a concentration camp survivor, “There was no God at Auschwitz!”