By Harriet P. Gross
I gave thanks for lots of things at our family’s Thanksgiving table last week. But in addition to all of the usual, I added some special gratitude for those of the family at other tables in other places, the ones who take the time and trouble to send me clippings from the newspapers (yes; still two dailies.) in my old hometown. How often I learn things that I haven’t yet heard of here.
I’m especially interested in books, so I was happy to read about Sonia Taitz, born to survivor parents, who was one of just 40 taking part in a recent, very special conference in suburban Pittsburgh called “Women Read/Women Write.”
Taitz, born and raised in post-World War II America, recently published “The Watchmaker’s Daughter” (McWitty Press), which has been categorized as a memoir. But she says it’s not. “It’s about how you really take care of your parents; how you see them not just as your parents, but as people and heroes of their own lives.”
Gita Taitz, Sonia’s mother, might have had a career as a concert pianist in Lithuania, but she was expelled from music school right before graduation when the Nazis came, and interned in a camp instead.
Simon Taitz, her father, owed his life to his pre-war career: At Dachau, the Nazis — always so notorious for precision in record-keeping — needed his skill to keep their watches and clocks running on time. The two met much later in New York City at an event for survivors.
Marylynne Pitz, who wrote about Taitz’s book in a recent issue of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, interviewed the author to find out how it had come to be and learned this: One day, Gina Taitz gave her daughter a story, written by hand in an immigrant’s English on lined notebook paper — that, was her tale of survival. On the day of liberation, the Nazis went through the camp’s barracks, killing everyone by injection so there could be no later testimony against them. Gina survived by hiding among the dying women, and thus avoided the fatal needle herself.
But Sonia Taitz waited until both her parents had actually passed away before writing about them: “When someone dies, you see a beginning, a middle and end to their life. I couldn’t see them that objectively until they were gone.” I gave thanks for her book.
I also gave thanks this year for the life and legacy of Wilhelm Brasse, another who survived because the Nazis needed his skill, who only recently passed away at age 95 in his native Poland. A non-Jewish political internee, he was sent to Auschwitz for trying to leave the country illegally after Germany took it over in the spring of 1940. There, because of his professional behind-the-camera experience in Krakow, he was assigned to take identity photos of camp newcomers.
The Associated Press interviewed Brasse a few years ago. Although he, himself, never actually harmed anyone, he said he was haunted throughout his life afterward by his own images, because “I knew that later they would just go to the gas.”
He has not been officially recognized as a Righteous Gentile since he never actually saved any Jews, but he preserved many forever by saving their photos, in defiance of Nazi orders for destruction when the camp’s liberation became imminent. These are the stripe-shirted “mug shots” now viewed by visitors to the camp, the ones I saw last spring during my tour of Auschwitz.
As we get farther and farther away in time from the Holocaust, more and more is being told about it. More and more once-hidden stories are finally coming into the light; more and more books and photos and films are putting ugly realities, and accompanying tales of heroism and miracles, before the general public.
In the same issue of the Post-Gazette that featured both the story behind Sonia Taitz’s “Watchmaker’s Daughter” and the obituary of Wilhelm Brasse, there was a review of “La Rafle,” France’s much delayed on-screen telling of its 1942 roundup of Paris Jews, most of whom went on to meet the end of their lives at Auschwitz — perhaps after having their photos taken there.
Too many people still tell me they’re tired of the Holocaust and don’t want to know any more about it. I gave thanks at Thanksgiving this year for the many who ignore them and keep on producing art from horrific history, helping to assure that it will never be repeated.