Young survivors

John Bemrose December 9 1996

Young survivors

John Bemrose December 9 1996

Young survivors


In the spring of 1945, Simon Saks took a train ride that haunts him still. He travelled in a slatted cattle car, exposed to the weather. Crammed in with him were hundreds of other inmates taken from the Buchenwald concentration camp. For a month, the train fled through the German countryside, its drivers trying to avoid the advancing Allied armies, now just weeks away from victory. It rained constantly.

There was no food. Every morning, Saks awoke to find himself surrounded by the emaciated bodies of those who had died in the night. He was 13.

Now 64, Saks lives in Toronto where he and his son Brian run a wholesale garment business. Slight and intense, he works at a table surrounded by racks of women’s clothes.

In many ways Saks seems a typical businessman, but he has a certain still reserve about him, as though his experiences have set him apart. When he talks about his survival—he was ultimately rescued from the train by the Red Cross, after the guards had fled—he struggles for words. “I don’t know why I survived,” he says in his accented English. “Someone watching? I say to myself, Why me?’ ”

He might well ask. Very few children emerged alive from the Holocaust.

To the Nazis who ran the death and labor camps, the uncounted hundreds of thousands of prisoners under 18 were considered useless: they consumed scarce resources, and they were not much good as slave laborers. And so, more often than not, they were killed. But a few thousand lucky ones managed to survive. The Boys, a newly published book by the eminent British historian Martin Gilbert, tells the story of 732 of them. These Jewish orphans—Saks may well be the youngest of

their number—were taken to Britain after the war, where a remarkable rehabilitation program helped restore a sense of hope and purpose to their lives. Now, 51 years later, many of them have revealed to Gilbert their painful wartime memories. But the book also tells how, in each other, they found a

`The Boys' somehow escaped death in the Nazi camps

replacement for the families they had lost.

For Gilbert, writing The Boys was a labor of love. In Toronto recently to give a public lecture, the burly, 60-year-old historian sipped coffee in his hotel room and reminisced about his long relationship with the young survivors. (His book title comes from the term they use to refer to themselves,

even though a few of them are women.) Over the years, Gilbert says, he has often appeared as a guest speaker at the Boys’ annual reunions. Moved by their stories of survival, he encouraged them to write their memories down and send them to him. “They were not an age group that had left much in the way of records during the war,” Gilbert says, remarking on the uniqueness of the first-person testimonies he has folded into his book. “There haven’t been many nine-year-olds’ stories told.”

Gilbert says he was also intrigued by the lack of bitterness in a group that had every right to feel hatred: ‘They haven’t become negative or vindictive. They aren’t people who live in the past.” In fact, to hear Gilbert

speak of them, the Boys are an ebullient lot. He calls them “jolly little people” in reference to the short stature of so many of them, a result of malnourishment in the camps. “And they so clearly love each other,” he adds, commenting on their behavior at the reunions. “They stroke each other’s faces and kiss each other’s bald pates. I became very fond of them.” Gilbert, perhaps bestknown for his six-volume biography of Winston Churchill, had his own, less tragic brush with the stresses of war. In the summer of 1940, when the German air raids on England were growing in intensity, Gilbert’s parents sent him away from their home in London to Canada, one of several thousand children the British moved beyond the reach of a feared German invasion. Gilbert, who was only three at the time, was placed with a family in Toronto. While Saks and the other Boys were confronting the German terror on the continent, Gilbert was coming to terms with the apparent loss of his family. Then, as a seven-year-old schoolboy in 1944, he faced the trauma of separation from his

new “family” and reunion with his parents, who by then seemed almost like strangers. Asked about that Gilbert throws

Asked about that time, Gilbert throws up his arm: the subject is simply too complicated and painful to talk about. But it appears to have played its part in shaping one of the main focuses of his career: among Gilbert’s 48 books are nine about the Sec-

ond World War. Four of those concern the Holocaust, including his masterful 1986 study, The Holocaust: The Jewish Tragedy.

But for all the years he has spent studying the terrible event, Gilbert says he has never gotten used to it. Although he tries to maintain a certain distance from the material, there are days when his immersion in survivors’ memoirs, or in photographs of atrocities, pushes him towards the edge. “I know things are going wrong if I start having bad dreams,” he says. “Or, working in the archives, I’ll get this queasy feeling in my stomach. Then I know I have to pull back.” But sometimes he cannot pull back soon enough. Once, listening to a survivor’s story, he fainted. When he revived, the survivor’s wife, who had also been in the camps, immediately launched into an even more gruesome tale. He only just managed to stop her.

Gilbert’s sensitivity to Holocaust material has always guided his choice of the testimonies and pictures he includes in his books. Asked about the relatively tasteful photographs that illustrate both The Holocaust and The Boys, the historian—who is himself Jewish—remarks tersely, ‘You can’t show people the real pictures or you’d make them sick.”

For all that, The Boys is a disturbing book. Yet, ironically, much of its power comes from images that are entirely peaceful. Unlike most Holocaust studies, which concentrate exclusively on the ghettos and camps, The Boys opens with a section recalling the prewar Jewish communities of Eastern Europe, particularly in Poland. Through the testimony of The Boys, the old life in Polish villages and towns comes to life, with all its warmth and vitality. Joshua Segal, who

was born in Lodz, Poland, and now lives in Toronto, recalls how “every Friday night my mother lit the candles, and the whole family and guests would be there for dinner. Our house was an open house, with visitors and relatives showing up all the time.”

Such testimonies hint at the inestimable value of what was shattered and lost when Germany invaded Poland in 1939. If German racist policies were terrible for Jewish adults, they were even worse for their bewildered children, who became witnesses and, increasingly, victims of the Nazi terror. Early in the war, the Nazis began rounding up Polish Jews and imprisoning them in the cramped, starvation-ridden neighborhoods known as ghettos. It was in a ghetto in the Polish town of Bedzin that Saks, then nine, was hidden by his parents from a German search party. When he emerged, they were gone—he never saw them again. Today, one of his most vivid memories is the way the Nazi guards used to amuse themselves by shooting ghetto inmates at random: “They used dumdum bullets. No matter where they hit you, those bullets would rip you apart.”

Then, after the ghettos, something even worse. Millions of Jews, along with gypsies, homosexuals and others deemed unfit by the Nazis, ended up in the vast labor and death camps with names—Auschwitz, Treblinka, Belsen—that would in a few years come to symbolize humanity’s capacity for evil. For children, the camps meant almost certain death. Many were “selected” as soon as they stepped off the trains and sent to the gas chambers. Yet even a few of those managed to prolong their lives by darting unseen into lineups of groups who had been

temporarily spared because they were old enough to work. Others pretended to be skilled at crafts, or lied about their ages, or stood on bricks to make themselves look taller in a crowd. Yet others were protected, unexpectedly, by kindly guards or foremen. But what all the survivors had in common was luck, and lots of it. “One stroke of luck was never enough,” Gilbert writes, “each Boy can recount a litany of such moments.”

For those children who endured, the cost was immense. “At the age of 11, I became an adult,” one child survivor observed, “and five years later I became an old man.” In the summer of 1945, the British government, moved by the plight of the orphans, gave permission for 1,000 of them to be sent to England. Only 732 could be found. They flew from Prague on Lancaster bombers, then went to recuperation centres in the countryside. Many could scarcely believe their ordeal was over: they gorged on the plentiful food and stole bread from the tables, unable to understand that the supply was limitless. But gradually the care and dedication of the British staff, many of them Jewish themselves, brought the Boys back to health and hope. Today, they recall the experience with gratitude. Saks, who at the end of the war was suffering from typhus, is moved to tears remembering the kindness of his British helpers. He particularly recalls a local Englishman who one afternoon took him and a number of other Boys to a movie. “Afterwards,” Saks says, “he bought us all bicycles.”

Saks emigrated to Canada in 1948, a 16year-old bent on enjoying some of the youthful pleasures he had missed. He especially loved going to dances. Eventually, he married and had two children (his older son, Alan, teaches human resource management at Concordia University in Montreal). But he never talked about his ordeal, not even to his wife, Renne, until after he saw Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film, Schindler’s List. ‘The film brought everything back,” Saks says. “I realized I was of the last generation who could tell this story.” He began to speak of his experiences, and was videotaped for Spielberg’s Holocaust archives, which store interviews with survivors around the world to preserve their memories. But he says that talking about the Holocaust has not lightened the burden of the event. “You can’t really understand, unless you went through it,” he says. If Saks feels a sense of survivor’s kinship with anyone—other than his fellow Boys—it is with victims of recent episodes of “ethnic cleansing” in Yugoslavia and central Africa. “I look at those poor people on television, and I know what they are going through,” he says, shaking his head. “I can’t believe it’s all happening again.”