Of all the festivals in the Jewish calendar, none is as widely observed, even if to an acutely minor degree, as Passover. The centuries-old injunction to tell the story of the Exodus to one’s children so they can pass it on to the next generation has withstood the tests of time, persecution and assimilation.
In recent years, a similar principle has been adopted by organizations and institutions with regard to the Holocaust, and a booklet resembling a Haggada is being distributed though the Zikaron BaSalon (“Remembrance in the Living Room”) project to allow people to listen to Holocaust survivors tell their stories. The Haggada-style booklet contains the observations of survivors. They stress that their numbers are fading and soon there will be no one left to give testimony and personal stories will collectively evolve into just another chapter in history.
President Reuven Rivlin and his wife, Nechama, for the third consecutive year, hosted a Zikaron BaSalon event in which Holocaust survivor, Bratislava-born Prof. Noah Stern, a dental specialist, told the harrowing story of how his family went from a comfortable upper middle-class existence to being people on the run, constantly evading or hiding from the Nazis, often hungry and taking shelter wherever they could.
Although he had spent his youth in a yeshiva and was religiously observant, Stern’s father – who was a well-known and sought-after dentist in the wider community – did not live in the Jewish Quarter of Bratislava, but had a stylish home opposite the Presidential Palace.
This comfortable life style came to an end in 1942, when the family had to move closer to the Jewish Quarter, where their abode was a two-room apartment which they shared with another family.
The apartment had a balcony and on a Friday evening, after bathing her two young sons, Stern’s mother used the bathwater to water the plants on the balcony. From the street, there were antisemitic catcalls of a nature that she had not encountered before.
On that night, an angry woman accompanied by a policeman knocked on the door of the apartment and accused Stern’s mother of spitting on her. The mother was appalled. She would never do such a thing, but thought that perhaps some of the water she had sprinkled on the plants might have gone further than intended. The policeman went out onto the balcony with her, and came back convinced that she was telling the truth and that the other woman was lying. He took the accuser firmly by the elbow and led her outside.
Given the atmosphere at the time, “We thought it was a truly heroic act,” said Stern, “and we regarded it as a Shabbat miracle.”
From the street came ugly shouts urging the family to go to the ghetto where they belonged. Young Noah had never heard the word ghetto before, and when he asked what it was, his brother, three years his senior, told him it was a place where only Jews lived.
“So why do we have to be Jewish? We could be something else,” replied Noah, to which his brother David responded with an angry slap on the face. “We were born Jews and we’ll die Jews,” shouted David.
Not long after, the family again had to move, and Stern’s father decided to try to find a safe place in a remote village in the southeast of the country. Thinking that it might be easier to move around with one child rather than two, the parents sent David across the border to Hungary to stay with his grandparents.
They could not know that the Germans would send most Hungarian Jews to the gas chambers of Auschwitz and learned of David’s death only after the war. He was murdered together with his grandfather.
Traveling in the most cramped conditions by train to the southeast, they were alerted to someone shouting that if anyone wanted to escape they should do so early in the morning when German troops were not patrolling the area. They took the advice and subsequently trekked across a mountainous forest area.
Stern went back there 40 years later just to satisfy himself as to how far he had walked over treacherous terrain as a young boy. It was 14 kilometers.
When they reached the village of Povraznik, Stern’s father knocked on the door of a cottage. It was opened by a pleasant woman by the name of Maria Matulova who lived there with her husband, Jan. The father explained their predicament and she invited the family inside, where they saw that three other Jews had preceded them. There was barely room on the floor for all of them to sleep, and in the morning Stern’s father walked into the barn and saw there was a hayloft with a lot more room.
So they moved into the hayloft until one day Maria came running to tell them a rumor had spread through the village that she was sheltering Jews. She told them not to worry, she would look after them – and she was true to her word. She not only cared for them, but also fed them. The meat was pig meat. Stern’s father told his wife and son to eat it, but refused to touch it himself.
They spent four months with Maria and Jan, but the conditions were oppressive and the chances of the Nazis finding them increased.
So then they moved in with another family from the village, the Potancok family, who had a big store room with a window and a bunker underneath. They had more room in which to move, but living conditions were still difficult. There was no running water and no toilet. Maria checked in on them every once in a while and brought them food.
In May 1945, Stern’s father was looking out of the window and saw a group of soldiers approaching. They were not in German uniform.
The war was over and people began to run out of their hiding places. The father wanted to be sure it was safe, so they waited for a day or two before making their way back to Bratislava. They returned to the house they had lived in before the war. It had been looted and nothing was left. They remained in Bratislava for Stern’s bar mitzva, and a few months later came to Israel where Stern’s sister was born – the first Sabra in the family.
Rivlin, who will be leading the March of the Living from Auschwitz to Birkenau on Thursday, said the antisemitic forces that were prevalent in the 1930s and the first half of the 1940s are rising once again. There are those who differentiate between their distaste for Jews and their admiration for Israel, he said.
While it was nice to be appreciated, Rivlin said he could not accept that someone who is pro-Israel but anti-Jewish could be anything but an antisemite. Nechama Rivlin recalled that when they were Germany last year, she met a young woman who told her she had not known anything about Jews until her grandmother had given her a copy of The Diary of Anne Frank. She was shocked by what she read and asked her grandmother how people could deny knowledge of what was happening in their midst. “Her grandmother had replied: ‘When someone tells you that they didn’t know – don’t believe them.’”