Sunday, April 27 – Holocaust Remembrance Day
(My apologies if I get any facts wrong. I decided to write about this as an afterthought. I did not take notes, although I wish I had.)
Several months ago I signed up for what I hoped would be a unique experience for my son and I– an opportunity to listen to a firsthand account of what happened in France during the Holocaust. We were not disappointed.
Mr. Middleberg is now 87 years old, and boy do I wish I look that good when I hit 87.
During the war between Germany and France, Mr. Middleberg lived with his family in Paris. When France surrendered, they were at peace. No problems, right?
Well, not if you were a Jew. They were now ruled by Germany.
The problems started slowly. First you needed to register. No biggie. Then you needed to wear a star, then you lost your right to travel, then you could not go to school. Then you were not allowed to own your own business. It happened in small steps (and maybe not in that order) but the new laws, mostly concerning Jews, continued to get worse.
Rail leading to the concentration camp Auschwitz II (Birkenau) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Mr. Middleberg was only 9 when his father got a card that said he had been recruited to work for the German army. He and about 9,000 other men were placed on busses and taken away. His family was able to see him once a month for a short while, and then all correspondence was lost.
Not soon after, homes started getting invaded.
Rumors started that the Germans were going to take a huge number of people, probably during the night. A kind janitor in their building showed Mrs. Middleberg and her two sons a place where they could hide in the ceiling in a supply closet should the rumors prove true, and unfortunately, they did.
The janitor, a WWI vet, used his wooden leg to pound on the steps and warn the Middleburg family that they were in danger.
Hundreds of their neighbors were pulled from their homes while they hid for almost a full day. When they got hungry, Mr. Middleberg was given money from his mother and he snuck out– past the soldier waiting in their apartment for them to come home. He walked through the streets where people were screaming and crying and being dragged from buildings and placed on busses.
Mr. Middleberg, a lone child walking through the street, although terrified, remained unnoticed, and was able to bring bread back to his family, where they continued to hide for many more hours.
When it was all over, they could not go back home, because they had registered. The Germans knew where they lived and would be back for them.
All of their Jewish neighbors were gone.
They hid on the streets until their mother got news of a woman who would smuggle children out of the city. They kissed their mother goodbye, and lived on a farm for two weeks until they received word that their mother had been captured.
Mr. Middleberg, (who I think was 11 at this point) hoped his mother would escape, and took his little brother back to Paris to live with his aunt hoping that their mother would find them there. They were baptized as Catholics, and hidden as orphans.
In an odd strike of luck (or otherworldly interventions, depending on how you look at it) Mr. Middleberg just happened to see his uncle walk by a shop he was working in. The man said he was hiding himself, and couldn’t help the two children.
“Selection” of Jews from Hungary at Auschwitz-Birkenau in May/June 1944. To be sent to the left meant slave labor; to the right, the gas chamber. “The Auschwitz Album”, Yad Vashem. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
A few days later, his uncle was captured and ended up in Auschwitz, where by another strike of luck, he ran into Mr. Middleberg’s father, and told him where his children were.
Mr. Middleberg’s father was one of the few miracle survivors of Auschwitz. He was a watchmaker, a skill the Germans needed at the time, and it saved his life. He was liberated at the end of the war, and he made it back to his children.
Their mother never came home.
They found out years later from public records that she was placed on a bus that went directly to an extermination facility, where she exited the bus and walked straight into the gas chambers.
Out of a huge extended family of maybe a hundred that lived in Paris, only Mr. Middleburg, his little brother, his father, and one other relative survived. Four left.
Eleven million people dead.
You can read a lot about history in books, but nothing compares to listening to someone recount what happened from a first person perspective.
I’m very glad we went, and if you ever have a chance to listen to a first hand account of the Holocaust, I urge you to take advantage. Mr. Middleberg’s talk was a lovely testimony to the courage of his mother, and especially the courage of the Janitor, the woman who smuggled them out of Paris, the farmers who took them in, the aunt who hid them in their home, and the priest who baptized them and hid them within the congregation as orphans.
What you don’t really think about is that all these people who helped could have been arrested and executed for helping these children. So many people turned informant, or turned a blind eye because they were scared.
He ended his talk by pointing out that hate comes in many forms, and it is everyone’s responsibility to stop it…
A wonderful message that I hope continues to sink in for generations to come.