How survivors found new lives and hope after the horrors of the Holocaust
“Invited to Life: Finding Hope After the Holocaust” by B.A. Van Sise; Schiffer Publishing, Ltd. (224 pages, $65)
What comes after survival?
Anyone who made it through the Holocaust experienced the worst of humanity. The question is, how do they continue to live after all they knew is gone?
Given that World War II ended nearly 80 years ago, soon there will be no survivors to share these harrowing histories. But it’s essential to learn from the horrors, to know what happens when hate wins. With the global spike in antisemitism, this book assumes an urgency.
“Invited to Life: Finding Hope After the Holocaust” by B.A. Van Sise tells the stories of 90 people. He captures their images in photographs and their essences in short stories. The coffee-table book feels like a walk through a gallery, and 30 images were exhibited at Battery Park’s Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust.
Arresting photos feature the subjects in black and white against a black background. Van Sise explains the deliberate framing shows them emerging from darkness to light. Subjects are sometimes pictured with children and grandchildren, people “whose very existence has been willed into being by their ancestor’s decisions to brook no refusal of their future,” he writes.
“All of them talked about the sense of how lucky they’d been; all of them talked, in one way or another, about their sense not of survivor’s guilt but of survivor’s obligation,” Van Sise explains.
While every story from the Holocaust is naturally different, what these survivors shared is that they had to start new lives.
“They were faced with the daunting challenge, and overwhelming opportunity, to create a world of their choosing from nothing, trying to bridge the oft-oceanic divide between the lives they were given and the future they forged as they set down their lives and their luggage in a new-world Canaan,” he writes.
Among the essays are three from those who are not survivors; one each by writers Neil Gaiman and Sabrina Orah Mark, and one from Mayim Bialik of "Blossom," "The Big Bang Theory" and "Jeopardy!" fame who writes lovingly about her grandparents.
“I was raised with Yiddish on my tongue as well as the corned beef, rich cheeses, babke, and challah of my people,” Bialik writes. “I was raised hearing the Litvak and Galatziana curses my grandparents threw around. (How many children can say they know the word for ‘prostitute’ in two Yiddish dialects!?) And I was raised knowing there are some things we just don’t talk about: The War. The missing siblings. My grandmother’s family. What happened.”
Many Holocaust survivors spent decades not talking about the nightmare. Why dredge it up? However, some needed to. As they grew old, they often felt the responsibility to share with the world what they witnessed when hate won.
Not everyone in the book is Jewish. Elsie Ragusin, a Catholic, was visiting her grandfather in Italy. She was accused of being Jewish and sent to Auschwitz. Her father was sent to Buchenwald, where he died.
Their stories, like the photos, are stark.
In some of the essays, wartime experiences aren’t detailed. The point of telling their stories to photojournalist Van Sise is to explain what they did afterward. Some, like Lyubov Abramovich, succinctly chronicle life before the Holocaust.
“After the invasion at the war’s beginning, she came home to find her parents gone, her husband gone, her child gone,” he reports of Abramovich. “The catastrophe had found her, as it had so many others. First, she wanted to live no longer, but soon her heart turned to revenge.”
She told of taking a low-paying job at a German police station and stealing bullets to help the resistance. That eventually led to smuggling and using weapons; she bombed train tracks.
“I had a luxurious life, a wonderful husband; everything in my life was splendid,” Abramovich said. “They took everything from me. It is a woman’s job to carry dynamite.”
Every story in here is bone-chilling. There are people whose parents sent them away so they could live. Many survivors lost their entire families. With nothing other than a relative’s name — often one they didn’t know — they arrived here not speaking the language or understanding the culture.
Some survivors had been assumed dead.
British and Canadian soldiers were loading corpses at Bergen-Belsen onto a flatbed. They were doing so when they discovered Helena Weinrauch, left among the bodies, clinging to life. She was 19 and weighed 90 pounds.
She recovered in Switzerland and then moved to the Upper West Side, where she took up dancing – in her 90s.
There’s also a drummer, Saul Dreier, who started a band called the Holocaust Survivor Band. Dreier “spent the war at the Płaszów concentration camp and as a worker in Oskar Schindler’s famous factory.” Van Sise writes. “He can’t recall which gave him his start, but one day he picked up two spoons, turned their backs to each other, and began to practice rhythm, drumming on tables, on chairs, in himself.”
Now 96, Dreier has drums in his bedroom, office, and living room.
The pages tell of people forced to learn new languages, new cultures — new lives — to survive.
It’s too pat to say they are stories of hope. They are, but they are of hope despite all evidence against it. And as people talk about quarter-life crises and midlife crises and the difficulties of starting over, reading this should put into perspective what starting over can be in a new world.
Amrom Deutsch’s story is told without the details of what happened to him during the war, but after, he had three careers: smuggler, baker, and an extra in movies. He was a smuggler because “there was nothing else to do.” As a baker, he worked so hard that his wife called him a slave to his own shop. In films, he’s there but barely visible.
“You’ve seen him hundreds of times, and never noticed,” Van Sise writes. “He’s not there to be noticed, but for eighteen years he’s been the old man in the background, turning up to be tuned out.”
Survivors reflect on how they were forced to pick up languages quickly and how that ultimately helped them. Alex Gross, who was liberated from Buchenwald, tells of making his way to Elmwood City, Pennsylvania, to work at a knitting mill, then a factory in Chicago, and then to the United States Army.
“Thanks to his time in the camps, he passed qualifying exams in seven different languages and was placed on an enlisted track to a job with U.S. Army Intelligence,” Van Sise writes. “By the time his security clearance came through — a long slog, as a foreigner — the United States’ new war was almost over. He was flown to Korea. He was flown right back.”
Gross and his brother started a company making prefab homes.
“They started from nothing,” Van Sise writes. “They became the largest package home dealer in the US. When liberated from Buchenwald, he was homeless. In his first eight years in business alone, he put 20,000 families into new houses every single year.”
Each page reveals a story that should have happened and tells how people overcame the unimaginable. And reminds us, again, of something that needs to be unforgettable.