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Socialist Review, March 1994

Esther Brunstein

‘It can happen again’

From Socialist Review, No. 173, March 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

The new Steven Spielberg film Schindler’s List is a harrowing description of one part of the Nazi Holocaust. Holocaust survivor Esther Brunstein says what the film meant to her

People definitely should see this film. I have recently been reading a book about an SS officer who helped people too. It is terribly important to people like me to know that these people existed.

We must never forget that even when Berlin was liberated there were a few thousand Jews alive who had been hidden by Germans. There were many who opposed the regime, there were many anti-Nazis, there was an attempt on Hitler’s life. They were not strong enough but this must be told.

Schindler has been portrayed in the film as a womaniser, a bit of a lad who took risks and had a lust for money. He was all of these things. So were others but they never saved 1,200 Jews. He had a streak of humanity in him. You have to ask yourself if you would take the risk not only for yourself but for your own family.

Some scenes are brutal, but you were watching it as a film. It is impossible in the end to fully portray what happened. I have witnessed scenes like the one where Goeth randomly shoots people from his balcony for sport or fun. The commandant of one labour camp I was in after Auschwitz and before Belsen, he was the embodiment of evil. I was working in a kitchen which meant I got to eat a raw potato which was good. On the way back to our barracks I saw the commandant line up a few Jews and shout to them to dance, sing, count and on the count of ten he shot them.

I could not watch the Jews arriving at Auschwitz. I don’t need a film to be back there. I am back every day, but I cope with it. But I hope it is good for other people to see. You need to read about it too, to find out why it happened.

I have a problem with the portrayal of the Holocaust as fiction. For me it is Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel. Only reading this can you know it is not fiction. I could not cope with Sophie’s Choice. Overall Schindler’s List shows to a degree what it was like. But this film will bring a message that it was the reality. I would urge people to see it – not survivors, we know – it was made for others. This happened once and it can happen again. There was camaraderie in the camps. They tried to make us the subhumans they said we were; they treated us in such a way, they tried to make us lose compassion. Yet they did not manage the total demoralisation they aimed at. We still cared. To live one single day and still retain human values was a great act of courage.

Many helped but of those who didn’t, I also cannot condemn them. I was 14 years old and swollen from malnutrition. The doctor in the ghetto told one mother not to feed her sick daughter her rations as she would die. We were advised to weigh our rations in the family. Some were so hungry they ate the weekly ration in one go – they were incapable of keeping a piece for each day.

Other members of the family would save theirs. What could you do? Could you watch your brother starving for five days? Do you give him some of yours? Do you know how you would behave? And what would you do when a member of your family takes the ration of the children when no one is home? He knows it is wrong, he is crying, but he is starving.

In the ghetto we managed to retain human values, deprived of human dignity.

If you worked you got some soup. A few of my friends when I couldn’t work, because of malnutrition, saved a little piece of potato and soup and brought it home for me. One friend survived and I saw her after the war. She told me they all gave some food but some felt it was a waste because I would not survive, even though they loved me.

One day we heard that 20,000 children under the age of ten were to be taken. So when they came with the dogs and the Jewish police we hid in the loft. One couple had a little girl aged two and a half who was asleep and they hid her, frightened she would wake if they moved her. She was their life. When the Nazis reached the last floor we heard her calling, ‘Mummy’, and we had to hold her parents back. The Jewish policeman came up and looked and saw us, and went down and said he didn’t see us. He could have been shot but he saved us.

I am not vengeful. I have never forgotten those who have come to our aid.

Esther Brunstein is a survivor of the Lodz ghetto, Belsen and Auschwitz camps.

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