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March 07, 2002 - Image 24

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The Michigan Daily, 2002-03-07

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8B - The Michigan Daily - Weekend Magazine - Thursday, March 7, 2002

The Michigan Daily - Weekend Magazil


TIam twenty-seven years old and I
still wake up in the middle of
the night, tofind sweat, mixed
with tears, streaking down my face
as I try to forget what I know to be
the truth. The words my wife
hoarsely whispers in the dead of the
night offer no solace either. I can,
not escape it. So far, my attempts to
forget have failed
As children, my mother pushed us
to write what we know, a fairly sim-
ple request. With the wisdom of
years, I have discovered what you
know may not always be the truth
and the truth may not be what you
know. And over time, what I know
has become my truth, my reality,
my life.
I know this much.
It was a brisk September day, common for Central Poland, when the
Nazis came storming through my grandfathers small town. Hirshel
Stein was barely twelve when he watched his baby bother beaten by the
Nazis. His beloved, elderly grandfather was shot by an unremorseful
solider just a few minutes later. As the cattle cars pulled away from the
town, Hirshel s eyes were stuck on the dead bodies that covered the dirt
During the long and tiring ride, Hirshel kept to himself, creating an
imaginary barrier between himself and the others in his car. His parents
had boarded a different car; they had lost their son in the madness the
damn Nazis caused. They lost everything in that uproar. Hirshel watched
as others screamed in fear and demanded the cars to stop. He watched
children cling to their parents, wives clutch the arms of their husbands,
terrified of what might happen to them if they let go. Hirshel worked
himself into the corner of the car. His small body curled up into a ball
and he made no noise. He did not move until the car stopped at Dachau.
Almost an eternity later, the cars came to a bumpy stop. Masses
flowed out of the car and breathed in the fresh air they had been
deprived of during their trip. Nazis stood before them, screaming out
orders. They were to form a single file line and go in the direction they
were told. By this time, his parents found him. As they approached the
Nazis, his mother began to sing Hirshel the Yiddish lullaby she had sung
to him as a baby.
The Nazis split up my grandfather and his parents. Each one followed
a different path the apathetic Nazi pointed toward. Later, Hirshel would
learn that his mother, pregenant with her third child, was sent immedi-
ately to her death in the infamous gas chambers the Nazis had so crafti-
ly created. His father was put to work right away at the camp. Hirshel
escaped both labor and death; the Nazis sent him to eat. They recognized
the potential in his small body and knew what he was capable of if he

was nurtured properly.
Over the course of the next few months, both Hirshel and his father
did what they were ordered. They saw each other occasionally. Neither
mentioned the possible fate of Hirshel s mother. Over time, Hirshel saw
his father less and less, until he had disappeared forever when he was
sent to Auschwitz.
For the course of his stay at Dachau, my grandfather kept to himself.
He didn t look for trouble. He kept his tiny area clean, he stood tall, and
ate as little as possible to survive. He was determined to survive the
camp alive. He was willing to do anything to keep his life.
Hirshel s efforts did not go unnoticed. Roughly nine months after his
arrival, a solider approached him during one of the typical late night
roundups. Dozens of Jewish men stood outside in the icy night. They
were feeble and tired. They had lost all their strength the minute they
stepped onto the train that brought them to the Nazi s camps.
As always my grandfather stood by himself, at the end of the long line
of men. The Nazi stopped when he reached him.
You, he hollered loudly. No heads turned to look. Hirshel did not
respond. Look at me dirty Jew! Hirshel lifted his head, avoiding eye
contact with the solider. The Nazi asked his name and hometown. When
he did not recognize the name of the town, he grabbed Hirschel s wrist
and studied the number that would be forever imprinted on his arm.
Upon his request, Hirshel followed the solider to a room filled with
Nazis. The solider spoke quickly in German, a language Hirshel would
never learn or understand. Another Nazi rose from his seat and took
Hirshel outside.
Do you want to die Jew?
My grandfather shook his head, remembering the dead bodies in his
Listen. We have been watching you carefully. You show promise. You
will live if you help us. It is very simple Jew. You will continue to sleep
in the same barrack. You are excused from your labor duties. Each day
you will report here. You will tell its about the Jew s What they think,
what they say. You will inform us of their plans to escape. You will
become our eyes and ears. If you do as you re told, there will not be a
problem. If you listen to us, your life will be spared. Do you understand
Jew? The boy nodded in agreement, surprised at his ability to control
his emotions. He could live through this disaster.
The Nazi s words echoed in Hirshel s head each morning when he got
out of bed. He befriended all the men in
his barrack. He became a confidant. The seasons chap
After all, he was one of them, wasn t
he? Hirshel listened as the men went from Hirshei
promised to avenge to Nazis, as the
Jews swore they would track down the had been reduced
Nazis wives and beat them and rape
them until their skull cracked open and Hirshel no longer
bled everywhere. He listened as they Hefo this
dreamt of simple things, buttered toast, He IroJI Poll
a candle, hot water. the grwi erm
Hirshel participated in the nightly growing Ierni
discussions. Each day he would report visited the camp,
back to the Nazis, telling them what his
barrackmates hated the most, what they for his duties and
wanted, and so on. The Nazis listened,
carefully. They needed Hirshel to fully replace the yellow
torment the Jews. He was able to tell
them information and details they could long ago
never uncover on their own. Hirshel
watched men die every day, knowing
with a perverse pleasure that a Nazi would never beat him to death. He
was too vital to them. He watched men cry out from starvation, know-
ing that a hearty meal was not far off. He had crossed a line that few oth-
ers had.
The seasons changed. Men came and went from Hirshel s barrack. His
parents had been reduced to hazy memories. Hirshel no longer saw him-
self as a Jew. He forgot his Polish heritage and praised the growing
German Empire. When Hitler visited the camp, Hirshel was commend-
ed for his duties and given a Swastika to replace the yellow star he had
received long ago.
As history 'has taught its students, the Nazis luck ran out. So did
Hirshel s. American troops arrived at the camp before dawn one morn-
ing and immediately attacked the Nazi quarters of the camp. Whoever

wasn t shot was arrested and immediately sent back to the nearest
American base. Naturally, the Americans were unaware of Hirshel and
shipped him and the other prisoners to a Red Cross Center, and later to
a Displaced Persons Camp.
Hirshel left his prized Swastika at Dachau, terrified of what would
happen to him if anyone learned of his status. He watched others and
imitated their fear and pain. For the rest of his life, Hirshel was an actor.
It was in the Displaced Persons Camp that Hirshel rediscovered his
Jewish heritage. Like the others, he stood in one of the many long lines,
waiting for information to link him to another human in the world.
She was standing in the line next to my grandfather. She seemed
stronger than any other Jew in the room. Her hair radiated in the dingy
light and her eyes sparkled as they wandered aimlessly through the
room. After Hirshel received a slip of paper with a name scribbled
across it, he made his way over to the girl.
Not knowing where she came from, he spoke Yiddish, the native
tongue of everyone there. They spoke briefly, making polite conversa-
tion. Finally Hirshel asked her where she was:going. He smiled when
she said America, claiming that he too had distant relatives there. When
he laughed that his family was also in Los Angeles, the woman smiled.
My grandfather sailed to the United States on the same boat as the
woman. Some time between docking in New Orleans and the leaving by
train for Los Angeles, he asked her to be his wife. She accepted, and
they stayed with her uncle. It wasn t until their oldest child graduated
high school that Hirshel revealed to his wife that he was supposed to go
to London to stay with an elderly cousin. My grandmother didn t mind.
For the next fifty years, my grandfather worked twelve hour days,
seven days a week, determined to provide for his family,'to give them
everything he envisioned came with the American dream. He was stern
with his three children, often reminding them of the hardships he had
endured under the Nazis. He and his bride Anne told them selected
details of the cruelty they witnessed in the Old World, so that they would
remember and pass the stories onto their own children someday.
My grandfather was a small man with gray hair and a weak stomach.
He was a chain smoker who never left the house without a hat covering
his silver hair. He always had gifts for my sisters and me. He called on
our birthdays and gave us piggyback rides. When my family went to
California for the holidays, my grandfather would take my sisters and-
me to Disneyland, bringing us home with our bellies stuffed with junk
and our arms filled with souvenirs.
Just following my youngest sisters Bat Mitzvah, my grandfather
received an official letter from the Israeli government ordering him to
come to Jerusalem immediately. He had been charged with crimes
against humanity.
In Israel, Hirshel was forced to testify at a Nazi s trial, admitting that
he had been an accomplice in the soldiers actions. My grandmother
called my mother in tears, telling her to come to Israel. Hirshel was sen-
tenced to life in prison
The last time I saw him, we were separated by a piece of glass. My
family was not allowed to touch him. He did not look Nazi. Hirshel did
not look like a man that would go against his identity to save himself.
He had always been the most unselfish person I had known. As I said my
goodbye to the man I wor-
ed. Men came and shipped my entire life, I
noticed that like all the despi-
s barrack. His parents cable Nazis, my grandfather
showed no emotion, no regret
to hazy memories. for his terrible actions.
He had become one of
raw himself as a Jew. them. He was a Nazi.
,h heritage and praised I was twenty-four when my
tpraised grandfather was locked up
in Empire. When Hitler forever. My mother went to
Los Angeles with my grand-
oirsel was commended mother to dispose of all
remaining traces of my
given a Swastika to grandfather. Everything was
neatly packed away in boxes
star he had received and placed in storage. My
uncle was given the key. He
once told me that he lost it.
No one speaks of him now.
There has been no mention
of him at any family affairs. His name does not get added to the birth-
day cards my grandmother sends. He was not one of us. He was the
I try not to think of him. But he haunts me whenever my eyes shut. I
see no darkness, instead his face appears, wearing a wicked smile I had
never seen. I knew my wife almost seven years before I found the guts
to propose to her. I was terrified of waking up one morning and finding
a stranger lying next to me. My mother hired a detective to investigate
my father, just to make sure everything checked out. Grandma Anne
moved in with my parents, unable to deal with what her friends would
say about her. She redecorated my old room; its filled with mothballs,
pantyhose, and social security checks. Now when I come home, I sleep
on the pull-out couch in the den.


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