Thanks to My Mother
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|Original title||Dank meiner Mutter|
|Genre||Autobiography, memoir, novel|
Published in English
Thanks to My Mother is the memoir of Schoschana Rabinovici, née Susanne Weksler, a young Jewish girl from Vilnius, Lithuania. The book gives a rare, detailed view of Jewish life in Vilnius during German occupation and contains gritty descriptions of life in the Vilnius Ghetto and the circumstances of those deported from the ghetto for slave labor in Germany. It is written from the viewpoint of a young girl from the age of about eight to twelve. The book is designated as an American Library Association notable book and is the 1999 winner of the Mildred L. Batchelder Award. The award seeks to recognize translations of children's books into the English language (in this case by James Skofield from the original German), with the intention of encouraging American publishers to translate high quality foreign language children's books.
Susanne Weksler was born on November 14, 1932 in Paris, where her parents were completing their studies. After the Wekslers returned to Vilnius, Suzanne attended Jewish school until the German occupation of the city in 1941. Suzanne is a Holocaust survivor, having survived the Vilnius Ghetto, the Kaiserwald forced labor camp, and the Stutthof concentration camp. Her autobiographical work, Dank meiner Mutter (Thanks to My Mother), based on her Holocaust experiences, was first published in German in 1994. The English translation was published in the United States in 1998 and is the 1999 winner of the Mildred L. Batchelder Award. Of her extended family of some 30 individuals, only Suzanne, her mother and an uncle survived. After the war Suzanne attended school in Poland, and in 1950 she immigrated to Israel, serving in the Israeli armed forces until 1952. She married David Rabinovici in 1953 and had two sons, born in 1955 and 1961. Suzanne Weksler, now Schoschana Rabinovici, has lived in Tel Aviv and Vienna since 1964.
The Weksler family lived in Vilnius, Lithuania, where Suzanne’s parents owned Bon Ton, a clothing store. Suzanne’s father, Isak Weksler, and mother, Raja Indurski Weksler, were divorced when Suzanne was seven years old. A short time after Bon-Ton was nationalized during the Russian occupation of Vilnius (1939–1941), Raja married Julek Rauch, a Polish Jew from Przemyśl, where Julek had attended a German school. Raja and Suzanne moved into Julek’s apartment, which they shared with fourteen-year-old Dolka (Julek’s daughter from a previous marriage).
Grandfather Weksler and grandfather Indurski owned businesses in Vilnius and, as they were considered wealthy, the Indurski and Weksler families barely avoided deportation to forced labor in Siberia during the Russian occupation.
Two days after Germany invaded the Soviet Union, when Suzanne was eight years old, Germans occupied Vilnius and Suzanne’s father, Isak Weksler was arrested as a Jew and was eventually sent to his death at Paneriai - Ponary. Julek and Raja’s apartment was commandeered by the Germans and Julek, Raja, Suzanne and Dolka were forced to move into the large apartment owned by Raja’s father, grandfather Schmarjahu Indurski, already occupied by Raja’s sister, Julia Indurski Tejschew, her husband, Jechiel Tejschew, and their six-year-old daughter, Jochele.
Soon the Germans ordered Jews to wear a yellow star, for easy identification and the persecution of the Jews of Vilnius began in earnest. Zealous “chappers” or “catchers” hunted down people wearing a yellow star and took them to Lukiszki prison, for eventual execution at Ponary. Suzanne’s favorite uncle, Maisei Nowogródzki, was one of those taken and his wife, Lena Indurski Nowogródzki, and her 14-year-old daughter, Lea, moved into grandfather Indurski’s apartment.
Because of the fear of “chappers” Suzanne’s uncle, Wolodja Indurski, and his wife, Chassia, decided to sleep at grandfather Indurski’s apartment, with their two-year-old daughter Fejgele. The large apartment was now bursting with thirteen family members hunkered down in fear of the “chappers”.
On September 6, 1941, a notice was circulated that Jews living in other parts of the city would be required to move to the newly created Vilnius Ghetto. The occupants of grandfather Indurski’s apartment packed whatever they could carry and a few days later the sad procession made its way to a tiny four-room apartment in the small ghetto (ghetto 2).
The Indurski family survived the early months in the ghetto because Raja, Julek, Wolodja and Jechiel found work and obtained “pink passes” and later “yellow passes”. Each pass allowed the holder to add a spouse and two children, who were then exempt from periodic actions, which as the Indurski’s correctly surmised, were deportations for execution at Ponary or to the death camp of Majdanek. Thus, the Indurski family survived "the first and second action of the yellow passes". Moreover, by creative use of the passes, such as inserting her father’s name for that of her husband (who had his own yellow pass), Raja insured that grandfather Indurski survived the subsequent “old people’s action”.
Thus, one year after being sent to the ghetto the Indurski family had survived intact, but the various actions had reduced the number of Jews from the original 64,000 to 18,000. As the ghetto was emptied further, ghetto police would raid buildings and all occupants were deported, with or without work passes. During this period a large malina (or hiding place) was constructed under the communal latrines and Julek, Raja, Suzanne and Dolka survived a large action by staying in the malina for three days and four nights.
After June 1943, actions became increasingly frequent, and on September 14, 1943, the head of the Jewish Council, Jacob Gens, was arrested and executed. It then became painfully clear to all that there was no way to save oneself in the ghetto; consequently, those with partisan connections and those who had sufficient hidden wealth remaining to buy a hiding place on the Aryan side fled. By September 24, as the final liquidation of the Vilnius Ghetto began, the remaining residents had resigned themselves to their fate.
Their fate was a forced march to the Christian Rossa Cemetery. Near the cemetery gates young, healthy men, including Julek, were separated, while old men, women and children, including Raja, Suzanne, and Dolka were herded onto the walled cemetery grounds.
The following morning dozens of armed soldiers with loudspeakers instructed the multitude to approach the cemetery gate. It soon became clear that the gate to the right meant life and to the left, among the graves, led to death. With bayonets drawn the soldiers herded old people and children to the left. With all her might, Raja shoved Dolka towards the chain of soldiers, who let the nineteen-year-old girl through, but denied entrance to Raja, who was holding eleven-year-old Suzanne’s hand. After numerous unsuccessful tries, Raja passed the line of soldiers with Suzanne hidden in a canvas bag she carried on her back. Both women were bruised after the ordeal and young Suzanne had suffered a bayonet wound.
Raja and Suzanne, together with the other female survivors, were now sent by train for forced labor to the Kaiserwald concentration camp near Riga, Latvia. Survival at Kaiserwald was a daily struggle because of the constant hunger and physical labor. However, it was particularly dangerous for eleven-year-old Suzanne, who as a child was at great risk of being snared in the periodic selections of the weak. By standing on her toes at roll call and later wearing a turban and high heels, she appeared tall enough not to draw attention to herself in the crowd of women. At Raja’s insistence, Suzanne went to work with the women every day and kept up her personal hygiene and appearance even when she was exhausted or weak from hunger.
One day a surprise selection was held at the battery factory where young Suzanne worked. However, the Wehrmacht sergeant in charge of the work detail grabbed Suzanne’s arm and forced her into a coal bin, which stood next to the stove in his room, thus saving her life. For the first time, marveled Suzanne, “it became clear to me that he knew I was a child”.
In the ghetto the Germans would increase the Jews' misery by arranging for actions on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. At Kaiserwald on the morning of Yom Kippur in 1944 there was palpable tension in the air, and Raja pushed Suzanne to join a group of Hungarian women working at a construction site far from camp. When Suzanne returned in the evening, covered in cement dust, many of the camp women were missing.
In the last week of September, 1944, the Kaiserwald concentration camp was evacuated due to the advance of the Russian army. The women were marched to the train station and herded into freight cars, while officers, their families and Nazi “blitz maidens” (young single women, former members of the Hitler Youth, now labor camp guards) occupied passenger cars. The crush in the freight cars was such that those who fainted remained standing.
The train journey was followed by evacuation in the cargo hold of a ship, lasting several days, while German officers and their families on deck, as though on a cruise, celebrated their good fortune in being evacuated from Riga just ahead of the advancing Red Army. Many women prisoners died of dehydration during this leg of the journey, while the survivors who were still conscious and mobile upon arrival were loaded onto barges and taken to the Stutthof concentration camp. The Stutthof camp was located on marshy terrain, some 22 miles from the city of Gdańsk.
On October 1, 1944 Raja, Suzanne and Dolka entered the Stutthof concentration camp. Conditions at Stutthof were brutal and sick and weak prisoners were routinely gassed or given lethal injections. (In Polish/Russian tribunals after the war the former commandant of the camp, Johann Pauls, and 20 former guards and kapos were sentenced to death and executed for crimes against humanity and other crimes).
On January 25, 1945, as the Red Army approached, the evacuation of the Stutthof camp began. Suzanne and Raja were in the ninth prisoner column of 1300 mostly Jewish women.
Tauentzien and Liberation
After an eleven-day march, in snow and freezing temperatures, Suzanne and Raja made it to the Tauentzien Camp, near Lauenburg. On March 7, 1945, when Tauentzien was evacuated, Suzanne was too sick to march, so Raja and Suzanne stayed behind under armed guard.
As the Russian Front advanced, Raja prepared herself for the worst, asking a guard, “When will we be shot?” The young German guard answered, “I haven’t any orders yet. When I get the order to shoot you, then I’ll do it.” Suzanne and Raja were finally rescued by the Red Army. By this time Suzanne’s condition had deteriorated so that she was unconscious. She only regained consciousness a week after liberation.
Described as “Particularly grim, even for a Holocaust memoir”, Thanks to My Mother was reviewed by one critic as “one of the most moving memoirs I have ever read of the Holocaust”. The same reviewer writes that readers whose interest include Holocaust testimonies and are “mentally prepared for the harshness of Rabinovici's experiences, will come away with renewed appreciation of the extraordinary fortitude required to survive those dire times”. This book owes its power, in part, to young Suzanne’s powers of observation and, in part, to her detailed powers of memory which allow her to deliver a harrowing, detailed, personal account of survival in the Vilnius ghetto, the Kaiserwald forced labor camp and the “death transports” to the Stutthof and Tauentzien concentration camps.
Since these events are seen through the eyes of a young girl, there are incidents such as the obvious signs of an aunt’s morning sickness in the Vilnius ghetto, which Suzanne misunderstands. “I didn’t understand the reason and thought she had eaten some spoiled food. But the vomiting would not stop”, writes Suzanne. Again, at Kaiserwald, as she is returning to the prisoner barracks one night she witnesses in the shadows a male and female form, with the female prisoner moaning softly. Suzanne is alarmed by what is, in fact, a sex-for-cigarettes exchange and is guilt ridden for days for not doing anything to help, and puzzled when the woman later acts like nothing happened.
The book is not devoid of an occasional redemptive note. In this vein, the action of the three teenagers (probably Christians) who sacrifice their lives in the Christian Rossa Cemetery to warn “Jews, go to the right!” is nothing less than inspirational. Similarly, the action of the Wehrmacht sergeant who hid Suzanne in a coal bin shows that there were men of conscience, like Wilm Hosenfeld the Wehrmacht officer who saved Władysław Szpilman in the autobiographical work The Pianist, even in the German army, who resisted evil, sometimes at considerable personal risk.
Quotes from Thanks to My Mother
"It was now clear to all that there was no way to save oneself in the ghetto."
"…people in extreme situations can behave completely differently from the way they usually do. No one can know how he would himself behave. Many who give the impression of being strong might allow themselves to become discouraged, and weak ones might become heroes."
- "Stutthof Trial, April 25-May 31, 1946 at jewishvirtuallibrary.org". Jewish Virtual Library.
- Night (Hill and Wang 1958; 2006) ISBN 0-553-27253-5 (Personal account of the Holocaust)
- Müller, Filip (1999) . 'Eyewitness Auschwitz - Three Years in the Gas Chambers. trans. Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd. and Susanne Flatauer. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee & in association with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. p. 180. ISBN 1-56663-271-4.
- Fink, Ida (1987). A Scrap of Time and Other Stories. Translated by Madeline Levine. New York: Schocken Books. p. 165. ISBN 0-8052-0869-0.
- Stephen Nasser (2003). My Brother’s Voice: how a young Hungarian boy survived the Holocaust: a true story. Stephens Press. pp. 001–232. ISBN 1-932173-10-2.