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Thanks for My Journey: A Holocaust Survivor's Story of Living Fearlessly

08/24/2012 12:17 EDT | Updated 10/24/2012 05:12 EDT
AP

The following is an excerpt from the book Thanks for My Journey: A Holocaust Survivor's Story of Living Fearlessly.

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Prologue

5:30 a.m., December 30, 2005

I jump out of bed, not sure if I am awake or in a nightmare. My senses are overwhelmed -- explosions, thick smoke, the rattling of fire raging mercilessly and engulfing my universe. In an instant I'm back in the war zone of my youth, reliving the ferocity of explosions, fire, bombs, and smoke. Although I am half asleep, my thoughts come quickly: "Run, run for your life. Get out." I feel panic, like a trapped animal looking to escape to survive. My breathing is shallow. My heart is beating fast.

I am jolted back into the present. I look over to the bed. Jerry does not move. The mayhem failed to arouse him. I am fully awake now. It is not the war of my youth. Our home is engulfed in flames; there is no time to waste. I try to open the bedroom door facing the hallway. There is no passage. The fire is raging toward the bedroom, the last room to fall prey to the unleashed hungry monster of nature. I slam the door closed.

"Jerry, wake up! Wake up; we have to get out of here. Hurry." It seems it takes him forever to get out of our king-size bed. He looks bewildered, clumsy, searching for his shirt and slippers. He is so slow! "Jerry, there is no time! Hurry, hurry up, let's get out of here!"

I run through the back door of our bedroom and into the garden. I am out! I see the spectacular fireworks raging mercilessly through the entire length of our beautiful ranch house. I look back. Jerry is not behind me. I turn back and run inside, literally dragging him out. He's still sleepy, unaware of the danger.

As we exit, the roof over our bedroom collapses, charring our massive bed to ashes. Later, the fire marshal says that had we not run out when we did, had we been in deep sleep in the middle of the night, we would have burned to death. Just like in the crematorium I had avoided as a child in the concentration camp.

Barefoot and half naked, we stumble toward the front of the house, where our neighbours, awakened by the terrible sounds of a home being consumed by fire, try to comfort us, offering shelter, shoes, blankets, and coffee. It is early in the morning and cold, very cold.

I stand in front of the house, watching, mesmerized, as the fire envelops our entire beautiful home and its precious contents, collected over a lifetime, and turning it all into debris in minutes. Similar to people's reports of near-death experiences, I see all my furniture, dishes, pictures, and other treasured memorabilia pass before my eyes, succumbing to the fierce force of the devastation. I can do nothing. I'm immobilized, helpless.

All I can do is stand silent, a witness to the inferno.

Suddenly, the survivor in me kicks in. It is not I who is burning. Jerry and I are safe, truly safe. These are things that are burning, just things. "Things, things" is the refrain of the song of my thoughts. The Nazis did not get me then; the fire did not get me now.

To think that fate has it that twice in my life, I almost burned to death! I can see newspaper headlines: "Spared by Nazis, She Avoided Gas Chambers Only to Burn to Death in Own Home."

I am so lucky to have the gift of life a bit longer. We are alive. That's all that matters. Remember, things are just things. You enter the world naked and exit the world in kind. I Am Alive!

It's all about fate, destiny, or beshert (the Yiddish word I like to use). I was meant to survive once more, saved from the rage of burning hell. I shall continue celebrating life, and I will spread optimism and goodwill in my world until I die. I have this vision: I close my eyes, and in the embrace of my family -- children and grandchildren -- I peacefully cross the threshold, ready to join the universe and its mysterious splendor.

"Thanks for my journey," I am smiling. I feel peaceful. I feel safe. I am transcending above and beyond toward my eternal journey. "Poof " goes my soul to never-never land.

Nazi Horrors To the Cattle Cars

"I believed I could not survive this, and I indeed survived, but do not ask me how."--An unknown German poet, quoted in Papa's journal

By the time I was six, the political situation in Bukovina had deteriorated into chaos. Rumania had signed a trade agreement with Germany in 1939, followed by several more treaties that placed Rumania under heavy Third Reich influence. Germany ceded parts of Bukovina to the Soviet Union and Bulgaria. Rumania was declared a "National Legionary State," and democracy essentially disappeared. In that chaos, the right-wing Iron Guard tried to seize power but was defeated. By 1940, Germany had gained more and more influence, and a special intelligence unit began to suppress all dissent. That was the beginning of a policy of persecution and extermination of Jews.

Being hunted like animals is an indelible memory for me. The systematic deportation and extermination of Jews had begun. We were not spared! One day, the Germans came to our factory unannounced as part of their relentless search in pursuit of prey. I distinctly remember Papa and Mama hurrying us up to the attic of the factory.

There were many of us crammed into the small space of the attic, all huddled together in the dark on the prickly hay. We heard the German soldiers with their menacing, barking dogs coming up the stairs, closer and closer. My father's breathing sounded loud and heavy. I sensed his panic. My mother put her hand over my mouth so I would not scream. I was so frightened. I couldn't breathe. My parents knew that if we were found, we would be beaten, herded together, forced into boxcars on the train, or shot.

Much later in my life, here in Los Angeles, a friend who was studying to be a cosmetologist suggested giving me a facial. She put a mud mask on my face, and suddenly I felt constricted, out of control. I had a flashback to the attic and my mother's hand over my mouth. I tried to calm myself: "You are not a child; you are not in danger; you are safe; you are OK." But to my consternation, I couldn't calm myself. I started to panic. I began to hyperventilate. I called to my friend, "Eva, Eva, get this mask off of me. Get it off me!" Quickly she washed it off. Amazing! My adult reassuring thoughts and cognitive abilities did not hold up in the face of my traumatic flashback.

Whenever we were given a heads-up that the Germans were coming, we repeated the same hiding routine. It happened numerous times. I did not understand what was happening -- the grim faces and whispers, "Germans, Jewish . . ." We are Jewish. We have to hide. No one tells me what is going on.

"Mama, why do we have to hide again? Mama, Mama!"

"Stop it, Erica, stop with the questions," she said.

"But Mama, I don't want to be Jewish, Jewish, Jewish, Jewish, Mama!"

"For the last time, stop it," she repeated.

"Papa, Papa!"

There was no explanation from him either. He did not hear me. He looked through me. I was invisible. I had never seen him like this before. The stress was getting to him. He was falling to pieces in front of my eyes. He could not handle the anxiety of wondering and waiting. He felt humiliated having to crouch in corners like a hunted animal.

He finally declared, "I cannot tolerate this any longer. We will go voluntarily to the trains rather than hide and wait to be captured." He was either completely nuts or incredibly courageous. I can only imagine how difficult it had to be for him to make that decision.