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Auschwitz: "It's Not the Sights so Much as the Sounds"

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Out in Independence square in Kyiv, I saw a solitary Lithuanian flag amongst the sea of blue and yellow Ukrainian ones during a protest gathering this past weekend. It wasn't just a flag. It was my family. What's left of it.

The yellow, red and green was always around in the house I grew up in. My mother was a great patriot, but unreservedly loved being Canadian. It was the same for most people who had emigrated to Canada in the late 1940s.

My mother very rarely talked about what happened to her in the Second World War. There were short bursts of recollection, little anecdotes of walking for days on end, seeing bodies scattered in the road. Bombed out buildings. Soldiers and military vehicles everywhere.

But the essence of her story was missing. Or not told. I knew as a Lithuanian she was stuck in between the fascists of Hitler and the Communists of Stalin. If you are facing two devils, two giants of oppression on either side, what do you do? How DO you survive?

In my mother's case they walked. Clear across Europe. With a stop in the labour camps in Germany, making war materials in the factories. And after the war, interred in a Displaced Persons (DP) camp.
But what happened? What was it like where you were? What did you see? What did you eat? How DID you survive?

My mother is in a long-term care facility now with dementia. And now I'll never know.

There are few people around left to tell us the stories of a world absorbed by the malignant growth of ideas that would justify killing and the displacement of entire nations, entire cultures, entire peoples. My search for personal answers led me on a trip to the north end of Toronto.

A nice, well-looked after apartment complex. A safe, trouble-free part of town. The doorbell rang and I could hear the shuffling of feet and a resigned "I'm coming, I'm coming" from somewhere inside the apartment. It took a while, and as I stood outside her door I couldn't help but wonder what would this person be like.

When you think of the word "survivor" and "labour camps" there is a mental image of the emaciated figures with the hollow black eyes, and that "thousand yard stare" that soldiers returning from the war describe on people who have been exposed to battle and atrocities.

Obviously the physical aspects of that horror had healed with time. But what about the psychological, the emotional wounds?

A warm smile and the petite figure of 85-year-old Judy Weiszenberg Cohen greeted me.

She was engaging and friendly, warm and familiar, polite and sharp as a tack.

We talked about my background and I opened my briefcase to show her some papers I had brought with me. Papers from the DP camp my mother had been in in the city of Weisbaden, Germany. Her high school report cards. Her Lithuanian passport. The landed immigrant card from Canada.

Judy looked at the date on the card. "That's exactly one week before I came to Canada," she said. July 17, 1948.

Judy is a Hungarian Jew. The youngest of seven children, Cohen survived the Auschwitz-Berkenau and Bergen-Belsen concentration camps, a slave labour camp and a death march. Only two other siblings survived.

She was eventually brought to Germany to work in an airplane factory, one of 500 Jewish women who endured a tense environment with Ukrainian and Estonian women who were also forced to work there. An atmosphere of tension borne of the anti-Semitic hatred for the Jews that was prevalent in much of those countries.

"But we ended up putting up with each other," Judy told me. "We had to, it was survival. Many of the women gathered up loose scraps of aluminum that dropped to the floor, and made pots and pans out of them in order to sell or trade to each other for scraps of food and to cook that food in."

That was toward the end of the war. Judy had already been through so much.

"In Auschwitz, people ask me what I remember and I tell them it's not the sights so much as the sounds. There were many gypsies in the camp, but they were allowed to stay in family units. Many women bore children in the camp. And for the most part they were left alone. But one day the Germans moved in and started killing them all. And the sounds of the screaming, you didn't know that people could make those sounds. It still haunts me all those years later."

On Monday, Judy was in New York at the United Nations, speaking to kids from the Pine Bush, New York school district as part of the UN March of the Living Exhibit, entitled "When You Listen to Witness You Become a Witness."

The quote from Judy so impressed the organizers that they used it as their motto.

Jewish students in the Pine Bush district, located 90 miles north of New York City, have complained in recent years of anti-Semitic epithets and nicknames, jokes about the Holocaust, being forced to retrieve coins from dumpsters and physical violence. Fellow students are accused of making Nazi salutes and telling anti-Semitic jokes.

Judy has spoken about here experiences to school kids for many years now.

The exhibit, which was launched on January 28, 2014, includes powerfully moving images and reflections in verse, gleaned from 25 years of March of the Living. The exhibit documents the stories of the aging survivors and their young students who travel to former camps to see what the survivors lived through.
There is also an interactive component of the exhibition that allows visitors to fill out their own pledge of tolerance and compassion which may appear at the UN, and taken on the March to Auschwitz-Birkenau and planted alongside thousands of other plaques.

Perhaps the biggest lesson from the holocaust and the genocide of millions and displacement of millions more is that the whole thing, as Judy points out "starts with words."

There is a rise in racist, anti-semitic and fascist thinking throughout Europe. In Judy's native Hungary, the JOBBIK party, whose leader Gabor Vona speaks of getting rid of "gypsy crime", was in London, England in January for a speaking engagement. He was trying to stir things up with the estimated 50,000 Hungarian immigrants living in the city.

The Guardian reports that JOBBIK is Hungary's third-largest party, winning 17% of the vote and nearly 50 seats in parliament. It also has a claim to be Europe's most overtly racist party. A favourite target is Hungary's Roma minority, which could number as many as 800,000. Vona was the founder of the now banned, quasi-military Magyar Garda (Hungarian Guard), whose garb and insignia evoke the pro-Nazi ultra-nationalist parties of Hungary's past.

In the Ukraine, the far right Svoboda party are also represented in parliament. They are overtly racist and anti-Semitic. Many of them are the leaders of the current uprising in the Ukraine, and want to shape any future governments to their way of thinking, not necessarily that of the European Union or the United States.

"Hateful ideas lead to hateful actions," Judy warned ominously. "The only hope is that a civilized society prevails."

Judy would know. She was there when words brought about World War Two and genocide. She is a witness. Sadly. my mother can no longer be one. And I'll never be able to ask her.