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1 Soul Survivors of the Holocaust Ruth Mechanicus Guest Speaker


									Soul Survivors of the Holocaust
Ruth Mechanicus
Guest Speaker
Bloor Street United Church
Sunday, November 2, 2008 – Pentecost 25, Holocaust Education Week

      Matthew 5.1 – 12 The Beatitudes
      When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat
      down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught
      them saying:
              “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
              “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”
              “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”
              “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for
      they will be filled.”
              “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”
              “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”
              “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of
              “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for
      theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
              “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and
      utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be
      glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they
      persecuted the prophets who were before you.”


Dear friends, fellow Bloor Streeters
I feel privileged to be standing here and share some of my thoughts at the beginning of
Holocaust Education week.

Most of you know that I grew up in the Netherlands and lived there throughout the
German occupation during World War II. I was 13 when the war broke out and 14
when the Germans occupied The Netherlands. My father was Jewish, my mother was
not, and so, according to the German laws, I was allowed to stay in Holland, attend
school and live a “normal” life.

That, of course, did not hold true for those children who had a J stamped on their
identity cards, who had 3 or 4 Jewish grandparents – the measuring stick for being
Jewish – and who had to leave their schools to go to a school for Jewish children, Jewish
teachers in an artificially created Jewish ghetto – and who, a little later with their
families were caught, transported mostly to the transit camp Westerbork and from there
sent to Poland and the extermination camps.

Most of those children, and their parents and grandparents, were never heard of again,
except, perhaps, in the lists of the Red Cross: their names and their date of death. They
literally went up in the smoke of the extermination camps. Their lives, their stories,
their souls had disappeared without leaving a trace. There were no survivors who
could mourn them, who could tell their stories, who could remind us of their existence.

There are a few, very few, written records of their lives, of what they experienced, of
what happened to them and to the Jewry in the Netherlands. Jan Robert van Pelt, who
preached here some months ago, tells me that in total only 15 diaries survived from
Jews who did not survive the Holocaust. I call those diaries the Soul Survivors.

Most of you have heard of, or read, the Diaries of Anne Frank, and know not only what
it was like for her and her family to be hidden in the back part of a house in
Amsterdam, together with another family, crowded in a small space, but you have also
gotten to know Anne. Because of her diaries, we remember her.

In 1997, an old house in Amsterdam was demolished. Hidden in the ceiling of the
bathroom, the foreman of the demolition crew discovered 2 bundles, containing 86
letters, written by Flip Slier, a young man, 18 years old, to his parents.

The Germans had created “work camps” for unemployed men, whose unemployment
they themselves had created. The letters show a young man, full of confidence in his
health and in his ability to perform the heavy labour he was to perform, his concern for
his parents and many friends and relatives, the friendships he makes in the camp and
the help he receives from neighbouring farmers. He exhorts his parents not to let
anybody read his letters for fear that the farmers who befriended him and provided him
with extra food, would be found out by the Germans and punished. When the camp,
and the many others like it, is about to be closed, and all the inmates sent to
Westerbork, he escapes and finds his way back to Amsterdam, but in the end is found
and sent to his death in Sobibor.

The publishers/annotators have published his letters, painstakingly researching every
name Flip mentions in his letters, adding photos wherever possible and so wresting
many others from oblivion, since most of the relatives and friends Flip mentions in his
letters died also.

The annotators/publishers are here today: Ian Shine and Deborah Slier.

Irene Nemirovsky’s novel, Suite Francaise, posthumously published in 2004, was written
in the beginning of the German occupation of France and depicts the atmosphere of
panic in Paris when they knew the Germans were approaching. Many Parisians
fled the city, but returned after some weeks. Her beautiful descriptions of the people,
the landscape they traveled through, the atmosphere they found in the countryside,
give us an unforgettable impression of Paris in 1940, but also of Irene Nemirovsky

You may remember the name of Etty Hillesum. Both David Allan and Paul Fairley
have mentioned her in their sermons. Etty came from a cultured family: her father was
the principal of a classical High School; Etty read law at Amsterdam University and
studied Russian, the language of her mother. In her diaries, first published in the 80’s
and an instantaneous international success, she prays to rid herself of feelings of despair
and anger which she feels not only stain her own soul, but add to the negative forces of
the Universe. Working for the Jewish Council in Amsterdam, she volunteers to go to
Westerbork to help the old, the sick and the despairing. Later she herself is imprisoned
there and she, her brothers – one a doctor and the other a very talented musician, under
the protection of the conductor of the Concert Gebouw Orchestra – as well as her
parents, were sent to their death in the cattlecars that were used for transportation to

Whereas Etty’s diaries are mostly about her inner experiences and feelings, her
relationship to her friends and to God, my father’s diaries describe what went on
around him.

He, Philip Mechanicus, was the oldest boy in a very poor Jewish family of 6 sons. He
finished elementary school, and although the school’s principal wanted him to continue
his education, he had to go to work to help his mother look after the family. He
eventually became a well known journalist, traveled to Russia and what was then
known as Palestine and felt, when he was taken prisoner in 1942 and sent to
Westerbork, that it was his calling and his duty, to report what was going on in that
gate to hell. In contrast to many people in Westerbork, he had no illusions about the
“resettlement in the East” as it was euphemistically called. His diaries cover 9 months
in which, under the most dismal of circumstances, he describes the camp and its
inhabitants, its leaders, and the weekly transports of at least 1,000 people. He lived on
the third tier of bunkbeds with all his possessions in a dismal barracks, together with up
to 300 other people, but faithfully recorded what he saw and heard as he walked
around the camp.

Westerbork was built in the late thirties to house Jews fleeing from Germany after 1933,
and the original inhabitants of the camp resented the influx of thousands of Dutch Jews.
My father’s unofficial task was to try and lessen the tensions between the two groups.
Thanks to him, we know exactly what went on in that camp, and we know him for the
expert reporter he was.

He managed to smuggle his writings out of the camp to my mother in Amsterdam, who
in turn hid them among the schoolbooks of her sister who was a teacher in a smaller

His Diaries were published in the U.K. under the title “Waiting for Death”. Neither he,
nor 4 of his 5 brothers, their wives and daughters, survived the Holocaust. My two half
sisters went in hiding and survived.

I want to finish with a quotation from my father’s diary. It is the entry of February 1,
1944, about a month before he himself was put on transport to Bergen Belsen and from
there to Auschwitz. He describes the feelings seeing another large group of Jews being
taken to the trains for deportation:

      “We were not emotional about the goodbyes, nor have we ever been, at least as far
      as the Dutch are concerned. We have kept the sober restraint of our country and
      our language; we had a lump in our throats nevertheless, as we have had so often
      before at those farewell moments. They represent a great sea of misery, with all the
      feelings of pity and horror welling up from our hearts which on ordinary days are
      held down by the work of the camp and the discomforts of hut life. Every goodbye
      is like another splash in the sea of misery. It makes us rake up the sufferings and
      anxieties we have already gone through and try to imagine what the unknown
      future will be like. Thousands and thousands have gone away like this with the
      courage of despair in their hearts. In the eyes of those who have stayed behind
      they seemed to have disappeared into a dark cavern which closed again behind
      them. Where are you, you thousands and tens of thousands who have been
      carried away from one place to another – what has been your fate? You are silent
      because they will not let you speak. We stand there breathless with agitation and
      disgust and indignation – the emotions awakened in us by each successive
      transport. The tragedy in Holland is drawing to a close. The National Socialists
      have played with us for a long time in the Westerbork mousetrap. The majority of
      us have been chased into one mousetrap after another with the same dismal game
      being repeated again and again. Will the final small remnant be kept safe from
      transfer to these other traps?”

He dreams of escape, but decides against it, since it would mean a great risk to himself
and a terrible fate for so many others……

We owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to these exceptional and few Souls who in the
midst of incredible suffering, under the most inhuman living conditions, under the
daily threat of transportation to an unknown fate, wrote their diaries, their books, their
letters, and so brought some light in and to a period of immeasurable darkness.

Let their souls be remembered.


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