What is the greatest story ever told? The Great Gatsby? Romeo and Juliet? Possibly, although I believe they all pale in comparison to the story recounted by Benjamin Hoffman, a former reporter for the New York Times. I will let you decide, as you read his own words below.
In the late July 1980, I was summoned to take the D-Train down to Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, to interview an elderly woman out of Eastern Europe. A Holocaust survivor, I was told, she had been living in the U.S. for a few years. I was surprised to get the assignment – at the time, I was too well-known and way over-qualified, and certainly had no time for a talk with an elderly immigrant. Apparently, she had called and called, day after day, and finally my conscience prevailed – after all, my family, too, survived the Holocaust; soon, I found myself sitting in a dark room in an apartment on Coney Island Avenue.
Sarah Ackerman must have been in her 80s, seemingly in poor health, and yet her eyes were full of inquisitive life; she never stopped looking at me for even a moment. Her home attendant finally stepped out, leaving us to talk.
“You are Benjamin Hoffman, is that right?” she asked in a low voice. I nodded.
“I am sorry, Mr. Hoffman, I won’t take much of your time,” she continued, “These days, I am not even sure how much time I have left at all. I guess they will finally get their wish…”
“I am sorry, who will get their wish?”, I wasn’t sure what she meant.
“Well, that’s what they said to us in the camps – the Nazis would come in each morning and kick some of us, asking, “How are you still alive?”
She paused… “Look, I know I am 87, I am barely alive, but I never question why that happened to me, why they took so much of my life. I’ve seen too many things. It seems like a dream now… a nightmare. Some people couldn’t take it anymore and ran into the electrified fence to kill themselves. They just went up in flames… I know you’ve probably heard and read about all those things. But what I am about to tell you is something you could not read anywhere. I don’t want this to die with me, it is too important.”
“Before the war, I was a midwife. Yes, helping deliver babies. Now, I am not sure if you or anyone can truly comprehend what it meant to arrive to Auschwitz pregnant. We were all put in the line where Mengele sent people to the right or to the left. To the left, people were killed. To the right, they were sent to work. Pregnant women all went to the left. Some managed to hide their pregnancy for a while, some could not.
Women who found out they were pregnant at the camp were sometimes given abortions. It was my sad duty, but I was also in charge of helping women deliver when they were somehow able to carry to term. Most of the time, Nazis would simply declare babies stillborn, then drown them in buckets, often in front of the mothers who had just given birth… Almost always they would then shoot the mother on the spot or take her straight to the gas chamber.
I remember the first time they told me to drown the newborn, I refused. I was taken to Mengele himself, and I again refused. Why he did not kill me then, no one knows. But he just waved me off and I was still allowed to deliver babies. Despite knowing that most babies I delivered would be killed, I could not help but try to do whatever possible to keep at least some of them alive.
This is when I met Rachel, a pregnant Polish woman. How she managed to hide her growing belly I will never know. She was at about 7 months to term when she went into labor, right in the barracks. I can still remember her screams as her labor pains began… You can imagine – we had no running water, no blankets, no supplies. I managed to have her lie on the brick stove in the center of the barracks—the only place that could accommodate a laboring woman. The Nazi guard was standing at the entrance, smiling, waiting for the baby so he could murder it, I am sure…
She had the most difficult labor I’d ever witnessed, at Auschwitz or ever in my life. She screamed in never-ending, terrible pain. We were all very distressed, as we could do nothing but watch; even the guard lost his smile and stood in the doorway, his mouth half-open. Finally, she gave birth to this tiny premature baby, a boy! Rachel was breathing so hard and so fast; she never stopped crying. The Nazi guard started walking toward her, his hand on the leather holster, but Rachel saw nothing, she just kept extending her hand to the baby… He was so tiny and fragile – we finally carefully put him in her arms. Rachel cried out ‘meyn zun!’ – my son – and then took her last breath… She died in childbirth.
The guard turned around and just muttered ‘Get rid of the baby.’ I cannot describe to you how tiny the baby was, born 2 months premature; he had no chance at all, we all knew it, and yet what could we do? I hid him in my coat and took him to the women who were nursing their children in secret. He had no parents and no name, but I called him Binyamin, as I could not stop thinking of how similar this all was to the Biblical Rachel’s dying after she gave birth…”
Sarah took a moment to collect her thoughts.
“What happened to the baby”, I asked. “I assume he didn’t make it?”
“Believe it or not, he did. Even though he was nursed only occasionally by some of the women, he was still there day after day, hanging on. I carried him inside my coat, hoping my body heat would be enough to keep him warm and alive.
Then one morning, the Nazis forced all of us on a freight train with open boxcars without food, without water. They wanted us to die. We were on that train for three days. People were dying, lying on the floors, it was just hell. I drifted in and out of consciousness, yet somehow, I always thought about the baby inside my coat. Finally, one other woman and I worked up the courage to jump off the train during the night, when the train was moving slower. We just kept on running and running until we reached a Polish village. I left the child at the church the next morning, and I know he survived, a true miracle. I heard that he was moved to Kloster Displacement Persons Camp and later adopted by a Jewish family who lost their own child during the war. I know they moved to the United States two or three years later.”
I looked up – “Oh, really? So, were you able to get in touch with the family? Perhaps I could help you track them down?”
“I have”, replied Sarah, her eyes tearing up. “Took me some time to find Binyamin, and even longer to get him to come to my apartment so I could look at him again… To look at you. To know that I was able to tell you the truth.”
For the first time in my life, I couldn’t speak, I could not process what she had just said. It didn’t make any sense, and yet it made all the sense in the world. My heart knew I had finally found my beginning.