Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day, or, more formally, the International Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust. The date, set by UN Resolution, corresponds to the day that Auschwitz, the largest and deadliest concentration the Nazis ever built, was finally liberated. Approximately 1.1million prisoners, of which 1 million were Jews, were murdered in Auschwitz between 1941 To 1944. During the course of the war, over 10 million prisoners, of which 6 million were Jews, were murdered by the Nazis.
In my very first blog, written on September 3, 2015, I argued that references to “six million deaths” is in a sense counterproductive, in that the human brain is incapable of fully grasping the enormity of that number. Comparisons may help: six million is greater than the combined populations of Wyoming, Vermont, Alaska, South Dakota, North Dakota, Delaware and Rhode Island. If the murdered Jews constituted a separate state, it would be the 20th largest in the U.S. But even such comparisons fail to adequately convey what six million deaths mean. Only when the focus is brought down to an individual life can we emotionally engage and understand how tragic the loss of even that one life is.
Accordingly, in these blogs I have written about the individual victims of the Holocaust: Ilse Weber; Georges-André Kohn and the children of Bullenhuser Damm; Ruth Maier, Konrad Kaplan, and of course, Anne Frank. All of these people had dreams, loved, were loved, and their deaths, individually and collectively, constitute a rent in the fabric of the world.
Since the purpose of today’s commemoration is to remember the survivors as well as the dead, I would like to focus on just one Holocaust survivor who was also a friend of Odd Nansen’s: Leiba Wolfberg.
Leiba (aka Leif) Wolfberg was born in Lithuania in 1914; when he emigrated to Norway is unknown. Arrested on April 3, 1942, and sent to Grini in June 9, 1942, Wolfberg first appears in Nansen’s diary five days later, performing a violin duet with another prisoner. Less than two months later, on August 3 1942, Wolfberg once again merits mention in the diary—although for a much less enjoyable event.
Wolfberg is “called over” to be medically examined for his fitness to join a transport. When called, he hobbles out on a makeshift crutch, having just that day been operated upon for an infected foot. This infuriates the Nazi camp officials, who proceed to upbraid him and tear his bandage off. The Lagerkommandant, Denzer, screams: “’Here’s a lazy rascal of a Jew, been trying to dodge by going to the hospital for nothing at all.’ . . . . Poor Leiba was ordered to take his place in the column. He hobbled off, leaning on his stick. Denzer tore the stick from him in a fury, and swung it threateningly over his head; at the last moment he returned to his senses and hurled it with all his might over the new fence, into the wood.”
Wolfberg is then shipped off to Auschwitz, along with the majority of Norway’s Jewish prisoners, in late November 1942, and is not heard from again until two years later, in mid-November 1944, when he arrives in Sachsenhausen. Unlike most of his fellow Norwegian Jews, Leiba had managed to stay alive in Auschwitz. His skill on the violin got him a job playing in Auschwitz (which boasted a first-rate orchestra composed of prisoners), a job that brought slightly better food and working conditions.
On November 12, 1944, Nansen once again meets up with Wolfberg, and immediately notices a sea-change in his young friend:
“The Wolfberg I met again was quite different from the one I was with at Grini in 1942. That Wolfberg was a weakly, nervous boy, the type of boy one superficially and thoughtlessly calls a “coward.” He was afraid of dying at that time, mortally afraid of dying. The Wolfberg I met yesterday had no fear of death; he was no nervy Jewish lad, but a grown man who faced reality unblinkingly, with wide-open eyes. . . He was glad to meet me, and talked away about “the old days” at Grini, what a pleasant time we had, how different . . . . And then gradually he got talking of the years between. Auschwitz!
I believe it will be hard for posterity, indeed for other people at all, to grasp the depth of suffering and horror of which Auschwitz has been the frame.”
Apparently Wolfberg was again sent on for a time from Sachsenhausen to Lieberose, a subcamp. By mid-February 1945, however, he was back in Sachsenhausen proper again. And again Odd Nansen was impressed by his outlook:
“I was talking to Wolfberg again yesterday; he got out to see us. He evidently wasn’t expecting to come through this alive, poor fellow, but asked us in a curiously light, easy manner to give his love to common friends if we got through. No crematorium can impress him now, no hangmen, none of these inhuman horrors that still upset me, for a time at least. He is hardened, but at the same time it’s remarkable how he has preserved his warmth of heart and his subtle, pliant humanity.”
Three days later Nansen learns that Wolfberg is still alive, and may in fact have been “moved out of harm’s way.” But nothing is definite, and Nansen frets: “I don’t know [Wolfberg’s fate] and I don’t know how I’m to find out what happened to him.”
Well, Leiba Wolfberg did survive. His registration card was secretly altered to give him a new, non-Jewish identity—”Rolf Berg.” In this way he was evacuated to safety along with all other Norwegians, in the “white buses” operation.
Wolfberg, who had once assured Nansen “I shouldn’t care if I were going to the furnace tonight, I’m fully prepared for it,” lived out his days teaching violin in Norway, and performing with the Norwegian National Orchestra. What better rebuke to the hate visited upon him—to share his “pliant, subtle humanity” through the beauty of his music—the world’s universal language.
All this nevertheless leaves us with a question: Why? Why did Wolfberg survive, and others not? Why did Ilse Weber perish and her husband survive? Why did Anne Frank, her sister and her mother all die, and her father Otto survive? Why did Georges-André die, and his father Armand survive? Why did Mundek Buergenthal die and his wife and son survive? In studying the Holocaust, such inquiries unfortunately lead nowhere. As a guard in Auschwitz once remarked to Primo Levi: “In here there is no ‘why.’”
But focusing on the incredible achievements of those who did survive serves to underscore the “might have beens” for those who did not. Could Anne Frank become a wonderful novelist? Ilse Weber a famous poet? Georges-André a hospital director like his father?
So while we mourn the dead, and the potential lives they could have led, we can take some inspiration from the lives of the survivors—like Leiba Wolfberg, Otto Frank, Tom Buergenthal, and others—and in so doing, come to a deeper, more complete understanding of the Holocaust. Hopefully, this will in turn lead us to vow, with even greater conviction: Never Again.