This year’s Yom HaShoah community-wide Holocaust commemoration, exploring the many dimensions of liberation from the perspective of liberators and the liberated, will take place on Sunday, April 19 at 2 p.m. at Congregation Anshei Israel.
“May I see the other ladies?” he asked.
“Ladies!” my brain repeated. He probably doesn’t know, I thought. I must tell him.
“We are Jews,” I said in a small voice.
“So am I,” he answered. Was there a catch in his voice or did I imagine it?
I could have embraced him but I was aware how dirty and repulsive I must be. “Won’t you come with me?” he asked.
This moment, the moment of liberation and humanity restored, appears on page 214 of Gerda Weissman Klein’s memoir “All But My Life.” In a well-known incident of Holocaust history, this moment was also the first encounter between Gerda and her future husband, Kurt Klein.
On page 215 Gerda leads Kurt to “the other ladies.” They encounter Lilli, who “was lying, covered with rags. She looked up, her eyes enormous, burning in their sockets. She looked up at my companion and her face lit up with a strange fire.”
Lilli spoke to Kurt in English. Her hands were shaking. Gerda only made out the words “happy” and “too late.”
Gerda describes Lilli: “Her eyes were fixed on the American, a solitary tear ran down her cheek. An ant was crawling over her chin.”
Shortly after this exchange, Lilli died.
This complex proximity of hope and despair, life and death, freedom and the realization that an entire civilization had been destroyed surround the history of liberation.
Soviet forces were the first to overrun a major Nazi concentration camp, Majdanek, near the town of Lublin, Poland, in July 1944. While the liberation of Nazi concentration camps was not a primary objective of the Allied military campaign, these forces continued to encounter and liberate concentration camps from July 1944 until Nazi Germany’s unconditional surrender on May 8, 1945 (Gerda Weissman Klein’s 21st birthday).
The April 19 event will include a procession of local Holocaust survivors and a candle lighting ceremony. Speakers will include Walter Feiger, a local survivor from Krakow, Poland, who will share his memories of being liberated from the Nazi camps.
Bryan Davis is director of the Jewish Community Relations Council and Holocaust education coordinator at the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona and interim executive director of the Jewish History Museum.