Auschwitz 75 years on: The Holocaust’s toll for one Dublin family
Judith Mok lost 164 family members in the Holocaust. She writes of living without fear
Jews alight from a train in the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp on May 27th, 1944. Photograph: Yad Vashem Archives /AFP/ Getty Images
On April 7th, 1944, Hyman Mok and Elizabeth Mok-Blitz, both aged 64, my grandparents, arrived in Auschwitz, and were sent straight to the gas chambers. I learned this exact date and place a few years ago, on a grey Dublin morning I will never forget.
I had decided, after much hesitation, to start writing a memoir about my lost family, and my youth in Holland. I knew quite a lot about their lives, and even the details of how they had packed their suitcases and driven to the train station in Amsterdam to start their journey east. But after that, very little.
So that morning I decided to ring Westerbork, the Dutch transit camp where Jews were processed on their way to their final destination in Auschwitz and other camps. Before calling, I briefly touched my grandfather’s prayer shawl, his tallit, that is draped over a chair in my workspace. I touched it the way I stroke it every morning by way of greeting his memory.
A kind person at the Westerbork offices answered my call and provided me with the exact information about my grandparents and my aunt Saar, my father’s only sister, a brilliant pianist, who was also murdered in Auschwitz.
Through my windows I could see the light sweeping over the Dublin mountains when the softly-spoken woman on the phone asked me if she should email me some more details about the rest of my family members? The camp records had been carefully archived and then digitalised, so everything was at her fingertips. I stared at the view outside my window, Ireland, pockets of green trees, clouds drifting by, and thanked her. Yes, that would be a good idea.
A few minutes later I felt as if it all was happening to me in real time: I was standing beside the train and couldn’t keep any of those tumbling out onto my computer screen from travelling towards a certain death. Slowly I pencilled a mark in my notebook for every baby, teenager, adult, until I had created a small wall of 164 short stripes. One hundred and sixty-four members of my family that were murdered in the strictly organised Nazi camps – a wall I had to be able to jump over in order to be able to tell the world about it. Because I felt I needed to write about them, those that were gone.
The email showed me they had gone to Sobibor, Treblinka, Maidanek, but the main camp that took them was Auschwitz, a name I was very familiar with since my childhood. I heard it from my parents and their friends, fellow survivors, whenever my classmates or playmates asked me why I had no grandparents, aunts, uncles or cousins.
Looking back, I realise that the awareness of death was all around me. My father, the Dutch poet Maurits Mok, and his brave wife had survived the war, and then, after the war, had always looked towards the future: the important thing was to live. But one day, towards the end of his life, my father sat down and cried, something I had never seen him do before. He told me he wanted to visit Auschwitz and build a monument for his sister. My response was a helpless silence.
A few days later he died, leaving us with a tiny, yellowing piece of paper folded into one of his favourite books by Paul Celan, an old Red Cross typed list of those close to him that were murdered.
My father and mother left us to be the second generation, the ones who had to tell what had been ripped away from us, what had been done to us. When the wonderfully talented young Irish musicians who come to my house look at the scarce photos of my family, I see the disbelief in their eyes. They see the women in their hats and elegant finery, the vigorous young men all clad in white playing tennis on the court beside their house.
I don’t tell them I see only murder. I don’t mention the bodies, the stinking smell of ash particles coming out of the chimneys of Auschwitz where they were burnt. I don’t tell them about the endless pain, the fundamental fear I witnessed as a child in the few people who came back from Auschwitz and other camps. How they struggled to live with the knowledge of what happens when people join together to murder on an incomparable scale.
I am writing this in Dublin’s Portobello, once a thriving Jewish quarter, but now there are only a handful living there. A few years ago, when there was a controversy about a mooted Jewish Museum in the area, a neighbour said to me: “You people always stick together.” You people. That’s how it starts.
I like to think of myself as a European. But in recent months, travelling for work to various European cities, it is impossible to ignore the emergence, or rather re-emergence, of old attitudes. Fear is in the air. After the war my father wrote, in a poem about my sister and I: “From fear...we were liberated by a late harvest of four skyblue children’s eyes”. I never felt the fear, his fear.
I have my own family now, a partly Irish one. When I touch my grandfather’s prayer shawl, the one he should have been buried in, I realise that I will never be able to understand or forget what has been done to him. But I do hope that we will continue to live without fear.
Judith Mok is a classical singer and writer. She has recently completed her memoir, The State Of Dark