|Wrapping the Dead in Silence?|
Dr. Anna Elisabeth Rosmus
Following the liberation of the labor camp at Schlupfing1 and the Kirchham concentration camp2 near Pocking in Northeastern Bavaria by General Patton's Third Army, on May 2nd 1945,3 the few Jewish survivors set up their own communities. Survivors of other camps joined them.4 Their coexistence with the inhabitants of the surrounding Catholic farming villages was marked by conflict and distrust.
Supported by various American relief organizations, the community achieved some stability, but the barracks had no heat, no running water and toilets.5 As many encountered vicious pogroms in their former hometowns, at least 1,000 additional Polish survivors left Kielce, Cracow and other towns in Eastern Europe and came to Pocking in 1946.6 Soon, there were over 8,000 of them.7 The locals met this flourishing community with open mistrust and often hatred.8 The foreigners were not tolerated, but once again ostracized.9 For decades, a patch of farmland was bearing witness of the survivors' hardship.10
In 1945 many of the infants born in the Pocking camp died shortly after their birth. Their death toll was strikingly high; much higher than in adjacent camps for displaced persons (DPs). As the Jews of Pocking could not afford to bury their children in existing Jewish cemeteries farther afield; to give them a ritual burial, they established a temporary burial ground of their own, just beyond the concentration camp memorial on Highway B 12.11
The military government became alarmed. The ensuing investigation had shocking results: Jewish parents testified that in the first months after the war their infants were being killed by a midwife. Solomon B.12 reported that the midwife pushed a dirty needle into the babies' fontanelles, a small and extremely sensitive spot on their skulls. An American court, he stated, subsequently sentenced the midwife to prison for life. Abraham E.13 recalled this affair to have received wide attention.
At that point the Americans hired Frederick Orenstein,14 who had received his medical education in France and practiced in Warsaw before the war.15 A survivor of various camps himself,16 he was now part of an UNRRA17 team and the areas' chief obstetrician.18 Every week, he helped deliver several babies, whose numbers peaked nine months after the liberation of their parents. Still, more children died; mostly due to a lack of folic acids, the consequence of their parents' chronic malnourishment in the concentration camps.19 These children were also buried in the new cemetery. Soon, there were fifty two newborns and three adults.20
Erasing the past
When the fence around the Jewish children's cemetery was ripped out in 1948, the Jewish community filed suit on the grounds of desecration of a cemetery. But the senior state attorney refused to investigate the case. He expressed the opinion that someone had simply needed the wire and the wooden fence posts and had walked off with them.21
The Jews of Pocking then received a clear ultimatum: By February 14, 1949, all DPs had to leave.22 The remaining 500 left the barracks on the night of the 13th, heading for Marseilles via Munich.23 The Passauer Neue Presse reported about "clearing out the Pocking DP camp. Everything was taken apart, from the water pump to the window panes".24 Today, no trace of the camp is left.
The Hebrew word for cemetery means "place of graves", "dwelling place of eternity", also "dwelling place of all life" and "house of the living". A cemetery is traditionally laid out at least 50 yards from the nearest house.25 The care taken of this place since the Talmudic period is reflected in the saying that Jewish gravestones are better kept than royal palaces.26 This spot is not to be used for any other purpose. Even the traditional tallit (prayer shawls) and tefillin (phylactery) may not be worn there, and no Torah scrolls are to be read, least the dead feel ashamed that they are no longer able to participate in the ritual.
This cemetery is different. The bodies of the 52 children and three adults are still lying there today. The graves were not taken into custody of the state administration, since the Free State of Bavaria claimed that they did not belong to the category of graves of "victims of war and the regime of violence" which the state is obliged to maintain.27
The graves were soon indiscernible: in the fifties the communal administration sold the cemetery to a farmer who owned land adjacent to it. He acquired the strip of land for pennies.28 Since that time, not only grass has been allowed to grow over the bodies but also corn and rapeseed. "Not potatoes," explained the farmer, " they would just grow right into the corpses."
Private initiatives to restore memory
Since November 9, 1985, I have referred again and again to these graves and the boundless negligence they have suffered. Since 1988 there has been detailed documentation to this effect in the press and on radio and television. I published relevant documents in my books Wintergreen- Suppressed Murders, and Pocking.29
For ten years, I demanded in vain that all the inscriptions be restored in full and that the graveyard be re-dedicated. There were responses from the "rest" of the world. Morley Safer from CBS TV program 60 Minutes considered the whole situation so evil that he came over and did two segments about it since 1994.30 Canada's Prime Time News and dozens of other TV stations reported about the horrible desecrations and the perverted bias. In Bavaria, nobody was willing to restore the sacred places. After all, it happened decades ago, and the victims were foreigners, not locals.
The archives of Pocking allegedly held nothing about the graves, and the population did not want to talk about it. In general, they want to disassociate themselves from the burial ground. In March 1993, Athra Kadisha from Israel was discussing flying to occupy this field, as had been done with a piece of property in Hamburg in 1991. The Jewish community of Gothenborg, Sweden, planned in September 1992 to come "in large numbers and with a throng of reporters" in order to say Kaddish here in public.
But it was only on May 2, 1995, the fiftieth anniversary of the liberation of the Kirchham concentration camp, that a Rabbi once again prayed here: Rabbi Paul Silton traveled from Albany, New York, for this express purpose.31 He was accompanied by some survivors32 and Miriam Griver-Meisels, a former DP-child of Pocking.33 They all said Kaddish for the dead34 Blue and white flowers in the shape of a star of David were laid. The ribbon read "remember the children."35
The grain field beyond highway B 12 has become a memorial of a special kind. The dead children who lie there are not simply children whose parents were in a concentration camp, they are dead children whom no one wanted to acknowledge. Dead children who are publicly effaced. More than grass has covered them up in Germany, the country of the Nazi perpetrators, only a few years after the war.
I was determined to cooperate with some of the survivors and DP children, who longed for a memorial. We would build one ourselves. I was certain that Gerda Fraundorfer36 from Bavaria's government would not dare to prevent the survivors and myself from setting it up. After all, the graveyard is theirs. She has never been entitled to interfere.37 Ten more years would pass, however, for that plan to materialize.
When I informed Shelly Shapiro and Rabbi Paul Silton from Temple Israel in Albany, N.Y., about the project, Holocaust Survivors & Friends in Pursuit of Justice established a tax-deductable account. The American Jewish Committee assisted us to raise the neccessary funds. While I created a sketch with obvious symbolism, Faye Sholitan in Cleveland, Ohio started a letter campaign. After that, Gerda Fraundorfer acknowledged the existence of this cemetery and promised to take care of it. As the evidence for the children's cemetery mounted and public pressure increased to do something about it, Gerda Fraundorfer decided to place a small granite cubeat the site.38 No public statement, no ceremony or anything else; the granite staircase leading up there, from the memorial site for the victims of the concentration camp was still in shambles. One could not use it without risking a serious fall. There was still no handrailing that would allow visitors to hold on to.
For the 60th anniversary of VE-day, in 2005, Holocaust Survivors, US veterans and I were ready to return. For the dedication ceremony, I chose May 6th, the international Yom Ha Shoah - the day of Remembrance. I would accompany former DP- children,39 veterans and widows of men in General Patton's Third US army back to Pocking; in 1945, these divisions had liberated the camp and guarded its inmates until they were safe. Now, they wanted to bring their spouses, children and grandchildren to see wether the dead from back are still surrounded by communal silence.
Fritz Hirsch at Stein Schwate, a local firm that specializes in headstones for graveyards, agreed to wrap a Star of David around the existing cube. For months, Anny and Georg Rosmus, a retired teacher and a principal in Passau, continuously monitored the location, they called and faxed back and forth between Germany and the USA to ensure the progress of the work.
On May 1st, 2005 the monument was firmly in place.40 Subdued grey granite from the Bavarian Forest was used to shape the star's outlining; blood-colored, meandering veins run across its heart, embracing the solid cube, as if holding an urn; the kind the Nazi regime used to send out to the families of those "deceased". Gory remnants of a specific point in time embraced by a timeless, elegant star under the open sky.
Because Gerda Fraundorfer still did not see any reason to clear any of the wild brush or to repair the staircase and the handrail,41 before the elderly visitors headed for airplanes, Anny Rosmus turned to Pocking's Mayor Josef Jakob. He immediately agreed to put in all that work at the expense of his community. In addition, he offered some volunteers to guide the visitors across the gravel field and then up there.42
Students of Passau's School for Foreign Languages translated all remarks for the memorial dedication, so that both audiences, locals and their visitors from the past, could follow. A flute ensemble from the Wilhelm Diess Secondary School in Pocking practiced Jewish melodies.
After 60 years of persistent silence in this region, many people truly united; local hospitality matched the outgoing guests.43 For two days in a row, Mayor Jakob sent a driver to the airport in Munich, to pick up his guests of honor: A plane from Israel carried Miriam44 and Yehudit, the daughters of Rabbi Lipot Yehudah Meisels and their sons Yair45 and Naaman. A plane from the United States brought in Shelly Shapiro,46 the builder of the monument. Pocking's driver also picked up Gina Roitman,47a writer from Montreal who used to live in the DP camp with her family.
On May 6th, in pouring rain, we dedicated the new monument. Side by side with the children who once lived in the town of Pocking respectively in the adjacent DP camp, stood once again US veterans from the 65th and 71st division. The ceremony came inmidst of their tour that spanned two weeks of retracing their combat route; within the many events in the last ten cities, their first "Jewish" event contributed a visibly emotional touch.
After Yehudith Mazor was lighting yellow commemorative Jahrzeit candles, and Lower Bavaria's district Rabbi Shlomo Appel began to sing the El Moleh Rahmim, her sister Miriam commemorated their father, Yehuda Lipot Meisels, who built both cemeteries and buried the children; Naaman Mazor and Yair Griver recalled their grandfather, before I closed the circle and talked about our close cooperation since he passed away.48
All remarks, commemorating those who suffered and cared, reflected their indomitable will to build bridges, here, there, and everywhere. For the first time ever, the Catholic church chorus from St. Ulrich sang the Jewish Partisan Hymn Zog nit keynmol by Hirsch Glick.
As a toddler, Bea Grace helped to shape the first star of David over those graves, with long stemmed white roses her grandmother bought. Now, she returned in US military fatigue49 to introduce the survivor and obstetrician Frederick Orenstein, before she carried two intertwined hearts up the stairs, one formed of deep blue forget-me-nots, hugging the other in white baby breath.
The granite star itself was now embraced by a group of knowledgeable friends and active allies.50 Shelly Shapiro, Director of the Holocaust Survivors & Friends Education Center in Albany, NY dedicated it and Human Rights Commissioner Susan Pentlin from Missouri talked about DP mothers and their undying love for their children.51 She concluded with the words: "Today, these Jewish babies have hopefully found some peace and this memorial is a reminder to this community of the love and dignity every human being deserves. "Gina Roitman, one of the surviving DP-children, read From A to Z, one of her poems.
Cameras could not get enough of it. The Daily Gazette52 (Schenectady NY) and the Jewish World53 reported on the dedication. Photographs from the Passauer Neue Presse began to circle the globe, and a Canadian tv crew was shooting scenes for Jane Hawtin's up-coming documentary I am a Jew.54
Afterwards, the orthodox Rabbi Shlomo Appel from Israel said Kaddish in his synagogue,55 while local non-Jews and the liberal US Air Force Rabbi Donald Levy56 presented a rather traditional Sabbath service and meal at Passau's legendary Grand City Hall; it was the first ever held there, in public, to and with the few Jews who made it and returned.
The Student Association of Foreign Languages sang: "We are the people of the 21st century."57 Yehudith Mazor lit the Sabbath candles. Yair Griver and Naaman Mazor said blessing over the bread; Fred Plotke, the son of Passau's Trudl Burian, blessed the wine. Hanns-Christian Niederfeilner (cello) and Katharina Brunner (piano) presented a pièce en forme de habanera by M. Ravel and excerpts from the Concerto in C-major by J. Haydn.
While seniors and youngsters, Americans and Canadians, Germans and Israelis enjoyed a kosher-style dinner, the Catholic singer/composer Martin Göth58 presented his own peace songs, and some from all involved societies. As he began to play Israeli melodies on the Steinway Grand Piano, Miriam, the president of Hadassah Israel, and others jumped up from their seats and began to dance - with local non-Jews.
In due time, however, the audience was reminded that freedom is never free. Passau-born Gina Roitman read her poem O History Mine! Bea Grace, the Passau-born legal specialist from the Center of the Judge Advocate General, recalled her turning 19 at the Tigris in Baghdad in 2003. Maynard Hanson59 recalled his turning 19 the night he crossed the Danube in Bavaria, in 1945. Film clips from 60 years ago showed Russian and American officers celebrating VE-day in the woods of Passau.
When Robert Patton, the immediate Past President 65th Division,60 talked about his love for German wine and played once again the Danube Boogie-Woogie, as he had done 60 years ago, before crossing the mighty Danube River, Georg Rosmus, a German War Veteran (and then briefly a US POW at age 17), presented him with a bottle of such wine. In the very end of the long evening, the Hungarian survivor Lewis Kest61 recalled his work for UNRRA and IRO62 in the Passau region. From Passau's conservative Lord Mayor Albert Zankl to the media,63 everybody pulled along nicely. In a sincere effort to comprehend the still unknown and in a newly found appreciation for it, they created a grand gesture that will reverberate for years to come, and help to shape a new path worthwhile pursuing.
A constant crossing of bridges between different parties and individuals made the whole day flow smoothly; be that between locals and foreigners, between clergy and non-believers, over eighty year-old survivors and three-year old children in the chorus, Jews and Non-Jews mingling on all levels. The concept of inclusion and a systematic effort to keep everything the way the guests were explicitly comfortable with paid off nicely for all. As a result, the dead from back then will no longer be wrapped in the much dreaded silence. They are embraced by the living.
Anna Rosmus, from Passau, Germany, who as a teenager discovered her hometown's hidden Nazi past, is the real-life heroine of the Oscar-nominated film The Nasty Girl. For 25 years she has dedicated her life to uncovering anti-democratic forces in her hometown in Bavaria and to combating the extreme right in Germany. In order to honor and preserve their memory, Anna Rosmus has interviewed numerous survivors from the Passau area. Her struggle for the truth led to threats against her life.
Anna Rosmus was awarded the highest honor of the German Jewish Community, the Galinski Prize. As a free lance writer, Anna Rosmus has contributed numerous articles to various scholarly anthologies, magazines and newspapers, such as La Pensée et les Hommes, Holocaust and Genocide Studies, The New York Times, The European and Aufbau.
Despite the opposition of her teachers and of the people who ran Bavaria's educational establishment in the late 1970s, Rosmus decided to examine the history of the town of Passau during the years of the Third Reich. She has never stopped, and in the process has found the bodies and identified living culprits.
Her books include Pocking: End and Renewal, Exodus: In the Shadow of Mercy,
A biography of Anna Rosmus was published in 1994 by Hans Dieter Schütt: Anna Rosmus-The Witch of Passau.
The University of South Carolina released her books Against The Stream.
To many, Anna Rosmus represents the legacy of the Holocaust in memory, education and action in the continuing struggle against bigotry and terrorism.
Footnotes to be added soon.