Saturday, October 10, 2015

Sabina Wolanski

A little girl was born in Poland in 1927 in the city of Boryslaw. Her name was Sabina Wolanski and her childhood was uneventful until the age of 11 when the Nazis took over the city. Despite horrors and the loss of her family, the young girl survived, making a new life for herself in Australia. In 1967 she gave evidence against the man who had killed her father and brother. 

In 2005 Germany opened a memorial in Berlin to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust. Called the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, it consists of a 19,000m2 site upon which 2,711 concrete slabs (known as “stelae”) have been constructed, arranged in rows and of varying heights. An underground information centre documents the persecution and extermination of European Jewry and records the names of the 6 million Jewish victims of the Holocaust. 

According to designer and architect Peter Eisenmann, the stelae are designed to produce an uneasy, confusing atmosphere, and the whole sculpture aims to represent a supposedly ordered system that has lost touch with human reason. Others have noted the memorial's resemblance to a cemetery.

(Controversy was caused when in 2003 it was revealed that Degussa, the company making the anti-graffiti substance painted onto the stelae had been involved in various ways in the Nazi persecution of the Jews and that a Degussa subsidiary, Degesch, had produced the Zyklon B gas used in the Nazi gas chambers).

The memorial was dedicated on 10 May 2005, 60 years after the end of World War 11.

Amongst the various speakers and dignitaries was Sabina Wolanski, chosen to represent the murdered Jews of Europe.

Her speech is worth reading and it appears below, In today’s climate of religious intolerance, cultural conflicts, warfare, civil unrest and a dearth of charity, it still has relevance and resonance.

Speech by the Holocaust survivor Sabina van der Linden, née Haberman, at the inaugiration of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

Chairman of Yad Vashem,
my dear Holocaust-survivors,
Ladies and Gentlemen!

Not even in my wildest dreams could I have dreamed of this extraordinary day. Here, in this very place, after many years of controversies, public disputes, debates that have taken place and the Bundestag Resolution of the 25 June 1999 the vision of Lea Rosh and the people around her has come true. And today I am standing here before you at the inauguration of this magnificent Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, and I thank you for it. I am humbled by the honor bestowed on me and overwhelmed by the responsibility. For I am the voice of the six million tortured and murdered Jews of which one and a half million were children and I am also the voice of the lucky few – the voice of survivors.

I am the only one of my whole family who survived. I am a witness to the unbearable crimes against the humanity. Try not to see the elderly woman standing before you, but an 11 year old girl from Boryslaw, a small town in former Poland. The date is the 1 July 1941, a significant date – the German army occupies our town. Three days later: a pogrom lasting two days, the first taste of what our life was going to be under the rule of Nazi Germany. German authorities have given a "free hand" to the Ukrainian and Poles who attacked their unprotected Jewish neighbours. I, an 11 year old child, witness indescribable cruelty, murders, rape and torture. Bewilderment, total incomprehension – why? Why is this happening? How can people, ordinary people be so heartless and cruel? Why is it happening to us? We did not do anything wrong. Weeks pass. I have to wear an armband with the Jewish star, why? I am not allowed to keep my bellowed dog and cat, why? My friends are not allowed to play with me anymore; I am not allowed to go to school, why?

The time passes and the killings and deportations continue. The despair, degradations, hunger, humiliations – and still desperately trying to cling to the last shreds of dignity, This has become our daily life. On the 6 August [1942] an “Aktion”* lasting three days begins. My mother and I are in hiding, but our place is discovered and we are taken to a place where a selection is made. I am hanging desperately to my mother’s hand but I am brutally separated from her and taken out to work to a different place from where I am released after a few days. I never see my mother again. It was not after many months later that the rumors reached us about the Belzec death camp, and this is where she an the five thousand other Jewish victims from the same transport were put to death by gassing.

And again the daily life, if one could call it life, devoid of any hope continued. From "Aktion" to "Aktion", trying to hide, building bunkers in the forest, escaping deportation – the struggle to survive, the mean desperate struggle. And the fear, paralyzing fear …

My father and my brother Joseph were looking for a safe haven for me. So they approached some of our Christian friends asking if they would shelter me. And those descent, brave people have taken me into their home risking their own lives, because hiding a Jew was punishable by death. And so I lived controlling my emotions, hiding my identity, in constant fear of discovery. And when it became too dangerous for our friends to protect me any longer my brother took me to the bunker in the forest which he and his friend have built. Whilst I was hiding in the forest, my father, my brother and my brother’s best friend were in the labor camp. They tried to escape but they were caught and as a warning to other Jews who were still in the camp they were killed on the order of the inspector of the camp. It was in the morning on the 19 July 1944. Seventeen days later, on the 6th of August, the Soviet Army liberated our small town Boryslaw.

It happened such a long time ago, 60 years ago. Memories fade slightly but are never forgotten. And what are my thoughts and my feelings as I stand here before you gazing at my family, my son and daughter, their partners, my grandchildren and my husband who all traveled from far away Australia to be with me, to protect me with their love and support? What have I learned from my bitter experience? I have learned that hatred begets hatred. I have learned that we must not remain silent and that each of us as an individual must fight the evil of racism, discrimination, prejudice, inhumanity. I have repeatedly said that I do not believe in the collective guilt. And if I may paraphrase the great writer and an exceptional man Elie Wiesel: "The children of the killers are not killers. We must never blame them for what their elders did. But we can hold them responsible for what they do with the memory of their elder’s crime."

It has been the lot of out people to confront the worst manifestation of evil in the human history, and yet our oppressors have perished and we have survived.

And from this perspective we face out future, confident in the ultimate triumph of the human spirit over brute force. A victory not only for Jewish people but a victory of all decent people over evil.

Ladies and gentleman, thank you.

* Aktion: term used for any non-military campaign to further Nazi ideals of race, but most often referred to the assembly and deportation of Jews to concentration or death camps.

Sabina Wolanski passed away in Sydney in 2011, aged 84 years.

Sabina van der Linden-Wolanski before her family history in the Room of Families in the Information Centre, in 2010

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