Survivors examine Christians' roles in Holocaust
April 14, 2008 11:15 AM
Anne-Marie Yellin held up a weathered yellow Star of David with the letter “J” in the middle, safety pinned to a sheet of black construction paper and preserved behind clear plastic.
The daughter of Jewish parents, Yellin was born in the small town of Chemnitz, two hours outside of Berlin, Germany. She remembered living a comfortable life, one in which her father owned a clothing store where her mother would help out.
She was 8 years old on the night of Nov. 9, 1938, known as Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass. That night Hitler’s Nazi army stormed into German Jewish businesses and homes, shattering the glass windows and destroying everything inside, her father’s business being one of them. The next day her father was taken away to Buchenwald, a concentration camp not far from her hometown.
Yellin shared her story at the sixth annual Day of Learning on April 13 at Mercy High School in San Francisco. Presented by the Holocaust Center of Northern California, this year’s remembrance specifically acknowledged 70 years since Kristallnacht. The day held a dozen workshops and participants could sign up for two, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Scholars and Holocaust survivors were on hand to facilitate discussions for all those who attended.
“In those days they did not take women, they just gathered all the males,” Yellin said. “My father was lucky because in those days there were no gas chambers, no extermination.”
Five months later her mother was able to obtain false papers saying the family was moving to Santiago, Chile (Yellin suspects her mother paid someone). A family friend drove her mother to Buchenwald and she presented the papers to the guards there. Her father was released from the camp a couple of months later, but she said he was “never the same.” The family was then able to escape to Brussels, Belgium, where they could be granted political asylum. After the Nazi invasion of Belgium in May of 1940, Yellin’s father sent her to be hidden with 800 other children in various Catholic convents in and around Brussels.
Carrie Schroeder, chair of the Religious Studies Department at Mercy High School, led a workshop entitled “Jews and Christians: Rival Siblings or Peaceful Partners?”
She said Yellin’s account is one of many stories of Christians helping Jews at the time, but there were also many people that kept silent.
“The relative silence of Christian leaders, both Catholic and Protestant, even people who did not actively cooperate or collaborate…the silence is deafening,” Schroeder said. “It was a colossal and tragic failure of leadership on the part of Christian leaders.”
Helen Farkas, author of the book “Remember the Holocaust” and a San Francisco resident, was a survivor of Auschwitz who spoke at the event. She was born in 1920 in Satu-Mare—a province of Transylvania—in Romania. The seventh of nine children, her father was a shoemaker and her mother, a homemaker. In September of 1940 Hitler had given Transylvania back to the Hungarians and, she said, “little by little our freedom became restricted.”
“It was the Nazi Hungarians who took us out of our homes into Auschwitz, murdered my family, my parents and most of my siblings,” Farkas said.
Farkas, 23 at the time, and her sister Ethel were able to stay together in Auschwitz and escaped the death march sometime in April of 1944. They pretended to be Hungarian refugees and ended up on the border of Czechoslovakia where they were put into a school and given food and a place to sleep.
“My sister and I lay very low so they don’t find out that we are Jews,” she said. “We pretended to be Hungarian refugees until the end of the war when we were liberated by the Americans and given the right to come to the United States.”
She remembered how much her father would talk about the United States when she was a little girl. He had been able to live in Brooklyn, New York for four years before World War I. She said it was his dream to bring his family back to live in the United States. Farkas and her sister were able to carry out that dream when they landed in New York in October of 1949.
“I’m grateful to God that I’m still able to do this mission that I undertook, teaching tolerance,” she said. “The only thing that can save the world is peace and love and respect for one another.”
Like Farkas, Yellin also mentioned tolerance several times when talking about what she has learned through her experience. She was told that she shouldn’t talk about what happened to her because no one would want to hear it. So it wasn’t until 1991 that Yellin told her story of being a “hidden child.” After her “coming out,” as she calls it, Yellin continues to share her experience with as many young people as possible in hopes of instilling the practice of tolerance amongst all the differences in the world.
“Accept things that you can’t change, but change the things that you can,” she said. “There are certain things we must accept, but try to change as much as we can, especially the young people. I feel then that we can make a better world.”
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