I was 17 and surviving in the wild, but I'd fled humanity at its worst

British Jews get a rare window of opportunity to see camps with survivors

By Naftali Schiff, July 15, 2010
Eddie Weinstein revisits Treblinka

Eddie Weinstein revisits Treblinka

It was not just any trip to Poland's concentration camps. One of the most powerful visits ever made to Treblinka, Sobibor and Auschwitz took place last week, in the run-up to Tisha b'Av.

The visit brought together three survivors: 86-year-old Eddie Weinstein, the only able-bodied survivor to have escaped the Treblinka death camp still alive today; Thomas (Toivi) Blatt, 83, the only survivor of Sobibor able to give first-hand testimony today; and Eva Neuman, 82, from Manchester.

The three were the focus of a four-day journey to Poland organised by JRoots, established in Britain specifically to transmit the Holocaust and the legacy of survivors in the most authentic manner possible.

Its journeys to Poland - this year there have been 20 - offer participants an opportunity to understand the Holocaust through the eyes of survivors.

Last week was one of the most powerful trips the group has ever run, taking in Treblinka, Warsaw, Sobibor, Lublin, Krakow, and Auschwitz.

The 30 participants on the trip were primarily aged 30 to 50, from all parts
of Anglo-Jewry.

Eddie Weinstein, author of 17 Days in Treblinka, now lives in New Jersey.

With his student grandson Josh at his side, Eddie, born in Lomze, Poland, related how, despite being shot and wounded upon arrival in Treblinka, he survived there and witnessed the camp's atrocities.

In 1941, aged just 17, he escaped by smuggling himself onto a train pulling out of Treblinka piled high with plundered clothes, eventually jumping off the train and hiding in the dyke of a fishpond for 18 months.

It was Eddie's initiative which brought this JRoots trip about.

He was visiting Poland to take part in a Yad Vashem ceremony, awarding the title of Righteous Among the Nations to the fisherman in whose pond he had taken refuge. Both he and Toivi Blatt had taken part in JRoots visits to Poland previously.

Toivi Blatt survived the famous rebellion and escape from the notorious Sobibor death camp. He was shot in the jaw and left for dead by the Polish farmer in whose pigsty he was hiding. He wrote the memoir from the Ashes of Sobibor - a Story of Survival. The uprising was recorded in the Hollywood film, Escape from Sobibor.

Last week Toivi, who came from Izbitz, Poland, and today lives in Santa Barbara, California, walked through Sobibor with the group, explaining in detail the gruesome workings of this death factory, as well as the triumphant rebellion in which he played a key role.

Eva Neuman, 82, now of Manchester, was captured on film in May 1944, in the only official photographic record of a transport arriving at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Immortalised in Yad Vashem's Auschwitz Album, the photograph depicts her transport arriving from Hungary, together with over 300 family members.

Last week Eva, who came from Solyva on the Hungarian-Czech border, stood by the Auschwitz crematoria that consumed her family and friends, and shared with the JRoots group the power of Jewish memory and destiny.

Silent for 60 years, she now regularly accompanies JRoots groups and was honoured with the Norwood "Woman of the Year" award for her fortitude.

These survivors feel no need for pretence.Their proud desire for living memory, for Jewish continuity, for genuine joie de vivre and for courage to stand up and be counted, is readily apparent and truly impactful to all.

We can learn from our survivors

The days leading up to Tisha b'Av are those in which we seek authenticity and genuineness in order to break out of the endless cycle of needless hatred that bedevils our people.

The Talmud tells us that it was the habitual religiosity and the lack of respect for others that caused the destruction of the Temple. Survivors are the antidote to superficiality.

Spending time in the company of such remarkable people can help us to re-evaluate and realign so that we can learn the lessons of our history.

Every survivor who is with us today should be treated as a national treasure.

We have so much to learn from each one.

People often ask, "Why go back to Poland? Isn't it time we moved on?"

For me, despite the pain and destruction, the journey to Poland is not one of guilt or of trauma.

We live in a virtual world, one of superficiality and quick-fix solutions.

So much of our identity as 21st century Jews tragically mirrors this skin-deep relationship with a heritage that has survived and flourished the vagaries of 35 centuries.

Rabbi Naftali Schiff is the founder and director of JRoots

    Last updated: 12:50pm, July 15 2010