Farewell letter from Auschwitz reminds us why we remember

Writing in the shadow of a gas chamber, Chaim Herman penned his final goodbye to his wife, knowing that he would not live to see her again

January 27, 2023 10:50

There is little in life that is as ordinary as a row with someone we love. And Chaim Herman sometimes bickered with his wife Simone.

We know that because in 1944, he wrote in a letter to Simone: “I ask your forgiveness, my dear wife, if there had been, at various times, trifling misunderstandings in our life.”

But this apology to a spouse is part of an extraordinary story, forged in truly unimaginable circumstances.

Chaim was a prisoner in Auschwitz. He was writing in the shadow of the gas chamber, as one of the Sonderkommando —- Jewish prisoners forced by the Nazis to work in and around the crematoria.

As witnesses to mass murder, they were regularly selected for death. Chaim wrote as the Sonderkommando planned a revolt against the Nazis. A revolt they knew would almost certainly lead to their deaths.

His letter concludes: “I am sending you my last farewell forever; these are my last greetings. I embrace you most heartily for the last time and I beg you once more; do believe me that I am going away calmly, knowing that you are alive and our enemy is broken.”

He buried his letter underground, knowing he would never be free to deliver it himself. Such acts of burying writings and reflections before death has left us a remarkable historical record.

On October 7, 1944, the planned revolt came together as these starving and emaciated prisoners attacked their SS guards with weapons they had been stockpiling — makeshift explosives and grenades, knives and hammers. Some of the prisoners managed to get to the barbed wire fences and escape the confines of the camp, although all were later captured. Most of those caught were killed, a few left alive to continue their work in the crematorium and later murdered during the camp’s evacuation. Chaim was among the prisoners killed in the revolt.

His story reminds me that when we remember the Holocaust, we are remembering love, hopes and dreams cut short. We are remembering husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, grandparents, friends. And in remembering, we are defying the Nazis.

The Nazis did not simply want the Jews of Europe to be murdered. They wanted the generations of the future to forget the Jews ever existed.

So today I remember the ordinary people who were not born victims but who were murdered by the Nazis.

I remember their lives, I remember their humanity and I remember Chaim Herman, a husband writing a final apology to his wife against a backdrop of extraordinary fear, knowing he would soon die.

Karen Pollock is CEO of the Holocaust Educational Trust

January 27, 2023 10:50

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