Many of us are blessed to have quiet heroes in our lives — family or friends who have survived the Holocaust, war-time horrors in many different lands and eras, or devastating illness, mental or physical, and who have gone on to live productive, exemplary lives.
Often, the mere fact that we have known them all our lives or are touched by them daily has muted the true heroism of their existence.
Once in a while, though, we have the privilege to meet and hear from those whose triumph over death and despair literally takes our breath away. Such is the case with Elane Norych Geller, one of the youngest concentration camp survivors, and Yoel Sharon, a disabled Israeli veteran, both of whom visited Milwaukee last week.
Geller, who spoke at the community-wide Yom HaShoah commemoration on May 4, began by reminding us that the average age of a Holocaust survivor is 83, and that 100 of them are dying daily.
Unlike them, Geller is younger, because she experienced the camps from ages 4 through just past 8. Brutally separated from most of her family, she began those years by hiding in the barracks of a slave labor camp where her aunt, who always claimed her as her own child and to whom Geller says she owes her survival, worked in the munitions factory.
At this camp, Geller said she survived “typhoid fever, typhus, tuberculosis and punctured eardrums” for which she received no treatment. She remembers the lice and the rats. And she admitted that she “stole food when she could, drank urine when she needed to and ate toothpaste” to survive.
Even with all that, one of Geller’s continuing traumas results from having had German shepherds set on her by the camp’s Nazi guards, merely for their amusement.
“I begged, pleaded and cried for them to call them off,” remembers Geller, who still suffers flashbacks when she sees a “loose animal.” To this day, she will not visit a home with a pet unless she knows the animal is behind lock and key.
From the labor camp, Geller and her aunt were taken to Bergen Belsen, where this young child survived in a manner that left those who heard her chilled to the bone.
Many mothers who had lost a child arrived in Bergen Belsen, said Geller, most of whom came from countries whose languages Geller did not speak. Yet she would approach these bereft women and ask them to teach her songs they had sung to their children.
Geller would then practice and learn the songs, returning to the bereaved mothers with her hand held out — offering to sing in return for some of the daily 400-calorie rations the inmates were provided. “I would do anything to survive,” she said simply.
Geller and her aunt were ultimately reunited with her father and two brothers, camp survivors all, and with an uncle in Brooklyn.
Like so many other survivors, Geller has truly honored what she describes as “the privilege of survival.”
“I believe passionately,” she said, “that activism is the only way to go. There is a reason we are all different. We cannot do anything but celebrate our differences.”
“There will always be hatred,” but by speaking out against it and celebrating difference, Geller remains confident, despite everything she has been through, that “we can relegate those who hate to the back rooms and basements, where they belong.”
For the first time in 30 years, 53-year-old Israeli Yoel Sharon wasn’t spending Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day, with his elite paratrooper platoon.
Avishai, Uri, Oren, Eliyahu, Ilan, Shmuel, Rafi, Nissim, Moshe, Yoram, David, Arieh, Danny, Yehuda, Yossi, Yoav. Their faces, as they appeared back in October 1973 during the Yom Kippur War, shone on the sanctuary wall as Sharon talked to them during the community’s Yom HaZikaron memorial on May 6.
Though he spoke of skiing together down “the snowy Hermon” this past winter, “enjoying the water flowing in the rivers of the Galilee,” those gathered soon realized that the men were not with Sharon in body, for “a carpet of yellow chrysanthemums and red poppies blooms between [their] graves.” It is at those graves that Sharon usually spends this day.
We also soon learned that Sharon is speaking publicly for the first time about the men he commanded, as they remain “young forever, as young as the day they died,” Oct. 24, 30 years ago.
Sharon lost the 16 young men, who had volunteered for the elite corps, as well as the use of his own legs, when their three armored personnel carriers suffered a direct hit at the entrance of the city of Suez in Egypt. Only he and two others, a machine gunner and his driver, survived.
Machine gunner Micha became a high school principal and raised a family. But one day, Sharon said, “he gave everything up and disappeared into the desert.”
Kadosh, the driver, “started a construction business,” but “in the end,” said Sharon, “it fell apart for him and all he has left are his sleeping pills.”
“[Micha and Kadosh] can’t sleep,” Sharon explained. “For them, too, time has stopped at the entrance to the city of Suez. At night, they see [their dead comrades] over and over again,” and they “blame themselves for staying alive.”
Yet for Sharon, “someone who has triumphed over death cannot let life pass unnoticed.” And so he fulfilled his childhood dream of becoming a filmmaker and “decided to live life to the fullest despite my handicap.”
He married and had three children, founded a production company and makes films, writing, directing and producing. Though he has not told the story of his own platoon, he has “made films about people who lost their sanity in the battlefield, the ones who don’t enter into the post-war statistics.”
But Sharon did something else even more remarkable than determining “to no longer take life for granted.” He founded Etgarim (Challenges), a non-profit organization to help people with mental and physical disabilities reintegrate into society. He accompanied Micha throughout his three years in a psychiatric hospital and brought him to Etgarim, where he has dedicated himself to an educational rehabilitation project for children.
Speaking to the youthful faces on the wall, Sharon said Etgarim is a mission “not for ourselves, but for you, my brothers, and for humanity.”
Of his brothers, he said he has only “one small request. You are close to Him up there above. Talk, shout, demand what you deserve, so that He will carry out your will, so that our grandchildren will know peace and tranquility, because in your death, you bequeathed life to us.”
Sharon continues to “hope and dream about peace” for Israel, “the only piece of land we have on this earth, the one place in the world where we have a flag of our own.”
Simple lessons transcend even the profundity of Geller’s and Sharon’s life stories. Geller reminds us of the dignity with which most Holocaust survivors have lived their lives and of the courage of those who are able to share their memories for the betterment of the world. Sharon reminds us that young men and women are still dying in the name of Israel while the country continues to yearn for peace.
But most important, both remind us of the incredible strength of the Jewish people as a whole, and of our individual potential to choose each day, to the best of our abilities, to live a life of dignity and redemption, and to do something far grander than we ever thought possible.