March 04, 2008

A True Story

The Girl With the Apple
An amazing and true story by Herman Rosenblat

August, 1942.

Piotrkow, Poland.

The sky was gloomy that morning as we waited anxiously. All the men, women, and children of Piotrkow's Jewish ghetto had been herded into a square. Word had gotten around that we were being moved. My father had only recently died from typhus, which had run rampant through the crowded ghetto. My greatest fear was that our family would be separated.

"Whatever you do," Isidore, my eldest brother, whispered to me, "don't tell them your age. Say you're sixteen." I was tall for a boy of 11, so I could pull it off. That way I might be deemed valuable as a worker. An SS man approached me, boots clicking against the cobblestones. He looked me up and down, then asked my age.

"Sixteen," I said. He directed me to the left, where my three brothers and other healthy young men already stood.

My mother was motioned to the right-with the other women, children, sick and elderly people. I whispered to Isidore, "Why?" He didn't answer. I ran to Mama's side and said I wanted to stay with her. "No," she said sternly. "Get away. Don't be a nuisance. Go with your brothers." She had never spoken so harshly before. But I understood: She was protecting me. She loved me so much that, just this once, she pretended not to. It was the last I ever saw of her.

My brothers and I were transported in a cattle car to Germany. We arrived at the Buchenwald concentration camp one night weeks later and were led into a crowded barracks. The next day, we were issued uniforms and identification numbers. "Don't call me Herman anymore," I said to my brothers. "Call me 94983." I was put to work in the camp's crematorium, loading the dead onto a hand-cranked elevator. I, too, felt dead. Hardened. I had become a number.

Soon, my brothers and I were sent to Schlieben, one of Buchenwald's sub-camps near Berlin. One morning I thought I heard my mother's voice. Son, she said softly but clearly, I am sending you an angel.

Then I woke up. Just a dream. A beautiful dream. But in this place there could be no angels. There was only work. And hunger. And fear.

A couple of days later, I was walking around the camp, behind the barracks, near the barbed-wire fence where the guards could not easily see.

I was alone. On the other side of the fence, I spotted someone -a young girl with light, almost luminous curls. She was half-hidden behind a birch tree. I glanced around to make sure no one saw me. I called to her softly in German, "Do you have something to eat?" She didn't understand. I inched closer to the fence and repeated the question in Polish. She stepped forward. I was thin and gaunt, with rags wrapped around my feet, but the girl looked unafraid. In her eyes, I saw life. She pulled an apple from her woolen jacket and threw it over the fence. I grabbed the fruit and, as I started to run away, I heard her say faintly, "I'll see you tomorrow."

I didn't believe she would come back. It was much too dangerous. But I returned anyway, the same time the next day. And there she was. The same girl. She moved tentatively from behind the tree, and once again threw something over the fence. This time, a small hunk of bread wrapped around a stone. I ate the bread, gratefully and ravenously, wishing there had been enough to share with my brothers. When I looked up the girl was gone.

I returned to the same spot by the fence at the same time every day. She was always there with something for me to eat-a hunk of bread or, better yet, an apple. We didn't dare speak or linger. To be caught would mean death for us both. I didn't know anything about her-just a kind farm girl-except that she understood Polish. What was her name? Why was she risking her life for me? Hope was in such short supply, and this girl on the other side of the fence gave me some, as nourishing in its way as the bread and apples.

Nearly seven months later, my brothers and I were crammed into a coal car and shipped to the Theresienstadt camp in Czechoslovakia. "Don't return," I told the girl that day. "We're leaving." I turned toward the barracks and didn't look back, didn't even say good-bye to the girl whose name I'd never learned, the girl with the apples.

We were at Theresienstadt for three months. The war was winding down and Allied forces were closing in, yet my fate seemed sealed. On May 10, 1945, I was scheduled to die in the gas chamber at 10:00 A.M. In the quiet of dawn, I tried to prepare myself. So many times death seemed ready to claim me, but somehow I'd survived. Now, it was over. I thought of my parents. At least, I thought, we will be reunited. At 8:00 A.M., there was a commotion. I heard shouts, and saw people running every which way through camp. I caught up with my brothers. Russian troops had liberated the camp!

The gates swung open. Everyone was running, so I did too. Amazingly, all of my brothers had survived; I'm not sure how. But I knew that the girl with the apples had been the key to my survival. In a place where evil seemed triumphant, one person's goodness had saved my life, had given me hope in a place where there was none. My mother had promised to send me an angel, and the angel had come.

Eventually, I made my way to England, where I was sponsored by a Jewish charity, put up in a hostel with other boys who had survived the Holocaust and trained in electronics. Then I came to America, where my brother Sam had already moved. I served in the U.S. Army during the Korean War, and returned to New York City after two years. By August 1957 I'd opened my own electronics repair shop. I was starting to settle in.

One day, my friend Sid-whom I knew from England-called me. "I've got a date. She's got a Polish friend. Let's double date."

A blind date? Nah, that wasn't for me. But Sid kept pestering me, and a few days later we headed up to the Bronx to pick up his date and her friend Roma. I had to admit, for a blind date this wasn't so bad. Roma was a nurse at a Bronx hospital. She was kind and smart. Beautiful, too, with swirling brown curls and green, almond-shaped eyes that sparkled with life.

The four of us drove out to Coney Island. Roma was easy to talk to, easy to be with. Turned out she was wary of blind dates too! We were both just doing our friends a favor. We took a stroll on the boardwalk, enjoying the salty Atlantic breeze, and then had dinner by the shore. I couldn't remember having a better time.

We piled back into Sid's car, Roma and I sharing the backseat. As European Jews who had survived the war, we were aware that much had been left unsaid between us. She broached the subject. "Where were you," she asked softly, "during the war?"

"The camps," I said, the terrible memories still vivid, the irreparable loss. I had tried to forget. But you never forget.

She nodded. "My family was hiding on a farm in Germany, not far from Berlin," she told me. "My father knew a priest, and he got us Aryan papers."

I imagined how she must have suffered too-fear, a constant companion. And yet here we were, both survivors, in a new world. "There was a camp next to the farm," Roma continued. "I saw a boy there, and I would throw him apples every day."

What an amazing coincidence that she had helped some other boy. "What did he look like?" I asked.

"He was tall. Skinny. Hungry. I must have seen him every day for six months."

My heart was racing. I couldn't believe it.this couldn't be.. "Did he tell you one day not to come back because he was leaving Schlieben?"

Roma looked at me in amazement. "Yes."

"That was me!" I was ready to burst with joy and awe, flooded with emotions. I couldn't believe it. My angel. "I'm not letting you go," I said to Roma. And in the back of the car on that blind date, I proposed to her. I didn't want to wait.

"You're crazy!" she said. But she invited me to meet her parents for Shabbat dinner the following week. There was so much I looked forward to learning about Roma, but the most important things I always knew: her steadfastness, her goodness. For many months, in the worst of circumstances, she had come to the fence and given me hope. Now that I'd found her again, I could never let her go. That day, she said yes. And I kept my word: After nearly 50 years of marriage, two children and three grandchildren, I have never let her go.

"The Flower of the Fence," starring Richard Dreyfuss as Herman and Maia Morgenstern as Roma, is due out next year. What makes it different from other films depicting the Holocaust, such as "Schindler's List" and "The Pianist," is that its central theme is not the concentration camps or the gas chambers.

"It's based on love," Roma Rosenblat says.

And its message, as its plot, goes beyond place and time.

"We are all the same. There should be no difference," Herman Rosenblat says.

And there should be no hate. That is also the message in the children book titled "The Angel at the Fence," coming out soon.

Children are the principal audience the Rosenblats, who now live in North Miami Beach, are hoping to reach.

"They are the future. They should not hate," he says.

A message he doesn't get tired of repeating and got first at the age of 11 when his father told him never to hold grudges. He doesn't. Not even when in 1992 he and his son were shot during a robbery at his business. His son is in wheelchair now. Rosenblat was in the hospital for seven months.

"I'd be hating everybody," he says. But he and his wife have chosen to forgive, the thieves, the Nazi officers responsible for their suffering and other victims who are consumed by hatred.

"Hate is the worst thing you can ever imagine," he says.

Amen to that, Mr. Rosenblat.


rockync said...

My family was also torn apart by this war. There was so much darkness and suffering associated with Europe during this time in history, I would have nightmares after listening to the adults that visited our home talking about their experiences. Even when I was young, I searched out stories like the Diary of Anne Frank that spoke of hope in the midst of dispair. I understood early on that these peoples' only "crime" was being Jews. It also made me realize as I grew up in the time before civil rights that many Americans were being treated poorly for being "Negro." Many Americans refuse to connect these dots but I could never ignore it. We must never forget and wherever we see this kind of injustice, we must join voices in loud protest.

Jan said...

"We must never forget and wherever we see this kind of injustice, we must join voices in loud protest."

rockync..there has been, and there is, still, injustices all around us, and not only against Jews, or Negroes.

I understand what you are saying, though, and it is frightening to realize that the very thing that has happened in the past, has a very good chance of happening again, and not only to those two groups of people, as you well know.

Thaks for your comments. :)

rockync said...

You're right, of course, the danger is not just to a select group separated by ethniticity. Wherever basic liberties are being repressed and denied, there is always a danger. The Holocaust, although originally perpetrated against Jews, was later to include Gypsies, Russians, mentally hanicapped and anyone in opposition to the party. It is why we Americans must scrutinize the policies and laws passed in this nation. While we all want to feel safe, the price we might pay in loss of freedoms just might be too dear. There is no perfect world, we must strive for balance.
BTW I love this story in that out of all that pain and misery came a beautiful, everlasting love. It really speaks of the human will to survive.

Jan said...

rocknc..I love this story, too, and you're right about what it speaks of, which is why I like to post them when I find them. :)

rockync said...

I'll tell you what haunts me, Jan. That the dissidents who protested in Tienamen Square were not only quelled but locked away and the world powers did nothing. That the US made China a most favored trade nation without demanding accountability. That China can now build an economic empire off of us while the voices of Chinese freedom fighters are silenced. We have a decades old embargo against Cuba but free trade with China? That really disturbs me...

Jan said... well I remember the day I saw that tank roll right over that young person...I can see it, even now.

Anyone with an iota of intelligence should be able to realize this, but do they? Sometimes, I wonder about that, whether or not they do, or just prefer to stick their heads in the sand, which seems to be par for the course.

Dazd said...

One has to wonder...if the Holocaust has set the bar in which we finally take notice. And that we accept responsibilities as humans to protect those that can't.


rockync said...

So true dazd and to that list we can add Tibet,Myanmar and Somalia. The weight of their suffering bears down on my soul.

Jan said...

dazd and rockync..I don't know where the answer lies.

There is pain, suffering, sorrow, injustice, and apathy, everywhere, and man's inhumanity to man has never been worse.

rockync said...

It does seem daunting, doesn't it, Jan. I don't think there is any one answer. I think each one of us just needs to be part of the solution and not part of the problem. If we give voice where we can whenever we can, perhaps it's enough for each of us to say we are tired of war and hate and pain and suffering. We want to know each other, learn form each other and love each other. Sometimes you toss a stone into the pond and never realize that the ripple you started traversed the world and turned into a wave! Maybe the best we can do is to remember the past, memorize it and pass it to the next generation...

Richard said...

.....what a magnificent story. What's even more wonderful is that it's true. What a triumph of goodness and love. Thanks, Jan.

Jan said...

rockync..yes, we can only do our best, and hope for the best.

Jan said...

Richard..thanks, I'm glad that you like the story as much as I did.

The triumph of goodness and love is always inspiring. :)

sue said...

What an AMAZING story! I believe that there really are forces in this world we can't see with our eyes that are felt in their own way each and every day...

Can't wait to see the movie.

Thank you for sharing!

Jan said...

Sue..I don't know how I missed your comment, unless some of them are not showing up in email,which happens sometimes.

I thought this was an amazing story, too, and it just shows that there really is hope, in the midst of despair, and miraculous things still happen!

I'm looking forward to seeing the movie, too!