06/08/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Holocaust Remembrance Day 2010: Honoring Nathan, Who Was Only Two


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I met Cecile in the early 1980s. Fragile, intelligent, in her fifties, she was a Holocaust survivor finally ready to tell her story. She had written some narrative and had shown her poems to Elie Weisel, who had encouraged her. She now sought a writer to help her.

For almost a year we spoke and met. I edited her prose and poems, sorted through the remaining pictures of her family, and talked with her for many hours about her early years. We polished three chapters and several poems and sent them to a few editors. Some expressed interest, but some were abrupt: "Too many Holocaust stories coming in right now." Cecile was put off by this and didn't want to face possible rejection. The project ended, and I lost touch with her.

But I never forgot her. And with Holocaust Remembrance Day -- Yom Hashoah -- coming up this Sunday, I want to share some of her tales as I remember them.

When Hitler came to power, Cecile was a sensitive girl living with her sisters and brothers and her widowed mother in the mountains near the border of Czechoslovakia and Hungary. A couple of her siblings moved to Palestine. One brother became politically active and was sent to a concentration camp early on.

As the Nazi menace flared in Hungary, Cecile's young, well-off boyfriend asked her to join his family, who had paid a farmer to hide them. She wanted to be with him but decided that she couldn't leave her mother. She said no.

Not long afterward, the farmer betrayed her boyfriend's family, and they all disappeared.

Cecile and her mother stayed together for a while. Later, to hide out more safely, Cecile moved to Budapest with some Catholic friends, slept with a cross over her bed, and worked in a dental office. A clever, bold teenager, she'd walk around with an anti-Semitic newspaper to throw the authorities off.

But eventually the police brought the girls to a station and queried them, one by one. Cecile was last, afraid she had been outed as a Jew by her friends. But she not only got through the interrogation, she persuaded a policeman to walk her home, figuring they would never again suspect her if she actually wanted to extend time with the gestapo.

In 1944 time had run out for Hungarian Jews, the last European Jews to have escaped deportation. Cecile was rounded up along with her mother, her sister, her brother-in-law, and her two-year old nephew, Nathan.

One of Cecile's poems describes seeing the stars through slats in the cattle car on their way east. Of that awful transit she writes of the darkness, throwing out the buckets of waste, the stuffy heat, the fear of the unknown, the fainting, frightened captives, the slivers of sky and clouds above.

When the train stopped at Auschwitz, Cecile's brother-in-law gave away his hidden watch to a man in stripes, who rushed the Jews out of the train. The man whispered, "Have the old woman hold the little boy. Otherwise your wife will die along with him."

Cecile's sister didn't hear those dire words, but her mother did, and she pleaded to her older daughter. "Let me have Nathan. Otherwise they'll assign me to hard labor." Cecile's sister resisted giving up her son, but to save her daughter's life the grandmother took her grandson in her arms, knowing that they were doomed.

Cecile and her family lined up for selection before Dr. Josef Mengele, just beyond the train. Her mother, still holding Nathan, was sent to the left. Her sister cried, but still did not fully understand what would be happening to her son and her mother. Cecile did.

One day when we were working together, Cecile called me in a strained voice. "Look in The New York Times Magazine. The story about Raoul Wallenberg." There, spread across the page, was a grainy photo taken by the Nazis. Bewildered people were walking on a train platform. The focus was a sweet-faced woman in a head kerchief, holding a small boy in her arms. It was Cecile's mother. Cecile had never before seen that photo.

Incredibly, it is the photo above.

Cecile and her sister managed to stay together at Auschwitz, surviving day by precious day, through luck, cleverness, and support. Sixteen-year-old Cecile volunteered to write love poems on behalf of the Jewish leader of her block, to arouse the woman's lover, who was one of the Nazi guards. When the affair ended, the despondent woman cried, "Now we're doomed."

At one point Cecile actually stood at the door of a gas chamber, awaiting certain death. But at the last minute her group traded places with another group, and she was sent away to dig potatoes. She often kept a few of them to supplement the watery soup that barely sustained her and her sister. One day the guard asked the laborers to empty their pockets. Those who had potatoes in their pockets were shot.

Cecile, ever wise, ever bold, had hidden her potatoes in her cap.

The sisters stayed alive through the degradation, illness and constant danger. Even at the end, after their camp was destroyed and they were liberated, many of the starved victims ate more than their bodies could handle, became ill, and died. Cecile had cautioned her famished sister not to gorge on the food provided, and they remained safe.

But the story is even more remarkable. On the train taking them to their freedom, Cecile recognized one of the fellow passengers, the boyfriend she had known in the village. They had both somehow endured Auschwitz, living close to each other for months and never knowing it.

They fell in love and married, but returning to a now Communist Eastern Europe, they encountered anti-Semitism once again. They eventually managed to get to America, but they were treated poorly by sponsors and lived for a long while on scraps such as beef lungs and wilted vegetables.

Years passed, they raised a family, worked hard, and prospered in suburban New York. Cecile and her husband lived the American Dream and put the past behind as much as possible. But when I met Cecile, the sadness in her eyes still reflected the loss of her siblings, her mother, her nephew, and the relatives and friends who had perished in the Holocaust.

This weekend I will light a memorial candle and once again think of Cecile's story, and of the stories of millions of others.

And I will especially remember Nathan, the little boy in the photo, who was only two years old.

Part 2: Walking in Hell/ Closure for Cecile