The Bananas of Being a Hero: Part 2 – Witness

Major Peter Lerner is the spokesman for the Central Command. During this week  (April 2-9, 2011), Maj. Lerner will be blogging his experiences from the “Witnesses in Uniform” program, a special program run by the IDF as a way to contribute to commemorating the Holocaust and heroism in the army.

Witness

Aliza is our mission witness. I will conclude and say that I have met a few people I consider to be heroes in the last almost twenty years of serving in the military, but nothing amounts to what I heard today. Aliza is a true hero. When you think about how hard life is because you didn’t get the new iPad yet, think again. On the edge of the pits in the forest of Lopuchowo she told us her story of how she survived. 300 Officers and Non-Commissioned Officers gathered around to hear her story and we were hypnotized. Aliza told us that her first memory as a little girl of three is the birthday cake she had. It was a piece of country bread made by the Polish farmer that hid her and her family after escaping the Lodz ghetto.

Aliza, our Holocaust survivor

She told us that her father moved them around from place to place never staying to long in one specific location. She told us that as young children Aliza and her brother could not play like regular children. All games would have to be whispered and indoors hidden away from human beings. One of the games she recalled was “what does it taste like”, where they would describe to one and other what something would taste like. Ultimately she had never tasted a banana and when she understood that life was almost at its end she said to her brother “At least you know what a banana tastes like”.

As time got hard Aliza’s family escaped to the woods there they lived off of leaves, and maggots from the tree bark. Her mother left the hideaway to try and find food, she didn’t return and after a few days she was faced with a sight no child can understand. Her father was crying. When she tried to understand why he was holding her brother and crying he said that her brother had died. He had died of hunger. Aliza heard dogs in the distance and when her father had come to terms that he wasn’t going to make it out alive from the forest, he told his 6 year old girl to crawl towards the sound of the dogs and that where there are dogs there are people and that they would most certainly take mercy on her and take her in.

Understandably Aliza did not want to leave her father and dead brother in the forest. And just before nightfall they were all apprehended by Nazi soldiers. She remembers a blond haired and blue eyed soldier, “In retrospect he was only a boy”, that picked her up. At the same time two solders picked up her father while he was carrying her brother and they took this broken family to a pit. The Nazis stood in front of them and fired at them. Aliza rolled down in to the pit with her father and brother, she was surrounded by bodies. She daren’t move, she waited for silence that eventually came. Aliza at the time was six years old, about the same age as my niece, this is what kept popping in to my head.

Aliza kissed her father on the cheek and because her brother was beneath her father she kissed his hand. “I climbed out of the death pit that was like Everest for me, a six year old girl. When I reached the top I remembered what my father said about barking dogs and I went in their direction and found some people”. Aliza spent the rest of the war with a family that took care of her. Some time later a lady came to the village looking for a girl. The woman was her mother. They later came to live in Israel. Aliza promised to tell us tomorrow about her mothers story, I will try and get it on video.

12000-15000 per day Treblinka extermination camp looks nothing like a camp. This place looks like a small memorial in the midst of the forest, unexplained rocks scattered and a huge granite stone supposed to symbolize a tombstone. This is approximately the site of the gas chambers. Everything here is vague. The Nazis ruined everything that may have been proof of what actually happened here. We were told of the extreme efforts made to make it look like an actual train station. In the sixteen months the Treblinka “factory” operated 900,000 Jews were exterminated. In preparing myself for this trip I found out that my great grandfather, Samuel Stein came from a village in this area, a village called Grodno. Although he escaped to the UK before the war, I am certain that some extended family members did not. We have no information other than that, I kept thinking if my family passed through the gate of Treblinka station.

I also received an email from a close friend of mine, she knows for a fact that her great grandmother perished in this awful place. She asked that I pass on a message to her great grandmother. This is the message: “I am Major Peter Lerner, a Jewish officer in the Israel defense Forces. I am a protector of the Jewish people and its homeland. You can rest in peace knowing that we are here to guard Jewish children that will never ever again cry in the shadows of the gallows.

We were not destroyed, We were not extinct We were not lost. We grew and changed the evil into brotherhood, the separation in to unity, the fear in to courage, and the death in to life”.

Here we held another ceremony, again with Israeli school children and I stood proud knowing that I am not alone, I am standing with the entire IDF and that we are here for eternity.

Peter – Warsaw April 4, 2011

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