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Brave Women During Holocaust:

How Does A Mother Bear The Greatest Loss – her Child?


Being a mother takes a lot more courage, patience, and sacrifice than one might suspect. As a mother raises her children, these little yet already vital people become her everything, her other half. If a child is forcefully taken away from the mother, she can never be a whole person again. She will not be the same: she will turn to despair, and she will be tormented by constant worry about her child’s security. Sophie’s Choice, by William Styron, Five Chimneys, by Olga Lengyel, and films entitled Sophie’s Choice, 1982, and Life Is Beautiful, 1997, present incredibly painful examples of what women and mothers had to face during the Holocaust. These women have no choice but to send their children to die.

Even though Five Chimneys is a true story and Sophie’s Choice is fictional, both of them touch upon the sorrows of mothers and their misery during the Holocaust. Most women in concentration camps had to accept the idea that their children were being killed. However, one of the most unfortunate aspects of the Holocaust was the fact that the majority of people did not know where the Nazis were taking them – to probable death or to a life that is even more brutal than death: “They said that we were going to be taken to labor camps within the country. Who would have thought that we would end up in Auschwitz? We hoped that we would come back, but it didn’t happen that way”(Ritvo and Plotkin, 201). It is obvious that most people were oblivious as to where they were being taken. It is extremely sad to think these people were told one thing, but in reality they were on a road to death. Similarly, most women had no idea what the separation of the children and the elderly from the rest of the working people implied. Caring mothers thought it would be best to keep their children away from hard labor, not knowing that those not assigned to labor were designated to be killed. Magda Herzberger, one of the survivors of Holocaust, describes the emotional torture she observed as loving mothers inevitably sent their children to die:

They didn’t know that the children up to age fourteen were taken to the gas chambers along with the infants. They were sending all the old people – the aged – to the left. They were joined by pregnant women, the disabled, and others who were weak or injured. Sometimes they would take a child away from its mother. They enjoyed this emotional torture. The Polish prisoners were telling the mother, ‘Give us the child; they are going to have better treatment.’ They knew that if the mother goes with the child, she’s going to be gassed too. (Ritvo and Plotkin, 205).

It is beyond my understanding to comprehend that humans are capable of causing such pain to others. After all, were they not parents themselves? Did they not have parents? Before acting in such a cruel way, they should have placed themselves in these people’s shoes. Only then would they be able to realize the extent of their cruelty.

         Olga Lengyl’s Five Chimneys is the story of her life, the Holocaust, and the horrors she faced while being at Auschwitz. Olga’s husband was a director of his own hospital, and specialized in general surgery and gynecology. Olga was also devoted to medicine and qualified to be her husband’s first surgical assistant (Lengyel, 14). Therefore, Olga had no doubts that the reason her husband was to be deported to Germany was because there was a shortage of doctors. Innocently, she believed the S.S. officer and even decided to go along with her husband, taking their children and her parents: “By going together we would at least be assured a common fate. In the future, as in the past, my place would be at the side of my husband. How fatal was to be this move which I was making so deliberately! For before an hour had passed I was to become the author of my parents’ misfortunes, and of my children’s as well” (Lengyel, 17). Poor Olga was trying to be there for her husband, and she thought it would be best if the family would not get separated. Unfortunately, she was so blind to everything that she dragged her whole family into a never-ending nightmare.

            It was a trap of misery. While both Olga and her husband thought they were on their way to helping people, they would actually be in need of help themselves, to escape the horrifying nightmare that they were about to experience: “There was a nightmarish quality to the scene…only God knew where this train had first been assembled” (Lengyel, 17). However, it was too late to turn back; this was only the beginning, and the worst was yet to come. After seven days of riding on the train with hardly any food and drink, they arrived at Auschwitz, with no comprehension of where they were and what was about to be done to them. During the “selection” process, which meant the separation of the family, Olga made her second mistake. She insisted that her older son, who was not yet 12, go with his younger brother and grandmother to the left lane: “Left” meant immediate extermination, but Olga was simply trying to prevent them from hard work and torture. She never forgave herself for this suggestion since her older son Arvad looked older than his age and could have passed to the lane on the “right”: “How should I have known? I had spared them from hard work, but I had condemned Arvad and my mother to death in the gas chambers” (Lengyel, 27). While trying to look out for her loved ones, she indeed cost them their lives. I cannot even imagine the guilt and responsibility she must have been feeling for the rest of her life. After all, she was the reason they came there, and she was the reason they died.

            Olga continued to survive day by day in hope that one day she could escape this terrifying nightmare and shout to the whole world about the horrors to which she was exposed. Nevertheless, being at Auschwitz meant death sooner or later: “In less than a quarter of a year the Germans had ‘liquidated’ more than 1,300,000 persons at Auschwitz – Birkenau!” (Lengyel, 82). With tears in her eyes, Olga watched the new arrivals every day, and all she wanted to tell them was not to repeat the same mistake she once made. She desired to, at least, try to protect their children from the burning gas chambers: Olga says, “I tried to edge toward the women as they passed to whisper to them: Tell them that your son is over twelve… Don’t let your daughter say that she is ill… Tell your son to stand up very straight… Always tell them that you are in good health” (Lengyel, 97). Olga was trying to forgive herself for her mistake by attempting to save others. However, their destiny was unavoidable and families continued to be separated between “right and left” – “life and death”. What was even worse is that such a destiny faced even the newborns: “Unfortunately, the fate of the baby always had to be the same. After taking every precaution, we pinched and closed the little tike’s nostrils and when it opened its mouth to breathe, we gave it a dose of lethal product” (Lengyel, 111). As Olga had promised herself, after being one of the few who escaped death, she wrote this book in memory of her family, her children, and all the innocent people who died in Holocaust: “This is my memorial to them. God rest their poor souls! No hell anyone could conceive could equal what they endured…I want the world to read and resolve that this must never, never be permitted to happen again” (Lengyel, 216). Lengyel has written her book to share the stories of men and women that did not survive. She wants the whole world to know not just the kind of torture she personally experienced, but the kinds of deaths she witnessed while incarcerated at Birkenau, Aushwitz.

        The horrifying Holocaust experiences of Lengyel are paralleled by those of Styron’s fictional heroine Sophie. When the Nazi is taking Sophie’s father and husband away, she does not know what is going to happen to them until later, when she learns that they have been killed. After Sophie remarries, she has two children named Eva and Jan. However, as if repeating her sorrowful fate, Sophie’s new husband is soon killed as well, and she and her two children are sent to Auschwitz Birkenau. The SS officer has no remorse for Sophie when he actually dares to ask her to choose which one of her children she would like to keep alive, and which one to send to die. In fact, Sophie can actually be considered “lucky” since most women have no choice. Usually, all children would be sent for extermination: “ ‘You may keep one of your children’, he repeated. ‘The other one will have to go. Which one will you keep?’”(Styron, 483). How can such a question be answered? Who can possibly have the strength to reply to an inquiry like that? Although any response would seem impossible for us to comprehend, Sophie has no choice but to answer. Otherwise, she will lose both of her children: “ ‘Don’t make me choose’, she heard herself plead in a whisper, ‘I can’t choose’ ‘Send them both over there, then’, the doctor said to the aide. ‘Mama!’ She heard Eva’s thin but soaring cry at the instant that she thrust the child away from her and rose from the concrete with a clumsy stumbling motion. ‘Take the baby!' she called out. ‘Take my little girl!’ (Styron, 484). The question that arises in my mind is whether the heroine really has a choice. Is sending one of her children to die actually a choice? In fact, in my opinion, Sophie has no choice but to decide whether one or both of her children are going to die that very minute. To me, this kind of a decision cannot possibly be considered a “choice,” yet Sophie is forced to make one, and no matter which child she chooses, it will be the wrong decision.

            With one child still remaining in a world of brutal Nazis, Sophie does everything she can to keep him alive. In return for her body, her commander Hoss makes an arrangement for her son, Jan, to be sent to Lebensborn. Sending Jan to Lebensborn means never seeing him again: “They took away their identities of those children in Lebensborn, changed their names so fast, turned them so quickly into Germans” (Styron, 494). However, it means saving his life and keeping him away from Auschwitz. Although this loss is very pitiful, Sophie never learns the fate of her son. She does not know whether he is kept in the camp and dies, or is actually sent to Lebensborn: “Is it best to know about a child’s death, even one so horrible, or to know that the child lives but that you will never, never see him again?” (Styron, 495). Unfortunately, in her life Sophie not only faces her child’s death, but is also forced to live with the thought that her other child might be alive somewhere, and she will never see him again. I sympathize with Sophie, with her not knowing where her son is, and her inability to do anything about it

            After liberation from the concentration camp, Sophie can never be a whole person again. The meaning of her life is gone, and she can never live her life the same way she once did: “Sophie physically survives her twenty months in Auschwitz, but it is clear from the beginning of the novel that part of Sophie is already dead, and the remaining part longs for total annihilation” (Sirlin, 71). This is why her relationship with Nathan can never reach its full potential. For the remainder of her life, Sophie lives with constant guilt and thoughts of the two children who are no longer with her. She is incapable of letting love into her heart all the way, and she is not the one to be blamed for it. Auschwitz and the horrifying experience of losing both of her children are to be blamed. Sophie finally seeks her peace and rest in her “suicide pact” with Nathan: “Unmarried lovers dwelling in sin, suggestive beauty and good looks, the instigator of the tragedy a young man with a history of psychotic episodes, and so on – this was the stuff of super scandal in the year 1947” (Styron, 508).

In addition to reading the novel Sophie’s Choice, I also watched a movie based on it, which was also entitled Sophie’s Choice. The film was made in 1982, starring Meryl Streep, Kevin Klein, and Peter Macnicol. Moreover, I compared it to Life Is Beautiful, made in 1997, starring Roberto Benigni, Nicoletta Braschi, and Giustino Durano. Both of these films have several scenes that caused me to cry. Both productions begin on a positive note when all of the characters are happy, joyful, and celebrating life. However, towards the end, both of these films portray the horrors of the Holocaust. The movie Sophie’s Choice was very similar to the novel and some of the dialogue was taken directly from it. However, as powerful as the movie is, it does not compare to a strong description of each moment in the novel. Life Is Beautiful, which also won Academy Award that year, illustrates how most people were in denial about the Holocaust. The father is not only trying to protect his son’s innocence, but he is also trying to prevent himself from a mental breakdown. If he accepts the reality of where he and his family are brought, he and his son will have be killed. Instead, he saves his son physically and emotionally by “pretending that it is just a dream, just a game that will soon be over.” Although the father is killed towards the end of the movie, he makes sure that his son does not find out about it. He pretends that it is “part of the game,” and certain rules have to be followed in order to “win the first prize.” The rules of the game include hiding for the most part, starving, and pretending to be German. The father uses these “rules” as survival tactics. After all, if it were not for his creativity, along with his love for his son and wife, his son would have been the first one to be killed. Instead, he not only manages to keep him alive, but his son is also convinced towards the end that “he won the game, and received the first prize – a tank.”

The word “Holocaust” evokes a storm of feelings in the hearts of many people. The unnecessary and inhuman slaughter ruined the lives of the millions, left everlasting grief and sorrows for many, and forever scarred the souls of others, taking away people’s lives, hearts, happiness and peace. Some people choose to pretend that this horrifying experience never existed, whereas others think that the only way to heal their hearts from the horrors of the Holocaust is to discuss its events. Sophie chooses to escape its memories by committing suicide. Olga, on a contrary, chooses to share her horrifying experience with the whole world. Both of these women are not only strong individuals, but also powerful mothers who are able to live with themselves, knowing the children that they once gave birth to have been gassed by the Nazis during the Holocaust.