Thursday, April 16, 2015

Luck and maybe something buried led doctor through Buchenwald

The Bramsons, my grandfather's family, killed in Poland.
     Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day.  Usually I'd let that grim holiday go unremarked upon—the Holocaust gets plenty of attention without me piling on—but the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Buchenwald last week made me think of this article.
    Since it touches upon the idea of luck, I should mention the sheer coincidence that brought it about.  In 1978, the fall of my freshman year at Northwestern, I took Introduction to European Fiction with Erich Heller, perhaps the preeminent scholar of German literature in the United States. Students knew that Heller's brother Paul had been Edward R. Murrow's guide for his famous broadcast when Buchenwald was liberated. That's how Prof. Heller found out his brother had survived the war. He never spoke of these things, of course. But we all somehow knew.
     Cut to 1995. I'm at UIC Hospital, as a reporter, covering a press conference about a breakthrough in treating sickle cell anemia. The doctors are introduced, and one of them is named Paul Heller. I remember thinking that "Paul Heller" might be a common European name, like "Bill Smith" here. It might not be THAT Paul Heller. But he said a few words, in a heavy Czech accent. I went up afterward and surprised him by saying, "You're Erich Heller's brother, aren't you? You were in Buchenwald. You spoke with Edward R. Murrow." That meeting led to this story, which was frustrating in a way. Sitting in his living room, I kept trying to get at how a man survives six years in a concentration camp. He kept saying, "I was lucky." I finally realized that, whatever the full truth is, he wasn't going to tell me. So I went with lucky.

     Dr. Paul Heller is a lucky man. Sitting in the living room of his pleasant Evanston home, he recognizes that only good fortune could have gotten him through nearly six years in Nazi concentration camps, placing him—sick but alive—in Buchenwald the day it was liberated 50 years ago, on April 11, 1945.
     "Of course, I am lucky," says Heller, 80. "I was very lucky. Each day could have ended differently than it did."
     Not all the luck was good. Heller was a young doctor in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia — he received his degree just before the Germans closed down the school — with an exit visa from the Gestapo and a plane reservation to London when the Germans invaded Poland and World War II began on Sept. 1, 1939.
     He was arrested the same day, he believes, because of a political group he belonged to as a student.
     "I wasn't arrested as a Jew," he recalls. "I was arrested as an anti-Nazi."
     He was taken to Buchenwald, where he spent the next four years working in a quarry, carrying large stones in work that "seemed without purpose except to torture us."
     Again, fate came to Heller's aid.
     "I tolerated all this torturous life because I was young and relatively strong," Heller writes in an account of his life he prepared for his grandchildren.
     "But I also was lucky that I had some help. I became a friend of a German political prisoner, Max Girnd . . . he supplied me with half a loaf of bread almost every week."
     In the spring of 1943, he was transferred to the death camp at Auschwitz. Again, fate intervened.
     "I was transferred to Auschwitz to be executed and they made me a doctor," says Heller, who was put to work as a physician at the mining camp at Jaworzno.
     His written account of life in a concentration camp has a measured, almost sedate tone to it. A bout of torture becomes a "cruel interlude." A group of dying prisoners are "the most horrible sight." He retains that calm view — there is no anger or bitterness in him — which he feels was a defense mechanism.
     "This was a way of survival," he says. "I didn't look at it as a reality. There was something terribly unreal about the whole thing. I would come home from working in the stone quarry and think, `It really isn't true, what I went through today.' "
     As the war neared its end, the Germans, desperate to cover their crimes, kept trying to transfer prisoners away from the advancing enemy. Heller survived a murderous forced march from Auschwitz to another camp, Gross-Rosen. Then, severely ill from the march, Heller had the ironic good fortune to find himself shipped back to Buchenwald again.
     "I was saved in the camp hospital because I knew the people there," he says.
     Heller was still in the hospital on April 11, 1945, when Gen. George Patton's 3rd Army liberated the camp. One more stroke of luck was about to help reunite him with his surviving brother and, eventually, bring him to the United States. A day or two after liberation, the former inmates had taken over the S.S. Hospital. Heller was using its fluoroscope to screen for tuberculosis when a tall, handsome man in an American uniform - whom Heller assumed was some sort of official—stopped in and asked to be shown around Buchenwald.
     "It was a sheer accident," Heller remembers. "He was approaching the camp and stopped at the first big building."
     Heller showed the man — who turned out to be broadcaster Edward R. Murrow—around the camp, to the crematorium, the piles of shoes, of glasses, the mounds of human hair. Murrow, dazed, tried to count the bodies, "stacked up like cordwood," but gave up.
     Murrow was not only struck by the scenes of horror, but by the former station of the emaciated men who came up to greet him. He used their names — Peter Zenkl, the former mayor of Prague, Professor Charles Richet of the Sorbonne, even a man from Joliet, Walter Roeder — in his famous broadcast of April 15, one of the first reports to bring the true nightmare of the concentration camps home to a wide audience.
     "I have reported what I saw and heard, but only part of it. For most of it, I have no words," Murrow said, toward the end of the broadcast. "If I've offended you by this rather mild account of Buchenwald - I'm not in the least sorry."
     Murrow also mentioned the name of his guide, Dr. Paul Heller. The broadcast was heard by Heller's brother, Erich, the noted literary scholar, and a reunion was arranged through CBS. Heller spent a year in London, then with Murrow's help, came to the United States. The two remained in contact through the years, until Murrow's death.
     Heller went on to a distinguished career in medicine. He still teaches and does research at the University of Illinois-Chicago Hospital. Now remarried after his first wife passed away, he has two grown children and three grandchildren. He declined the chance to go back to Buchenwald. "I've seen it enough," he says.
     Heller says his ordeal in Buchenwald changed him as a person and colored the rest of his life.
     "This experience was so strong it overshadowed everything," he says. "Continuous and always. Even now, 50 years after liberation, it is still there and every day I remember."

     --Originally published in the Sun-Times, April 10, 1995


  1. The best way to recognize the Holocaust is to pay attention to genocides and ethnic cleansing going on today and risk being that weird person who brings up such unpleasantness during a debate on comparatively trivial political issues.

    The second best way would be to officially acknowledge the genocide that in good part inspired Hitler to commit the Holocaust: the Armenian genocide. Neither the United States has (a broken promise by President Obama) or, to it's immense discredit, Israel If the realpolitiks of maintaining good relations with the dubious current government of Turkey prevents even this much, why even bother?

    1. I also wonder if keeping the air base at Incirlik is worth our still appeasing the Turks, since the current dictator of Turkey is a megalomaniac who just built himself a billion dollar palace, apparently in total secrecy, with the connivance of numerous Western governments, since nothing was written about it during construction, even though they had to know what was going on.
      The continuing Turkish denials of killing 1.5 million Armenians gets more ridiculous over time.

    2. The Turks need to get real, but what do you expect of Muslims? no reasoning

  2. One can almost understand the deniers, when we shrink from taking in the enormity of the horrors of the holocaust -- it just couldn't be true. Something so awful could not have happened in our world. It must be a dream.


  3. "Men can get used to anything. The scoundrels." Dostoevsky - "Crime and Punishment.

    Tom Evans

  4. I edited a community newspaper in Skokie for a few years, and met several Holocaust survivors. One of them had had personal encounters as a child with Josef Mengele, because she had an identical twin sister, and Mengele had some sort of sick fascination with twins. He injected them both with typhus germs or something like that; the woman's sister perished.

    Mengele had to be the biggest bastard in the Third Reich. How galling that he managed to escape and live to old age.

  5. It constantly amazes me that something like the Holocaust happened -- not in the Dark Ages, but in the lifetime of my mother. I have a friend whose great-aunts were part of the Bielski brothers' group who lived in the forest for years to escape the Nazis. When I used to live in L.A., the people who ran the local coffee shop had numbers tattooed on their arms from being in the camps. I *know* the Holocaust happened, but it's so horrific that my mind can't accept the horrible reality that it did.

    1. What amazes me is that a substantial minority of fools still tries to deny that it happened.

    2. Not so amazing, really. Nietszche has a line that goes something like, "Memory says, 'I did that,' and pride replies, 'I could have not done that.' In time, pride prevails." The Holocaust also shows the obvious end result of hate, and some people need to hate, apparently, to build their own egos. It's hard to hate Jews while acknowledging the Holocaust, the obvious conclusion of this hate. So the Holocaust has to go. Not amazing at all.

    3. I hope you read the interview with that British/Indian/Muslim/Jewish/Quaker, Ben Kingsley. That man has his head screwed on straight.

      "Pointing to a painfully ironic experience he had on the set of a Holocaust-related film staged in Budapest, he recalled an elderly passerby who told him, “It never happened, and if you don’t shut up it will happen again!”

      “How about that? Isn’t that totally screwy?” Kingsley asked."

  6. Oh, of course there's lots and lots of competition. Personally, I would give it to Mengele by a nose, because Himmler at least shied away from direct contact with the atrocities he authorized.

  7. No hate for Eichmann? I'd put him ahead of Mengele and Himmler, although he did get caught and executed, which is more than you can say for the other two.

  8. Lots of competition indeed. Like Julius Streicher, and Friedrich Jeckeln of Ukraine, and Slavko Kvaternik of the UstaĊĦe. There's so much competition that it's like the marathons, thousands competing for the crown at the outer limits of human capacity. And most of them died in their sleep, surrounded by their loving families. So it goes.

  9. An odd kind of competition isn't it? They were, of course, all monsters, but my case for Himmler as number one bastard is that, while Mengele and others were cogs in the giant killing machine, he, as head of the SS, was the machine operator. And if you read his quotes, he was not just a "go along" guy, detached from operations. Something said about Robespierre in an earlier terrible time pertains: "That man will go far, for he believes everything he says." And Himmler said very clearly that he believed in killing Jews and other "untermenchen."

    Tom Evans

  10. Justifying hatred is easy. Justifying the reasons for hatred is easy. 150 years after the Civil War, American's still look for ways to justify the separation of races and subjugation of "them others."
    It is the human frailty of needing someone to look down upon in order to justify your own weaknesses.

  11. Mr. Steinberg, Thank You for sharing these touching and historical photos. I couldn't even bring myself to write anything yesterday, thinking of their horror. But we must indeed never forget. Your ancestors look more like my Italian ancestors than they do Poles. I take it their name was probably anglicized later. What a travesty of what that doctor and so many others had to go through in those circumstances. And how some holocaust survivors could be so forgiving or seemingly blase, is beyond me. I guess they have to, for their sanity.

    Unfortunately today's students know little of the atrocities the Japanese committed or of what Stalin was up to, but since some people are taking polls on who is the worst, I'd have to say the Holocaust, unfortunately, takes the cake. May they rest in peace and how strong they were indeed.


    1. (that should be that's, not that) and had to, rather than have to)

  12. (do realize this is a reprint-but good to see)

  13. Some criticize the U.S. for not doing more to get Jews here. But FDR's hands were tied with immigration laws at the time. Some children were helped.

  14. Many here also didn't believe rumors of what was going on there or thought that couldn't possibly be happening in political prisoners.

  15. Others say if that was happening to Christians more would have been done or things would be investigated earlier on. No wonder some Jews are mad at Christians.


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