3rd Persecution, Prayers & Pyres

‘Tears Fay? What’s wrong?’

‘Oh, Dad, this library book. It’s horrifying.’ My voice cracked. ‘Those poor Jews.’ I hid my face in my handkerchief.

‘C’mon, love. Show your old dad.’

He took his time reading the cover and blurb before speaking. ‘Leon Uris. I remember. He faced an International Court for what he wrote in Exodus, this novel right here: gruesome medical experiments on Jewish women and children in a prisoner-of-war camp. Uris lost—fined an incredible amount. Made world headlines.’

That got my attention.  ‘How much?’

‘A halfpenny.’


My shoulders drooped. ‘Gassing, incinerating bodies? Dad, I’d no idea, no idea at all.’ I sniffled then blew hard. ‘It’s only a novel, probably exaggerated.’

‘Or not…’ Dad shook his head, ‘War is cruel, Fay. Sorry you had to find out like this. Better you’d left this one on the shelf.’ He pulled a chair closer and draped his arm around me. ‘I was only a few years older than you when I had a stark lesson in man’s inhumanity to man. Lust for power, killer lust…’

‘Hiroshima?’ I asked.

He nodded, frowned.

‘But Dad you never talk to us kids about it. Why?’

‘You’ll understand one day, love. Can’t burden you with the suffering and cruelty I’ve known. Bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Atomic bombs. Occupation Forces were sent. Our duty was to make sure the Japs didn’t re-arm. The Emperor’s push for power in South-East Asia was foiled, at devastating cost.

One day I’ll tell you about Pearl Harbour, kamikaze and the Burma Railroad. And Hiroshima.

Cheer up now, eh? Wonder what the family’s up to?


One particular day, decades later, I’d been recollecting tales from numerous authors, Holocaust authors, that had passed through my hands after Leon Uris’s catalogue: Anna Frank, Thomas Keneally, Viktor Frankl, Irene Nemorovsky…

We, my husband and I, were sitting in the back of a crowded vehicle, one not built for passenger comfort, squinting to see the small screen up front.  Showing was an educational video regarding our destination—blizzarding at every pot-hole. Making eye contact, we’d shrugged our shoulders–and opted for scenic views.


We arrived.

Unlike millions of unfortunates, in trains, in terror, we arrived in a bus, after breakfast.

So many buses…

As we alighted from ours, we joined the masses. Amongst the jostling and cacophony, nary was there an Aussie accent.

“I’ve made a mistake, a big one,” I castigated myself, as I glanced at my husband’s face. I’d pushed for this. He’d pushed back. But his expression revealed nothing. Reassurance enough for the time being…

I whispered, “Let’s look for signage. Where we assemble.”

We discovered that our tour leader was a personable young man, a university student. His grandfather had actually escaped this place—a rarity, a POW survivor of Auschwitz, Poland—this infamous concentration camp.

Then a switch, a welcome change, a hush. Dignity and respect prevailed as we moved from the environs of the bus park.

As our small group passed under the sign proclaiming in German, “Work Sets You Free”, I felt goose bumps. What horrors were ahead?

The Third Reich’s Final Solution—all those books I’d read…

We were in the actual setting, the cruel finale for millions. Scenes now imprinting on our memory banks.

Well-trained controllers moved groups between displays, each preserved to show visitors how a megalomaniac operated. Hitler’s goal? To annihilate European Jewry.

How poignant it was to view the pots and pans (carted by unsuspecting mothers) and suitcases, emptied of their precious, hastily-packed contents at the behest of Nazi thugs, snarling, and bashing. Promised ‘resettlement’ was a cruel ploy.

At the Wall of Death, I contorted my face to beat back tears. Here an estimated 20000 Polish Freedom fighters were shot.

I took minimum photos for memory’s sake. But hesitated at one exhibit behind a wall of glass–so confronting it stirred me to the core. Hair: masses of bundled hair wrenched from women, lifeless in the gas chambers. One brief glance. No lingering. No photo.

Then on to nearby Birkenau, Auschwitz 2. Unforgettable locations featured in the movie, Schindler’s List, awaited–a tableau of terror. On the train track was a cattle wagon which had hauled human cargo, a bequest by Australian philanthropist Solomon Lewy.

Wailing and incantations from a contingent of Israeli rabbis bearing Star of David flags acted like a contagion. Tears flowed, mine included. Etched in my memory is their sorrow as they invoked prayers of reverence near the remains of crematoria.

We didn’t face danger or depravity that day. Yet our pulses galloped as we imagined horror, mass murder and primitive blood-lust beyond measure.

Subdued, we joined passengers returning to Krakow. I recalled the conversation with Dad, when I was fourteen years old, and couldn’t comprehend such evil. Never will I.

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