Article in the Mobile Register, July 21, 1998

Never Forget
Her mother filled her head with stories about camps and killings and a family destroyed. Her mother now is gone, but Mobile's Rachel Borak can't put the terrifying stories away

By Roy Hoffman
Writer in Residence

Rachel Borak, 51, was born two years after the end of World War II, and grew up thousands of miles from a Nazi camp, but the Holocaust, endured by her parents, throws long shadows over her life in Mobile.

Sometimes, when she steps into the shower, she says, she thinks of an image recounted to her since childhood of prisoners being led to showers which emitted, not water, but poisonous gas.

Although she and her husband have raised four sons, the usual addition to a house of rambunctious kids - a big, lovable dog - was never acquired. Until only recently, Rachel says, the lurking of a dog, particularly a big dog, stopped her short. Her mother had told her stories about "people torn apart" by savage dogs set on them by Nazi SS guards.

A personable woman who spends her days helping others - she teaches sensory impaired children, and mentally disabled adults - Rachel, in her heart, harbors anxieties of her own. "I felt different inside," she says of her youth. "When I was with other children, I felt on the fringe."

Her father, Salomon, passed away five years ago; her mother, Frieda, died in May of this year. Now that they are dead, it falls to Rachel, along with her brother, Max Friedman, a writer in New York, to remember, and to nurse family wounds.

The wounds run deep.

On top of the family the Nazis devastated - they killed Frieda's first husband, her parents and her eight brothers - they took something else, too.

The health of Frieda's mind .

. . .

Rabbi Emeritus P. Irving Bloom of Temple Israel in Dayton, Ohio - rabbi of Mobile's Springhill Avenue Temple from 1960 to 1973 - describes the impact of concentration camps on survivors in this way:

"The question," he says, "is not how a survivor's mind could be affected, but how could it not be affected?"

Bloom, who was a chaplain in the U.S. Air Force, stationed in Germany in 1956 to 1958, saw Europe's few Jewish survivors close-up. Back in America, he met Holocaust survivors whose traumas were still fresh. Often, though, years had to pass, he says, before survivors would begin to speak openly of their shattered lives.

At times, children of survivors felt the burden of the past while discovering it in bits and pieces.

Rachel's mother and father, Jews from Polish villages, were twice uprooted by the Nazis: packed first into ghettos, then shipped to concentration camps.

Her father, she says, kept his demons private as the years passed: "My father told me nothing." Only recently did her brother journey to Sweden to find out more about their family's short stay there after the war.

Rachel's mother, by contrast, would identify herself right away upon meeting strangers as someone who'd survived the camps, kept alive because she was a skilled seamstress.

"How do you feel?" an acquaintance would ask.

"How could I feel? I lost my parents," she'd begin.

Rachel says that her mother had been a prisoner at Plaszow and Auschwitz in Poland, and Bergen-Belsen in Germany. She played out stories from her memory over and over, "like a reel of tape."

In one story, Frieda said that she'd been made to stand and watch SS guards murder other prisoners - by hanging.

She repeated another story so often that it became written down for a book of Holocaust testimonies titled, "Legacies," published in 1993 by Harper Collins. In the story, "Enough," Frieda recounted:

"In Bergen-Belsen I got very weak and was put in a typhus block with about two thousand other girls. The Germans hadn't fed us for a long time, and everyone was starving.

"But I never felt hungry. My mother, who was a holy woman, I always thought, had been killed by the Germans earlier in the war, along with my father, my first husband, and my eight brothers. She was dead but she was still able to help me, the way she always did. At night, maybe because I had such a high fever, maybe not, I would dream that my mother came to me and fed me."

She continued that the Germans finally began feeding people, giving everyone a soup of carrots, potatoes, and ground glass, which they made to seem like flour.

"You needed a cup to put your soup in. I didn't have a cup. A friend of mine said she would get one for both of us. I told her, 'No, thank you, my mother gives me enough food.'

"My friend died the next day. So did most of the other girls in the block. After one cup, they suffered great pains. With two cups, they dropped dead.

"I was lucky. I didn't eat. I survived. My mother gave me enough."

. . .

Rachel's parents, survivors of Bergen-Belsen, married in 1946 and moved to Halmstead, Sweden. Rachel and Max were born there, and were little when the family crossed the Atlantic, to Coney Island, N.Y.

Rachel remembers her early years as "intense," With her father scraping out a living through menial jobs, and the four of them crammed into a one-bedroom apartment.

As her mother told stories of how she had starved in the concentration camps, Rachel had the opposite problem. Her mother fed her so much, she says, "I got obese."

One day, the school nurse called Frieda Friedman in to the school and told her that Rachel was dangerously overweight.

"My mother told the nurse, 'I like fat children!' "

To her mother's dying day, Rachel says, hoarding food would remain an obsession. She describes her at parties, piling up leftovers.

Rachel got older. Her mother suddenly shifted direction, determined that Rachel should be thin.

"She had a lot of issues she wanted to work out through me. She wanted me to be agile, a performer. I wasn't. I was clumsy."

The house was forever filled with the ghosts of the dead. At every family occasion meant to be festive - a birthday party, a bar mitzvah - Frieda grieved for the children who'd never had the chance to live beyond Hitler's camps. An event that had begun in joy would sour into one of misery.

All the while, Rachel's parents made her and her brother the center of their world, hovering over them, seeking control and protection like parents who might find them suddenly ripped away.

She remembers the school bus in New York's Brighton Beach community, where her family moved after Coney Island. She'd climb on it for a 10-block ride with the other children. Some days, her mother would walk the 10 blocks after the bus had left.

"To make sure we had arrived safely."

The scene recalls ones from the Oscar-winning movie, "Shine," about the piano prodigy, David Helfgott. Helfgott's father, a refugee from Nazi Europe to Australia, was obsessed with trying to protect him from the vagaries of the world. Helfgott had a nervous breakdown.

Another character who is the child of survivors appears, in tragic guise, in Pat Conroy's novel, "Beach Music." Shyla, the daughter of survivors, tormented by the past, stands on a bridge in Charleston, S.C. - and leaps to her death.

The burden of the past, in some cases, falls heavily on those who inherit it.

When Rachel and her husband, a doctor, moved to Mobile in the 1970s - her parents would join them in the South as they became old and ill - Rachel's eldest son, then in fourth grade, was scheduled to go on a class field trip. A bus trip to Montgomery .

Rachel became anxious; she refused to let him go .

. . .

The Holocaust can be described, and it can be dramatized - "Schindler's List" is a good example. But, warns Rabbi Bloom, the enormity of the Holocaust's horrors, its tidal wave of evil, can not be understood in any logical sense.

What we can understand is that the anguish goes on long after the survivors grow old, and their children fill their shoes, and they in turn grow old. The pain of a woman in a ghetto in Poland becomes, a generation later, the panic of a daughter in a home in suburban Mobile.

The journey of the survivor - and of those who survive the survivor - remains arduous. Rachel may not have let her first son take the bus to Montgomery, but she let her younger ones.

And after turning away, all her life, from pictures or stories of the Holocaust, she went to a series of films about the war, and the concentration camps, in Mobile. They began to interest her in asking more questions, in looking at her family and what they'd been through.

Then she had the chance to see the movie, "Schindler's List."

"I had to prepare myself, 1 had to ventilate."

But she went, and afterward telephoned her brother in New York. They talked about the movie, and about their parents. Oscar Schindler's factory, where he saved Jews on his list of workers, was near Plaszow. Frieda had first been in forced labor at Plaszow. She had not been so fortunate as to work for Schindler.

"I'm still trying to figure it out," Rachel says wearily of the crimes visited upon her mother, her family and millions of others.

No wonder that she says, "I have no illusions about what humanity's like. 1 think it's possible, anyplace, for people to make the victim anybody who's different."

She shares a copy of the eulogy that her brother composed. Max's words were about their mother, Frieda Friedman, but they resonate for millions:

"She was capable of surviving, being tough, getting through another day, screaming at the world, 'Here 1 am, 1 have not lost.

" 'I will not be forgotten.' "