A few days ago, a 79-year-old Polish Holocaust survivor died in West Palm Beach after a long illness. Born in Bialystok with the name Ethel Katz, her story was known all over the world, having been told over four decades in newspaper and magazine articles, books, documentaries, TV presentations and lectures in 60 countries.
Ethel’s intersection with history began long ago in August 1943 in the terrifying darkness of a boxcar, as a train swayed rhythmically on its way toward the Treblinka death camp.
The thin 13-year-old girl nicknamed Edjya sat on the floor listening to the thudding rail ties, trying to understand the terrible events befalling her family.
Her mother nudged her and whispered, “You’re a skinny one, Edjya, always a skinny one,” as she eyed the tiny vent at the top of the boxcar.
“Quickly, up there,” she said. “Edjya, go through. Quickly, I said. We’ll let you down slowly. Hold onto the towel.”
Edjya inched out of the vent and down the horizontal wooden slats of the boxcar’s exterior until her elbows and finally her wrists cleared. Hanging onto the towel against the wind, with one foot resting on an exterior bolt, Edjya cried out, “Take me back up! I can’t do it!”
“Get ready,” her mother instructed. “When you hit the ground, run, Edjya, run. And tell someone. Tell someone what is happening!”
Edjya jumped. On the ground, she was shot by militiamen and then buried in a snowy mass grave. But when Herschel, a teenage Polish Jewish fighter living in the forest, came upon Ethel’s leg protruding from the snow, he pulled her out to life and survival. They lived in the woods for the next two years. Later, the couple married.
After a brief stay in a postwar displaced persons camp, the young survivors reached America, settled in Chicago, and as Ethel’s mother had enjoined, she “told someone.”
Ethel’s dramatic escape from a boxcar — one of the few such known escapes — was retold many times in the mass media and inspired many people, beginning in the 1970s during the formative years of the “Second Generation” movement of Holocaust survivors’ children, who stepped forward to remember their parents or help them come to grips with the Holocaust.
At her brief private funeral Feb. 9 in West Palm Beach, one family member rose to explain that in Jewish tradition, when Jews pass from life they do not go to heaven but dwell in the netherland of Sheol.
According to tradition, Moses, King David and all the Jews who have passed from this world became inanimate shades awaiting God’s next instruction. The inert Jews of Sheol live on, not in corporeal or spiritual form but in memory, and only in the inspiration they provided the world.
Hitler placed Ethel and millions of other European Jews in boxcars, giving them numbers instead of names in his attempt to wipe out the Jewish people and eradicate their memory.
Before embarking upon the “Final Solution,” Hitler declared, “Who will remember the Armenians?” referring to the extermination of about a million Armenians during World War I. He intended a similar fate for the Jews of Europe.
To defeat Hitler’s plan, Jews like Ethel had to survive and tell their stories. That happened. More than the testimony of mere survival, many victims emerged from Nazi inhumanity to live lives of lovingkindness toward others.
In this way, survivors such as Ethel inspired a multitude to live exemplary lives and warn the world about the dangers of intolerance and racial hatred.
The Polish survivor born Ethel Katz inspired me. In America, her name was Ethel Black, and she was my mother. See, I’m still telling her story.
Edwin Black is the author of five award-winning books and scores of articles — including the New York Times bestseller “IBM and the Holocaust” — all of which dealt with the Holocaust and were predicated on his parents’ experience.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.