Dust and Ashes, MCSI Final Project by Rebecca Dollinger
Abe Katz is a 93-year-old Holocaust survivor currently residing in Salt Lake City, Utah. At fourteen, he was abducted by Nazi officers and sent to spend his teenage years in concentration camps.
A Jewish Fable
There is a lovely Jewish story of Rabbi Simcha Bunim, a leading Polish Chasidic rabbi in the late 18th-early 19th century.
“Every person should have two pockets. In one pocket should be a piece of paper saying: ‘I am but dust and ashes’ (Genesis 18:27). In the other pocket should be a piece of paper saying: ‘For my sake was the world created’ (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5)…Our challenge is to live our lives recognizing the significance of these paradoxical truths, remembering the world was created for our sake, while at the same time recognizing that we are only dust and ashes.”
Our time on this Earth matters, yet we are barely more than a speck of dust in the vastness of this universe. Every one of us has a life and story. Someday, we will be nothing more than a story. Then time will pass as it always does and we will be forgotten.
Another Jewish story tells of death. We die twice, our rabbis teach. Once, when our physical body dies. Then, we die when our name is spoken for the last time.
This is the story of a name. This is the story of a genocide. This is a story of life and it is a story of death. This story will be of dust and ashes, retelling a story of strength that sits next to a story of cremation.
Archives and Memories: The Holocaust
As the reader is hopefully aware, World War II and the Nazi concentration camps remains one of the the most horrendous and disturbing genocides in recorded human history. Before transcribing and archiving Abe’s story, I did my research about the Nazi regime and the attempted elimination of the Jewish people.
I discovered what I believe are the two attempts we have at archiving this catastrophe: universal archive and personal archive.
The universal archive may best be illustrated in the documentary “Paper Clips”
In this film, students attempted to understand the scale of the the victims lost to the concentration camps. The students fill a train car with 6 million paper clips, each one representing a life lost.
Over 6 million Jewish lives were destroyed, along with over 5 million non-Jewish lives. I remember watching this film in seventh grade, at my Jewish day school. Upon reflecting on the concept of the project, Our English teacher, Mr. Knox, explained to us, “it’s hard to imagine such a huge number. 10,000 or 6 million, it seems the same.” (2009, not an exact quote)
And it was true. There is so much to comprehend about this awful period.
Auschwitz: Inside the Nazi State
I watched a PBS documentary series Auschwitz: Inside the Nazi State
While there are personal stories included throughout the series, a vast majority of the documentary focuses on the Holocaust as a whole.
The goal of the Nazi killings was to dehumanize their victims. They had no names, they had numbers. These Jews were not people, they did not have stories and lives and families. They were parasites to be exterminated. They were clogs on the system of utopia. They were target practice.
Interviewer: Could you tell me what you were thinking and feeling when you were shooting?
Hans Friedrich: Nothing. I only thought, ‘Aim carefully’ so that you hit properly. That was my thought.
Interviewer: This was your only thought? During all that time you had no feelings for the people, the Jewish civilians that you shot?
Hans Friedrich: No.
Hans Friedrich, 1st SS Infantry Brigade
Personal Archive and Memory
I spent most of my high school years reading about and participating in volunteer programs about the Holocaust era, and I have learned less than a drop in the bucket.
My junior year of high school, I participated in The Next Chapter,
where I interviewed a Holocaust survivor who had escaped the camps and lived in England for much of her childhood.
I believe this program was the perfect intersection of the universal and the personal archive. When I say “universal archive”, I am referring to the scale and the atrocity that happened to the Jewish population as a whole and to the human population of the world during this time. I learned the facts and figures, and I learned a personal story of pain and struggle.
Abe Katz, Auschwitz Survivor
Abe Katz was where I began and he will be my final story. Abe stands strong at 93 years old, a testament to bravery and overcoming incredible odds. I recorded his story and transcribed it. His story is over two hours long, so I am including just a brief sample of it.
I am also including the literal voice recording, because I found that something was lost when I looked at the text. Abe has a strong German accent. His story should not be read or heard, but listened to profoundly, in the space that it sits. And here it will stay, a memory of a life that was lived.
Abe Katz: Auschwitz—Auschwitz was Hell (it was the main camp). Thousands and thousands of people—they came into Auschwitz. We were brought into a big place—like a football field—and all of us had to stay there for hours and then we finally—another camp we had to drop all our clothes, stand naked, and a guy– supposedly like a doctor—had the monocle in his eyes and (he had) the belt and the buckles and all that. We had to line up and he went through us, between us, and he pointed his finger, ‘You go this way, you go this way,’ The ones who went this way, they were going to the crematoriums. I didn’t look at them. And the other ones, when he pointed this way, like me, I was a young guy. They can see that I can work—produce, or whatever. So I went to the good line.
(pause, sharp breath)
The sleeping quarters—the barracks. It was bunks. Built– one, two, three, (hand motion to demonstrate their vertical build) and posts between another three, and another three. As long as a city block, almost. We slept six in a bunk. The only way we could fit in the bunk was just laying (on our) side. If we rolled then it would shatter. A guy was on watch, and every hour the lights—he’d turn the lights on in the barracks, and blow a whistle, and everybody had to turn around on the other side. And that had to be all six together, because there was no room. So we just slept and after a while we lay there for a while. And in the morning we got up, and there was a guy between us who would never get up anymore. And that’s the way it was, every day.
Abe is more than a name and more than a number. Abe Katz, you are a powerful man. Abe Katz, you are more than your struggles and you are a symbol of unwavering strength. Abe Katz, your story will be told. Your story is important. You will be remembered.
“Auschwitz: Inside the Nazi State.” PBS. PBS, n.d. Web.
Clark, Roy Peter. Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer. New York: Little, Brown, 2006. Print.
Cohen, Kerry. The Truth of Memoir: How to Write about Yourself and Others with Honesty, Emotion, and Integrity. Print.
Kubert, Joe. Yossel: April 19, 1943 : A Story of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. New York, 2003. Print.
“Utah Auschwitz Survivor: ‘This Story Should Not Be Forgotten. It Could Happen Again.’” The Salt Lake Tribune. Web. 8 Dec. 2015.
“The Next Chapter – JFCS Holocaust Center of SF.” JFCS Holocaust Center of SF The Next Chapter Comments. Web.
“Homepage – JFCS Holocaust Center of SF.” JFCS Holocaust Center of SF Homepage Comments. Web.
“Two Pockets – Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Peshischa.” Me’ah Sh’arim. Web.
Photos by Shayna Dollinger
Audio was Recorded by Rebecca Dollinger; Voice of Abe Katz