Hunter College H.S. Holocaust Survivors

- Marsha Sieger Bensoussan, ‘63

Marsha:

About My Parents

The events of the Holocaust have led to the circumstances of my birth and shaped my entire life. Its shadow has permeated my thoughts, deeds and relationships. During the process of writing this history, I have become aware of the depth of its influence on my being.

I was born Machla Aviva Sieger on May 14, 1946 in a Catholic convent in Steinhoering, Germany. Situated in Bavaria near the Feldafing Displaced Persons [DP] Camp and not far from Munich, Steinhoering was a forest vacation retreat for German SS officers and their families during World War II. The nuns served as midwives, treated my mother well, and on our return to Feldafing six months later, gave my mother the parting gift of a silver teaspoon embossed with a cross, which remained in our family until disappearing one day in the 1970s. I was named for my maternal grandmother, Machla Ilana Tessler, and given "Aviva," the Hebrew word for spring, as my middle name. "Machla" immediately became "Margaret". My name was finally changed to "Marsha" at the age of four in kindergarten by the Jewish principal of P.S. 190, Mrs. Shapiro, because she thought it more suitable for a Jewish American girl.

My father, Moshe Zyger, changed in Germany to Sieger, was born in 1906 in Izbica Kujawska, Poland. He came from a long line of bakers of bread and rolls. Other Jewish families specialized in other baked goods such as cakes and cookies. As a Polish citizen, he was conscripted into the army for six years from 1928 to 1934, serving at the Russian border without any home leave.

In 1935, after his return home, he married and had two children. He lost that family in the Chelmno concentration camp in 1943, when his wife was 30 years old and the children were five and seven. My father survived four years in various concentration camps, including Pozner, Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. He and a brother were the only survivors from a family of ten siblings.

My mother, Gisela Marcovici Sieger, was born in 1911 in Marmores, Sziged (Transylvania), Romania. My maternal grandfather, Kalman Marcovici, was a landowner who also owned livestock and a business, and was president of the local synagogue. Mother's parents died before the war, but nine of the ten siblings survived the Holocaust. My mother and her sister Celia Pinkas survived a year in Dachau and Auschwitz. Celia now lives in Queens, NY.

The effects of the war and the camps traumatized my mother for many years. Two decades after the war during a performance of The Merchant of Venice, she suddenly got up, and we had to leave in the middle of the play during the courtroom scene where Shylock pleads for his life. Tearfully, she explained that the scene reminded her of the time she pleaded, successfully, for her own brother in the forest where the Nazis had taken him and other Jewish men. Her brother was spared but others were not, and she could not bear the memory.

My parents met and married during their time in the DP camp after being released from Auschwitz on April 15, 1945. They spoke Yiddish, their common language, at home. But my mother tongue was German, the language they learned under duress, because they did not want to advertise their origins by speaking Yiddish in public. My first recollections as a young child were hazy. I remember my parents intently listening to a large radio and quarrelling. Outside the home, I remember demolished buildings and streets full of grey dusty rubble, wounded American soldiers on crutches, general disorder and bleak misery.

My father, a man of letters, an ardent Zionist, member of the Jewish debate club and supporter of Menachem Begin since adolescence, wanted to take the long-awaited opportunity to immigrate to Israel. He often said that as he was born a Jew, he was prepared to die a Jew. He would add that the family name, Sieger, meant "victor" and that he had escaped victorious from the Nazis. Yet my father never even hinted about his Zionist aspirations until the day I left for Israel on September 1, 1968. He dared not believe that we would ever live in Israel and that his dream could come true.

My mother had different beliefs. She was looking for safety and comfort after the war, wanted to dissociate from the past and live the American dream. She reacted to the Holocaust by identifying with the power of the oppressors and thinking that it was possible for the victims to be guilty. She wanted to distance herself.

Since two of my mother's sisters had already immigrated to New York during the 1930s, my parents decided that America would be the place to go. My Aunt Elizabeth filed application papers to sponsor my parents' immigration. We were brought over by the American JOINT or HIAS, a long-time Jewish charitable organizaton, on March 17, 1949 when I was three years old.

My Childhood in New York City: 1949 – 1957

 

Immigrant life was difficult at the beginning. My aunt had found us an apartment in the German-Irish-Hungarian Catholic neighborhood of Manhattan, called Yorkville or German Town. My aunt also found my father work in a German (!) bakery in Queens, where he worked among non-Jews. My sister, Susan (Shaindel,) named after our paternal grandmother, was born in 1950.

My parents struggled to redefine themselves in their new American environment. We tried to blend into this society of immigrants, but without success. My parents always felt like immigrants, even after having lived in New York for 20 years. They kept their European ways and accents, measuring American cultural norms according to what they had experienced at home (bay inz in Yiddish), meaning pre-war Europe. My parents listened to the Yiddish radio station WEVD, and my father read the Forward newspaper in Yiddish. He knew Hebrew and Yiddish from his youthful educational activities in Poland.

I remember him teaching me the Yiddish and German alphabets. I learned English quickly from the teachers and my classmates in school. My father went to night school and learned English. My mother picked up the language from conversations with the neighbors and me. As a child, I accompanied my parents to all offices to help translate and fill in forms. Eventually, my parents learned enough about English and citizenship to pass the tests and become naturalized American citizens.

The atmosphere at home was secretive. My sister and I were instructed to keep strict boundaries between family and outsiders. Revealing family secrets, such as our Jewish European immigrant background or even unimportant personal details, was considered a disloyal betrayal, punishable by angry shouting and spankings. Growing up in this family, I felt my parents mourning absent family members and friends. I learned to be sensitive, constantly on the alert, and to take responsibility. My parents had survived the Holocaust, and by extension, so had I. I could never forget that fact even as a child. Home was not a safe place to relax or enjoy playing (i.e., wasting time). I had to justify my existence by obeying my parents, getting good grades, excelling. I also became an empathetic listener, attentive to detail. Failure was unthinkable, terrifying, leading to oblivion.

Hunter College High School: 1957 – 1962

My years at Hunter College High School (1957-1962) provided me with valuable formative experiences and tools that I have drawn on repeatedly during my life. I attended Hunter College High School from 7th to 11th grade, opting for early graduation to go on to Hunter College. It was at HCHS that I learned about scholastic merit, academic standards, personal integrity, and organizational skills. The G.O. (General Organization) meetings, where even the voice of a seventh grader could be heard, showed me the workings of equality and democracy. Our glamorous and warm-hearted senior Big Sister showed me how school values and team spirit were passed on throughout the school. Most importantly, I studied, worked, but also had fun together with students from a variety of New York neighborhoods and socio-economic classes.

In the background, there were always questions: As a Jewish person born in post-World War II Germany, and whose ethnic group was singled out for special treatment, what is my identity? How should I relate to non-Jewish, and particularly, German people? What is the purpose of my life? What should be its direction?

My closest friends were Louise Rauschert, Carolyn Smokler, Peff Modelski, and Daisy Hilse. Only one was Jewish; one was Polish-American, and two were German-American. That was a new one for my parents, but they did not object because they were proud that I attended such an exclusive school. And by 1957, they had also become Americanized.

Mrs. Cronin's World History course made the greatest impact on me. Her narratives showing multiple determinants for world events, including wars and shifts of power, gave me new insights into the development of history. It seemed to me that education could lead to tolerance and would melt narrow-mindedness and ignorance. Throughout high school and college, I studied French language and literature, just because I liked French culture. Little did I know that this knowledge would stand me in good stead when finding a husband who, with his family, spoke French.

My school volunteering activity was most productive. I worked as an aide in the high school infirmary for Mrs. Brolin, the school nurse. I enjoyed working with the team of school aides a few hours during the week. Although I saw it as a first step toward being a doctor, in fact, my contact with Mrs. Brolin brought me a career as a church organist and choir director. While in high school, I studied organ with Dr. Herman Berlinski at Temple Emanuel and received a scholarship from the Hebrew Union College. He taught me the repertoire of Reform Jewish Music.

The person I was at the end of my high school studies was a very different person from the one who started 7th grade. HCHS gave me the academic skills to learn and teach others, as well as the social skills and self-confidence to manage reasonably well in many unfamiliar situations.

However, I was still self-critical and careful not to make mistakes. I grew up with the feeling of being under constant observation by parents, teachers, and classmates. The immigrant mentality did not permit me to lower my guard.

Hunter College: 1962 – 1968

After Hunter College High School, I went on to Hunter College, earning a B.A. (magna cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa, with honors in English, French and Music) in 1965. In 1967, as part of the direct Ph.D. program, I received an M.A. All my education was free since there was public education through the B.A., and I received a Regents' College Scholarship and Teaching Fellowship each year for the M.A. and Ph.D. During 1967-1968, I taught writing courses to college freshmen at Hunter and Lehman Colleges.

Starting in 1965 my contact with the Brolins deepened. Their organist at the Dutch Reformed Church in the Bronx had retired, and they asked me to take the post. I agreed, with my parents' approval, and was responsible for all the church services, including midnight masses for Christmas and Easter with both senior and junior choirs.. A church with mostly Scottish Presbyterian congregants, they were very welcoming. In fact, the church sexton spoke Yiddish, having learned it in the neighborhood. During the Jewish High Holy Days, he displayed a sign on the church bulletin board: Happy Holidays to our Jewish friends. I enjoyed playing the organ in church as well as the piano in the orchestra and chamber ensembles at college.

Meanwhile, my parents had at last received reparations from Germany for their sufferings during the war. When the money finally came in, it made a huge difference to my parents' lifestyle and standard of living. We were able to move from the Manhattan railroad flat in the brownstone to a comfortable 3-bedroom duplex apartment in Forest Hills, Queens. Finally I had my own room! In time, my father also looked calmer, less anxious and more American. The money could not wipe out 20 years of difficult existence, but it helped get us out of poverty.

It was during this time that I decided to take one semester off and travelled to Israel. My expectation was to attend an ulpan for six months and learn Hebrew. I felt it would help me understand my identity and Jewish heritage. I had planned to return home to Manhattan and finish my Ph.D. program. I had not expected this trip to catapult me into a completely new life.

Israel: 1968 – 1995

I flew to Israel on September 1, 1968. A month after arriving at the Hebrew ulpan in Upper Nazareth, I met my future husband, Albert. He and his parents had just emigrated from Casablanca, Morocco. Six months later, at the end of the ulpan, we all moved to Haifa. I gave up my plans to return to New York and started teaching English as a Foreign Language at the University of Haifa. Albert and I married on August 18, 1969, and our first son Ariel was born in 1971.

Later, both my parents immigrated to Israel, although separately. Realizing his lifelong dream, my father retired in 1974 to Kiryat Segal, a retirement village in a pastoral setting in Efal, in the center of Israel. He read the Hebrew and Yiddish newspapers daily and typed letters on typewriters in various languages. He wanted a quiet life. He lived in a studio apartment, was completely mobile and independent, and enjoyed being part of a community of people over the age of 50. His immigration was made possible by American social security payments and German reparations. My father died in January 1991 in the infirmary of Efal at the age of 85.

Named after Albert's father who passed away, our second son Shlomo was born in 1975. My father, who was present at the brit mila, the circumcision, was delighted to greet the Mohel, the ritual circumciser, who was a childhood friend from Poland and whom he had not seen since the DP camp in Germany. My father viewed his grandchildren as miraculous gifts after the Holocaust.

My mother arrived in Israel in 1977 and bought an apartment in Netanya across the street from the beach. Speaking English and Yiddish, she decided to live among the hustle and bustle of Israeli life. At the beginning, she met regularly with multilingual groups of retired people who met on the benches in the large well-tended park overlooking the beach. She also received American social security payments and German reparations. My mother died in September 2008 at the age of 97. The world she was born into was a very different one from the one she left.

During this period, I was developing my Israeli identity as a person with Anglo-Saxon roots who married into a Sephardic family. The Holocaust was relegated to the background although I did attend a few meetings of Amcha, the association for second-generation survivors.

My academic career prospered. I am a senior lecturer at the University of Haifa. After changing my field from literature to reading comprehension in English as a foreign language (EFL), in 1985 I received my Ph.D. in Applied Linguistics from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, School of Education, and I have been teaching and publishing in my fields of research.

Sabbatical in Germany: 1995 - 1996

I chose to come to Germany on sabbatical because I wanted to know what had changed in the years since the end of World War II and the fall of the Berlin Wall. I wanted to see how the German people felt about their experiences. At the age of 49, I decided it was time to look into my past.

My feelings about Germany were mixed. On one hand, I have many Ashkenazi Jewish friends who would never set foot in Germany. After losing relatives in concentration camps, and having to deal with parents who suffered there even if they survived, several of my friends have turned their backs forever on Germany. Even some Jewish and non-Jewish Europeans I know refuse to set foot on German soil. Some of my older Jewish colleagues refused to accept German reparations, because they did not want to receive tainted money, as they saw it. Nothing could make up, in their minds, for the horrors of what they had seen.

On the other hand, I have friends and colleagues of Jewish and non-Jewish German origin in America and Israel, and I met German tourists in Israel who were very pro-Zionist, even whole church congregations. Before the sabbatical, I had visited Germany twice as a tourist. I have dual citizenship and both Israeli and American passports. So I was coming to Germany one part Jewish victim and one part American victor, searching for what in Germany? Signs of remembrance? Repentance? Resolve not to let things happen again? Denial? In fact, I was to find all of these -- and more.

I found my own Israeli-born children far removed from the tragedies of the past. Even though they learn about the period in school and see documentaries and fictionalized films on television, they are distanced from the feelings of World War II. If my own children had lost contact with a situation that the world was supposed never to forget, I wondered what was happening to the younger generation in Europe, whose parents' homes 50 years earlier were on or near the battlefields of war.

The choice was not easy. I spent several weeks worrying about whether I had made the right decision. I had nightmares about German concentration camps. I was in the U.S. a week before coming to Germany and visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., which exhibits the enormity of the effect of German aggression on the entire world, not only on its Jewish victims. It impressively and clearly shows the full extent of crimes against humanity.

And so I arrived in Germany September 1, 1995, exactly 29 years after immigrating to Israel, at the invitation of my friend, Prof. Dr. Kris Klein-Braley, to be a visiting lecturer in the Applied Linguistics Section of the Faculty of Language and Literature at the University of Duisburg. I was filled with excitement, curiosity, apprehension, and a bit of German language. I found a Jewish life and remnants of a Jewish past. Two weeks after arriving, I found the Judische Gemeinde, the Jewish Community Organization in Muelheim, a half-hour away by tram. I was amazed to find a synagogue so near, since I had imagined very little Jewish life Germany. In Israel I did not attend a synagogue regularly, and felt no need to continually reaffirm my Jewish identity. Everyday life in Israel fulfilled that function. However, in Germany, as in the U.S., I needed to reach out to other Jews. I was curious about their Jewish-German lifestyles and their hopes for the future.

On the anniversary of the infamous pogrom, Kristallnacht (Crystal Night), November 9, there was a moving joint German-Jewish ceremony in Duisburg. This one was co-organized by Rabbi Polnauer at the Muelheim synagogue and the pastor of a nearby Protestant church. It began at the Rathaus, the City Hall where a Jewish German/Israeli diplomat gave a talk on German-Jewish history since World War II. He stressed the exceptionally close economic and personal ties that have evolved between Germany and Israel since the 1960’s. He also talked about the necessity of having close intercultural relationships to prevent false stereotypes. Then each of the 400 participants was given a candle, and there was a silent march to Rabbi Dr. Menass Neumark Weg (a street named for the first rabbi of the Duisburg Jewish Community (1875-1942), who perished in the Holocaust) and the Anne Frank memorial. The rabbi sang Kaddish for the six million Jews killed by the Nazis, the Christian choir sang Yerushalayim shel Zahav, (Jerusalem, the Golden) in Hebrew, and the pastor spoke about the importance of remembering all the victims of the war and of continuing good human relations. After dinner, about 30 people attended a nearby chapel, that had once been a synagogue, to say Kaddish for Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who had been assassinated at the beginning of the week, and to discuss what it means to have German-Jewish relations at this time.

On January 13, 1996, I planned a Memorial (Yahrzeit) service for my father who had passed away in 1991. I thought it would be fitting to hold a service in Germany, of all places, after he survived the concentration camps and lived on to enjoy life in the U.S. and Israel. It was my way of celebrating life over death, and I believe he would have approved.

To try to understand the world my parents came from, I decided to visit Poland. With the help of a Polish friend, Edward Maliszewski, from the town of Torun, I visited what remained of my father's home in Poland. It was a town where time had stopped since World War II; the houses, shops, and even people's clothing dated from 50 years previously. Seeing my father's birthplace allowed me to understand his roots. It was a strongly emotional and rewarding experience.

Since my visit, memorial ceremonies have been taking place regularly in Torun. For example, on April 19, 2005, Edyta Bugaj-Brauze, one of the teachers at Torun Academic Junior and Senior.High School, organized an exhibition on the Holocaust and a glatt kosher Passover Seder for the whole school, even though none of the participants was Jewish. Every year in April, together with her students, she prepares performances devoted to Jewish issues, staging them for the whole school.

On the train to Poland, I encountered a large group of Germans, members of the Kreisau Circle, who were traveling to the annual commemoration of their failed assassination attempt on Hitler. One of the group, Stefan Doye, a student in Berlin who was of French Huguenot descent, explained the purpose of the trip and invited me to contact him. When I returned to Berlin a few months later, he drove me to the bunker where Hitler had committed suicide, a secret (except to the initiated), unmarked spot in a huge green field next to a busy highway and a residential area of respectable block houses. For me, there was a strange combination of historical interest, horror, and coldness in the light of day.

What I learned from my sabbatical in Germany and my exploration of Europe

I learned that Europe is still recuperating from World War II. Only 50 years after the war did people start to talk about it, share experiences, and begin to try to understand. Previously, like my parents immediately after the war, they were too traumatized to examine their past, keeping all their stories secret. However, in 1995, when I said that I came from Israel, most people were ready to share personal experiences, many of them having visited Israel at least once. The Germans with whom I spoke expressed a willingness and responsibility to make amends for the past.

I learned that the Jewish-German connection is strong. One of my closest friends is Renate Duebbert, teacher of German as a foreign language at the University of Haifa, who immigrated to Israel from Germany in 1995 with the specific intention of helping and making amends to the Jewish community. For some years, she also worked for the United Restitution Organization in Israel to help Israeli Jews receive reparations.

I learned about the problems of immigrants. We are three generations: my parents, Albert and I, and my sons who are children of immigrants. In contrast to families with solid roots for centuries past, with statues erected to honored ancestors, we have moved to a new country every generation.

I learned that secrecy can be toxic, and that facts need to be exposed to the open air and sunlight. I learned the value of historians and documents, and that truth cannot be denied. I learned that wrongs need to be made right. The victim needs to see amends made; the aggressor needs to acknowledge, apologize, and assure the former victim that the act of aggression will never happen again. It is important to honor the victims, who are also survivors, to start a new life. Furthermore, memories, which are necessary to keep the past alive, must be tempered by forgiveness.

I learned the importance of democracy and the privilege of being allowed to be one's self. Originality can be viewed as a creative contribution, not a threat to society. Freedoms of religion, speech, and dress code, tolerance, and equality of opportunities for all ethnic groups and genders should form the basis of all societies. Then maybe the need for secrecy will disappear. My circle of friends and colleagues encompasses people from different cultures and backgrounds. I value people regardless of ethnic or religious affiliation.

I learned that stress and excessive criticism can be detrimental to health. Now I am striving to achieve personal enjoyment in addition to public performance. I learned how important it is to enjoy life every day and to value good relationships

During the years, my views of history and the world have been changing. Nations, like people, are neither entirely good nor entirely bad. I have become suspicious of political labeling, slogans, clichés, and simplistic thinking. Stereotypes are for the lazy. I believe it is important to deal with anger and pain, and equally important to move on. To spend a lifetime hating people ultimately harms the one who is doing the hating. I want to use what I have learned to enrich my own life and help others build the future.

- March 2009

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