In Parts 1, 2, and 3, of this History of Overcoming, we discovered how the Holocaust came to be, and the impact of those who chose to do the right thing no matter the cost versus those who chose not to…
Now, to broaden our view, it is important to look at the history of overcoming shown by survivors of the Holocaust. Those who overcame the Holocaust itself… and continued to overcome in the days that followed by choosing life!
Who are the Holocaust Survivors?
Six million Jews—and millions of others—died in the Holocaust. Young and old. Rich and poor. Active followers of God and not so active followers of God. Healthy and sick. Male and female…
Most of us know and can somewhat get our heads around this number… but the effects of the Holocaust were felt long after…
Because, left behind were survivors. Again. Young and old. Rich and poor. Active followers of God and not so active followers of God. Healthy and sick. Male and female…
Living. Surviving. That was their first battle. That made ‘Holocaust survivors.’ Yet, the aftermath for them did not quickly go away…
Nearly every survivor lost the bulk or all of their family, friends, and neighbors. Nearly all, if they bothered to return ‘home,’ found that their possessions were gone, their homes were damaged, stolen, or demolished, and those they once called neighbors and friends were either gone, dead, or suspicious.
Surviving the Holocaust meant that you were able to breathe. That your heart still beat. It did not mean that you had food, or shelter, or clothes. It did not mean that you had family or friends. It did not mean that you could expect kindness, or generosity, or hope for the future.
Coming away from the Holocaust with your life meant that in order to go forward… you had to find a reason to live. To keep on going!
- For some that came through putting their hope in God.
- For some that came through a desire to return to and restore the land of Israel.
- For some that came through a need to protect and care for others.
- For some that came through choosing the ‘revenge of life’—of doing the opposite of what Nazis and antisemitics wanted: living, thriving, and rejoicing.
- For some it was a combination of these, or other reasons…
Yet, no matter the reason(s), deciding to take the road of life was not easy. There were memories. Pain. Lack. Struggles. And so much more that had to be faced and overcome. But by choosing life, they were choosing to be overcomers. They were choosing a history of overcoming! One that gives hope to this day, and a renewed trust in God!
There are more stories of overcoming than could possibly be put here—and more that only God knows. Yet, each one is precious. Each one demonstrates God’s love! Each one reminds us that He created us to be overcomers!
So what are these stories? How do the precious names and legacies of these individuals teach us today?
“…I myself cannot believe that I went through, and I could make it. I mean…it’s a miracle that whoever’s alive, it’s a miracle. And I’ll tell you we feel it now.”
—Basia (Bess) Fiszel [Holocaust Survivor]
Basia (Bess) Fiszel was one of the survivors of the Holocaust. Born in 1920 in Poland, she and her family were not wealthy, but they were hard workers—making and selling caps.
Prior to the war, Basia’s family—her parents and three siblings—lived in a small place with only two bedrooms… But when her family was forced into one room in the Lodz Ghetto, with only a small wheelbarrow of belongings, their two-bedroom home became a grand memory.
Basia was given the difficult job of working construction—a backbreaking job with long hours, but one that she was thankful for because it let her earn a small portion of bread and soup to share with her family. Yet, that food was not enough, and after close to four years in the Lodz Ghetto, Basia’s father died of starvation.
For over four years Basia and her family lived in the Lodz Ghetto, uncertain if they would live to see another day…
Then one night in August 1944, Basia was taken to Auschwitz where she thankfully remained only two weeks before being moved to another camp, Bergen-Belsen, for six weeks before the camp was liberated…
To us, it may seem that her story ended there, but her survival was only a piece of her story. Not only had Basia lost her father to starvation in 1944, but of her once large family—parents and three siblings—only a brother and sister survived. Her mother and youngest brother were sent to the gas chamber upon arrival at Auschwitz.
However, Basia was an overcomer. She not only managed to survive the starvation, hard labor, horrors, and loss of the Holocaust but afterward, made a life for herself. She married another Jewish survivor, Sam Fiszel, with whom she would have three daughters, and made her way to America in 1950, where she and her family was able to thrive and heal!
“[W]e must believe. We must be on our guard. We must bring the torch to life. We must educate people. We must even request that there should be a regular history curriculum in the schools, in the universities between the students. There should be a(n) hour or two or more basic—a curriculum in which you should learn about our mistakes, about their mistakes. They should learn about what really there was going on. And now, in the future, in the generation to come, this terrifying, horrible Holocaust should not reoccur.”
—Leah Sjoberg [Holocaust Survivor]
Hedy Epstein is another Holocaust Survivor. Born in 1924 in Germany, in many ways Hedy may be considered one of the more blessed survivors because, at 14 years of age, she was shipped to England… But that would be a matter of opinion.
In the years before the Holocaust, as Hedy’s parents did their best to shield her from the growing antisemitism, and aside from comments like, ‘dirty Jew,’ they were largely successful. But when Kristallnacht occurred in November 1938, they could no longer protect her from the truth…
Going to school—her home not yet ransacked—Hedy began to notice things… a local Jewish dentist’s home and business having every window smashed being the first sign of trouble. Yet, while Hedy knew something was wrong, she still went to class.
Sitting in her seat, the usually gentle, kind, and soft-spoken principal came into her classroom. He started to speak to the class but stopped, turned to her, called her a ‘dirty Jew,’ and ordered her out of the classroom. Confused by this, when Hedy asked him to repeat himself, he grabbed her arm and pushed her into the hall, where many children proceeded to insult her.
Uncertain what was happening or what she would tell her parents if she went home, Hedy stayed, even as every other child—except one Jewish boy from a different class—left. But it would not even be an hour before the pair would choose to call home… after looking out the window and seeing a group of Jewish men chained together and being beaten with whips as their SS captors hurried them along.
“…I called home first. And the operator came on and said that the phone was disconnected, and then… I tried again, and she told me the same thing… I called my father at his place of business, and the phone was disconnected… I called my aunt, and the phone was disconnected. And then he called his parents, or his mother… his father was dead already, and I don’t know who all he called, but all those phones were disconnected too.”
—Hedy Epstein [Holocaust Survivor]
Worried, they hurried home, but were careful to go the back ways to keep from being seen…
Reaching home, Hedy knew something was different; wrong. The green shutters were closed in the middle of the day, though they had been open when she left hours prior, and the doors were locked.
She rang the doorbell and received no answer, though her mother was almost always home at that time of day…
Not thinking clearly, Hedy ran up to a Nazi and asked where her mother was; he basically said that if her mother was alive and he found her, she would not remain so.
Fearful, Hedy ran to find her aunt or her father. She saw people breaking windows, stealing things, and laughing, but eventually she reached her aunt’s house where she found her aunt and mother…
There she learned that her father had been taken from their house—still in his pajamas—only 10 minutes after Hedy had left for school, and that much of their home had been destroyed!
As the three waited, more Jewish men—her father included—were marched in chains past the house, with SS men whipping and hurrying them along.
The trio survived injury that day despite later attempts by the Nazis to break down the door, but it was nearly two weeks before they heard anything from Hedy’s father who had been taken to Dachau. After four weeks they were told he would come home the next week… or not at all.
Hedy’s father did return—in the last group—head shaved, both hands frostbitten and burned, arms swollen, body beaten… His injuries were so severe that he suffered, yet survived, a mild heart attack that same morning of his return.
But that was not the end of their hardships:
- Jewish work was limited.
- Jewish businesses were closed.
- Jewish monies and valuables were seized.
- Jewish children could no longer attend school.
So Hedy’s parents searched and searched—more than before Kristallnacht—for a way to leave Germany… For relatives living abroad or some way out. But the only escape they could find was for Hedy—via a distant, distant, distant cousin in England, who agreed to sponsor Hedy with a Jewish family in London. And on May 18th, 1939—Wednesday—Hedy left with hundreds of children bound for England… away from parents she would never see again.
At first—before England declared war—Hedy was able to write her parents regularly and they, her. Then messages had to go through channels; like the Red Cross, where the maximum word count was 25, or through people living in neutral countries who could pass the letters.
“…she’s (Hedy’s mother) asking me to be brave, to carry my head high, and to be good—you know, all those kinds of admonitions that a parent would give his or her child.”
—Hedy Epstein [Holocaust Survivor]
But as her parents were taken, communication became increasingly difficult… until, when they were ultimately sent to Auschwitz, communication stopped.
“In my mother’s last letter written on September 1st, 1942, she closes the letter by saying, ‘Don’t ever forget us.' And I take that the ‘us' that she’s referring to is not just us the family, but all of the Jews that were persecuted by the Nazis. And it’s that last wish of my mother that has really become my mandate, to talk about my own experience, and what I know about their experience during the Nazi Holocaust.”
— Hedy Epstein [Holocaust Survivor]
While Hedy knew that her grandfather had died, thanks to earlier letters from her parents, discovering what happened to her parents was not easy.
After the war, Hedy returned to Germany in an effort to find them, but the only thing she could discover was that they had both been transferred at different points to Auschwitz. It was only by their not receiving numbers at Auschwitz that led her to believe they either died on their way to the camp or were immediately taken to the gas chamber.
Yet, despite her failed search, Hedy chose to listen to what her mother had written in her last letter, which led Hedy to play a part in the Nuremburg Medical Trials of 1948, in an effort to help bring about justice and to never forget. Further, she has made sure her family’s story would be told…
Thankfully, Hedy managed to find reasons to live, even moving to the USA to make a new life… there marrying and having a son.
And while she did not have to face ghettos or concentration camps, Hedy certainly overcame hardship and loss that few of us are able to imagine.
Yet she chose to overcome. She chose a history of overcoming!
- About not allowing people to be exploited, hurt, etc.
- About standing, and having done all, to still stand.
- About retaining faith in all circumstances.
- About overcoming.
We have a short window of time to help and bless those who have suffered so much. We have a short window of time to demonstrate God’s love and goodness.
We need to pray for them. We need to support and care for them. And we need to make sure their stories are not forgotten.