Pictured Above: The North Fork Reform Synagogue’s community liaison, Rabbi Barbara Sheryll, at Sunday’s service.
“You’ll be here maybe six months and then you’ll leave the camps through the chimney,” a teenage Werner Reich was told by his fellow prisoners when he arrived at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp at the height of the Holocaust. He’d never heard of Auschwitz before he’d arrived and he didn’t know what was happening there.
“We thought this was a very stupid joke,” he told an overflow crowd at the Cutchogue Presbyterian Church in a commemoration of International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Jan. 26. “It took me three weeks to fully realize what they meant. It was as if an ice cold hand reached into my chest. It was unbelievably scary.”
Mr. Reich, 92, of Smithtown, has been sharing his story of his experience during the Holocaust with educational groups throughout Long Island for decades, but his words carried unprecedented weight this year, on the 75th anniversary of the freeing of Auschwitz, and in the midst of a spate of unprecedented anti-semitic attacks in the New York area, and at a time when many people, again, have no idea what happened at Auschwitz.
The pews at the service, organized by the North Fork Reform Synagogue, the Southold Town Anti-Bias Task Force and the Cutchogue Presbyterian Church, were packed for the occasion, and more and more people entered the hall throughout the warm, sunny afternoon, while a Southold Town Police patrol officer stood watch over the idyllic country church.
In times of great fear, small towns are not immune to the zeitgeist.
“Today, more than ever in our history, the rise of antisemitism is so clearly pronounced that it is beginning to take hold in the mainstream media and in our dialogue,” the synagogue’s vice president, Steve Bloom, told the crowd. “Once you identify one group of people for this treatment, no one is really safe.”
Mr. Reich, who has spoken all over the world about his experience, was a Jewish child in Germany when Adolf Hitler was elected chancellor in 1933. It wasn’t long before his father, an engineer for Siemens, lost his job because he was a Jew, while Werner himself was banned from going to school because the Hitler administration said Jewish children were overcrowding the schools. Mr. Reich’s family fled to Yugoslavia, which was eventually overrun by the Germans. Werner’s father died in 1940, and his mother sent him and his sister to hide with different families involved in the resistance. He was the only one to survive.
“My holocaust started in 1933,” he told the crowd, as part of a talk about the seven biggest misunderstandings about the Holocaust.
The top misunderstanding, he said, was that only Jews were murdered by the Nazis. But Roman Catholic priests, Roma gypsys, the very young and the very old, the handicapped, homosexuals and people of mixed German and African blood were also murdered. Artists, actors, composers, writers and painters were also a target of the Third Reich.
Another myth, he said, was that without Auschwitz there would be no holocaust. But only 9 percent of the people killed in the Holocaust died at Auschwitz.
Another frequent misconception he hears is that “the only people who were killed were men with long beards who lived in the shtetl,” like the characters in the musical Fiddler on the Roof. In fact, before the Holocaust, many German Jews had fully assimilated into German society. Mr. Reich’s own father and mother had fought for Germany in World War I — his mother had even been awarded the Iron Cross for her military service.
Mr. Reich devoted the most time to debunking the myth that the Holocaust started on Kristallnacht, ‘the night of broken glass,” a night in November of 1938 in which Germans torched and vandalized Jewish institutions and businesses throughout the country, instead examining actions Hitler took during his first six months in office, beginning in January of 1933.
“The first six months of Hitler’s rules showed the direction that was coming,” said Mr. Reich.
Within four days of taking office, Hitler ordered the closing of Catholic newspapers. One editor who refused to stop printing was arrested and was later murdered in the Dachau concentration camp, which was opened two months after Hitler took office. Within his first month in office, Hitler allowed the police to search people’s property without a warrant. In the third month, he promoted the boycott of Jewish businesses. Three hundred Jewish business owners committed suicide at the end of the first day of the boycott. Also in Hitler’s third month in office, Jews were barred from civil service jobs, and from going to schools — the administration claimed they were overcrowding the schools. By month four, Hitler promoted the pubic burning of books by Jewish authors.
The 19th Century German poet Heinrich Heine had once said “when one burns books, one also burns people,” said Mr. Reich. “He was right. Was this the start of the Holocaust? I don’t know.”
By month six of Hitler’s administration, he’d enacted a law forcing the sterilization of gypsies, the mentally and physically disabled, and others “considered inferior and unfit,” a total of about 400,000 people.
“Was this the start? I don’t know,” said Mr. Reich. “But it was the start of 1933 that the Jews were deprived of their livelihood, safety and schooling. My Holocaust started then. This was nearly six years before Kristallnacht.”
Mr. Reich, who survived several arbitrary rounds of selection by Dr. Josef Mengele at Auschwitz, one of 96 survivors out of 6,000 young men, was then tasked with taking care of the horses at Auschwitz, which he didn’t mind so much because he could steal pieces of the beets used as feed for the horses, a far better meal than the thin broths with tiny pieces of unwashed potatoes fed to the concentration camp inmates.
At 17 years old, after a forced march from Auschwitz just before its liberation on Jan. 27, 1945, on which 15,000 people died from the cold, and on which he lost many toes to frostbite, Mr. Reich weighed just 64 pounds when American troops liberated the camp he’d been taken to in Mauthausen, Austria in May of 1945.
“It’s a dangerous error to think of the Holocaust as simply the result of the insanity of a group of criminal Nazis. On the contrary, the Holocaust was a cumulation of millennia of hatred, scapegoating and discrimination targeting the Jews,” the North Fork Reform Synagogue’s community liaison, Rabbi Barbara Sheryll, quoted U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres at the service.
“The Holocaust was a turning point in history. It prompted the world to say never again,” she added. “It calls all of us to action. Our remembrance of past crimes gives us a moment to stop, take pause and think: How an we prevent this in the future?”
“Seventy-five years after the liberation of Auschwitz, we are here to remember, to be a light, and to warn against the alarming ethnic cleansing, racism, antisemitism, prejudice in this world and to ensure that everyone receives respect and dignity everywhere. As a human being I cannot stand by and idly watch with indifference,” she added. “With prayer comes thought and with thought comes understanding. Understanding influences actions and actions become habits and habits, good or bad, are hard to break. I encourage you to start your day with good intentions and end it with appreciation, and pray that all humanity do the same.”
Denis Noncarrow, Southold Town’s liaison to its Anti-Bias Task Force, remembered seeing television programs when he was a child that “showed soldiers when they opened up these camps.”
“Once they got in there, they asked the communities to come, asked the little villages and the folks around to come and get in line and see what was happening here,” he said. “I don’t know if these folks knew what was going on, but these soldiers had the right idea. What better kind of message is there than staring at these mountains of bodies and they stared you down. It’s our job to make sure that this message that these soldiers started doesn’t end.“