writes from Shavei Zion, Israel
This Hanukkah, I'm lighting the candles in memory of Prisoner A-1175. Her name was Marta Paran, and that was the number tattooed into her arm at Auschwitz.
There are about 125,000 Holocaust survivors left in America, and it is estimated that 35 die each day. When Marta died in October at age 88, I realized that time is running out. I wanted to tell her story to as many people as I could.
Some people deny the Holocaust even happened. Others say they've seen enough movies and read enough books to know what happened. But when the story is told by someone you know, someone who lives in your village, it changes your sense of history. I knew Marta.
When the Nazis invaded the small town in Hungary where she was born and raised, Marta was 21. It was Passover, 1944. All the Jews in her town were loaded into cattle cars headed for Auschwitz. At the camp, Marta remembered that there were fires all around and chimneys and it was very bright. She felt like she had arrived in hell.
Her father, Arnold, was 60, and her mother, Zelda, was 54. They were immediately gassed. Her 17-year-old brother Lally passed the first selektia. She saw him a few days afterwards, but she never saw him again.
Marta and the other women who made it past the first selektia were undressed, their heads shaved. Bald and naked, nobody knew who anyone else was. The women took showers and the guards threw them dresses. The dress Marta received was from another prisoner, a black dress with gray flowers. She thought it looked like a grandmother's dress.
Then she stood in line and, using a pen, a woman tattooed a number on her arm, A-1175.
"That's terrible," I said, looking down at the crude, bluish-black number.
Marta shook her head. "Compared to everything else, it was nothing," she said. "It meant that they thought I was strong enough to work. And I was still alive."
She lived in the C Lager, one long street with 30 barracks. One thousand women to a barrack, 12 women to a wooden bed.
One time they were locked in their barrack. They heard trucks coming to another barrack that housed a group of women from Czechoslovakia. Marta heard the Nazis shouting, "Schnell, schnell," and then there was crying.
Marta never cried for her parents or brother the whole time she was there. But she cried for the Czech women and children because she knew where they were going.
The next day, Marta had to clean out that barracks. She saw drawings of Snow White and the seven dwarfs on the walls. She thought she was dreaming, and never spoke about the drawings to anyone. But years later, she read a book by an Auschwitz survivor who wrote that she had drawn those pictures for the kids.
After the war, Marta joined a group of young survivors and headed for what would soon become Israel. One of the members of her group was her future husband. They settled in a farming village in northern Israel where Marta worked in the fields growing beets, tomatoes, and cucumbers. She raised three sons and eventually had 10 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. She used to look around at all the family photographs in her living room and tell us, "This is my revenge against Hitler."
When my youngest daughter and I went to pay a condolence call at the home of Marta's oldest son, he told us that he knew very little about his mother's life. She had made a pact with her husband never to speak about the Holocaust.
Marta longed to forget, and I understand now that it is up to me to remember. I'm celebrating the festival of lights this year by remembering someone who survived the darkness and managed to keep alive a very small flame.