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Shachar Dahan

Shachar Dahan: The Last Survivor

by Shchar Dahan, May 30, 2013


Shachar Dahan (Gr. 11)  tied  for Second Place  in the Senior's category for the Fern Shawna Rykiss Award at Gray Academy. The following is his composition the Last Survivor ]




Looking around the crowded auditorium, I am humbled by the fact that hundreds of people are here because of me. This isn’t the first time I have spoken, and it won’t be the last. I’ve addressed much larger crowds, but even after twenty years, my nerves get the best of me. Although I’ve been told numerous times how remarkable my story is, to me it is much more than just a story. I carry it with me everywhere. It’s in my blood, part of who I am, six years of my life I will never get back. It’s how I survived the Holocaust. Making people aware of what happened isn’t an option, but an obligation that I will fulfill until the day I die.

Regardless of who’s introducing me, I don’t allow any mention of my story. I mean, it’s my life – so who better to share it than I?

“Ladies and gentleman, we are honoured that Max Zalman is here with us to share his experiences of surviving the Holocaust. Please join me in welcoming him to the stage.”

Invariably, I am greeted with applause. Not because I’ve done anything worth applauding, but by now
I realize it stems from the audience’s feelings of guilt and fear and revulsion. I personally don’t care for it, but it’s not worth the effort to stop them. I walk up to the podium and turn to face the crowd. All eyes are focused on me, their owners waiting to hear the story of a lifetime. I take a deep breath, and begin.

“My name is Max Zalman. I was born in Berlin, Germany, on May 4, 1926. My parents were both Jewish. I had a twin brother named Shmuel and a younger sister named Rachel. My family wasn’t rich, but we also weren’t poor. My favorite possession was my rocking chair. No matter how tense things got, it was the only thing that could put my mind at ease.

“The house we lived in was absolutely beautiful. Although I’ve lived in many different places during my life, it’s the only place I will ever consider home. I was a very lively child and loved to spend time with my friends. Looking back, I can see that my parents provided my siblings and me with everything we needed. My childhood was spent without a worry, and I believed that life would continue that way forever. But the Nazis changed everything.

“The story I share with you today begins when the Nazis invaded my town in the summer of 1939. They singled out the Jews by forcing us to sew stars onto our clothing. They were yellow patches with the word ‘Jude’ written in big bold black letters smack across the middle. In the blink of an eye the unimaginable was about to become my reality.

“I was expelled from school, along with all my Jewish friends and classmates. My dad lost his job. And when I asked my parents why this was happening, they simply told me, ‘because we are Jewish.’ I couldn’t figure out what one thing had to do with the other, but I was forced to deal with the situation regardless. Life at that point seemed as terrible as could be. But worse problems lay ahead.

“Life became more unbearable with each passing moment. After a year the Nazis were in full control.

Wherever they went, hell seemed to follow.

“Even as a kid I realized there was no white flag. The Nazis were either going to achieve the unimaginable, or they were going to die trying.

“One day I heard a knock at the door. My father opened it to find an SS guard standing on our front stoop. I tried to listen in but all I could hear was that we had ten minutes to pack our belongings and be outside of our house.

 “You might think the Nazis picked the number 10 at random, but thinking about it years later, I concluded that couldn’t be the case. The Nazis never acted randomly. Each decision was meticulously thought out and evaluated to achieve their desired goals. So why ten minutes? I believe it was the right length of time for people to gather their things, but also enough time to generate anxiety in even the sanest, most balanced individuals. Their goal was to create suffering, even before the real suffering began.

“Ten minutes later we were outside on the curb. I turned to my father to ask him what was going on and will never be able to forget the look I received in return. He tried to appear confident, but his face seemed clouded with fear. He swallowed and said, ‘We are being transported.’ At hearing that, my heart dropped deep into my stomach.

“An SS truck was driving down the block, stopping in front of each house to load the families inside. Before I knew it, the truck was in front of my house. My family and I silently climbed in and found ourselves leaning against neighbors who already were leaning against the truck’s interior walls. I caught a glimpse of my home before we rounded the corner.

“How was I to know this would be the last time I would ever see my beloved home?” Max speaks out loud, but he is speaking to himself. He laughs bitterly.

“More families were loaded into the truck as we drove from block to block, but finally we realized we were no longer stopping. Hour after hour we stood, shifting our weight from foot to foot, feeling our stomachs growl and jostling one another, but remaining upright because there was no room to fall.
Finally the truck stopped and we were shoved out. I wasn’t sure where it was, but I understood we’d arrived at a train station.

“We were loaded into cattle cars, caged in like animals except that animals in cages have room to move and food to eat. I can still smell the urine and body odors that accosted me whichever way I turned.
We were packed in from wall to wall. After about two days, the oldest and weakest of us slumped to the floor, where they lay wedged between our feet until they finally stopped breathing. The horror became more real for me when my father’s limp body was added to the pile of corpses we had dragged to a corner of the car. To the left we saw death, and to the right we saw impending death. It was four days – and I don’t know how many deaths -- before the doors opened.

“Those of us who made it off the train were ordered to organize ourselves in a line alongside the tracks.
A Nazi guard wordlessly assessed us, pointing either left or right as each person reached the front of the line. We quickly realized the significance of his gestures – right meant we would live to see another day but left was a death sentence. My brother and I were the lucky ones, if you can call it that. My mother and Rachel were sent to their deaths.”

Max pauses and takes a deep breath to steady himself and stop the tears before continuing.

“We ‘lucky’ ones were marched into a building where numbers were tattooed onto our arms, our heads were shaved and we were handed threadbare striped uniforms. There are times when I can still feel the guard shoving a needle into my forearm, making it as painful as possible as he obliterated my identity. Max Zalman no longer existed. I became prisoner number 122468.

“As we were herded to our barracks, we marched past a welded gate that read ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ (Work Makes You Free). Reaching Block 12, where I lived for three years, I watched Shmuel continue to Block 13. It sounds crazy, but I already missed him desperately. Further along the gravel road stood the crematorium and gas chambers. I realized I was smelling burning human flesh. This was our introduction to the notorious Auschwitz death camp.
“In Auschwitz you were either dead or your death was on the horizon. We worked until we could barely move. I lost weight, becoming skin and bones. I kept convincing myself that living was better than dying. But death often seemed an almost welcome release.

 “The gas chambers were the Nazis’ solution for the two things they were most passionate about: torturing and killing. Everybody deemed unfit to work was given a towel and sent to the ‘showers,’ where Zyklon B gas, not water, poured from the pipes. If you’re wondering what they did with all of the dead bodies, well, that’s the only reason I’m alive.

“To survive in Auschwitz, you had to catch a break. Mine came when I was offered the job of taking the dead bodies to the crematorium and putting them into the oven with a shovel. If you’re curious as to why I had to do this, my answer is very simple. I think it’s because the Nazis were artists and they made sure everyone saw their ‘art.’ The sky was their canvas so they painted it with smoke. I was constantly reminded how little a difference there was between life and death. You were either the dead body on the shovel, or the sweaty hands gripping the handle.

“The thought of escaping was always on my mind, but what would be the point? The guard tower was tracking my every move. Even if I did manage to sneak away, how would I get past the electric fence? The Nazis brought us to hell with cattle cars, and death was the only escape.

“Even sleep was not an escape – our nights were short, and I spent most of them tossing and turning on a straw-filled burlap sack that I shared with two others. Suffering was part of the plan.

 “February 4, 1944 probably should have been the day I died. The morning started off like any other, with the sirens sounding to draw us outside for the daily prisoner count. If the guard’s count was off by even one, then we were forced to stand, sometimes for hours. In the middle of the count I looked to my left to find Shmuel and realized that nobody from Block 13 was in line. ‘What did you do with him?
Where is he?’ I screamed. The last thing I remembered was the guard running at me blowing his whistle. I woke up on the ground in a puddle of my own blood, beaten half to death. I wasn’t sure what happened, but there was one thing I was certain of. Shmuel was gone.

“All these years I’ve wondered what happened to Shmuel. They may say ‘ignorance is bliss,’ but not knowing is agony.”

“It’s not fair! It’s not fair!” Max sobs. He takes a deep breath to steady himself, but it doesn’t help. After much struggle he can speak again. He continues.

“ I was alone. I had nothing. My family was gone; the entire world was upside-down. There was no winning or losing. Even the survivors were losers. We were the witnesses to 6 million Jewish lives gone up in smoke. A million and a half of our children -- our future. I guess the suffering was meant to be eternal.

“And then it was over. For me it has never ended, but the war, the camps, it was all over. Russian troops stormed Auschwitz, surrounding the Nazis and putting an end to their twisted dream. By the end, I was staring blankly at the freshly crimsoned earth.”

Max pauses for two full minutes. The room is silent.

 “The one thing that haunted me all those years was the possibility of being the last living Holocaust survivor. I am now living my worst fear. It eats away at me every day. Is it fair for me to stop speaking?
Do I owe anything to the world?

“I’m an old man now, and when I look back on my life, I wonder what I would be if I wasn’t a Holocaust survivor. I think I would be happy. I wouldn’t be afraid. I wouldn’t suffer every day. I would be normal. Can you imagine what it would be like never to feel normal, never to feel like other people?”

A tear rolls down Max’s cheek.

“I’ve decided this will be my last speech. I don’t know if it’s the right thing to do, but I need to stop. I need to find normal.

“I want to spend my final years in peace. I want to rock back and forth on my porch. I want to let go of my worries, because they are just like my rocking chair. They keep my mind going back and forth, but don’t get me anywhere. I am grateful I survived, but for the time being, I need to stop being a survivor.”

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