What did the world learn from the Holocaust?
Not much, says a survivor, taking note of killing grounds as disparate as Cambodia, Rwanda, and Syria today.
“The world is quiet, so what kind of a lesson is there? We got the lesson, we suffered, we lost everybody, but the world didn't get the lesson,” says Paula Spigler, who will be 93 in June.
"Anti-Semitism still goes on, in various countries," she says. “I know we have it in the United States, too, and it may be growing.“
Her concern is wider than just Jews. "What can I say that people are being killed in different countries, and that’s not right, kids are being killed, that’s not right. Why should people be killed, for what reason?" she asks.
She hurts for children, especially those killed in the vicious civil war in Syria.
She wants it to be stopped. "Don’t we have a U.N.? We have a U.N.; the U.N. can do something."
The United Nations seems hogtied by competing interests of the great powers.
But Paula won't surrender to pessimism. "I live with hope, so I hope the world will get better," she says.
Each day we lose more of the American troops who freed a continent from the barbarism of the Nazis. Each day we lose more of the Holocaust survivors, the precious voices that testify to unspeakable evil.
People like Paula, whose story starts with her birth in 1924, in Lodz, in prewar Poland. She shared a single tenement room with her mother, Rifka Leah, and her father, Leibush Nagel, who died when she was 9.
“In Europe, we don't have built-in closets,” she tells me as we sit in her beautiful apartment in an independent living community in Langhorne. Back then, she says, a wardrobe dresser was used to divide the single room, “on one side the living room, the dining room, the sleeping room. The other side was the kitchen, with the big table.”
After her father’s death, she lived there with her mother, who worked in an apparel factory. That ended in December 1940, when the Nazis tore Jews out of their homes and packed them into the Lodz ghetto. In all of Europe, only Warsaw’s ghetto was larger.
The Nazis turned Lodz into a major industrial center, manufacturing everything from clothing to ammunition, says Paula, whose job was to sew brassieres and girdles.
The population of the ghetto reached 200,000, behind hastily erected walls and barbed wire, but it didn't stay at 200,000 for long. Tens, scores, hundreds of people were removed by truck, including children and the elderly.
When the Germans brought their clothes back, "we knew what happened: They gassed people in the trucks," says Paula.
Death did not come only on wheels.
“They took the babies, they smashed their heads against the brick. What kind of a crime did they commit?” she asks.
In a lucky break, Paula was put on a train in February 1944 and transferred to a munitions factory elsewhere. Six months later, the Lodz ghetto was liquidated.
With death surrounding her, did she ever lose hope, I ask.
“No, no, no,” she insists.
When her mother was on the edge of death from starvation, "I started shaking her, and she said, ‘My child, I must go, but you are young and you must live.’ That gave me the hope that I will survive, and I never gave up hope. I never stopped believing in God, but I questioned him: ‘What did we do?’” Paula turns silent for a moment, the only sound the rain falling outside her window.
Paula remained strong and remained lucky, dodging death several times in Lodz and then two concentration camps.
One day at the munitions factory, she and others were rounded up and marched to a train station, which she feared would mean a train to carry her to the ovens. The train didn't come.
“The Russians were around the city, and this was our luck,” says Paula. The Russians started shelling, and the guards ran away. After five years, she was free.
She and three friends made their way back to Lodz, where she met Leon Spigler, who had survived the Auschwitz death camp and who became her husband.
With the exception of a cousin in Belgium who had passed for a gentile, Paula’s entire family was destroyed — bodies in mass graves, or ashes in an incinerator.
She and Leon turned their backs on Europe and managed to get to America, where they eventually opened a luncheonette and settled into a rancher in the Northeast.
She and Leon, who died in 1996, had two children — Manny, a lawyer; and Ruth, a teacher. “We were poor, we couldn’t afford college,” Paula says, but they received scholarships from Temple University and have thrived in many ways. Paula has six grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.
Paula visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington. The visit was painful; when she reached a cattle car used to transport Jews, she broke down. "We were in there like cattle," she says, reaching for a tissue.
Paula wonders if the world was listening, but all we hear is the rain falling outside.