We Are Here

On Sunday afternoon I found myself on stage with a gracious lady, interviewing her about her life. She was Tosia Szechter Schneider, a pretty, sprightly woman with sparkling eyes, a neat coif of white curls, and a gentle manner that belies immense inner strength. For although she has for sixty years had a normal American life, she spent her teenage years living history’s worst nightmare.

I have summarized her story and won’t repeat it here. In any case you should read her moving and simply eloquent memoir, Someone Must Survive to Tell the World. It will take you an hour or two, but it may help you see these events with a more human perspective than you have gotten before. It is not a horror story, although horrible things are told in it; it is a story of the triumph of the human spirit.

I’ve heard Tosia speak several times, but there was something about the conversation in armchairs on the stage of the Jewish Community Center Theater—one of several events in the Atlanta Jewish Book Fair—that was more intimate and gripping. For half an hour it seemed that the audience wasn’t there. The silence was almost eerie.

I asked Tosia to talk about her idyllic childhood in Poland and Romania, which she did with a gentle smile—splashing in the Dniester River, playing in the ravine behind her family home, polishing floors for Passover by dancing with buffers on her feet until you could see your face in the floor. She and her best friend were obsessed with Shirley Temple and were constantly saving pennies to see the child star’s next movie.

I won’t repeat the details of how this good life was destroyed, but to give you a feeling for it: Ann and I were at dinner afterwards in a nice French restaurant with Tosia and her brilliant, erudite husband Fred, also a survivor. We were talking at one point about the risk of illness, and I thoughtlessly asked about Tosia’s family history.

“How would I know?” she replied softly. I slapped my forehead. “Of course. How would you know?” Everyone in her family was murdered before they were old enough to have a medical history.

On stage, after questions from the floor, I said, “I want to end on a positive note. Can you tell the audience about your recent trip to Israel with your granddaughter?”

Tosia briefly described how precious and exhilarating it was to take her sixteen-year-old granddaughter to see the millennial refuge and long-distant-dream of the Jewish people. Tosia had tried unsuccessfully to go there after the war, but was blocked by the British. She later visited many times, but taking her granddaughter was something else again.

“I stood with her before the Western Wall and thought of all my ancestors who dreamed of standing there but were never able to do so. I looked at her and I thought, Mir zaynen do, from the Yiddish song. Mir zaynen do. We are here.”

This was the stirring refrain of the “Partizanerlid,” the “Partisan’s Song,” written by Hirsch Glick and sung by men and women who knew that they would almost surely be killed but were fighting back. I don’t know if many in that theater knew the song, but the refrain goes like this:

Zog nit keynmol az du geyst dem letstn veg,

Ven himlen blayene farshteln bloye teg;

Kumen vet noch undzer uysgebenkte sho,

S'vet a poyk ton undzer trot – mir zaynen do!

Never say that you are on your final way,

Though leaden skies blot out the bluest day;

The hour that we have yearned for will appear,

As our footsteps drum the message, We are here!

I turned to the audience, gestured toward Tosia, and said, “If anyone has any question about the meaning Israel has for the Jewish people, tell them this story.”

After losing everyone she loved, after countless horrors, after staring her family’s murderers in their ugly, pedestrian faces, she could stand in the holiest place in the Jewish world, longed for through eighteen centuries, gaze on her lovely granddaughter blooming with life and health–the same age now as Tosia was when she stepped out of hell into the dim light of a broken world–and think to herself, Mir zaynen do.

7 thoughts on “We Are Here

  1. Again Mel, you are making a flagrant historical  mistake in your narration here. You report that your  guest (in her own words) :" …stood with her grandaughter before the Western Wall and thought of all her ancestors who dreamed of standing there but were never able to do so"…This is a complete distorsion of history. Jews have always been allowed to stand in total freedom before the Western Wall. Neither the Muslims nor the Christians ever stood in their way. The very fact that the Wall is still there is proof enough of the tolerance of both Christianity and Islam in that regard, and their respect for the Jews’ right to their own faith and rituals.

  2. Jews were able to go stand at the Western Wall, it is true. But Israel was a difficult land to live in. It was not a civilized, developed country. So most Jews, although they yearned to return to their homeland, couldn’t move themselves and their families to a barren land.

  3. Thank you Mel for your reply in which you indirectly admit your historical error.But, again you tend to have a muddied view of history. When you say that the country  was then not  civilized and not developed, I feel bound to remind you that during the Islamic rule, the Western world was considered as still living in the dark ages, with no comparison to the then developed Oriental world. As for more recent times, I don’t believe that Harlem has ever been more salubruous than Jerusalem.

  4. That was not my reply, it was by "Chavi." As for me, "never able to do so" reflects the months of arduous and dangerous travel required to cross Europe to get there, as well as persecution by both Christians, and at times in history, Muslims, along the way. As for your claim that "Jews have always been allowed to stand in total freedom before the Western Wall," it is simply wrong. See the Wikipedia entry on the Wall and its history: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Western_Wall, as well as the references therein. Present-day Muslim access to the sacred mosques on the plaza above the Wall, under Israeli rule, is far greater than Jewish access to their sacred Wall below was through most of history.

  5. Thank you Mel for your reply.
    Irrespective of my ( own personal) view that  the Jews are the victims of their own multiple arcane myths, one of them being the Wailing Wall, and the other (more grave and supremacist) being that of the "Chosen People of God", I have checked Wikipedia regarding the Wailing Wall and found the follwing (Quote):

    [edit] Ottoman period 1517–1917

    Solomon’s Wall, Jerusalem, by Jean-Léon Gérôme (19th century).In 1517 the Turkish Ottoman Empire under Selim I conquered Jerusalem from the Mamluks who had held it since 1250. The Ottomans had a benevolent attitude towards the Jews, having welcomed thousands of Jewish refugees who had recently been expelled from Spain by Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella of Castile in 1492. Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent was so taken with Jerusalem and its plight that he ordered a magnificent fortress-wall built around the entire city, today’s Old City wall.

    There are various accounts of Suleiman’s efforts to locate the Temple’s ruins

  6. The jews were denied total access to the western wall during total expulsions from the entire city of Jerusalem by various conquerers crusades, etc. Denial was total under Jordanian rule from 1948 to the 1967 war. Even when allowed access, it was curtailed by limiting space and times and load prayers and blowing of the shofar. Stories are legend of the punishment meted out for violating certain prohibitions. The only reason that the Kotel remained exposed and undisturbed was for the tourism value of visiting christians and occasional jew.

  7. All the comments about the  access to the Kotel were written from a historic perspective, what I had in mind, was the destruction of my immediate family in the Shoah, many of whom were ardent  Zionist  who dreamed of standing at that ancient wall. Tosia Schneider

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