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.