A few months ago Pierre and I were contacted by one of our facebook friends, Michelle Zimmerman, who wanted to know if we would contribute handmade butterflies for the Houston Holocaust Museum’s “The Butterfly Project“. Michelle and Helen Bradley were the event coordinators for Amaco, an arts and crafts company based in Indianapolis, and the butterflies were part of Amaco’s “Friendly Plastic Challenge”. Over the Thanksgiving weekend Pierre and I slid the “Friendly Plastic in the oven, softened it up, grabbed the butterfly cookie cutter and here are the results.
Last Monday at an arts and craft convention in Anaheim, California, I spoke at Amaco’s booth before they announced the winners of the Butterfly Project as well as the “Bottles Of Hope” with donations from that project going to the Hasbro Children’s Hospital. I was asked to speak about the Holocaust and Pierre’s memoir. Here is my speech.
“I have to apologize up front because as a speaker I’m a very poor second to Pierre Berg, who as a young man spent 18 months in German concentration camps, 12 of those in Auschwitz and who graciously and with a big leap of faith allowed me to co-write his memoir, Scheisshuas Luck. I say, “with a big leap of faith” on Pierre’s behalf because I had never written a book before let alone a Holocaust memoir. Being that history was one of my favorite subjects through college, I prided myself on being quite knowledgeable on the “Final Solution” and the death camps this policy spawned. After my first two days of interviewing Pierre, I realized what I had learned barely scratched the surface in truly understanding what the victims of the Holocaust had endured. It was seven years last September from the day Pierre and I started working together to the day his memoir was finally published, and I have to admit that I still can’t completely wrap my head around what Pierre and Mr. Zimmerman went through on a daily basis as inmates of the Nazi concentration camps. I’ve never been that close to such depravity, hatred and cruelty. I would like to think that I never will, which was pretty much what Pierre thought before he got arrested.
Pierre was arrested in his hometown of Nice, France two months after his 19th birthday. He was a bicycle courier for a cell of the French resistance, but that was not the reason he was arrested by the Gestapo. Pierre was not arrested because he was Jewish – He is a gentile. Pierre was picked up for being in the wrong place at the wrong time — Scheisshaus Luck as he puts it. Pierre went to the house of a school friend and walked in just as the Gestapo was arresting his friend for having a short-wave radio/broadcaster.
With no explanation – there was no due process with the Nazis – Pierre was also handcuffed and placed on a Paris bound train. He spent a couple months in a camp called Drancy where he toiled as an orderly in a quarantined ward during a scarlet fe¬ver epidemic and had an unexpected romance with a 16 year old Jewish redhead named Stella. In January of 1944, Pierre, Stella, her parents and a couple thousand other prisoners were loaded onto cattle cars to an unknown destination – Pitchi-Poi as some referred to it.
Days later Pierre found himself in Auschwitz where he spent 12 months.
In Auschwitz Pierre witnessed beatings and was on the receiving end of a couple himself. He watched a man’s head caved in with a spade because he had diarrhea and that just wasn’t right when a Nazi dignitary was making an inspection.
Pierre witnessed shootings. He witnessed men hung for stealing bread to stop their hunger while their Kapos, convicted murderers, rapists and thieves, placed bets on who would die first.
He watched the Sonderkommando unload the bodies from his Auschwitz camp, then helped deliver the ashes of 1200 human beings to slave laborers toiling in a cabbage patch. In his memoir, Pierre wrote: “From the looks of the heads of cabbage we made good fertilizer.”
Pierre escaped a selection to Birkenau’s gas chambers because he did a good job washing the barrack’s foreman’s shirts.
Pierre fell asleep in a warehouse during a work detail and was written up for an escape attempt, but because the man who tattooed the number on his left arm had a shaking hand they mistook the 9 for a 2 and another poor soul was hung in his place.
Pierre celebrated his 20th birthday in Auschwitz. He carried the body of a Jehovah Witness out of his camp’s brothel. She had committed suicide because she couldn’t be anyone’s whore.
Everyday in Auschwitz Pierre dreamed of reuniting with Stella, the red-headed girl he had met in Drancy. Even after he escaped the Nazis and recuperated in the German town of Wustrow, Pierre hoped that he would see Stella again. But, there was no fairy tale ending.
In 1947 Pierre moved to Los Angeles with his parents. At his first job in Hollywood, a female coworker inquired about the tattoo on his left arm.
“It was my license plate in a Nazi concentration camp.” Pierre told her. “I lost half of my weight there. From 145 lbs to 72 lbs.”
“We had a rough time, too, here in the U.S.” The coworker replied. “We had to eat chicken all the time.”
Thinking that someday he might forget what he had gone through in those 18 months, Pierre jotted down his recollections. Those recollections sat in a drawer for over fifty years until Pierre and I met while we were both working part-time at the Canon theatre in Beverly Hills.
The butterflies that are on display here today will become part of exhibit that will represent the 1.5 million children that were slaughtered by Nazi Germany. Butterflies are elegant and beautiful creatures and of course so are children. 1 million, five hundred thousand innocent children systemically murdered. Many were shot to death, beat to death or starved to death, but those children who arrived at one of the extermination camps were murdered with an insecticide called Xyklon-B. Infants, toddlers, 3 year olds 4 year olds, 5 year olds, 6 year olds, 7 year olds, 8 year olds, 9 year olds… if they were deemed to young to work productively they would be marched to the showers, sometimes with a parent or holding the hand of their sister or brother or maybe they walked into that room alone, naked, waiting for the water to come out of the pipes above them, not understanding why there were people crying all around them. The pellets of insecticide would be dropped and 20 ungodly minutes later the door would be open and all the children, men and women inside would be gone.
One of the main goals for Pierre and I in writing his memoir was to tell his story without whitewashing or softening a thing. To have done so would have been a great disservice. As a race we humans have a difficult time enough learning our lessons from the past. Diluting history, softening the truth to not upset the children sitting in classrooms, means we are only giving the tools to future generations to repeat past generations’ mistakes and atrocities. The Holocaust survivor who recently admitted to romanticizing his memoir in the desire to give people hope, his heart was in the right place, but hope is for the future. The past only needs one thing — brutal, unblinking honesty.”
Michelle’s father, a Holocaust survivor, was scheduled to speak but had to back out at the last minute. I truely regret not being able to meet him. Helen read his prepared speech. Mr. Zimmerman was gracious enough to allow me to post it.
“Unfortunately George’s wife became very ill suddenly. He apologizes for not being here, is honored for being asked to speak at the AMACO challenge and wishes to share his stories but this time has to deliver his speech through me.
These are George’s words:
Holocaust stories are all big stories and all different. You can’t say that if you have heard one you’ve heard them all. Each is about different torturing and killing. The only common thread is that it was about extermination.
They told me that if I worked good they will treat me decently and when the war is over as all wars are, we will go home, except those that were different and didn’t belong would be shot.
For example we were told that when we finished a project we’d be shot. The first project was building a bridge to get wounded soldiers out. People were hung from this bridge every day for bringing in less pebbles, for working too slow. I was hung from it by my hands which were tied behind my back, because my mother came to see me.
Halfway through construction the Russian army burned down the bridge so I lived to build another project. We kept constructing and the army kept destroying and I kept living.
5 kilometers from the Hungarian border we were told that anyone who wanted to go home was to fall in line and march. I fell in a ditch. Years later when I arrived home I found a man who had been in my group. He said that at the border there was a train waiting to take everyone to a concentration camp where everyone was shot that same day. Except for he and his twin brother.
My Holocaust story is one of many horror stories.
In a nutshell I went through 3 hells not just one.
The first hell was the forced labor camp, but I was a young man, sure of myself and survived—me against the world. I thought I’d go home a free man.
The 2nd hell was being liberated from the labor camp and taken as a Russian Prisoner of War. POWs had no rights, not even the right to life. Russians had not signed the Geneva Convention.
The 3rd hell was when I was liberated and went home. I got off the train in Budapest happy and proud that I survived. I was greeted by 2 long lines of silent strangers who were holding photos to their chests. They said nothing but looked me in the eye hoping I knew where their relative was buried. I had to walk by these people to reach the street. By the end I was so ashamed that I’d survived. There was my home, the furniture, the streets I grew up on and all my family was dead.
This was the worst hell. During the day I laugh and smile and then night comes and I dream about the horribleness of coming home every night and have done so since 1947.
It was cruel and brutal. The only limit to the cruelty was the imagination of the people and they were very imaginative. I am told that now imaginative people use their skills to ensure that the stories and memories of the survivors continue on past the time that is coming very soon when we are all dead. I hope it’s true. It is a wonderful thing these butterflies for the children. “
Neither Pierre’s or my butterflies won, but that wasn’t a surprise seeing the craftsmanship of some of the other entries. I got none of my mother’s artistic attributes. I do like Pierre’s Rainbow Butterfly very much.
We are both very thankful to Michelle for getting us involved in the butterfly project. It means so much to Pierre and I to contribute to what should be a stunning exhibition remembering all those children that never got the chance to grow up. Here is the link to the The Butterfly Project if you want to get involved.
The last, the very last,
So richly, brightly, dazzlingly yellow.
Perhaps if the sun’s tears would sing
against a white stone….
Such, such a yellow
Is carried lightly ’way up high.
It went away I’m sure
because it wished
to kiss the world good-bye.
For seven weeks I’ve lived in here,
Penned up inside this ghetto.
But I have found what I love here.
The dandelions call to me
And the white chestnut branches in the court.
Only I never saw another butterfly.
That butterfly was the last one.
Butterflies don’t live in here, in the ghetto.
Pavel Friedman, June 4, 1942
Born in Prague on January 7, 1921.
Deported to the Terezin Concentration Camp on April 26, 1942.
Died in Aushchwitz on September 29, 1944.