SALEM – Speaking during a Zoom event for International Holocaust Remembrance Day, 91-year-old New Jersey Holocaust survivor and author Judith Sherman told an audience of nearly 400 that the Capitol insurrection and the pandemic have amplified old triggers and added some new ones.
However, Sherman cautioned she did not want to compare the political situation in America today with the enormity of the Holocaust.
“But I hear words, I see acts that are very disturbing echoes of that time of terror,” Sherman said.
With her daughter Ora Gelb by her side and her granddaughter Sara Gelb also participating on Zoom, the trio read portions of Sherman’s memoir “Say the Name: A Survivor’s Tale in Prose and Poetry,”during the Lappin Foundation’s commemoration of International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Jan. 27 – the 76th anniversary of Auschwitz’s liberation. Sherman’s granddaughter, Ilana Gelb, and grandson, Michael Gelb, also took part during the live event.
Sherman, a native of the village of Kurima, Czechoslovakia, was 14 at the time she was sent to Ravensbruck, the Nazi death camp for women in northern Germany, and in her memoir, she writes in the voice of a young girl and a teenager.
In 1939, she first knew the terror of waking up with a bayonet in her face. The family separated to stay whole, she said, and she and her younger sister and brother were smuggled into hiding in Hungary where they were imprisoned.
In March 1944, Germany occupied Hungary, and she and her sister, Miriam, were taken in by a Christian family, but they were betrayed and taken to a Gestapo prison where they were interrogated and tortured. A Slovak guard helped them escape, and another Christian family took in her 7-year-old sister. Sherman was captured hiding with a group of Jews in a forest.
The day after she was captured, her 9-year-old brother arrived in the same prison, a converted castle, where her group was being held. The next day he was sent to the gas chambers of Auschwitz. On the day her group was supposed to be sent to Auschwitz, there was no more room in the camp, so they were sent to Ravensbruck, instead.
Sherman said she has led a normal post-Holocaust life, but “a survivor’s world is jolted by triggers.” She leads a life on dual tracks. “I’m here and I’m there,” she said. “When I have a shower, when I eat a potato, when I’m hungry, when I’m not. When I sneeze, I think in hiding that would be a giveaway.”
The mob insurrection at the Capitol exploded more triggers for Sherman.
“The terror I feel is that it is happening in America,” she said. “The terror I feel is that it is happening. I am seeing images of mobs breaking into the Capitol, the house of government, the symbol of this democracy.”
In the mob, Sherman recalls seeing a picture of a man wearing a shirt that says “Camp Auschwitz” with the phrase “Work brings freedom.”
“This slogan is of course written on the gates of every camp, every concentration camp,” Sherman said. She said her grandson, Michael Gelb, was visiting her on the day of the insurrection and he was trying to make sense of what was going on. “Michael knows my history; do I now have to worry about his?” she asked.
But Sherman has hope for America: “We must connect truth to reality. We must make humane connections in this disconnected universe.”
During the Holocaust, Sherman said the goal of the genocide was disconnection from home, family, community and life, but there is a difference in the disconnection of today during the pandemic since it is a way to save lives. “Today, while isolated, I say the knock on my door is not the Gestapo coming to kill me. It is the delivery man with my groceries, bread, with bread,” Sherman said.
The retired social worker has ties to the North Shore through Temple Ner Tamid in Peabody. She is a member of Congregation Beit Shalom in Monroe Township, New Jersey where Eli Perlman, the brother of Temple Ner Tamid’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Richard Perlman, serves as the rabbi. Perlman said he first met Sherman on a trip to Israel in 2004, where he and his brothers sang a song Sherman helped compose under the Chagall Windows of the Haddasah hospital in Jerusalem.
When Sherman’s husband, Robert, died in July, Perlman said she asked if she and her family could say Kaddish on Zoom with Temple Ner Tamid. Sherman also asked Perlman to recite Kaddish for the 6 million Jews who died in the Shoah so that they will never be forgotten.
“I have a whole new responsibility and I will fulfill her wishes,” Perlman said.