Whenever I saw Charlie Lipshitz, the first thing I noticed was not his broad smile or glistening eyes. It was B8904.
How could it not be? That was the number tattooed on Charlie Lipshitz’s left arm by the Nazi’s in 1944 when he was 14.
Through his guile – and, as he put it, “pure luck and some higher power” – both he and his brother survived multiple concentration camps and a “death march on a diet of snow.” They were liberated from the Bergen Belsen concentration camp in April 1945.
The rest of their extended family, however – some 200 people – were murdered long before.
Charlie’s legacy: 1 wife, 2 children, 8 grandchildren, and 24 great grandchildren (“and counting,” as he would say).
Take that, Hitler.
Since I knew that even Charlie would not live forever, I always made a point of listening to him. I made sure my children met him and saw his tattoo. I wanted them to see this history “live,” not through a textbook.
As I sat last year with Charlie in his Lincolnwood home, his stories – and there were many – were beyond remarkable, though his tone was matter-of-fact and without fanfare. He was a humble man with a contagious optimism about life and humanity.
He told me about how at one camp he was singled out by a Nazi officer to work in the kitchen, where he joked he was a master chef because the menu was the same every day: watered down potato soup.
“But being in the kitchen was a lifeline for me,” he said, “because that meant food.”
But he noted that each morning, this same officer who effectively saved his life, also randomly picked a prisoner and had him or her start running, before another guard would shoot and kill them.
“Every day,” Charlie said in a hushed voice. “Go figure.”
All this was seen and survived by a boy of 14.
Before that, from 1940-1944, Charlie lived in the Lodz ghetto in occupied Poland. It was the last ghetto to be “liquidated” by the Nazis in August 1944, at which point the small number of Jews who had survived – including Charlie, his brother, sister, and mother – were shipped to Auschwitz. His mother and sister were killed quickly upon arriving there.
As all this happened before Charlie turned 16, such was his life, one he felt blessed to somehow have not only survived, but to have gone on to embrace and enjoy.
Charlie died in June of last year. But his legacy lives on.
Unfortunately, soon there will be no more Charlie’s to share their stories. No tattoos for our children to see firsthand.
When that happens, the Holocaust’s events truly will be “history,” meaning the human connection for most of us will be no different than our connection to the Civil War.
What to do?
Our duty is to remember. With memory comes meaning, and with meaning comes action. Hopefully.
To remind, Adolf Hitler’s Nazis murdered some 6 million Jews — 6 million girls, men, grandmothers, babies, uncles, neighbors, women, fathers, friends, sisters, colleagues, cousins, lovers, boys, mothers, aunts. Six million human beings. Though Hitler’s main target was Jews, he also exterminated more than one million other people — mostly Catholics, homosexuals, gypsies and the handicapped — to support his master-race ambition.
To put that number – 6 million – into perspective, consider this: if you started today, and took just 2 seconds to read each victim’s name, you would finish in September. But that’s only if you worked 24 hours a day, never stopping to eat, sleep or rest – much like the conditions that Charlie and the millions of other victims endured.
Remember, none of this happened by accident. Quite the contrary, it was planned, it was designed. It took the participation — or active indifference — of an entire country to accomplish, not just the workings of a few evil leaders.
It happened in the “modern era” in the most civilized of countries, and it happened for only one reason: because they were Jews.
Somehow, a few – like Charlie – survived.
The above description is hollow, it is weak, it is inadequate. But it is all I can offer on this Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Though the Holocaust ended long ago, the lessons of the Holocaust are – sadly – hardly static. Today, synagogues are vandalized in Europe. The Arab press sometimes publishes libelous articles stating that Jews use the blood of Muslim children in Passover festivals. Arab children use textbooks that demonize Jews. Rumors persist that America and Israel orchestrated the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Likewise, the lessons of the Holocaust are not limited to Jews.
Throughout the world, over the decades since World War II, religious and ethnic groups have been persecuted and butchered — Christians in Sudan, Hindus in India, Tutsis in Rwanda, and Coptic Christians in Egypt. The list goes on.
Millions killed not for anything they did, but simply because of who they were.
Lest the victims of the Holocaust died in vain, remember and take action.
If you need any extra motivation or insight, remember Charlie, a simple, quiet, righteous man. B8904.
William Choslovsky is a Chicago lawyer.
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