Have you ever met a person who has been through hell on Earth, and yet amazes you with their total lack of anger and bitterness? I encountered such a person yesterday.
Severin Fayerman is a Holocaust survivor who came to my school (York Catholic) to give a talk about his life’s experiences. He held the entire school in rapt attention during yesterday’s assembly. Fayerman was born in Poland during the aftermath of World War One. His family owned a factory, and it was there he learned to make tools. This skill would later save his life.
During the German occupation, the Fayermans were sent to Auschwitz, the most notorious of all Hitler’s camps. They were separated from each other. The prisoners were fed starvation rations – scraps of bread, watery soup. He recalled how he never wanted to be first in line at lunchtime, because the soup from the top of the pot was mostly, if not all, water. During the day, they were made to dig trenches in which to put the remains of the cremated bodies. Often prisoners collapsed from the strain and guards left them where they lay.
Because Fayerman knew English, he offered to teach it to his kapo. A kapo was usually a criminal from Germany who was put in charge of some of the other inmates. They were usually given better treatment. The reason this particular kapo wanted to learn English was because he was convinced that Germany would soon conquer Great Britain, and he would be sent to a newly established concentration camp there. Fayerman was glad to oblige. He was given better food and clothing for his efforts.
Later, he was shunted from camp to camp. At one point he stayed in Berlin to make tools for an electrical company. While in Berlin, he survived a bombing by Allied aircraft. He still remembers how the ground of the shelter shook under the force of the bombardment. Once, a camp he was staying in was attacked by American aircraft. The prisoners all ducked down. Amazingly, the aircrafts were able to shoot the guards in the towers without killing a single prisoner by accident.
When World War Two was in its final stages, he was in a quarry with other prisoners. The guards surrounded them with machine guns. Then one morning he woke up, and most of the guards were gone. He asked one who remained what had happened. The guard told him that since the Americans were coming from one side and the Russians were coming from the other, he could leave. And leave he did.
Fayerman remembered something his uncle had told him in one of the camps –that if they ever got free, his family would all meet at Fayerman’s aunt’s house in Austria. Fayerman left for Austria and was able to locate his aunt’s house. When he got there, he found both his parents waiting for him. They had survived the Holocaust!
Fayerman got a standing ovation. It was one of the best assemblies we’ve ever had, and one of the most moving.
During lunch, Fayerman signed copies of his book, “A Survivor’s Story.” I went up to shake his hand. It was sort of like reaching across the years to another era.