When I attended his presentation, Zev Kedem was a handsome, robust-looking man in his 60’s, but his unrelenting cheerfulness unsettled me. Perhaps he just didn’t want to depress us; or perhaps he is the strongest person I have ever encountered. He referred to himself with a bright chuckle as: "a boy with no right to live," "an efficient production unit," "a Schindler’s List reject," and "a son of E.T."
Born in Krakow, Poland, in 1934 to a prosperous family of assimilated Jews who spoke only Polish and German at home, he lived until the age of five in comfort, happiness, and ease. The power of Nazi Germany turned against his family and everyone like them in 1939 and, three years later they were herded into a ghetto. This boy caught on fast: no work permit for him: he was only eight and the Nazis considered only those between the ages of 13 and 45 to be "productive" and worth keeping alive, temporarily. But he remembered how important it was to be 13. For a year, the family survived on wits and guile.
The ghetto was liquidated on Saturday, March 13, 1943, and its residents were herded into the new concentration camp nearby. Zev and his family hid in the pigeon coop atop their building. When they heard soldiers getting closer to their refuge, his grandparents took out strychnine capsules. He knew what this meant, and started to complain. They shushed him. He learned then a lesson he lived by for 50 years: "Silence in the face of overwhelming evil carries the best chance for survival." The soldiers moved on. Later, he and his family heard machine gun bursts coming from the children’s hospital three buildings away.
But what to do next? Anyone caught hiding in the city would be summarily shot. The buildings were empty, and the family was without food. Soon, gentiles would repopulate the ghetto. His mother decided that the only way for him to survive would be to get on a work detail, and the only work details were inside the concentration camp. So, hidden along with the treasures looted from the city which were being inspected by the camp’s commander, inside he went. He laughs at the notion of being a Jew whose life was saved because he was smuggled into a Nazi concentration camp.
The first work detail was digging up the graves of the local Jewish cemetery and stripping jewelry and gold teeth from the corpses. Next they paved the road leading into the camp with the headstones.
He was still only 9, but he got a job making brushes and became proficient, elevated his work bench to the level of the older boys he worked with, and made sure he slept with a group of older boys around him. He added invisibility to silence as the prerequisites to survival.
Now and then someone caught not working was shot in front of his co-workers: not out of anger, he explains, but simply as an example: pour encourager les autres. One day when he was 10, it was his turn. Not because he was idle, but because of the whim of an alert German soldier who determined that Zev must be under 13, and started to lead the boy outside. For the soldier it would be just another day at the charnel house. Zev insisted in fluent German that he was 13, although small for his age, and said that he made brushes at a pace exceeding the quota as he pointed to the pile in front of him. He also explained that, since he was smaller than the other boys, he ate less, and was therefore "an efficient production unit." The soldier laughed, shouldered his rifle, and walked away.
(It’s always been a mystery to me. I can understand the use of condemned Untermenschen as slave laborers until they died or were murdered; gold teeth torn from the heads of dead Jews, sure — although the evidence left behind after the war indicates that even the voracious and insatiable Nazis found only time enough to melt a tiny fraction of this ghoulish booty and recast it into .999 pure gold bars. But what about the hundreds of thousands of eyeglasses? The tons of human hair? The mountains of comforting toys snatched from the arms of babies and toddlers as theirnaked mothers carried them into the gas chambers? The bedraggled and worthless shoes? What were these monsters thinking?)
Zev bears witness to his mother’s wisdom at smuggling him into the camp. He saw others who had attempted to hide in the city brought inside after their capture. Ordered to strip and stand upon the decomposing bodies of predecessors not yet interred, they were shot en masse. He began to feel as if he were beating the system every day — a system designed to kill him. "It was like winning at Las Vegas." He passed almost two years making brushes, and surviving.
The Russian advance was in full swing. He made Schindler’s list. Oskar Schindler — a faithless husband, a womanizing, hard-drinking, corrupt Nazi war profiteer, grafter and, in Kedem’s own words, a bon vivant — was a man who could cheerfully countenance virtually anything, but not mass murder. Schindler had the 1,100 Jews he "bought" transported to his factory in Czechoslovakia to work in war-related industries — and to sabotage them.
But Zev was finally found out. Officially determined to be under the age of 13, he was designated for Auschwitz: "a Schindler’s List reject," "a boy with no right to live." There was an empty train waiting for him and a few other unfortunate children. His mother and sister, among others on Schindler’s list, had been mistakenly sent to Auschwitz. Schindler had successfully insisted on being allowed to retrieve "his" Jews, and the train was prepared for that purpose. Zev and other unlucky youngsters rode the otherwise empty train on its way to Auschwitz.
Once there, they were stripped and shorn, and Zev was by now savvy enough to know what was likely to happen next. Instead, he got a tattoo. It was painful, and he cried, but they were tears of joy. A tattoo, he deduced, must have something to do with internal camp administration, which meant that he would not die that day. Once more, he’d won. He’d beaten the odds.
Then he saw the train again: and his mother and sister, heading back to the safety of Schindler’s factory, all the while thinking that’s where he was. Now they knew he was at a death camp. He couldn’t wave or smile or yell for fear of provoking the guards, but he held up his arm and pointed to the tattoo, hoping to tell them thereby that he was chosen to survive, for the moment.
He was not condemned instantly only because the Russian advance was accelerating. The Nazis were destroying gas chambers and crematoria, and even digging up mass graves, clumsily attempting to conceal their crimes before the Russians arrived.
So Zev was, instead, scheduled for one of three death marches. The prisoners were told that they would be marched to camps in the interior of Germany, and the Germans were counting on them to die along the way, which most of them obligingly did. The first two scheduled marches were routine. The third was for the children and the sick. Zev, relying on the hard-earned wisdom of an 11-year-old man-child, made his first bad choice. He got himself scheduled for the second death march, remembering what had happened to the sick children at the Krakow hospital. He made it to the next camp, but it was only after the war ended that he learned that Auschwitz had been liberated before the third march could leave. He had astutely employed his considerable intelligence to prolong his torment for another five months.
He was put to work at a stone quarry. There, those too weak to carry on were designated "parachutists" by their captors, dragged to the top of the quarry, and thrown into the pit.
Liberation came in May 1945. But he was suspicious. Although the Germans seemed to have disappeared, there were still lots of soldiers around. The fact that one of them was blackwas encouraging to this sophisticated 11-year-old; no black would be a German soldier. Still,he wondered: Was he safe? Then one of the soldiers threw something at him: a K-Rationpacket, with chocolate.
He was picked up by the unit and harbored as a mascot until he found his way into the post-World War II displaced persons relocation camps. Thus, he says with a smile, ended the years of “my alternative education."
Forty-eight years later his secretary told him that Steven Spielberg was on the phone. Yeah, right, he thought. But it really was Spielberg, and after speaking with him, Zev decided that it was time to stop being silent, to stop being invisible. He assisted in the production of the movie, and played a small role.
"Son of E.T." is how he now thinks of himself.
The movie, he tells us, captured the "essential truth" of the Holocaust, but not the "absolute truth.” That can never be put on film and, if it could be, no one would have the strength to watch it.
Zev Kedem apologizes for having taken up "too much of your time" just before a standing ovation the likes of which I have participated in only three times before: once for Joe DiMaggio, twice for President Ronald Reagan. I’m 62 now, a datum that startles me whenever I encounter it. I know some history, and I have some, not all of it pleasant. I hope I’m no longer naive. But I was shaken as I walked away.
What Zev endured, and what millions of others endured and did not survive, are compelling arguments against the existence of God. But his presentation, his survival, and his earnest celebration of life are the best arguments I have lately encountered for the existence of God.
Son of E.T. — ? Perhaps.
Or child of God. As was Oskar Schindler.
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