The list

April 15, 1994|By Jim Burger

THE PHONE rang a little after 9 last Sunday night. It was my mother. Odd . . . she usually calls during the week. But it had been an extraordinary day.

Sunday was Yom Hashoa, a day set aside to remember the 6 million Jews exterminated during the Holocaust.

The number 6 million is so staggering, so inconceivable, that most communities can only honor the dead a few hundred or so at a time. So on that day we attempt to put a name to each number. And across the country lists are distributed with the names of those whose lives were taken. They're read aloud from sunrise to sunset, and by day's end someone, somewhere has remembered each of the dead.

A ceremony was held at the Jewish Community Center in my small Pennsylvania hometown. It was well attended, by Jews and non-Jews alike. "Possibly because of 'Schindler's List,' " said my mother, although I knew she hadn't seen it.

My mother sat in the auditorium with my grandmother and great-aunt -- three holocaust survivors in a row. They listened as a man quietly read the names. Just faceless names.

And then a miracle occurred, a 6 million-to-one miracle. For on that list that found its way through half a century to Uniontown, Pa., were members of my family. Their names were read into the still air.

I sat transfixed as my mother described the scene: how she hTC anxiously waited for the ceremony to end, then rushed to retrieve the list. There they were, glaring at her from the page. Her cousin Emil Neuwirth, murdered in a hospital; Olga Panov, exterminated at the Ravensbrueck death camp; Max and Jolana Bondy and their children, Jan and Tomas, all dead at the hands of the Nazis.

My mother read the names again and again. From across time and oceans they called to her to remember.

As I lay in bed later that night, no sleep would come.

There in the darkness I remembered a story I hadn't thought about in years: the story of my mother's escape from the Nazis.

She was 14 and a citizen of Austria. Her parents were Czechoslovakian and therefore fell under a different set of immigration rules and a smaller exit quota. The Nazis buried the fleeing Jews under paperwork and red tape. To leave the country, Jews had to prove that they owed no taxes.

The quota trapped my grandparents, but there was hope for my mother.

She was frightened, of course, and didn't want to go alone, but her parents insisted.

Everything seemed in order until the day before she was to leave. Then they realized that her taxes hadn't been paid. There was nothing they could do.

My mother and grandfather went to the passage office to return her ticket. When the clerk, a non-Jew, asked what they were doing there, my grandfather told him her papers were not in order.

"Who is going to ask about those papers in New York?" the man asked. He stamped the ticket and said to my mother, "You go."

The next day she was on her way to America.

The Nazis arrested my grandfather and sent him to a concentration camp. When my grandmother returned to the steamship company to find the clerk who had saved her daughter, she was told he had died.

Somewhere, the soul of that man mingles with the souls of my relatives and the 6 million others of the Holocaust.

He was a good and righteous man. He was a man who kept my mother's name from being just another on the list.

Jim Burger is a photographer at The Baltimore Sun.

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