Shabbat Shalom Magazine

Written by: Shalom LC

Shoah by Mrs. Lucille Eichengreen

Lucille Eichengreen was born Cecilia Landau in Hamburg, Germany, in 1925. A survivor of the Lodz Ghetto, Auschwitz, Neuengamme, and Bergen-Belsen concentration camps, she fled to Paris in 1945 and then, in 1946, made her way to New York, where she met her husband, Dan Eichengreen. In the following years, she worked as an insurance agent while she finished her education.

In 1949, the Eichengreens moved to Berkeley, California, where their sons, Barry and Martin, were born. Now retired, she writes and speaks on the Holocaust at schools, colleges, and universities coast to coast in the United States and in Germany on a no-fee basis.

Her remarkable memory made Mrs. Eichengreen one of the most effective witnesses in the postwar trial of her persecutors. The prestigious School Library Journal selected Lucille Eichengreen’s From Ashes to Life: My Memories of the Holocaust (San Francisco: Mercury House, 1994) from 1500 books as a most valuable and important teaching tool for students. She recently authored Rumkowski and the Orphans of Lodz (San Francisco: Mercury House, 2000).

Shabbat Shalom: Elie Wiesel said, “There is no rational explanation for the Holocaust, and when we find one, it will be wrong.” This is my question, then: Why the Holocaust? Will we ever be able to find meaning behind the Shoah?

Lucille Eichengreen: Is there a “meaning” to the Shoah? It defies description and understanding. It shows man’s inhumanity toward man, and I doubt if there will ever be meaning to what happened.

Shabbat Shalom: If we cannot find meaning, can we explain this magnitude of evil?

Eichengreen: Not really. I can just stand dumbfounded and bewildered by the magnitude of murders committed and humans’ inhumanity toward humans.

Shabbat Shalom: How was your life touched by the Holocaust? 

Eichengreen: My life between 1933 and 1945 changed dramatically. I will never forget, or forgive, the murder of my father, my mother, and my sister.

Shabbat Shalom: What has the Shoah done to your Jewishness? 

Eichengreen: Before the Shoah, I was a child and brought up observing Jewish orthodox laws and customs. I went to a private Jewish school, where I learned Hebrew and the scriptures. Now? I am ethnically Jewish; I am not religious or observant. Where was my God when little children went to the gas chambers? Why did He let it happen? So far, I have found no answer.

Shabbat Shalom: As you still struggle with this issue, let me ask: What could the Holocaust teach a believer about God, if anything? 

Eichengreen: To be honest, I do not know.

Shabbat Shalom: How do you think the Germans were able to kill millions of Jews who did not deserve it, while you were not able to bring yourself to kill one German when you had a chance to do so after the war? 

Eichengreen: German Christians killed millions of Polish, German, Czech, Austrian, Dutch, and French Jews. I often wished for a gun to be able to kill just one German and die. After the war, I no longer wanted to kill. I believed in the courts and due process. I still do. German Christians killed Jews of various nationalities. It was not a matter of Germans killing Jews. They were Christians, and then the Germans killed Jews of many European nationalities. I was not raised to be a killer. The one time I had a chance (it was after the war), I could not kill; I trusted in the courts to exact justice.

How the Germans could have done what they did has been one of many things I have never understood. Like the German officer looking through the spy window in the gas chamber, seeing thousands gassed, and then going home and playing with his children. I have often asked: Where was their conscience, their Christianity, their decency? I cannot explain the Germans. Their cruelty and murderous acts are not to be explained.

Shabbat Shalom: In your book From Ashes to Lifeyou mention that not even justice would be sufficient to restore even part of what has been taken from you. In spite of this, is there anything you would like to see happen in response to the Shoah?

Eichengreen: I would like to see understanding, tolerance, and a peaceful world. I would like to see all of us learn from the Shoah and the horrible past. I would like to see a different world—one without the killing in Africa, without the killing in the former Yugoslavia. Could there be peaceful coexistence? I had hoped so. But I do not see it happening in my lifetime. There is more dialogue, but still not enough action. We are hopefully moving in the right direction, but for me, it is too little and too slow.

Shabbat Shalom: What lessons would you like the Christians to learn from the Shoah?

Eichengreen: I would like them to be accepting and tolerant of Jews and other religions, and I would like them to have learned that “a final solution” is never the answer. Discrimination on any grounds, especially religious ones, is not acceptable.

Shabbat Shalom: What is your view of Christians in light of the Shoah?

Eichengreen: I believe there are good people among Christians, Jews, Muslims, and all others. There are also evil human beings among all of us. Religion is individual, and if we are understanding and tolerant, it no longer matters if we are Christians or Jews.

Shabbat Shalom: What are some lessons you would want today’s Jews to learn from the Shoah?

Eichengreen: I hope that the Jews today have learned from the Shoah that they did too little to help. It happened very far away from the USA, Great Britain, and other countries. Help was slow in coming or not coming at all. American Jews could have done more. They could have pressured the government in Washington, and they could have listened more carefully to the reports from Europe. The horrors were known, yet little was done.

Shabbat Shalom: Is there hope for healing in Jewish-Christian relations? 

Eichengreen: There is hope for Jewish-Christian relations. We are all human beings. We just have a different religion. We have to try to understand each other and be tolerant of each other. We have to respect each other and not judge by religion, color, or ethnic origin. Yes, there is always hope. There has to be hope. Healing is always possible. But how do you heal a crime like the Shoah with millions murdered? Murdered in a planned way, executed without mercy, women, children, and old people. Why?! I am not able to forgive or forget. Hopefully, future generations will accomplish this. What barriers will the Christians have to overcome before this healing can take place? The barriers of silence, of inaction, of standing idly by and letting the Shoah happen. Healing will come in its own time; we cannot demand it or force it. It will come when those guilty of these crimes will be able to admit their guilt and turn a new page. An apology will not do. It is too late. And too little.

Shabbat Shalom: What barriers will the Jews have to overcome before this healing can take place? 

Eichengreen: We Jews have to heal slowly, especially those who survived. Most of us no longer hate, but neither can we forget nor forgive. It will take time, and maybe only our children will be able to address this problem.

Shabbat Shalom: While survival was your driving force during the war, afterwards it became a cause of guilt as you wondered why you survived when so many did not. Have you ever arrived at an answer to this question? 

Eichengreen: I do not know why I survived. It could have been fate, circumstances, luck, or maybe it was due to the fact that I had good and supportive friends who helped, nursed me when sick, and never deserted me.

Shabbat Shalom: When you stood by the grave where you had buried the ashes that the SS said were your father’s, you realized that although you recited the Kaddish, you no longer believed in God or His mercy, which the prayer speaks of. Has your view changed at all since then? 

Eichengreen: My views since the burial of my father and my mother and since surviving the Holocaust have not changed. I am still asking myself: Where was God and His mercy? I have not found an answer.

Shabbat Shalom: What is your opinion on the role of religion in the lives of post-Shoah Jews?

Eichengreen: The role of religion for post-Shoah Jews varies. It is between the individual and his or her conscience. We are all different. Some of us are observant and religious, some not at all. It is up to each person to decide how to live and how to believe.

Shabbat Shalom: Since the Seventh-day Adventists hold many beliefs similar to those of the Jews, they were also persecuted by Hitler. Do you remember any Seventh-day Adventists or other non-Jews from any of the camps or ghettos? 

Eichengreen: I do not remember any Seventh-day Adventists or other non-Jews from the ghetto or the various camps. We were totally segregated and not part of any other group. We were only Jews, but of different nationalities.

Shabbat Shalom: Does the recent wave of anti-Semitism worry you?

Eichengreen: The recent wave of anti-Semitism does worry me. It upsets me, and I will do anything in my power to fight this. My father used to say, "Anti-Semitism is when people hate. And hate will destroy you in the end.”

Shabbat Shalom: Have you experienced anti-Semitism since you moved to the United States?

Eichengreen: Yes, I have experienced anti-Semitism in the US. I applied for a job in 1946 in New York, and in San Francisco in the early fifties; even now, one hears stupid, insidious anti-Semitic remarks.

Shabbat Shalom: Is it imperative to remember the Holocaust? Why? 

Eichengreen: We need to learn about the past so as not to repeat history.

Shabbat Shalom: Do you have a particular story or a personal experience in relation to the Holocaust event that you could share with our readers to make them think more deeply?

Eichengreen: I can only suggest that my books From Ashes to Life and Rumkowski and the Orphans of Lodz will make people think, question, and learn.

Shabbat Shalom: In his moving speech to the German Bundestag on January 27, 1998, Yehuda Bauer sharply observed that “the most horrible thing about the Shoah is in fact not that the Nazis were inhuman—the most horrible thing about it is that they were indeed human, just as human as you and I are.” Is another Holocaust still possible? If yes, what would prevent it? 

Eichengreen: Regrettably, yes, it is. A holocaust like the one of the past is always possible. What can be done to prevent it? In short, education, courage, and not standing by silently and letting it happen. We need to fight this, we need to speak out, and we need to help. While the killings in various parts of the world are still going on, we do too little to help and to speak out. There is no justification. Have we learned from the past? I had hoped so. But looking around the world, I have come to the conclusion that we have learned little, or not nearly enough, from the past. We have to be aware of it, we have to have the courage to speak out, and it is up to us to put a stop to it before it takes on dimensions like the Shoah. It takes civil courage, and it is often dangerous, but these are the risks worth taking. We can speak out. We can write to our representatives in Washington, DC. We can demonstrate. And we can refuse to be a silent majority.

* This interview was conducted by Kamil Cak.

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