Thursday, April 17, 2014

Holocaust survivor's experience inspired art, books

In 1941, when he was 11, the Germans marched into his town of Lvov, Poland.
Holocaust survivor, author and artist Mark Strauss at GCC's Stafford Center
Holocaust survivor, author and artist Mark Strauss at GCC's Stafford Center
The soldiers were good-looking young men,” Holocaust survivor Mark Strauss told a history class taught by Marijayne Kruus at Germanna Community College’s Stafford Center at Aquia Wednesday afternoon.
Their shirt sleeves were rolled up, revealing tanned, muscular arms,  recalled Strauss, an 83-year-old artist and author who has taught at Georgetown University and Northern Virginia Community College and now lives near Woodstock, Va.
Their morale impressed the young Jewish boy.
“They were a happy bunch,” he said. “They were victorious. They were told they belonged to the master race—that they were better than anyone else.”
Soon the boy watched the happy, handsome Nazis stomp one of his neighbors to death.
He called their leader, Adolf Hitler, “the biggest racist in the world.”
Hitler’s “master race,” Strauss said, was “supposed to be blond, handsome and brave."
In Hitler’s mind, Jewish people, homosexuals, the mentally and physically disabled, “would pollute the master race,” Strauss told the students.
“Maybe Hitler was handsome,” he said sardonically. “I don’t know. I am not a woman.”
According to Kruus, Nazi Einsatzgruppen, “specialized mobile killing units, together with native Ukrainians, rounded up Polish Jews, shot them en-masse and buried them in graves they had been forced to dig.”
Strauss said that within a year’s time, most of the Jewish people in Lvov were murdered—about 100,000.
The Nazi SS, he said, “would go house to house, street by street, asking people, “Do you know any Jews who live here?”
If they were told a Jewish family lived in an apartment upstairs, he said, members of the fsmily would be shoved down the stairs into a waiting truck. “When the truck was full,” he said, “off to the execution place.”
There was no concentration camp in Lvov, he said.
“Where I come from, Jews were taken out of their houses and shot—simple as that.”
He said the Nazi special units were “trained to murder, to be insensitive to human suffering, to do the greatest brutality without feeling remorse.”
How did he survive?
“A lot of luck,” he said.
“I hid. When they came to town looking for Jews I hid. Once in a root cellar, shaking with fear. Once in a coal bin. I saw my grandparents being taken away.”
One day he was in the family apartment with his mother while his father was at his job as a roofer.
“The door breaks open--bang. And here they are. One takes me by the shoulders and rams me against the wall. Another takes my mom and hits her against a window sill.”
He said hired goons then tore the wallpaper off the wall in the apartment and cut the mattresses looking for money.
“The Germans [didn’t] do the robbing,” he said. “They’re the master race. They have flunkies do that for them.
“I’m on the floor, terribly scared. I don’t look at my mom. That comes from instinct we have not to see our parents in dire straits. Maybe she’s crying, bleeding, unconscious. I don't want to see it. I know I am in a pool of warm liquid. You can figure out yourself what that liquid is.”
Books were slammed about the apartment until a Nazi SS officer found a photo album.
Strauss’ father had been a Polish army officer during the Bolshevik War. The SS officer stopped cold when he found a picture of him in uniform.
“Looks at that. Looks at me. Some change. My mother also realizes something is going on in his mind. My mom started begging him for our lives. He looks at me and he beckons the others as if to say, ‘Let’s get out of here, leave these Jews alone.’ I’m saved.”
Why was he spared? Poland had a large community of Germans prior to World War II, he said. “They’re Polish citizens. Professional consideration. He probably had been in the Polish army and decided, ‘Let those people live.' ”
He said they then kept going “until their quota of Jews was in those trucks and those Jews were murdered.
“The Holocaust was mass murder, carefully planned,” Strauss said. “Nothing on the spur of the moment.”
He said the vast majority of the Jewish people in his town were killed.
One day he watched a Jewish man from the apartment house across the street being brutally beaten. “He was stomped to death on the sidewalk,” Strauss said.
Germanna students look Mark Strauss' art--some inspired by hie Holocaust experience.
Germanna students look at Mark Strauss' art--some of it inspired by his Holocaust experience.
The Jewish people of the town were herded into a ghetto, he said. His family was among 20 people living in one room.
“They can still come and take people,” he said. “But now they can kill Jews by cutting off their food and water.
“A little water dribbled through, so there is enough to drink, but not enough to flush toilets."
With no water for months, where do you relieve yourself? In the street? No, Strauss said. "It was unfriendly to Jews."
“What do you do?" he asked the students, than answered that people packed into apartments relieved themselves on balconies, trying not to smear themselves with human waste that had already mounted there over time. Modesty was a luxury none could afford.
It was dehumanizing.
“We lived in [excrement], literally. That’s how we lived.”
Today, he said, we know we statistics. We know people died. But we don’t understand how horrible things were.
Strauss was liberated by the Soviet army at the age of 14. He and his family followed the Soviets as they fought their way to Czechoslovakia, where they met American troops.
By the time he was 16, he was in the United States.
He has written four books, including two biographical novels that are available on
“I do not hate German people,” Strauss said. “I do not hate any people. I don’t love any people. If you tell me you’re Jewish, I will shake your hand, but that doesn’t mean you are loved by me. People are individuals.”
Kruus said she’s grateful to Strauss for sharing his experiences.
"I know that he has to re-live this very painful event every time he speaks of the Holocaust," she said. "However, because of his generosity of spirit and sense of forgiveness, his lessons are even more valuable to the impressionable young people in his audience than just a story of survival.  He and his indomitable spirit are a story of triumph of the human soul."

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