The burden and the blessing

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“Memory is a passion no less powerful or pervasive than love.  It is to live in more than one world, to prevent the past from fading, and to call upon the future to illuminate it.” (Elie Wiesel, “All Rivers Run to the Sea: Memoirs, Volume One, 1928-1969,” Harper Collins, 1996)

Anita Landsberger Lobel (1909-2004) was born in Hamburg, Germany, and spent a comfortable childhood in that city.  As a young woman, she ran a kindergarten for young Christian and Jewish children in her neighborhood.

In her brief memoir to her nieces and nephews written late in her life, Anita recalls that after the Nazis came to power in 1933, “[s]ince the new law forbid to have any contact with non-Jewish people, I had to terminate my Kindergarten.”

So at the age of 24, Anita traveled for the first time to a foreign country, accepting employment as governess for a wealthy family in the magical city of Prague, Czechoslovakia. While far from ideal, her life in Prague did hold many attractions – most particularly, her deep and passionate relationship with a young artist, Franta Vachal, speaker of seven languages. 

On March 15, 1939, her situation took a dramatic turn for the worse.  As Anita writes, “The Germans got busy quickly, and of course it was the Jews they were to make their victims. First we all had to register.  An office was established. Here we had to bring all of our valuable possessions: gold, silver, gems, most of our clothes, and told to keep just a few pieces. In return we got the David star to wear at all times on our sleeves. We were forbidden any contact with Aryans. A curfew was called for us by darkness. Only a certain hour we could go shopping with our ration card, giving us little food to buy.”

A further descent into the maelstrom: on Feb. 2, 1942, Anita was crammed into a cattle car and carried off to the concentration camp/ghetto of Theresienstadt (Terezin), where, after nearly dying of a kidney infection, she worked as a “room clerk.” Her job was to find space for the ever growing number of people arriving on transports “from all over Austria and Germany and later from Denmark and the Netherlands.”

As bad as Terezin was – a place of filth and starvation and disease – it was like the Garden of Eden compared to the hell hole of Auschwitz, the death camp deep in Poland where Anita was shipped on Dec. 17, 1943. It was at Auschwitz that more than 1,000,000 Jewish men, women and children were murdered – the majority shoved into the gas chambers, their corpses incinerated in industrial ovens, their ashes forced up and out of the chimneys and strewn over the nearby Polish countryside. 

And it was at Auschwitz that 35-year-old Anita Landsberger met her sister-in-name, 7-year-old Anita Landsberger from Berlin. From the moment the two Anita Landsbergers met, the older watched over the younger, doing whatever she could to bring to the little girl some small measure of comfort until that day of doom, March 7, 1944, when the older Anita watched the young Anita being pushed into the gas chamber. As one of the very few to survive Auschwitz, the adult Anita Landsberger promised herself that she would keep the memory of her sister-in-name alive; and for more than 50 years, as the date of March 7 drew close, the survivor wrote a poem about the young Anita, for Anita, to Anita.

I learned of this painful but inspiring story of the two Anita Landsbergers from Barbara Kenas, a niece of Anita Landsberger Lobel; Barbara’s husband, Robert Kenas, was a childhood classmate of my wife, Sandy. In response to my wife’s deep interest, Barbara has sent us numerous materials over the past few months, including a link to a PBS film documenting the determination of her aunt to keep alive the memory of 7-year-old Anita. As Barbara has testified in more than one local newspaper, “My aunt had been beaten, raped and starved, but nothing was worse than seeing little Anita go to the gas chamber.”

Among the many treasures Barbara has passed on to us are copies of two poems, in her aunt’s own handwriting, bearing witness to little Anita’s murder. Her 1996 offering begins, “The fatal date: March 7 – 1944/and again March 7 will arrive/to remember those who lost their life/never forgot the knock at barrack’s door/too well we knew what this was for./You too, young Anita…/Goodbye, young Anita, my sister-in-name, /only 7 years of age…”

Barbara knew her aunt to be a woman of surging vitality; she writes in a March 17, 2010, letter-to-the-editor of a local New Jersey newspaper, New Transcript, that she “was quite beautiful, spoke five languages, was an artist, loved literature, had friends of all ages, and at 85 was still quite flirtatious.”

It was not until the summer of 1995, when her aunt took Barbara on a trip to Interlaken, Switzerland, that Anita finally unburdened herself and told her niece the story of the number 73050 tattooed onto her left arm, a story of deepest darkness buried within her outwardly sunny disposition, a darkness revealed in the final couplet of her 1996 poem in remembrance of little Anita: “We survivors wounded forever in anger & pain – no smile./Oh beautiful world, you are so hideously vile.”

With the death of her aunt on Feb. 2, 2004 – the very same date as her transport to Terezin back in 1942 – Barbara has taken up the burden and the blessing of preserving the memories of those two sisters-in-name, the two Anita Landsbergers – her aunt, who survived and flourished till the age of 95, and the little girl who entered the gas chamber at Auschwitz on March 7, 1944.  Barbara Kenas is living the truth of Elie Wiesel’s conviction that “[m]emory is a passion no less powerful or pervasive than love.” Can it be mere coincidence that Barbara’s birthday happens to fall on March 7?

JAMES B. ROSENBERG is rabbi emeritus of Temple Habonim in Barrington. Contact him at rabbiemeritus@templehabonim.org.