The journey that changed my life (Part 1)

Traveling to Europe to revisit my father-in-law’s heartrending past turned into the family experience of a lifetime

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imageKatka and Klara Hatjas with Eva and Lawrence Levitt

By Lawrence P. Levitt

As my family approached the small village of Radvan, Slovakia, on a sunlit summer afternoon in 1982, we were struck by the sight of dozens of people running through town clasping bouquets of yellow daisies. “Ritter! Ritter! Ritter!” they shouted as they streamed toward us. The villagers had heard that my father-in-law, 75-year-old Leopold Ritter, was returning to his hometown after a 38-year absence.

Leo had been the area’s major employer in the 1930s and early 1940s, running a large lumber company that made railroad ties. Widely known among his employees as a fair and generous boss, Leo had often lent money to workers in need and was a deeply respected member of the community. But that life changed profoundly in 1939, when the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia and created the puppet Slovak state. Leo was granted a special exemption because his business was declared vital to the war enterprise. However, in 1944 all exemptions were canceled, and Leo and his parents were herded into cattle cars and sent to Auschwitz. When Leo’s former workers and their families surged toward him with daisy bouquets on that summer day in 1982, their faces radiated both joy and shock. For nearly 40 years, they had believed that Leo Ritter was dead.

This would be the first of many moving and sometimes harrowing moments my family experienced on our two-week journey to Eastern Europe, where my wife’s family had deep roots and rewarding lives. Besides Leo and me, our three-generation group included Leo’s wife Olga, their daughter, Eva (my wife), our 15-year-old son Marc, and our 12-year-old daughter Lora.  

For years, Leo had talked about his yearning to return to Slovakia, to show his family where he was born, what he had endured in Auschwitz, and how he had managed to survive. My wife, Eva, was initially reluctant to see evidence of the horrors she’d been told about. “What good can come of this?” she asked me. I honestly wasn’t sure. Finally, for her father’s sake, Eva decided to go. We did our best to prepare ourselves for the grief and rage we would surely feel in this encounter with memories of unspeakable cruelty. What we didn’t expect were our encounters with other realms of the human heart — realms that mystified, humbled, and, finally, helped to heal us.

In Radvan, Leo’s hometown, we chatted with villagers and walked the town’s narrow roads. The village was dotted with small, thatched-roof houses made of wood or stone, many of them brightened by phlox and daisies in the front yards and vegetable gardens in the back. We stopped at a stand on the edge of the road and bought fresh tomatoes, beans, apples, and potatoes, sold to us by round-faced women in babushkas. “It’s almost as I remembered it,” Leo said softly.

Then, spotting an elderly man walking stiffly toward him, Leo cried out. The two men haltingly made their way toward each other, laughing and shouting. They wrapped each other in a long bear hug and then spoke quickly to each other in Slovak. Finally, Leo brought the man over to us.

“This is Jozef,” he told us, his arm draped around the old man’s thin shoulder. He told us that when all exemptions for Jews were canceled, Jozef had tried to save Leo’s father, Morris, who had leg trouble, by carrying him up the mountain on his back, with Leo’s mother, Eugenia, walking alongside. Later, when they returned to town, his parents were caught and sent to Auschwitz, along with Leo. Each of us, in turn, clasped Jozef’s outstretched hand. I thought of the old saying, “He’s not heavy, he’s my brother.” But I’d never known anyone who had literally enacted that saying, risking his own life to try to carry another to safety. Would I have done the same?

We spent the next day traveling to Auschwitz, the seven of us crammed into a compact car that would normally have held four passengers because one of our drivers had some irregularity of his license noted at the Polish border and was not allowed to continue in his car. Eva crouched on the floor of the front passenger seat in front of Leo, while the rest of us bunched ourselves in the back. The four-hour trip was hot and dusty, with no air conditioning. We found ourselves uncharacteristically quiet.

As we entered the iron gates at the entrance to Auschwitz, the first thing we saw was the heinous, duplicitous sign at the top: “Arbeit Macht Frei” (“Labor Brings Freedom”). His voice shaking, Leo told us how his parents, Morris and Eugenia, had been ordered on arrival to “go to the showers,” the selection made by the infamous Nazi doctor, Josef Mengele. The “showers,” of course, were actually Nazi euphemisms for gas chambers, ready for prisoners who appeared too old or weak to work. Leo never saw his parents again.

Olga’s father, also named Morris, never even made it to the camp. He had been pushed into an overcrowded boxcar and trampled to death on his way to Auschwitz. His wife, Anna, managed to survive both the cattle car and Mengele’s ruthless eye. She was assigned to work at a munitions factory at the camp.

Leo remembered hiding his frostbitten fingers in his palm, fearing that he, too, would be considered unfit for work and sent to the “showers.” Fortunately, his broad shoulders and well-muscled arms earned him an assignment on a labor gang that built roads and bridges. He told us how he performed hard labor 12 to 16 hours each day, without rest, with only thin soup and a piece of bread to sustain him.

When his granddaughter asked him why he didn’t take rest breaks, his answer was brief: “I saw prisoners beaten or shot for not working hard enough.”

We went across the road to Birkenau, where Leo showed us the actual bunk where he slept with five other prisoners for nearly a year. I stared at the rough wooden structure, which measured about 3 feet high, 6 feet deep, and 12 feet across, forcing the six prisoners to lie sideways in order to fit. I tried to imagine myself struggling to survive such extremes of confinement. How did Leo survive?

When I asked him, he was quiet for a moment. Then he said, “I never stopped thinking of Olga and Eva, and I kept my faith.” But it took more than love, faith, and will, to survive. He told us that one morning, the German officer assigned to their barracks announced that they were excused from work that day and could rest. Even though he was exhausted, my father-in-law volunteered to work. “I didn’t like the sound of that ‘rest,’” he told us. When Leo returned to the barracks at the end of the day, he found that his best friend — Alfred from Radvan — and 99 others who had stayed behind had been gassed. Apparently, there had been a quota that needed filling.

My father-in-law then showed us the gas chambers, where 1.5 million people were murdered. From there, he took us to the crematoria, where the gassed bodies were taken to be burned. Leo pointed out the tall smokestacks rising from the crematoria.

“How could the people in the town of Auschwitz across the street from [the camp] deny that they knew what was going on?” he asked, his voice low and tight. “They knew.”

For all of us, the crematoria were the most painful to absorb. Made of stone and brown brick, the structures were fitted with metal doors and sliding mechanisms that allowed the bodies to be pushed in and, later, the ashes to be removed. When Eva saw some ashes around the crematoria, she recoiled. “Could these be…?” she whispered to me. I found myself unable to speak. Hearing about the horrors of Auschwitz had been one thing. But actually seeing the killing machines was something else entirely, an electric shock to the body, mind, and soul. Eva’s hand gripped mine. For a few moments, no one spoke.   

After a bit, Leo told us a final story, of the narrowness of his escape. His last job at Auschwitz had been to clear the ashes from the crematoria. After workers performed that particular job, the Nazis customarily gassed them. I felt nauseous. But, by a miracle of timing, the camp was liberated just before Leo was to be murdered. When my father-in-law left the camp, he weighed 78 pounds.


Click here to read Part 2 of this story

Lawrence P. Levitt

Lawrence P. Levitt, M.D., is co-author with John E. Castaldo of The Man with the Iron Tattoo and Other True Tales of Uncommon Wisdom: What Our Patients Have Taught Us About Love, Faith, and Healing (BenBella, 2006) and is senior consultant emeritus in neurology at Lehigh Valley Hospital in Allentown, Pennsylvania. He is also the co-author of Neurology, now in its eighth edition. He lives in Allentown with his wife, Eva. He is currently working on the second edition of The Man with the Iron Tattoo, to be published by Rodale Press.