I convey to you the blessings and the gratitude of all the people of Israel, and in particular my family.
We are grateful to the American people, and especially to the American soldiers, who traveled for thousands of miles, in order to save the people of Europe and that included us too. Some of your fathers paid with their young lives in order to save people who were total strangers to them. What a sacrifice they were willing to make.
About a year ago the German town of Dresden-Pirna celebrated the 60th anniversary of the State of Israel. For three days some 1,800 people sang, danced and told stories about Israel.
I, as a holocaust artist, was invited to make a speech and to exhibit my paintings. In my speech I told the people that Israel owes its existence to miracles. Alone the fact that today Germany celebrates the 60th birthday of Israel is a miracle. Only 63 years earlier the Germans tried to exterminate 11 million Jews, in every possible way, fast and with deadly efficiency. They used any available means: gas, hunger, death marches, injection of typhus and other germs, locking people up in railway cars, without water, food and lavatories. And us they wanted to throw into the river Elbe, and if it wasn\'t for these brave soldiers here, they would have succeeded. And I survived - maybe only for the sake of painting and documenting, and telling my story to all the young people whom I meet, so that they may tell the next generation that they have met me, and that the holocaust really was barbaric in ways that are impossible to describe, in ways that the human mind is incapable of grasping.
To survive this purgatory was no picnic. It was like acquiring an education or a profession, a process that takes years and is done in stages, until one finally receives one’s diploma.
Only, I don’t know for what kind of diploma am I eligible?! I remember looking at my father after they shaved off this beard at the end of the year 1941. I was only eight years old then. He couldn’t look at us, because he understood and had fear in his heart. They took him and my four eldest brothers and all the Jewish men of Hungary to the Russian front to do slave labor and to perform dangerous and menial tasks. All of a sudden we were regarded as stinking Jews. Gentile children would chase us and shout to us that we should go to Palestine. But as you know, the British ruled in Palestine and already then they did not wish to harm their relations with the Arabs and wouldn’t allow us to immigrate to Israel and to save ourselves.
In 1944 most of the European Jewry was already wiped out. The Hungarian Jewry was persecuted and suffered from the warfare, from the government sanctions against Jews and from the young people, who turned against them in the streets. And then the German Army marched into Hungary and immediately decreed new laws: we had to wear the yellow Star of David; and we had to hand over all our valuables, and if we didn’t, they would find out and take them from us brutally.
They needed to hurry up because they had to exterminate 800,000 Jews over five weeks. I was eleven years old and mature for my age. I heard the neighbors whisper and unfortunately I understood.
And they had to hurry up and exterminate 800,000 Jews over five weeks. During the nights, when searchlights were scouring the skies for enemy planes, I saw among them all sorts of signs, and I hoped that they were people who were signaling to me that they want to come and save us.
The calculation was as follows: every day about 20,000 people had to be sent to Auschwitz, 5-6 trains each day. This was hard work but it was carried out very efficiently, because they succeeded in exterminating 535 thousand people in 41 days.
This is how it was done: we were gathered outside the town of Debrecen at a brick factory (this was their usual routine because every town had a brick factory at its outskirts). There were 4 faucets and 4 lavatories for 40,000 people. We were forced to dig a large hole in the ground for a latrine. I started imagining that they would murder us there and then.
Only once did they give us food, and that was pork meat. Our father, who was very religious, ordered us to eat, in order to survive, and to be good human beings and good Jews. Later on, we were in the first transport to be sent to Auschwitz.
In those railway cars, in which we travelled for about a month, I made the transition to adulthood.
During the first journey we were 96 people locked up for 10 days. It was the beginning of the month of July, we were without water and toilets and it was hot like in hell. We all had fever. At the Polish border they discovered that we were in the wrong list, so they asked that mass murderer Eichman what should be done with us. He said that there was no room in Auschwitz because it was overbooked – this is how we were saved from immediate death. Thus it came about that we were sent to the disinfection camp Strasshof and then on to do slave labor in Austria. In Strasshof there were hundreds of women and children. We were naked for three days. Some of the women were pregnant and some had blood on their legs and their heads were shaven. I was only eleven years old and had never seen pregnant women naked. I thought that all of them were pregnant. (Until today, I did not paint the eyes of those women, who knew what was going to happen to them). They were sent back to Auschwitz for extermination.
We were sent to do forced labor in the town of Heidenreichstein. My brothers had to dig a trench for an electric cable. I worked on a farm from morning until dark. They gave us one slice of bread and a plate of turnip soup every day. But I learned how to steal. I managed to steal potatoes from the field and also from the pigs. So you understand that besides becoming an adult I also learned a profession, although it was not such an honorable one. After a short while my father died from hunger and from humiliation. That was the last time I cried as a child. After my father died, I did not cry for sixty years.
My brother Eliezer built a coffin. The farmer lent us his cart without the ox. We pushed the cart with our dead father in it to the Christian cemetery. At the graveside my heroic mother said: When all this is over and when we have arrived at our final destination, we will take him away from here, because it is not befitting for Israel Gottdiener Hacohen not to be buried in a Jewish cemetery.
Just imagine what kind of a woman my mother was. With her optimism she gave us all hope. What she was saying was that we would survive and she commanded us to bring his remains for burial in Israel. Mother also explained to the responsible SS officer that according to Jewish custom there must be ten men present in order to pray the Kaddish. And the SS officer indeed brought ten Jewish men from other labor camps in the area. So you understand that some of them were humane. There was also an Austrian farmer’s woman, who came twice a week in an ox-drawn cart in order to cut hay for her cows. Always when she passed by us she would call to the oxen to slow down and give us some bread. These two people gave us cause for hope that not all of them were murderers.
Every day a great number of American bombers came and filled the skies and filled us with hope – the slivers of light from the bombs they dropped were slivers of hope for us. At night the Russian bombers would come and light the skies with Stalin candles.
From Heidenreichstein we were taken to a different labor camp (again in railway cars) in Grosikharz, where there was a factory for parachutes. There we received a slightly larger ration of bread and some black pudding from pork.
From Grosikharz we were sent again to a disinfection camp (again we are in the railway cars). Again we spent three days naked, this time my father was not with us any more and we had become very thin. At the end of November it was very cold in Europe. Finally I was given some rags and one black ladies shoe with a high heel and one red girl’s shoe. Imagine the agony of a young girl having to walk unevenly like that for half a year.
In those shoes I marched into Bergen-Belsen concentration camp on the 2nd of December 1944. In those shoes my legs froze while I was enduring roll calls, which lasted between two to five hours.
\"And They Walk in Dust” - the painting of the shoes was the first work I painted on the subject. But people did not understand what I was trying to say with this painting.
At Bergen-Belsen I graduated from the University of Life. There it is always cold but at that time there was continuous frost. We were almost without clothes. I slept on a narrow tiered bed bunk together with my sister Matti Kupferstein and her two-and-a-half year’s old son. He was coughing all the time and I thought that he would not make it.
\"Tiers of Death” was my second work about the holocaust, because every morning there would be some dead bodies on the bunks. Death always came as a surprise to us; we thought that nice man over there looked strong and that he would make it. But no, some of them simply did not have the strength to endure any more hunger and suffering. Now people finally understood what I was trying to say.
When nearby the mounds of dead bodies started to pile up in a frightening manner, we, the children, made bets between us, as to who would die tomorrow and who the day after. Every one of them had his signs. I had become an old woman already, eleven and half years old. Still in my childish naivety I gave my sister Shoshana for her 13th birthday one half of my daily bread ration.
Even if I\'ll paint all my life, I will not be able to describe the suffering that was going on in that camp, and especially the stench. Maybe some people are more expert than me in describing the small details. But I only tried to touch on the most painful things: like fear, hunger, filth, hopelessness and despair. The despair was the most dangerous.
But we children always tried to repress the despair and to joke about things, even though our bodies were infested with lice and covered with itchy sores, because for half a year we did not wash. This was something impossible to get used to. Mother said that she did not want to be put naked on the cart that carries away the dead, because it’s cold there; she will walk on foot to the crematory.
During the breaks between roll calls, if it wasn’t too cold, I would stand by the fence and look at the naked dead bodies with their gaping mouths.
I used to wonder what it was that they still wanted to shout out loud and couldn’t. I tried to determine who were men and who women. But they were only skin and bones. I tried to imagine how I could dress these dead bodies in clothes for dinner. Their pale skin color did not always match the clothes.
In those days, when everyone fought desperately for one more minute to live, for one more crumb of food, our mother would stand where they dispensed the soup, which consisted of potato peel and turnips for cattle, and implore people to give if only one spoonful of their ration. This is how she succeeded in saving the lives of some who were already dying, whose death on the next day would have been certain.
In the evening of April 6th, 1945 we heard the bells of salvation: the thunder of canons. But our tormenters had different plans for us. They injected us with typhus germs, a disease with which some of us were already stricken. Again we were marched to the railway cars in which we were to be locked up for one week. As a precaution they planted some explosives in one of the cars, so that they could blow up the train while we were inside. On the way to the train the village women watched us from the windows of their houses. I tried to look into their eyes and search for some sign of humanity, but there was nothing humane there.
We were lucky and found some turnips by the railway cars. Otherwise we would not have lasted another week without food.
American fighter planes accompanied us. They did not know what was in those trains and where they were going. The planes bombed one of the trains. Four thousand people escaped. The villagers from the surrounding area murdered three and half thousand wretched people with sticks and forks, only one week before the liberation. They murdered voluntarily. Nobody told them to do it. In their minds it would have been a shame if a few miserable souls had survived and returned to their waiting families. How much evil! Can people like that ever change?
It is impossible to describe the liberation. The heart and the mind were frozen and could not awaken and rejoice so all of a sudden. Maybe the defensive system of our body protects us, so the heart and the mind will not leap too high from joy. Also, we were afraid that the murderers might come back.
It is hard to describe the warm smiles and the empathy these soldiers showed us in our terrible condition. We felt that love and compassion flowed from these combat-fatigued soldiers; they bestowed on us so much kindness and sympathy. For the first time after going through sheer hell, I felt that there was such a thing as simple love coming from good people. Young men who had left their families far behind and wrapped us in warmth and love and cared for our wellbeing. Even today, as I am writing these words, I feel that I want to kneel before them, embrace and thank these angels, who have given us life.
But back then it was still hard to feel all that. When we were on the road, the pictures I saw in my mind’s eye were pictures of landscapes.
But three months after the liberation we found ourselves in the beautiful and tranquil land of Israel. When I finally felt that danger was far away, my mind and my heart began to melt and I was able to respond. And then I finally understood that at the age of bat-mitzvah I had received the gift of life. I was so overcome by powerful emotions that I wanted to fly and run in the streets and yell \"I am alive, I am alive!” To be reborn at the age of twelve, that is a wonderful and exceptional bat-mitzvah present. Of course right away we had to learn to speak Hebrew, and to pray. As soon as I was sufficiently able to read I would stand every morning with sunrise on the balcony that faced towards Jerusalem and I prayed and prayed. I wanted to thank God for letting me live. And I was certain that God heard only me. But this took a few months.
And now I am standing here filled with emotion, telling you my story and finally getting to meet all these angels of mine. I want to express our gratitude, because it is thanks to them that I and all the people of Israel are able to live in our country as a free people. Words are not enough to describe the gratitude and love that I feel for my heroes.
We created a healthy Israeli family, I and my husband Uri Atzmon, who was born in Israel. Not only is he my general, he is also the reserve commander of an armored combat regiment of the Israeli Defense Forces. Between wars, and despite the wars, we were lucky to have six children, and we also have 22 grandchildren, and all of us know that we owe our lives to these brave soldiers here.
During the lectures, which I hold at my exhibitions in Israel and all over the world, more than 150 so far, I meet thousands of young people. I always tell them about you, my heroes. But I never thought that one day I would be given this great honor of meeting you, embracing you and thanking you.
For this I have to thank Matt Rozell, who, with the assistance of some excellent helpers, conceived this remarkable initiative. I wish you many years of good health together with your families. I understand that you have some more ideas up your sleeve, Matt.
Finally, a small note: To kill is a technical matter, accompanied by evil and hatred.
But love, ladies and gentlemen, gives us wings which let us soar above it all, which let us give thanks and pray.
And now a small poem:
Print at the end
A number of times during his lifetime a person receives kindness.
I received kindness several times:
The first time when I survived the holocaust and kept my sanity;
Again when I was fortunate enough to take part in the creation of a state;
When I was so fortunate to create a healthy family, without the shadow of the holocaust;
When I was so fortunate to be able to articulate the cries and the pains of those who are no longer with us;
And today, when I finally get to meet and thank those angels who gave us hope and life.
As a token of my gratitude and appreciation I planted ten trees in our little state, in honor of the people, of whom some paid with their lives in order to save us. There is nothing more important then to plant trees in this small and arid country of ours that day for day has to fight for its existence. I invite you to come and give water to these trees.
A week ago the people of Israel celebrated the Jewish New Year festival. I now want to bless this precious audience and wish you a long life and good health; and you should always remember that you are the most wonderful people in the world. I urge you to come and visit our small country. It is thanks to you and your support that we can hope to live in peace in Israel.
The people of Israel wish you a happy and blessed new year
And now a few words about my speech: originally I wrote altogether six pages in the space of a few days. But I only read you some parts of it. Anybody who is interested may take a copy of the entire speech.
I read it out in Hebrew. It is important that Hebrew is heard everywhere in the world, including here. The Hebrew language was resurrected when the Jewish people returned to their homeland.