We picked this dispatch as today's "Best."
AVA SCHIEBER: I introduce myself first of all as a survivor of the Jewish holocaust during World War II who had the privilege of being at an age that I can still remember. I was 15 and now I'm seventy-five and I haven't lost my memory completely. (laughing)
Trekker Stephen: That's a good thing. So what is one of the most common questions that you have been asked since you started to speak openly about your experiences as a Jewish girl during the Second World War?
A: There are many typical questions. Of course the most inevitable is, "Do you hate?" People always ask me why they cannot feel hatred when I talk about it. And I say that I lost hatred at the end of the war because...and I can explain this better today...it was more fear than hatred. The moment I did not have to fear the Nazis anymore I realized I did not hate and I felt good about it, because they did not annihilate my way of thinking and pursuit of life.
Whatever my audience and whatever the question, though, I keep the same story. There is no, you know, truth. Historical truth, I say, is like olive oil.
S: How's that?
A: You have the virgin, the extra virgin, the lesser virgin, and then you have the pits.
A: So I try not to tell stories that are pitfalls because we are now dealing with the third generation of holocaust survivors. This is the generation of my grandchildren and they most definitely have difficulty trying to identify with me as a person much less listening to me talk about a historical time that, to them, is as far away as the Bronze Age. It may as well be archaeology.
S: Is that difficult for you?
A: No it is difficult for THEM... even to realize geographically where I was born, which was the northern part of Yugoslavia.
S: Is it sad for you that some of the students you speak to may not have a concept of what it was that you went through?
A: I wouldn't say sad. It's a realistic presumption that two generations younger than I cannot completely perceive what has happened to their grandparent's generation.
S: Where did you grow up, what was your family like, and what was your life like prior to the war?
A: Alright, let's go to the Austro-Hungarian empire before WWI that fell apart in 1914. That was the time of my grandparents. I start with them because we lived together. I remember my grandparents and our house that we lived in the well-to-do section for the merchant class. They lost everything in World War I. Austro-Hungary fell apart and became the man-made northern part of Yugoslavia. I grew up tri-lingual because that was the place where they spoke German and Hungarian and Serbian. I went to the grammar school of the Jewish community in Novisad which was small but very active. We lived there in the years prior to the war. I remember the ships that were sent down the Danube. In Novisad, the river is about 1 kilometer wide and they had to anchor in the middle of the river because the passengers were not allowed to disembark. They were not allowed because they were Jews from Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia and they were being sent down the Danube to perish in the Black Sea. And I remember that those were my ghost ships. That was the first real impact I have never forgotten. I can remember that we would send them food and clothing and some of the young students from the Jewish community who entered the ship couldn't go back.
S: So people went to give the ships supplies and they wouldn't return?
A: [Nodding] That was really the beginning. That is how it started and it started slowly. First they were killing the people off in the insane asylums and the handicapped.
S: How old were you when this was happening?
A: I was probably just around 10 years old...but I was a very alert...the times made it so you had to be.
S: So your family was aware of what was going on?
A: Very much so.
S: Would you hear speeches?
A: Yes, over the radio.
S: So, you noticed changes going on....
A: Yes, so we moved to Belgrade and we did not join a synagogue.
S: Did you renounce your religion or were just not practicing it publicly?
A: We kept it hidden. At the end of World War I, my father had changed his name from Herschel to Hegedis in order to receive his war commission. I had an older sister and she was getting ready to enter University and I was finishing up high school. And '41...1941...April 6, the Germans just invaded Yugoslavia and reached Serbia proper in six days.
S: What were you hearing at this point?
A: We didn't even know. We didn't know how fast they were advancing. The Slovenians let them through. The Croatians were throwing flowers. But the Serbs, the Serbs did not want to capitulate and Belgrade was bombed. The city was left completely in shambles. They noted targets and the targets were hit. The Jewish quarters was completely burned down.
S: Where did you live?
A: We lived in a different part because my parents were War veterans and knew to live in another part so as not to be identified. The moment we left Novisad, we were already seeing anti-Jewish writing on the walls...from that point on, everything seemed to fall like dominoes.
When things really hit, my father went back to Hungary to see what was happening with grandmother. He explained to us that he was a liability to us three women, my mother, my sister and I. He said, let's do something, go into hiding. At the time my sister was engaged to a Greek Orthodox Serb who found me a farm. I was the only one who was truly liable because I couldn't get papers. My mother was born Roman Catholic before she converted and married my father, so she had her birth certificate and could get rations. So I was the only one who didn't officially exist.
S: What would have happened if you were registered as a Jew?
A: If I were to register, I would have been dead.
Ahh, that brings up one of the most interesting moments in the history. All the Jews of Belgrade and the vicinity who ever registered were shipped across the Danube to Zemun, where there was fairground prior to the war. There they erected camps. It was about June, when I was on the farm, and we heard that the Germans had brought trucks with closed containers...and people were killed in those containers. That was what we later heard was the Zyklon B experiment, which was very successful, because NO ONE came out alive from Zemun.
In all of the speeches I have given in the past, people have sometimes given me second glances, because they could not find Zemun on the map...ergo it didn't exist. There was a Holocaust trial last year and I got the transcript of the court findings. On the last page, I read that in the classified war archives it is said that all of the Jews in Belgrade were annihilated in Zemun. So when I read that I said, Oh my God, for years I have tried to convey that history but people did not believe because I could not verify it. And now I can say here...here are the pages. But I guess that is history. It can be so relentless with the truth.
S: So you were living on a farm...
A: My brother-in-law found me a farm of some Greek Orthodox Serbs who were ready to shelter a Jewish kid...not because they wanted to but because they hated the German invaders more than their own safety. It was a hazard for them to shelter me. But, we had an agreement that if someone found me out I would run and let them shoot me in the back.
S: You were the only one there?
A: Yes the only one there and I was told not to talk because I did not talk like a Serbian peasant girl. I was a teenager, and like most teenagers, I was arrogant. I looked people in the eyes, and in those days peasant girls never looked people in the eyes.
S: How long were you there?
A: Four years.
S: What was life like for you there?
A: I came from a well-to-do environment with a big library, my own room, central heating, and hot water and moved to a shack. I was given an area between the pigsty and the chicken coop. No running water whatsoever. Not even cold water. There was a well on the grounds that was mostly for the animals and for washing the laundry.
S: Would you ever leave the farm?
A: I would at times but it was dangerous to go into the city to visit my mother and sister.
S: So you would communicate with your family?
A: Very rarely but it was wartime and somehow you knew what was going on. There are no secrets. We knew what was going on in the fronts. We knew what was happening.
S: How did you feel when you were finally liberated?
A: Here comes the big downer, I never was liberated. I exchanged the Nazis with the Communists. Why do I say that in such a manner? Because it was a terrible disappointment, you know. One totalitarian regime is just like another totalitarian regime. So that was the post war period. My sister had been killed. I found my mother and had to take care of her because it was one war too many. Two wars...each one four years...each one disrupting reality. She would have shut down. I have seen it happen. People just shut down and will themselves out of life. I had to find a place to work, I found an apartment, I went back to school. I wasn't bored really [laughs] I wasn't even depressed. There was no time to be depressed.
S: So you were lucky not to have been in a jewish concentration camp then?
A: If the Nazis would have caught me, they would have shot me like a rabid dog. I was not supposed to be there. I was not supposed to be alive. I didn't exist. And this brings up something else that I like to introduce about myself...I have never been to hell. With all of the difficulties, I was only in the ante rooms of hell because I was never caught and never deprived of our most important element...our integrity as a human being. That stayed in tact...through all of the hardship.
S: At the end of the war, were you reunited with other survivors?
A: The moment I went to the farm I was dead. At the end of the war in Belgrade, I went to the Jewish community center and for the first few months I was the only young Jewish survivor. There were a few women but there were no young people. And then I went on a Russian convoy to Novisad to see if my father and grandmother were alive. That was the first time I was introduced to the latent anti-Semitism of the Russians. A Russian captain came out and introduced himself. He saw from my papers that I was Jewish but told me not to mention it in front of the soldiers. He told me that in Yiddish and I understood what he said. But it festered in me. Here was a Russian soldier in a fighting outfit and his comrades have no idea that he is Jewish. Then I really started to believe that there is something very wrong in Soviet Russia.
So you know...how do we get information? You get it here and there and then all of a sudden you have a wall of information or knowledge or understanding...you hit it. You hit that wall. And the same happened in Novisad when I started inquiries about my father and grandmother. It was then that I heard the details of the last transports [of Jews]. There was an attitude there, a feeling that gave me a good perspective to get out of there. And in '49 I did. I went to Israel because I didn't want to be a 'Jew' anymore. I have a little twisted logic, maybe [laughs]. That's where I lived, married, had children.
S: How many years were you there?
A: Over 25 years. I lost my first husband there. He died so I started to travel, to work, exhibiting paintings… which brought me to Europe and the United States...Chicago and that's where I stayed.
George Weary: During this period of time when you were away from your family, you were on the farm, you were surviving.... how much did your imagination help?
A: It kept me alive. It kept my sanity. That and the animals. They gave me warmth. Cleaning them, taking the ticks off of them. Taking care of the chickens. I loved the chickens. I was like their mother hen. I couldn't eat them, even when I was very hungry. I am STILL a vegetarian [laughs].
S: What do you think when people argue that the Jewish holocaust did not exist?
A: I am for freedom of speech.
S: What opinions do you have about the argument that Allied forces had knowledge of Nazi concentration camps but did nothing to stop them during the war?
A: Who am I to have a personal opinion about World War II? It was too great...too big. It was pure chance to be alive at the end of the war. It wasn't because someone was brighter or better.
S: Well, Ava, it has been a wonderful experience to talk with you today. Before we say goodbye to one another I have one last question that I like to ask. Considering all of your many experiences, what advice do you have for young people today?
A: Reality. Face reality. One of my favorite philosophers, Martin Buber, wrote, "The most difficult thing to imagine is reality."
I would like to leave you with a quote from a German poet that I have always liked. The translation may be a little off but it goes something like this. "The only goodness that exists in our world, is the good that you create." You know, wherever you find yourself standing you can either throw trash around you, or you can throw seeds.
S: I choose seeds.
A: I do too.
Please email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Nick - When you must survive, you will find a way