The Conference Daily
Sunday, Feb. 26, 2006
Holocaust survivor renews educational campaign with AASA member
By Larry M. Edwards
The number 161051 is tattooed on his left forearm. It is the only visual evidence David Faber carried with him when liberated from the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp on April 15, 1945.
“Holocaust survivors have no pictures — only memories,” Faber said.
It is those memories this Holocaust survivor and author shares with students every chance he gets. Since publishing his book, Because of Romek: A Holocaust Survivor’s Memoir, in 1993, Faber has made hundreds of appearances at public schools, community colleges and universities nationwide. Sixteen states have adopted the book as required reading in their schools.
Although he will speak to any group, he especially enjoys speaking to school kids. “They are the future of our country,” said Faber, who was taken to the first of several concentration camps in 1939 at age 13.
“I lost the best years of my life, which you children have,” he tells students. “You can teach your own children to love, don’t teach them to hate.”
Faber, who now lives in San Diego, visited the AASA National Conference on Education on Friday morning as a guest of James DeZwaan, superintendent of Bourbonnais Elementary School District No. 53 in Bourbonnais, Ill. Faber wants school superintendents across the country to know he’s available to speak, free of charge, to their students.
DeZwaan met Faber a year ago, after discovering Faber’s book while attending a school administrator’s conference. He invited the Holocaust survivor to speak in Illinois, scheduling19 engagements.
“We covered about 1,000 miles driving around Kankakee County,” DeZwaan said. “It’s a message that needs to be heard.”
Initially, recounting his memories gave Faber a nervous breakdown. But he persevered because he knew its importance, eventually filling 11 hours of magnetic tape. San Diego State University history professor David D. Kitchen transcribed the recordings, which are now memorialized in the book.
Faber still gets emotional when telling his story. A particularly evocative memory is the day of his rescue at Bergen-Belsen, which he recalls while looking at a picture of two women in his book, Grizel Crosthwaire and Margaret Montgomery of the British Red Cross.
“They saved me,” Faber said. “I was lying among dead bodies, nearly starved to death and suffering from typhus, when they heard me groan.” He weighed 72 pounds and could no longer stand on his own.
Later, in England, Faber was reunited with his sister Rachel, the only other family member to survive World War II. Rachel had left their native Poland prior to the war and was smuggled into Great Britain. “Ninety-six members of my extended family were killed by the Nazis,” Faber said.
The personal horror of the Holocaust began for Faber the day his mother sent him out to buy milk in the Polish town of Katowice. On the street, German soldiers were rounding up Jews. “Like messengers of death, the Nazis had come,” he writes in his book.
They ordered him into a truck and took him to a nearby concentration camp. He escaped from that camp, crawling under the barbed wire at night. When he got home, his family had disappeared. He tracked them down in another town, Tarnow, where they had hoped to hide from the Nazis.
But all Jews were ordered to register with the Gestapo, who took retained Faber and his older brother, Abraham, who went by the nickname Romek and for whom Faber’s book is. Gestapo agents tortured them both, repeatedly demanding the whereabouts of a “blue file.”
Romek, who had served in the Polish army, received the harshest treatment – the agents blinded him with a hot poker. “But he never revealed the information the agents sought,” Faber said.
The younger Faber knew nothing of the mysterious blue file and the agents let him go. But not before tying him to a chair, knocking out most of his teeth, and pushing him down a flight of stairs. He never saw his brother again.
Back home, he and his family lived in terror. They were slowly starving, because Jews were forbidden from entering stores. Whenever they heard the Nazis’ boots on the stairway leading to their fourth-floor ghetto apartment, they rushed into hiding in a space behind the stairwell. But one day his father did not get into the hiding place soon enough and went to the roof instead. There the Nazis discovered him and pushed him off.
By this time – late 1942 — most of the people in the building had been killed. One day Faber went scavenging in the empty apartments and discovered jewelry the German soldiers had missed. That night, he snuck out and went to a nearby farm, where he traded the jewelry for a chicken and some eggs.
But while he and what remained of his family enjoyed their meager feast, they failed to hear the boots. As the Nazi’s kicked in the door, Faber crawled beneath a sofa and hid. His mother and five sisters were caught, however, and shot to death. After the soldiers left, Faber wiped the blood from his dead mother’s face, then embraced her body and made a vow: “I promise you, mama, I will live. I’ll tell the world what they’ve done to us.”
Faber hid in the building for several more days, but ran out of food and water. Then one day he heard a voice from a loudspeaker commanding all Jews to give themselves up or starve to death. He gave himself up.
All told, he was held in nine concentration camps, including Auchwitz, the notorious death camp in Poland. There, because he spoke German as well as Polish, the Nazis forced Faber to assist them. He had to punch holes in cans of Zyklon B pellets that were used to gas the Jews. After each group had been killed, he had to extract any teeth containing gold fillings and collect jewelry from the bodies. But the gas chambers were not efficient enough, so the Nazis resorted to other methods of killing, Faber said.
“The trains arrived day and night,” he recalled. “The Nazis dug big ditches and forced men, women and children into them, then sprayed them with gasoline.
“They burned the people alive. I can still hear their screams,” Faber said, his voice cracking with emotion.
Why did he survive when 6 million others did not? “Only God knows the answer to that,” Faber said, glancing at his book.
In the mid-1950s, Faber emigrated from England to Springfield, Mass. Believing the war and Holocaust were behind him, he got another scare: He received a letter from the Consulate of the German Republic asking him to be a witness for his dead brother. With memories of the Gestapo still vivid in his mind, he refused. But later he learned from the FBI the German’s wanted his help in identifying Nazi war criminals. He did, recognizing an associate of brother’s by a scar on the man’s neck.
“They told me he was a spy,” Faber said, “He betrayed my brother and others in the resistance movement, and he caused the deaths of 18,000 Allied soldiers.”
That’s when Faber learned his brother had been “the brains” behind an efforts to block shipments of heavy water from Norway to Germany for use in manufacturing atomic bombs. The details of that resistance effort were contained in the “blue file” the Gestapo had wanted so desperately.
Faber later testified at the trial of John Demjanjuk in Israel.
As for those who, like Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, insist the Holocaust is myth, he shrugged. “I’m used to it.”
He is pleased that Holocaust denier David Irving is in jail in Austria. “I want to see justice,” he says. “Hate destroys our world. Unless we all learn to respect one another, we will destroy one another.”
With the help of his granddaughter, Anna Vaisman, Faber completed a second edition of his book, which cites further evidence gleaned from German records of the concentration camps where he’d been held. “I want her to carry on after I am gone,” said Faber, who turns 80 in July.
And during his morning visit to the AASA national conference, he unveiled a companion study guide for teachers, handing Superintendent DeZwaan the first CD. The study guide reinforces the message in Faber’s book, a message that’s directed at students, teachers and administrators alike: “Teach your children to love. Don’t let it happen again.”
For more information, contact David Faber at Faber Press, 5638 Lake Murray Blvd., #206, La Mesa, CA 91942-1929, (619) 265-7112, www.BecauseofRomek.com