‘Don’t fight, don’t hate’ – Nazi death camp survivor finally ready to tell her story at 102
Ella Blumenthal, who ‘never knew whether I would live from one moment to another’, has a profound message for people everywhere today. Now living in Cape Town, aged 102, a book about her life has been released - "I Am Ella", by author Joanne Jowell. This is her remarkable story.
At 102 years of age, Ella Blumenthal’s voice is one of the last living testimonies interceding on behalf of millions of Jewish cries that never made it out of the gas chambers.
Despite bearing witness to innumerable war crimes that engulfed her during the Nazi occupation of Poland, incredibly these are not the events that defined her. Rather, Ella’s redemption is found in her unreserved capacity for forgiveness, charged by a reverence for life.
Ella’s memoir is not merely the biography of a Holocaust survivor; it is a living will of a valiant woman who purposefully and unceasingly chose to never give up.
I am Ella (Kwela Books) is narrated by South African author Joanne Jowell, who captures Ella’s unique story and journey to freedom.
Jowell compassionately observes the process of Ella untying her past, while simultaneously reflecting on a humble heroine.
Ella’s immersive recollections are of overcoming unimaginable cruelty at the hands of the Nazi occupiers.
She relives coming face-to-face with death on numerous occasions, traversing the loss of 23 family members and, finally, navigating life after the Holocaust.
Born in Warsaw, Poland, Ella went from being a member of a well-to-do Polish Jewish family to being one of millions of Jews dehumanised as a prisoner of war.
Ella lists the terrors of the Warsaw Ghetto, the uncontested persecution at Majdanek extermination camp near the city of Lublin and the starvation she endured at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.
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After Poland was liberated, and armed with only the stigma of infamy and the “ID number” 48632 tattooed on her arm, Ella’s ever-changing personal story had only just begun.
Chronicling her formative years growing up in Warsaw in the 1920s, Ella endearingly recounts carefree, adventurous childhood memories, alluding to a quiet determination integrated with a healthy dose of chutzpah hidden within.
In addition to little Ella’s self-conceived entertainment, her adolescent world was also shaped by the familiar safety of tradition, religion and food – along with the Orthodox Jewish customary preparations required for each.
God has given me back the exact amount of family members that I lost in the Holocaust.
In young Ella’s world, the treasures of the weekly family Shabbat meal were not only found in eating the gefilte fish; rather, her deep appreciation for family was imprinted on her by the communal “breaking of bread” the family shared as a household each week.
Ella and I meet at her daughter’s residence in Camps Bay, Cape Town. Studying Ella from the rim of my teacup in the dining room, I am instantly struck by her larger-than-life personality, her curious smile and the mischievous way she appraises me.
Ella’s joie de vivre is positively infectious and dominates the air we now share as we talk about our mutual affection for afternoon tea (Ella takes two cups, not one).
With a twinkle in her eye, Ella remarks approvingly on my outfit (having been in the fashion industry for most of her adult life) and reminds me that classic, key pieces of clothing are the staple of any wardrobe.
I am conscious of Ella’s time. The informal exchange gives way to the interview.
Ella straightens her shoulders and looks me in the eye, a hint of accomplishment in her voice: “God has given me back the exact amount of family members that I lost in the Holocaust. He sent me 23 family members in place of the 23 family members that are gone, that I have lost, that have perished.
My bleeding heart must be in me, I cannot show it to the world because it doesn’t help.
“I have now got these family members in their place; they came to me. They were sent to me. They live with me and they give me great happiness.”
Outside it is grey and overcast, mirroring the dark memories Ella revisits.
I ask her if she has considered why she survived when so many others did not.
“I think somebody must have remained to tell the world what happened, otherwise it would have gone down the drain. Nobody would have known what happened to millions of people. Most probably I was put in a position to speak out and tell people what happened,” she replies.
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“I know I must not sit and cry but I must go on, I must carry on with life like any other person and just keep the pain within me. My bleeding heart must be in me, I cannot show it to the world because it doesn’t help. It cannot bring anyone back.
“The world is so beautiful. If you look up now, can you believe what a beautiful sunset it is? We see all the birds flying freely, we must realise life is beautiful; no, it is more than beautiful, it is gorgeous. We must try to enjoy every minute of it.”
I ask whether she got the chance to mourn the loss of family during her time in the ghetto – their deaths seemed to happen so fast.
“How could I cry? For what? There were bodies everywhere, we got used to it. If I died, who will cry after me tomorrow? No, I lived minute to minute. I never knew whether I would live from one moment to another, there was no time to mourn!
“But now I am here, to talk to all of you. I am so grateful to all of you who listen to me.
“I am here to tell you, to share with you what I went through and, believe me, it is not a story, I did not make it up, it is true – every word of it. It is all true,” says Ella.
What took her so long to tell the story?
“I did not speak out earlier because the wounds were still raw and I wasn’t ready. I was so busy living my life, raising our family and making sure that everyone was okay. I put my mind to raising my family and being a mother.”
Ella continues: “There is a time and a season for everything. When I got older and the family was sorted out – after my husband passed away, I dedicated my time to tell others what happened. Only once my wounds, my scars, had dried up was I ready.”
The atmosphere in the room changes as Ella exclaims: “Anne Frank was in Bergen-Belsen! If only I had known I could have…” She shakes her head and goes quiet.
“Every day on our way to work, the forced labour in the camps, we would walk, no, we were marched, past the Gypsies.
“They were kept separate from us. They were behind a fence.
I must appreciate life on behalf of everyone who didn’t make it, all of us must.
“Every morning and every evening we would march past them. We could see the children playing. There were whole families, hundreds of them.
“One afternoon on our way back from work they were gone – all of them. Gone.
“I have got to speak for those who can’t speak, those that are no more. I am left here to talk through you to the world, to tell the people what happened in the Holocaust. What happened to us human beings.
“It doesn’t matter if we are white, black, what our religion is, we are all the same, we are all human beings.”
I ask Ella about forgiveness.
“Only long, long after the war did I manage to forgive them.
“If I was weighed down by hatred I would not have been able to carry on, to raise my family, feed my children or see them through university. I had to forgive.”
What message has she for people today?
“You must never give up – you must carry on. You must know there is a beautiful world around you. Internal or external injuries are not an excuse. Don’t fall into the trap of self-pity. Get up and get stronger and say, ‘there is a wonderful world around me!’”
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This is vital. “I must appreciate life on behalf of everyone who didn’t make it, all of us must.
“I want to tell you what one human being can do to another. The Holocaust must not remain quiet! It has got to go on from generation to generation.
“Don’t fight, don’t hate,” Ella pleads, her voice breaking.
Ella thoughtfully considers what legacy she wants to leave.
“The love of life has kept me going; these are holy words,” she says.
“I am asking you, people of the world, to try to speak to each other, try to understand each other, sit down and exchange your views, don’t go to arms right away.
“It brings only tragedy to the world if you don’t think before you fight each other.” DM
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.