‘When hatred gets out of hand’

Felice Cohen, a journalist, writer and professional organizer, spoke about her 2010 book “What Papa Told Me” to an online audience via the David M. Hunt Library Thursday, Jan. 18.

The “papa” in question was her grandfather, Murray Schwartzbaum, from Szczekociny, Poland, who as a Jewish boy survived five years in eight different Nazi concentration camps during World War II.

Cohen said as a child “I had no idea” about the Holocaust until she read Elie Wiesel’s “Night,” in middle school. The book, published in 1960, is a memoir about the Holocaust.

The subject scared her. It wasn’t until she was in college that she became curious. One subject of her curiosity was the death of her grandmother, which she had been told was from cancer.

It turned out the grandmother died by suicide.

She asked her grandfather about it, and in order to explain, he had to go back to the Holocaust and the Lodz ghetto.

After Nazi Germany invaded Poland and the country was split up between the Germans and the Soviet Union, Polish Jews and Roma were forcibly moved into areas known as “ghettos,” where they were kept apart from the non-Jewish population.

Conditions in the ghettos were appalling, and nobody knew when they would be sent on to one of the labor or death camps.

Schwartzbaum told Cohen that her grandmother was staying in one room with her sister and her boys when the Germans came for the sister.

As she was dragged out, she asked Cohen’s grandmother to look after the children.

The next day the Germans returned and took the boys. The day after that, they sent the grandmother to Auschwitz.

Both sisters survived, but the boys did not. And years later, when the sisters were reunited, Cohen’s grandmother was asked by her sister why she hadn’t saved the boys.

Cohen’s grandmother sank into a deep depression. Treatment was ineffective, and she eventually hanged herself.

Cohen wrote about this unhappy history in college, and Schwartzbaum suggested he tell her his story as well.

Cohen said it took 18 years to put “What Papa Told Me” together. Her grandfather lived in Florida, and she was in New York, so she visited frequently, with tape recorder and notebook at the ready.

A sample:

At the Treblinka extermination camp in Nazi-occupied Poland, Schwartzbaum and others were ordered outside in winter and told to form a circle.

An officer in a Jeep-type vehicle drove into the circle. In the vehicle was a Jewish prisoner with an apple in his mouth.

The Nazi drove around the circle for everyone to get a good look.

He stopped and announced that the man had been caught stealing an apple.

As punishment, he was forced to hold the apple in his mouth, like a roast pig.

“But a Jew is no better than a pig,” yelled the Nazi before shooting the man in the head.

Cohen recalled being overwhelmed, not only by the savagery but by the realization that these and similar memories had been in her grandfather’s mind “for decades.”

The book came out in 2010, and Cohen did not expect massive sales. When 150 people bought it, she was thrilled.

But by a happy set of circumstances, the book took off.

Cohen was living in a miniscule apartment in New York, and agreed to participate in a video shoot about how to live in small settings. Visible in the video was her computer screen with the book cover showing.

The video took off, with views in the millions. Much of the response was on the subject or organizing, which is Cohen’s area of expertise.

But after that response tapered off, people began getting in touch about the book.

According to the Amazon.com listing, some 35,000 copies have been sold, and Cohen has spoken at libraries, schools, and other venues.

Schwartzbaum died eight years ago, Cohen said. But he was thrilled at the book’s success.

“This is one man’s story, for 6 million others,” she said. “It tells us what happens when hatred gets out of hand.”

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