Abe’s Story: My Father, by Joey Korn
by Joey Korn
I was only 19 when I learned that my father was dying of a rare and incurable disease. The doctors couldn’t tell us much about the illness. At first they thought it was tuberculosis, possibly a carryover from his days in concentration camps, but the doctors soon ruled that out. Finally, they called it diffuse pulmonary interstitial fibrosis–merely a description of symptoms. The doctors didn’t know what had caused his disease, nor did they know how to treat it. All they could tell us was that he would die of suffocation very soon. What the Nazis couldn’t do in over five years, fate would take care of in a few short months.
I did much thinking in those last few months before my father died. Dad meant more to me than anyone else in the world. I remember sitting in the hospital waiting room in the last days–a thousand thoughts racing through my mind. Why is he dying? Why haven’t I been closer to him? Why haven’t I spent more time with him? Why didn’t I go to Israel with him when he wanted me to? Why didn’t I learn more about him? Why? Why? Why!
I guess I was as close to my father as the average American teenager, but that wasn’t enough. My father was dying, and my world was collapsing around me.
I had been too busy trying to fit in with other teenagers to really get to know my dad. I loved him so much, but I hadn’t told him that in years because I was “too big” for all of that. Now, more than anything, I wanted to tell Dad that I loved him, and I wasn’t even sure that he would know I was there.
I walked into the room. Dad was a pitiful sight. He was under an oxygen tent. His body was extremely thin, with tubes sticking in his arms, his chest and his nose. He had cuts all over from the many biopsies the doctors had performed to study the disease. He was breathing hard, but very little oxygen was getting into his bloodstream. He hadn’t responded to us in days. He looked much like he must have looked after liberation from the concentration camps. Once again, he was merely a shell of a human being.
Amazingly, he looked up and recognized me. “Hello son,” he said meekly.
“Hi Dad,” I replied in joy. Now was my chance, but I couldn’t get the words out of my mouth. They were pounding in my consciousness–I LOVE YOU! I LOVE YOU! I LOVE YOU! They stayed locked inside until I was about to explode. Why couldn’t I get them out? Finally, I said it. “I love you Dad.” After all that agonizing, the words seemed so easy to say as they softly left my lips. Those little words can mean so much. He heard–and he understood.
“I love you too, son,” he whispered as he squeezed my hand and looked at me through the transparent wall of the oxygen tent. That moment felt so good. He died just a few hours later. There were a million things I wished I had said to him and done with him. At least, I had told him that I loved him.
My father, Abram Korn, survived over five years in Nazi concentration camps and ghettos. He left the camps, but the memories never left him. He tried to block them out, but couldn’t. Many years after the war, they would still come to the surface in his dreams. I remember waking to his screams in the night; I knew that he’d had another nightmare. My mother, my brother, my sister and I would be in the camps with him in those terrifying dreams. My father suffered with insomnia for all of his adult life. As much as he wanted to sleep, he was afraid that he would just wake up–back in the camps.
Dad started writing his memoirs in 1969, 24 years after his liberation. He would meet as often as he could with a dear friend of the family, Jack Wyland, and our rabbi, Benjamin Rosayn. Jack had been trying to get Dad to write his story for many years, and he had finally convinced him. Writing his memoirs was like therapy for my father. He was finally releasing what he had kept locked away for most of his life. He began to sleep better, and the nightmares began to subside. He began to live easier.
Dad, Jack, and Rabbi Rosayn would try to meet weekly to work on the book, but they would sometimes skip months at a time. They either recorded the sessions on tape or wrote them out, and another friend, Mary Lou Helmly, typed them. Soon Mary Lou convinced them that she could type as fast as Dad could talk, so she began to join them. Whatever they could accomplish in one evening together would become one chapter. There were originally 36 chapters, representing 36 sessions. The shortest chapter was less than three pages long; the longest was 15. I have combined many of the chapters and separated others to end up with 18 chapters.
Even though I’m sure my father didn’t plan it this way, I found it quite interesting that there were originally 36 chapters, because the numbers 18 and 36 have special meanings in Judaism. Each letter in the Hebrew alphabet has a number ascribed to it. The word “life” in Hebrew is expressed as Chai and is represented by the number 18, the sum total of the numbers ascribed to each Hebrew letter. The number 36 represents double-Chai. It is said that the world is perpetually sustained by 36 righteous people living on earth. When one dies, another is born. For thousands of years, Chai, or 18, has been used to express our faith and prayer that the Eternal will bestow the blessing of Life upon us. My father’s story is about life, not death. If Abe’s Story couldn’t have Dad’s original 36 chapters, I made sure that it would have 18, to represent life.
On January 12, 1972, Dad met with Jack to work on Chapter 35. This was their first session in over five months, and they were almost to the end of the story. Jack died suddenly, 12 days later. By the time Dad wrote the last chapter in late April, he was already beginning to feel the first symptoms of his illness. He died on August 7, 1972, one day after my parents’ twenty-third wedding anniversary.
Dad had apparently fulfilled his purpose on earth, at least part of which was the writing of his memoirs. Dad clearly defined his purpose in writing his story in the Dedication: “…to show my own children and whoever reads this book why I feel so grateful to be part of this great country, the USA.” Like so many other immigrants to this country from oppressed societies, he never took his freedom in America for granted. He loved America like no native ever could, because he knew what it was like to live in a world without the freedom we enjoy here.
I take Dad’s purpose a step further. I am joining with the continuing worldwide efforts to ensure that the memories of the camps stay alive so the world will NEVER FORGET. Editing and publishing Abe’s Story is my small way of preserving a bit of history, to remind the world of what we allowed to happen such a short time ago.
It saddens me deeply to know that similar tragedies are occurring on earth today. Why does the world allow such inhumanity when we know all too well what happened in Europe just 50 short years ago? Have we forgotten already? Too many people in the world don’t even know what the Holocaust was. Some even try to convince others that it never happened. We must work to change that. The best way to do that is through the documentation of personal testimonies of the survivors.
It is extremely important for all living survivors to record their stories in whatever forms possible. World War II ended 50 years ago. There are only about 350,000 survivors alive today. They are getting old. How many will be alive in 10 years? In 20 years? In 30? All too soon, the survivors will be gone, so we must have their recorded testimonies to keep their memories alive. Whether survivor accounts are written, made into books, stored in computers, video taped, or recorded on audio tape, they must be preserved.
I had read some of Dad’s manuscript as he was writing it. After he died, I began reading it several times, but never read it straight through. Several years later, as I was beginning to settle into adult life, I finally picked up the manuscript to read it from cover to cover. Reading it had a powerful impact on me. I felt closer to Dad than I ever had before, and he was no longer by my side. I began to understand what was so special about my father, and I was thankful that he had left his story for me, for my family, and for everyone else to read.
I first became interested in having Abe’s Story published in the early 80’s, after Rabbi Chaim Wender asked me to teach a religious school class on the Holocaust. It embarrassed me to tell him that I really didn’t know much about the Holocaust. Sadly, detailed information about the Holocaust wasn’t taught in public schools (and still isn’t, for the most part), and I didn’t even learn about it in religious school. Rabbi Wender said, “You know your father’s book, don’t you? That’s enough.” I have been teaching a Holocaust class to eighth and ninth grade students every year since then. We alternate reading and discussing Abe’s Story and Elie Wiesel’s extraordinary book, Night. We also discuss current events, comparing them to what happened during the Holocaust and to events in pre-war Europe.
Every year, my students would ask, “When are you going to have your father’s book published?”
Every year, I would reply, “Someday, I’ll create the time to work with it … someday.”
I knew this was a task that I would have to take on myself. It was just too difficult for my mother to deal with. My father’s death had devastated her, and she never did get over it. My brother and sister just weren’t as involved with the manuscript and with Holocaust issues as I was. It was up to me, and I wanted it that way. It was 1993 before I created time in my life to dedicate to revising and publishing the book. Someday was here.
I scheduled a trip to Europe with my wife, Jill, and my son in honor of Jason’s Bar Mitzvah, that special time in every Jewish boy’s life when he is old enough to accept the responsibilities of a Jewish man. The main purpose of the trip was to visit some of the concentration camps where Dad had been imprisoned. Jill and I wanted to get more in touch with what my father had gone through as we were beginning to work with his manuscript.
Our first stop was Warsaw, Poland. We were typical tourists, with too much baggage, and we were too careless with our valuables. A thief picked my pocket and stole all our cash. Luckily we still had our traveler’s checks and credit cards. We just stayed on the train and headed to Krakow for our trip to Auschwitz.
We were naturally stunned at being robbed, on the first day of our pilgrimage to retrace some of my father’s steps. It was all we could do to regain our composure. Once we settled down, I realized how fitting it was that we had been robbed in Warsaw, just 60 miles from my father’s birthplace. Wasn’t my father robbed of all of his possessions, as well as his freedom? Weren’t his family and millions of others robbed of everything they held dear? Their very lives? Now we were on a train, headed for Auschwitz, like Dad and so many others had been. Of course the circumstances were much different, but it seemed so fitting.
We arrived in Krakow and took a cab to our hotel. Everything seemed so foreign to us. It was early April, but the spring growth had not yet begun. There were no flowers and no leaves on the trees. Everything looked black and desolate from years of pollution by the local coal industry. When we finally saw the Holiday Inn sign, where we would stay, we almost cried with joy. It was wonderful to recognize something from home.
The next morning we hired a car and a driver for the day to take us to Auschwitz and to Birkenau. We learned from our driver that Steven Spielberg was in Krakow winding up the filming of Schindler’s List. This was the first we had heard of it. Steven Spielberg! Making a Holocaust movie! Yes, the timing was right.
Our visit to Auschwitz was meaningful, but it was not as overwhelming as we had expected it to be. We had prepared ourselves for our visits to the camps by reading Konnilyn Feig’s excellent book, Hitler’s Death Camps. Jill and I both agreed with Feig’s observation: Everything was too sterile. To visit Auschwitz on a guided tour through such a lifeless, clean, and orderly place took something away from the experience. We learned much, but we just didn’t feel. Why didn’t we feel?
Our visit to Birkenau, just a few kilometers away, was somehow different. There was only one person in an office at the entrance. She didn’t even notice us. There were no guides, no exhibits, no souvenir shop–just Birkenau. Sure, it had been cleaned up. The knee-deep mud, written about in almost every Birkenau survivor’s memoir, was now just hard dirt–and ashes, of course–with blades of grass trying to grow through. It was, however, much more like the Nazis had left it than was Auschwitz. Birkenau was real.
Birkenau held a huge expanse of chimneys, the remains of the burned down horse stables that the Nazis had converted into barracks. A few of the barracks were still standing. We walked into one of them. A system of wooden bunks had been constructed to house about 25 people in each stall, originally built for no more than three horses. There were 38 of these stalls in each of the barracks, housing up to 1000 people. At one point, there were 300 such barracks at Birkenau, some constructed of brick rather than wood. They held up to 300,000 prisoners, each one waiting to be exterminated.
Jill and Jason walked back to the car. They’d had enough for our first day. I walked to the infamous railroad landing platform, where millions of souls who had survived the awful cattle trains finally stepped out into oblivion. I could see a train pull up in my mind’s eye, with its inhabitants spilling out on the ground after traveling for days without food, water, toilet facilities, and without fresh air. I could hear the barks of the police dogs and the angry shouts of the Nazis as they herded the transport of Jews into lines, passing them through the “selection,” with shouts of “Links” or “Rechts,” “left” or “right.” One direction meant life–for a while. The other meant a short walk to the gas chambers and the crematories.
I had an eerie feeling as I walked to the back of the camp, where the crematories once stood. I knew my father had once walked these steps. I knew that the ashes of millions of innocents were in this sacred ground. I could smell a burning stench in the air that grew stronger as I neared the demolished crematories. Was the odor from the crematories, still lingering there after all these years, or was it from a more current industrial source? Either way, it was quite fitting for my visit. Now I knew what I was feeling as I walked through the camps–nothingness.
Nothingness. The word permeated my consciousness. Why was I feeling nothingness? Why wasn’t I overwhelmed? Why wasn’t I mortified? Why wasn’t I crying? I didn’t understand. I felt guilty.
We visited several more camps, but I still felt the same way. A good friend of ours, Susanna Capelouto, met us at Buchenwald. Susanna was born and raised in Germany, but she now lives in Atlanta. She wanted to visit Buchenwald with us to gather material for a documentary on Abe’s Story she was producing for Peach State (Georgia) Public Radio. By “chance,” we planned our visit to Buchenwald on April 11, 1993, the forty-eighth anniversary of the liberation of the prisoners held there, including my father. Thousands of visitors were present for the ceremonies, including many survivors. We toured the camp, and I had much the same feeling I’d had at the other camps–nothingness.
Susanna walked up to me with her tape recorder, after recording a discussion with my son. She put the microphone up to my face and asked, “What are you feeling as you walk through Buchenwald?”
Immediately, I understood why I was feeling nothingness. It wasn’t that I felt nothing; I felt nothingness. That was a hint to me about what the prisoners must have had to feel if they wanted to survive. My father had written about it. They had to shut down their feelings and their emotions. They had to let their humanness fall away. How could they survive their torturous treatment and the inhumanity they suffered if they let themselves feel–if they let themselves smell–if they let themselves care? They had to reduce their feelings to nothingness. They had to detach themselves from what they were experiencing. Only then, could they survive the camps. I shared my feelings with Susanna.
Our visits to the camps had been worthwhile, helping us to get more “in touch” with the world my father had to live in. Thankfully, we do not have to live in that world today, although, in some places on earth, that world is very much alive. Just look at the world news on television, and you’ll see it. Concentration camps in the former Yugoslavia. Millions starving to death in Africa. Bulldozers pushing thousands of corpses into mass graves in Rwanda. Hatred and oppression never seem to end. Hopefully, our children and our children’s children will never have to experience for themselves what my father, his family and so many millions of Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Gypsies, homosexuals and other innocent people had to live through–and die through. I say “hopefully” because the possibility of such a nightmare still exists today. It is a very real threat that we must all be aware of. It only takes a closer look at history to understand why.
Hitler took advantage of a deep undercurrent of anti-Semitism, prevalent throughout Europe, to turn the people against the Jews. He took advantage of a collapsing economy, with hyper-inflation and rapidly rising unemployment, to climb to the top of the political ladder. German money was worthless. The German people literally needed suitcases full of money to buy groceries. They were desperate. Soon, conditions seemed to get better, and Hitler’s power diminished. Then the Great Depression hit, and the German economy suffered again. Hitler promised a job for every man, and he blamed the Jews. He promised bread on every plate, and he blamed the Jews. He promised a Volkswagen in every garage, and he blamed the Jews. He promised and promised and promised, and he blamed and blamed and blamed. Hitler was a master at manipulating the masses. To them, he was a savior. To millions of other innocent people, he was the Destroyer.
Don’t we have similar conditions in the world today? Don’t we have rising anti-Semitism? Don’t we have hyper-inflation and economic disaster in many countries? Didn’t our own government recently have a partial shut-down, with talk of a possible default?
Many people are greatly concerned about our own economic situation in America today. Harry Figgie, Jr. was chairman of the Grace Commission under President Reagan. The members of the Grace Commission were charged with looking for ways to eliminate government waste. Figgie was shocked at what he learned about our government and our economy. In his amazing book, Bankruptcy 1995, Figgie explains exactly why he feels that the United States is headed for financial disaster, and what we can do to prevent it. Many of the world’s leading economists agree with him, as do I. Except for the low inflation rates of recent years, the U.S. would be unable today to even pay the interest on our ever increasing national debt to other countries. What happens when a business can no longer pay the interest on it’s debt? The banks foreclose. The same would eventually happen to us, but foreign countries are our banks, and that day may still come.
If our economy were to fall, many other countries would fall with us, because the entire industrialized world is so dependent on our economic well being. Should there be such a worldwide economic disaster, couldn’t some persuasive leader rise to power as Hitler did, promising a better life and blaming the Jews–or the Blacks–or the liberals–or the whites? If this were to happen today, with our global political environment, couldn’t this leader rise to world power status? Such a world-wide disaster could lead to a holocaust that could dwarf the Holocaust that we know about today. Isn’t this what almost every world prophecy warns us about, including Christian biblical prophecy?
You might be thinking, “That’s impossible. Nothing like that can happen in America. Why, we live in the most civilized country in the world!”
Well, if someone would have told the pre-war Germans what would soon happen during World War II, they would have said, “Impossible! Nothing like that can happen here. Why, we live in the most cultured civilization in all the world!”
We must educate ourselves and our children about the Holocaust. We can never learn enough. Should the tell-tale events begin to occur, it is only through an educated awareness that we can prevent another Holocaust from occurring in the future. That is why we must remember the Holocaust. That is why we must realize the depths of depravity to which man is capable of sinking. That is why we must learn to shun leaders who teach anti-Semitism and hatred, no matter how much good they seem to do in the world. That is why we need to document as many first-hand survivor accounts as possible, before these survivors are no longer here to tell their stories. That is why I feel it is so important to get Abe’s Story into as many readers’ hands as possible.
After reading my father’s story, you may feel that it wasn’t as bad as you had thought in the concentration camps. Well, let me assure you that it was. It was much worse than we could ever imagine. I have yet to read a personal narrative on the Holocaust, including my father’s, that fully describes the atrocities that the survivors experienced. These atrocities were so horrible, so unimaginable, that most of the survivors cannot even utter the words, much less write them down for all the world to see. It would also make reading their stories too difficult for us to bear.
Abe’s Story, however, is not a story of doom and despair. It does not focus on the atrocities. Abe’s Story is a story of hope, and of human potential. It is a story of Life. With this thought, I leave you to read the synopsis with excerpts from my father’s story.
I hope you will choose to order your own copy of Abe’s Story today.
— Joseph Korn
Konnilyn Feig, Hitler’s Death Camps (New York: Holmes & Meier Publishers, 1979) 335.
Harry Figgie, Jr., Bankruptcy 1995: The Coming Collapse of America and How to Stop It, (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1992).
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