Category Archives: Documentary/Historical Video

Holocaust Survivor Testimony: Urbach & Schindler, Goodkin & Wallenberg, 2014

Yom HaShoah 2014
Holocaust Remembrance

During the Holocaust, with its Nazi-sponsored, systematic persecution and genocide of the Jews, there were some people who risked their own lives to protect Jews and to save them. Sometimes, as in the case of Oskar Schindler, the subject of Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-winning film Schindler’s List (from Australian author Thomas Keneally’s award-winning novel Schindler’s Ark), the person is relatively well known to many of us. In other instances, such as that of Raoul Wallenberg, who disappeared during the War, most probably taken by the Nazis and executed, the people who saved Jews are not as familiar. It is then that we must rely on Survivor Testimony to learn about some of those who did risk everything to help save the European Jews.

Sol Urbach
saved by
Oskar Schindler

Oskar Schindler

Oskar Schindler

 

Sol Urbach was born in Poland in 1925. He was one of the Jews that were protected and rescued by Oskar Schindler in Cracow and then in Plaszow (from Yad Vashem Holocaust Testimonies).

Based on a true story, Schindler’s List is Steven Spielberg’s epic drama of World War II Holocaust survivors and the man who unexpectedly came to be their savior. Unrepentant womanizer and war profiteer Oskar Schindler uses Polish Jews as cheap labor to produce cookware for the Third Reich. But after witnessing the violent liquidation of the walled ghetto where the Krakow Jews have been forced to live, Schindler (Liam Neeson) slowly begins to realize the immense evil of Nazism. When his employees are sent to a work camp, they come under the terrorizing reign of sadistic Nazi Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes). With the help of his accountant, Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley), Schindler creates a list of “essential” Jews. Bribing Goeth, Schindler manages to get 1,100 people released from the camp and brought to the safety of his munitions factory in Czechoslovakia. Spielberg’s glorious film is wondrously evocative, visually stunning, and emotionally stirring (from Schindler’s List website).

If you haven’t seen the film, I urge you to do so.

Vera Goodkin
saved by
Raoul Wallenberg

Raoul Wallenberg

Raoul Wallenberg

 

Vera Goodkin was born in Hradec Kralove, Czechoslovakia in 1930. Her family fled to Hungary, where after the German occupation they were protected by Raoul Wallenberg. Vera Goodkin remembers her father’s meeting with Wallenberg. (from Yad Vashem Holocaust Histories)

You can read about others who saved Jews during the Holocaust at Yad Vashem’s Righteous Among the Nations, sometimes referred to as “Righteous Gentiles,” and at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) sites, among those featured are Oskar Schindler and Raoul Wallenberg.

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Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) 2015, with Three Poems from Where Lightning Strikes

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Photographic Introduction to the Holocaust

Rare Historical Holocaust Photos

Holocaust Timeline and Overview

Holocaust Days of Remembrance

Learn about The Holocaust on USHMM
(United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)

For more information on the Holocaust database
or to fill out Pages of Testimony, visit
Yad Vashem‘s Central Database of Shoah Victims

Share

Leave a Comment

Filed under Books, Documentary/Historical Video, E-books, Free Books, GiveAway, History, Holocaust, Memoir, Movies/Films

Holocaust Survivor Testimony: Zanne & The Twins, 2014

Yom HaShoah
International Holocaust Memorial Day
Monday 28 April 2014

When young Israelis first began learning about the Holocaust, many of them couldn’t relate to the victims. The young generation, raised in the newly established state of Israel, among survivors, who swore “Never Again,” felt that the European Jews had been “led to the [Nazi] slaughter like lambs.” It was then that the activities of the partisans, the members of the Underground, the Resistance, and the Ghetto Uprisings were included in the teaching and remembrance of the Holocaust. Also, Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust History Museum, began collecting oral histories from the survivors, which seemed to resonate more intimately with younger people. Many of them learned, for the first time, that people their own ages had been sent to concentration camps and extermination camps like Auschwitz. Here are two of the stories.

Zanne Farbstein

Zanne Farbstein was 16 years old when she was deported with her two younger sisters to Auschwitz. While working as a slave laborer, Zanne found her father’s prayer shawl while sorting through the clothing of the prisoners who had been murdered in the camp. Zanne survived Auschwitz , and moved to Israel with her few surviving family members, where she began a new life. (from Yad Vashem)

Twin Survivors,
Iudit and Lia

Identical twin sisters Iudit Barnea and Lia Huber (nées Tchengar) were born in 1937 in the town of Şimleul Silvaniei (Szilagysomlyo), Transylvania. In 1940, Transylvania was annexed to Hungary, and in June 1942 their father Zvi was taken to a forced labor unit on the Russian front.  Miraculously, both twins survived. (from Yad Vashem)

Please join me and millions of others this Yom HaShoah, as well as the days before and after, remembering the victims, the activists, and the survivors of the Holocaust. Share their stories so that the past does not die with them. Remind others of the atrocities and the genocide of The Holocaust so that it can never happen again, anywhere. At 11:00 a.m. Monday 28 April, stand and observe the two minutes of silence in reflection and devotion.

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For a Photographic Introduction to the Holocaust, visit my Pinterest Board

Learn about The Holocaust on USHMM
(United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)

For more information on the database or
to fill out Pages of Testimony, visit
Yad Vashem‘s Central Database of Shoah Victims

Share

Leave a Comment

Filed under Books, Documentary/Historical Video, E-books, Free Books, GiveAway, History, Holocaust, Memoir, Movies/Films

Holocaust Survivor Testimony: Yad Vashem & Elie Wiesel, 2014

Yom HaShoah
International Holocaust Memorial Day

Yad Vashem Yom HaShoah, 2012

Once again, the world prepares for Yom HaShoah (The Catastrophe, or The Utter Destruction) in memory of all the Jews who were killed during the Holocaust, of all the survivors, as well as those who fought against the Nazis: the partisans, the Members of the Underground, those in the Ghettos who fought, and the Righteous Gentiles who saved Jews. At 11:00 a.m. in Israel, sirens will sound for two minutes, and around the world, Jews and others will stand in silence for reflection, meditation, and devotion.

We must never let The Holocaust happen again. Not to the Jews. Not to any group of people based on their ethnicity, their religious beliefs, or the color of their skin. We must actively fight against intolerance and bigotry. We must prevent genocide. How can we do that if we do not actively remember what the Nazis did to the bulk of the European Jews between 1932 and 1945?

Jewish women and children from the Ukraine, just before they entered the gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Photographer unknown.

Some people do not know that the persecution started long before the War. The Nazis were not peaceful and friendly with the Jews one day, then gassing them and putting them in crematorium ovens the next. It was a gradual process: identification, segregation, loss of property, loss of employment, deportation, isolation, death from starvation and work, then systematic extermination. At each step, others had to stand by, silently, passively, and permit such persecution. At each stage, whole groups of people and entire countries gave the Nazis permission by not actively opposing them.

images-5

It has now been 71 years since the end of the War and the Liberation of the Concentration Camps, 84 years since Hitler was elected to power and began to slowly implement his anti-Semitic policies against the Jews. Soon, there will be no survivors left to remind the living that The Holocaust was real; it did happen; it is not a fairy tale created by anyone.

Yad Vashem, The History of the Holocaust Museum in Israel, has gathered many stories of survivors, taping them so that we may remember. So that The Holocaust may never happen again. In preparation for Yom HaShoah, I watched some of the survivors’ stories. I want to share some with you.

yomhashoah-257x300

Yad Vashem
Holocaust History Museum

Yad Vashem’s world famous Holocaust History Museum is a prism-like triangular structure that penetrates the mountain from one side to the other, with both ends dramatically cantilevering into the open air. An experiential dimension was integrated into the museum’s design, giving visitors an overall impression of the time, place and atmosphere. Inside the museum, a series of diagonal channels cut in the floor of the walkway (prism) guides the visitor into each of the eight-meter high underground galleries depicting different chapters of the Shoah. The gently sloping floor and narrowing prism enhances the changing narrative, creating the illusion of descending deep into the mountain. Different aspects of the Holocaust are reflected through the use of original artifacts, documentation, testimonies, film, literature, diaries, letters, and works of art (from Yad Vashem). Virtual Tour

Elie Wiesel

78f8522d9276c237093ad30280153a8c

Elie Wiesel — recipient of the Nobel Prize for Peace,  Human Rights Activist, and renowned author — was 15 when the Nazis deported him, along with his family, from their home in Transylvania to Auschwitz. Losing both his parents and younger sister in the Holocaust, Elie Wiesel has made it his lifelong goal to teach the world about the Holocaust. In the video he commemorates his father by filling out a Page of Testimony for Yad Vashem’s Central Database of Shoah Victims’ Names. By filling out a Page for his father, who perished in Buchenwald concentration camp shortly before liberation, Elie Wiesel added his father to the millions of Holocaust victims commemorated by family and friends. Through the Pages of Testimony the victims names and identities are restored, that which the Nazis and their collaborators had tried to erase forever (from Yad Vashem Holocaust Histories). Elie Wiesel commemorates his father.

Please join me and millions of others this Yom HaShoah, as well as the days before and after, remembering the victims, the activists, and the survivors of the Holocaust.

c

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For a Photographic Introduction to the Holocaust, visit my Pinterest Board

Learn about The Holocaust on USHMM
(United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)

For more information on the database or
to fill out Pages of Testimony, visit
Yad Vashem‘s Central Database of Shoah Victims

Share

Leave a Comment

Filed under Books, Documentary/Historical Video, E-books, Free Books, GiveAway, History, Holocaust, Memoir, Movies/Films

Anna’s Tattoo

For Anna Brunn Ornstein

Anna Brunn

Anna Brunn

From the age of five to almost 30, I dreamt I was in a Nazi Concentration Camp, and that I died there. I would wake — screaming aloud, sometimes weeping, shaking and disoriented. The older I got, the more often the nightmares came until, finally, I asked, “What am I supposed to do with these dreams?” The answer came immediately: “Write about the Holocaust.”

Despite its being kept a secret, I had known my family was Jewish since I was 8, when I asked my Great-Grandfather Hirsch. All the Hirsch daughters attended Catholic schools. All their children and grandchildren did the same. We were all baptized, attended Mass every day (that’s how Catholic schools started when I was young: with Mass), learned our Catechism, and never ever talked about being Jewish or about the Holocaust. I didn’t even know what that word meant. When I was older, I learned that my Great-Grandparents had paid for everyone in the family to go to Catholic schools, to protect us from the rampant anti-Semitism that existed in America in the 1950’s & 1960’s.

It didn’t work.

Despite my coloring — every member of the family had strawberry-blonde hair and green eyes, as well as “the famous Hirsch nose,” as everyone referred to it each time a new baby was born into the family — my classmates mercilessly called me “Yid” and “Kike” from the first grade. When I walked home from school every day, I had to pass my Great-Grandfather’s corner grocery, which was on the same block where my mother, divorced with 4 young children, lived in a house owned by her parents. I loved my Great-Grandfather more than anyone else in my family, so every day I stopped by his store.

“What’s a ‘Yid’?” I said once, after a particularly brutal and distressing day in second grade.
Grandpa Hirsch came around from behind the counter, knelt before me, and wiped my face, though I’d long stopped crying.
“Somebody called you a ‘Yid’?”
“What’s it mean?”
“It’s short for ‘Yiddish’.”
“What’s Yiddish?”
“It’s a German dialect. What Grandma and I talk to each other.”
“What’s a ‘Kike’?”
“That,” said Grandpa Hirsch, handing me a piece of my favorite candy, “I do not know.”
“Why do the kids at school keep calling me that?”
“Because sometimes you say Yiddish words.”
“Is that bad?”
“Not in my opinion.”

Did I know then which words I said that were Yiddish? No. Did I know then that Yiddish was a Jewish dialect of German? Of course not. Our family never spoke of such things. Despite the fact that Grandpa Hirsch closed his store every Saturday and opened it on Sundays — in an era of the so-called “Blue Laws,” when no businesses whatsoever were permitted to operate on Sundays. In fact, I always feared that the local policemen who walked the neighborhood and who invariably stopped by his store on Sundays for fresh coffee and my Grandma Hirsch’s pastries would arrest my Grandpa for breaking the Blue Laws. They never did, of course, and they always seemed to be chatting genially and laughing with Grandpa, who had a wicked sense of humor, whenever I went to the store on Sundays to make sure he was safe.

“But why do you stay open on Sundays when it’s against the law?” I said almost weekly.
“Somebody has to be open,” said Grandpa. “Everything else is closed on Sundays.”
“Is that why you take Saturdays off?”
“I’ll take Saturday as my Sabbath,” he would always say, “since everyone else takes Sunday.”

Eventually, somehow, I figured out what the elaborate Friday night suppers meant, what Yiddish really was, and why Grandpa and Grandma Hirsch’s Sabbath was on Saturday instead of on Sunday, when everyone else was off work and went to church.  (My Grandparents never attended Mass: they were working in the store. It seemed reasonable to everyone in the family at the time.)

When I was 8, the only thing I wanted for Christmas as a chess-set, having learned the game from my mother’s boyfriend, who eventually became my step-father and then my adopted father (when I was 15). It was no accident that my Grandpa & Grandma Hirsch gave me the chess-set for Christmas. Grandpa treated me as a favorite: he was the only one who cared that I wanted to be a writer and listened to my stories, he always remembered my favorite candies without my having to remind him (though he gave all of us children far more candy than our pennies or nickels could have actually purchased), and, from the time I was small, I believed he was the only person in my entire family who actually loved me. So, when I opened the Christmas present to reveal my first chess-set — still in my possession almost 50 years later — and looked up in excitement at his happy, grinning face, I was naïvely astonished that he knew I liked chess.

“Grandpa, how did you know this was the only thing in the world that I really wanted?”
“A little angel whispered it in my ear,” he said, tapping his shoulder.
“An angel?” I said. “Aren’t we Jewish? Do Jews believe in angels?”
He patted me on the head.
“Such a clever little girl we have.”
“Who’s a clever little girl?” said Grandma Hirsch from behind me, her hands on my shoulders as she kissed me on top of the head. “And why is she so clever?”
“Because she just asked me if we were Jewish.”

Grandma Hirsch dragged me over to the dining room table, looking very frightened. Grandpa followed. She knelt down in front of me and, still holding on to me tightly, glanced around the family gathering in their home before whispering.
“If anyone ever asks you if you’re Jewish,” she said, “you must say, ‘I was baptized and I go to Catholic schools.’ You understand?”
I nodded, not knowing why she seemed so distressed and frightened.
“Are you Jewish?” she said.
“Yes.”
“No,” she said. “You were baptized and you go to Catholic schools. Are you Jewish?”
“I was baptized… and go to Catholic schools.”
“Good girl,” said Grandma, kissing me on the forehead before she hugged me.
“You see?” said Grandpa, messing my hair in that nice way he always did. “I told you she was clever.”

The rest of my family didn’t consider me so clever. They said I was “obsessed with being Jewish,” only they said it in the same hateful way my classmates called me “Yid” and “Kike,” often using the same anti-Semitic terms. Though everyone in our family used Yiddish words and phrases, though everyone acknowledged that Grandpa and Grandma Hirsch were German and that all the rest of their family had remained in Germany, and though everyone said we all had “The Hirsch Nose” — whatever that meant — no one ever admitted that we were Jewish. Most, eventually, probably never realized it.

Yet I still kept dreaming that I was in the Nazi Concentration Camps, and every night I died there. As the years passed, I noticed that my Grandma Hirsch often cried to herself, alone, in the kitchen, but if I found her there and asked her what was wrong, she always said, “Nothing. Go play.” I realized that Grandpa Hirsch had an air of grief that no one else seemed to notice. If they did notice it, they never acknowledged it. Once, I asked Grandpa why he was always so sad, despite his jokes and his laughter around other people. He sighed.

“Because so many bad things happen in the world.”

How could I have possibly known that he meant the Holocaust? How could I have known that he and my Grandmother had lost every other single member of their family — all of whom were in Germany — between the years 1940-1945? No one else would even admit that we were Jewish, my Grandma insisted that I must keep it a secret, and eventually, most of my family even forgot that we were Jewish, calling me crazy or obsessed whenever I insisted that we were.

So, about ten years after my Grandpa Hirsch died, when I had long lost contact with my abusive parents and siblings, when the nightmares of dying in the Nazi Concentration Camps increased to the point that they were waking me every single night, when I asked myself and the Universe, “What am I supposed to do with these dreams?” and the Universe answered, “Write,” that is what I decided to do.

I was already a writer — a poet, specifically — with many poems published in prestigious literary and university journals, working on Ph.D.’s in English and Comparative Literatures, and in Creative Writing. So that was what my dreams were telling me, I thought to myself in the dark in the middle of the night: I’m supposed to write about the Holocaust.

It was then that I realized that I knew nothing about it.

Beyond knowing that the Nazis had perpetrated this genocide against the European Jews during World War II, I knew nothing about the Holocaust. We had never studied the Holocaust in the Catholic schools I attended as a child nor in the history classes I took in college. I had never read Holocaust literature or, to the best of my knowledge, seen any films — documentary or otherwise — about the Concentration Camps, the Nazis, or the Holocaust. (My step-father watched World War II movies when he wasn’t watching football, but those John Wayne/Dirty Dozen-movies were always about the soldiers and how they’d beaten or escaped from the terrible Germans, who were Nazis. Those movies were never about the Holocaust and what had happened to the Jews. They were adventure/action movies about  the American heroes who ended the war, or about the American POW-heroes who outwitted the mostly dimwitted German-Nazis.  [My father was a huge fan of the television series “Hogan’s Heroes.”] The movies and shows he watched were never, ever about the Jews or the Holocaust.)

What I read while researching the Holocaust so that I could write about it did more than depress me: I found myself crying to the point of grieving. I was unable to do anything else but think of the Holocaust, the Jews, my lost heritage, and my poor Great-Grandparents. Yet none of the books or films or memoirs answered some of my most important questions.

That’s when I decided to find survivors and ask them if I could talk to them about the Holocaust and their experiences.

That’s when I met Anna Ornstein, who was in Auschwitz when she was only 16 years old.

Anna Brunn

Anna Brunn

I got her name and professional address from one of my dissertation advisers, who had heard her speak on the Holocaust. She and her husband Paul, also a survivor, lived in Cincinnati, where I was working on my Ph.D. I sent them a copy of my first — and at that time, my only — Holocaust poem: Cutthroat: A Player Who Plays For Himself. In the accompanying card, I told them I had questions about the Holocaust and wondered if I could talk to them. Anna called me right after she and Paul read the poem. She asked what camp I’d been in.

Paul Ornstein on his bike, going to see his girlfriend Anna Brunn

Paul Ornstein on his bike, going to see his girlfriend Anna Brunn

The Ornsteins both thought I was a survivor myself. (Part of that might have been due to my adopted father’s last name: his parents came from Hungary during the war, and Anna, Hungarian herself, recognized the name. She and her her husband Paul are the only ones who’ve ever pronounced it correctly without being told how to say it.)

Anna Brunn and Paul Ornstein

Anna Brunn and Paul Ornstein

Because Anna wanted to know as much from me about myself and creative writing as I wanted to know about the Holocaust from her, we decided to meet. She was fascinated in how I could have made her believe that I had been in a Nazi Concentration Camp, how I could have known some of the things I’d written in my poems if I’d never been there. I wanted to ask her about things I couldn’t find answers to in books. It took more than one meeting. It took more than a few months. It took years. What began as a common interest in examining the Holocaust, on my part, and understanding how artists create, on her part, developed into a life-long friendship. She and her husband Paul, who had escaped Auschwitz and survived the War with the Partisans in the woods surrounding the infamous extermination camp, welcomed me into their home, their hearts, their lives. They told me everything about themselves and their families – before, during, and after the war. They discussed moral issues surrounding the Holocaust. They introduced me to other survivors.

They read everything I ever wrote.

They reminded me of my Grandpa Hirsch, only without having to hide the fact that they were Jewish.

Anna Brunn Ornstein and her friend Lili Gluck

Anna Brunn Ornstein and her friend Lili Gluck

Eventually my poems on the Holocaust became so long that editors at the journals where I submitted the poems began to write me notes on the bottom of the rejection slips: “Are you sure you’re not writing fiction?” and “Is this supposed to be a short story or a part of a novel?” and, after I submitted a 32-page single-spaced poem, “Our journal is only 50 pages long…”

“Maybe I should write a novel about the Holocaust,” I said to myself one day, realizing that I had so many moral issues still to explore about it.

As soon as I thought that, I heard the voice of The Kommandant, from a poem I’d written (originally, a very bad short story) during grad school, about a Nazi Kommandant who forces a Jewish inmate with whom be becomes obsessed to be his “mistress.” I heard the Kommandant, who had no name up to that point, say, “Tell my story.” At the same instant, I heard the voice of the girl saying, “You can’t tell his story without telling mine.” And I saw a vision of the book I would write.

(By the way, I don’t know how that happens. It’s one of the mysteries of my art that I have never attempted to figure out, but this is what it’s like: I’m in a dark, unfamiliar room. For one instant, there is a flash of lightning which illuminates that room. In that moment, I see everything in the room, know most of its history, and understand something about it. Then the room goes dark again. My job then is to re-create, in words, that momentary vision. And that is the most difficult work I have ever done in my life.)

Throughout the writing of the book which would eventually become The Kommandant’s Mistress, I had many questions to which I could not find answers in my sources, primary or secondary, or from other survivors. Whenever that happened, I turned to Anna.

Paul & Ann Ornstein (L) celebrate a wedding with their best friends Lucy & Steve Hornstein

Paul & Ann Ornstein (L) celebrate a wedding with their best friends Lucy & Steve Hornstein

One of the most important questions I had while writing the novel involved the numbers the Nazis had tattooed on the arms of the Auschwitz inmates. These tattooed numbers, visible on the inner left forearms of many survivors, originated in Auschwitz, designed specifically as an Extermination camp rather than as a Concentration Camp.

Auschwitz was not meant to “detain” Jewish inmates for extended periods of time. It was built as part of the Nazi’s “Final Solution to the Jewish Problem” — said “problem” being how to eliminate all Jews from Europe and other Nazi-occupied territories. It was constructed with the sole aim of killing Jews as efficiently and quickly as possible. By gassing them, en masse, mostly upon arrival,  with Zyklon B: cyanide-pellets that turned to gas when exposed to air, designed to exterminate rodents, a term by which the Nazis had long referred to the Jews.

Not all the Jews arriving at Auschwitz were immediately killed, however. It seems the Nazis needed the Jewish labor for the war effort. By the time Auschwitz was operating at its highest capacity, Germany was losing the war. As its martial defeats increased, so did the Nazi escalation of eliminating the Jewish population in its occupied territories. Hitler’s rabid obsession with the Jews, and Nazi anti-Semitic attempts to exterminate the entire Jewish population in all of Europe, Russia, Greece, and any other Nazi-occupied territories, directly corresponded in escalation with Germany’s defeats and loss of territory in the War.

Thus, in 1944, when Anna, her family, her future husband Paul, his family, and other Hungarian Jews were deported to Auschwitz, the extermination camp was operating at what was probably its highest capacity: 450,000 Hungarian Jews were killed in about five weeks. The remainder were interned there, to be worked, starved, beaten, and tortured to death. Unless the Kommandant of Auschwitz was in one of his more playful moods. At such times, he would order all the inmates to line up in groups of five – zu fünf – and arbirtrarily shoot every tenth, or fifth, or umteenth one, until he got bored and trotted away on his famously beautiful white horse.

It was in Auschwitz that the practice of tattooing inmates began. These random, meaningless numbers were not a way to identify and keep track of the Jewish inmates, though the Jews believed that they were, but a way to further insult, degrade, and dehumanize them. These tattoos also mocked the Jewish beliefs: the origin of the traditional Jewish prohibition of tattooing seems to be in Leviticus 19:28: “You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead, or incise any marks on yourselves; I am the Lord.” Tattooing may have been considered idolatry or part of pagan practices, which the Torah forbids.

Of course, some Jews have always gotten tattoos. Ilse Koch, wife of  Karl-Otto Koch, the Kommandant of the Nazi Concentration Camps Buchenwald (1937-1941) and Majdanek (1941-1943), and one of the first prominent Nazis put on trial by the American Military, harvested Jewish tattoos, selecting interesting tattoos, having those Jews killed, and the tattoos cut away from the bodies; she is rumored to have said tattoos made into lampshades and other decorative items. Additionally, there are photographs of Auschwitz inmates’ tattoos, considered attractive or unusual by the notorious “Angel of Death,” Dr. Josef Mengele, who requested that these photographs be taken for him. One such tattoo that Mengele wished to have photographed was of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. (Later in his life, the Nazi photographer claimed he was “forced” to take the picture, and that he “regretted it.”) It is assumed that the Jewish inmate with that tattoo either died as a result of Mengele’s experimentation upon him, or in the gas chambers after the photo was taken.

When I was writing the scene where the female protagonist, Rachel, is getting tattooed in the unidentified Auschwitz-like camp, I had not yet gotten my first tattoo (which I would get at age 47), so I did not know what it felt like. Anna Ornstein has two numbers tattooed on her inner left forearm. I called her to ask about what getting a tattoo felt like.

“I don’t remember,” she said.
“Does it hurt?”
“I don’t know. I felt so happy those days we were tattooed that I simply don’t remember what it felt like.”
“You felt happy?”
“We thought it meant we would survive. We weren’t registered anywhere, so we thought they were identifying us with tattoos to keep track of us. I remember the sun was shining, birds were singing, and I was happy.”
“Why do you have two numbers?”
“They told us they got the numbers wrong the first day,” said Anna, “so they had to do they again the second day. To get the numbers right.”
“But the numbers were meaningless.”
“We didn’t know that, so I was happy. Besides,” she said, “we thought, ‘Even the Germans wouldn’t be stupid enough to go through all this trouble and then kill us all’.”

Anna went all along the line of tattoo artists until she found a girl who was doing very neat, small tattoos on the inmates’ inner left forearms. (Some inmates’ numbers are very large, stretching along the entire length of their forearms. Some numbers start on the inside of the inmates’ forearms before continuing on the back, down to their wrists.) Anna complimented the girl who was doing the small, neat tattoos on her work. The girl was flattered. Anna’s original tattoo — B-71 — if done under any other circumstances, could be called tasteful or even attractive. (Having had it so long, Anna simply considers it “part of [her] body.”) The next day, when they were ordered to get an additional tattoo — Anna returned to the same girl, complimenting her again and requesting that she be the one who did Anna’s next tattoo. The B was crossed out. An A, supposedly for their barracks though Anna was not in Barracks A but in Barracks B, was put before the original B. The number 200 was put above the previous 71. Anna’s number was, supposedly, technically, A-20071, but it ended up looking like this (I’m not sure of the type of line used to cross out the B, so I have not put it in):

         200
A-B-71

In the seven years I’d spent researching the Holocaust, first for my poems, then for my novel, I had never been able to find any information on the tattoos, other than the fact that some Jews had them and some did not, and some photographs of them, like this one:

Partial Photo Mural of Auschwitz Survivors displaying their tattoos (On permanent display at the United State Holocaust Museum)

Partial Photo Mural of Auschwitz Survivors displaying their tattoos (On permanent display at the United State Holocaust Museum)

Anna’s story was so unlike anything I expected to hear that I put her story about the tattoo, exactly as she told it to me, into the novel (when Rachel is getting tattooed).

World War II ended 67 years ago. The Nazi Concentration and Extermination Camps were liberated 67-68 years ago. Soon there will be no Holocaust survivors left to tell their own stories. Only those of us who knew them, and their own family members will be able to tell their stories. Eventually, however, the Holocaust will, inevitably, become part of the “distant past,” existing only in art.

Some children and grandchildren, in an effort to preserve their family members’ stories, have had the numbers of their loved ones tattooed into their own arms. Some oppose this; some approve. I believe that we each must choose our own ways of remembering the Holocaust and reminding others that this kind of hatred and genocide still exist, against Jews as well as against other ethnic or religious minorities.

I have written two books on the Holocaust, telling the stories of the survivors, the victims, the perpetrators, and the observers who stood by and permitted it to happen. In addition to telling the story of Anna’s tattoo in The Kommandant’s Mistress, I wrote the story of her mother’s and her time in Auschwitz — based on all the stories she told me over the years —  in the poem “Sofie and Anna,” which appears in Where Lightning Strikes.

This year, I decided to go another step toward Remembering and Reminding others about the Holocaust. Yesterday, with Anna’s blessing and permission, I had her Auschwitz numbers tattooed on my inner left forearm, along with the transliterated Hebrew words Yizkor (Remember) and Zachor (Remind).

My intention is to tell everyone who asks what it means Anna’s story and the story of the Holocaust. Until the day I die. After that, if I am lucky, I will be able to continue to tell the story through my books.

Already, however, I know I made the right decision, getting Anna’s numbers tattooed, along with Yizkor and Zachor, on my inner left forearm.

Because of what happened at the tattoo shop.

Of the three younger people (aged 33, 27, and 26) working at the shop where I got my tattoo, only one knew what the Holocaust was: the oldest. She’d asked what I wanted to get as a tattoo while I was filling out the required paperwork, awaiting the tattoo artist on duty that day. When I showed her and told her what it was, she said, “Oh, my god, that is so incredibly awesome and wonderful of you. Tell me about Anna.”

I did.

The young man who did the tattoo did not know what my intended tattoo meant. When I told him Anna had survived the Holocaust and those were her Auschwitz numbers, he said, “What’s the Holocaust?” (Apparently, it is still not taught in many schools, at any level.) He wanted to hear Anna’s entire story before he did the tattoo. Then he spent hours, literally, preparing the tattoo (it’s drawn on transfer paper, pressed onto the skin, and everything “approved” before tattooing begins, since, once done, it can’t be undone). In fact, the actual tattoo took less than fifteen minutes. It took so long to prepare, he told me, because he wanted it to be as “respectful” as possible, and to be as “beautiful” as he could possibly make it, considering what it originally represented.

When he put the transfer on my inner arm, I got emotional.
“Don’t get emotional on me,” he said, “or I’ll get emotional and I won’t be able to see what I’m doing.”

Afterward, with a catch in his voice, he asked if I would please tell Anna how honored he was to have been chosen (even if by fate) to have done “her” tattoo. I told him that I would tell her as soon as I got home. He shook my hand several times, thanking me for telling him Anna’s story. He also told me that he has had many Jewish customers come in for tattoos, usually for a Star of David. He said he will tell every one who comes in about my tattoo as well as about Anna’s story. He said he also intends to read up on the Holocaust.

When I went to pay, I was charged much less than the price I was originally quoted. I asked why. The other young man in the store said he was told to give me the largest discount they offer, for that tattoo and for any other tattoo I ever have done. He then asked to see it. He asked what it was. The young girl told him.

He said, “What’s the Holocaust?”
“You love history,” she said, “but you don’t know about the Holocaust?”
“I know it happened during World War II. I guess I better read up on it.”
Then he asked me to tell him Anna’s story.
Afterward, he, too, shook my hand and thanked me.

I know some Jews fiercely object to having the numbers of Holocaust survivors tattooed on a child’s, grandchild’s, or friend’s inner left forearm. Some famous survivors have spoken publicly against it. The Internet is filled with debate on the “trend,” as it is sometimes derogatorily called, and the debate seems equally divided for and against people having the numbers of their loved ones tattooed on their own arms in order to tell the story of the Holocaust. There are others, too — non-Jews — who oppose this practice: some state their reasons, some do not.

But already, by having my friend Anna’s Auschwitz numbers tattooed on my inner left forearm, along with Yizkor and Zachor, I have accomplished what I wished. One young girl who knew about the Holocaust learned Anna’s story. Two young men who knew about World War II but nothing else, learned about Anna and about the Holocaust itself. All three are determined to share that story with others.

My tattoo, with Anna’s blessing & permission, of Anna’s Auschwitz numbers, followed by the transliterated Hebrew words YIZKOR (Remember) and ZACHOR (Remind)

This is how we will help keep the Holocaust from becoming the “distant past” that can “never happen again” — by telling the story, over and over and over. By making it personal. By emotionally involving others so that they, too, feel compelled to tell it. Perhaps, by continuing to tell the stories, in every way we can, we can make a difference.

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Photographic Introduction to the Holocaust

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Plague in the USA

On Saturday 23 June 2012, my boyfriend and I were thrown back into the Middle Ages when two of our cats were diagnosed with Bubonic Plague. Yes, the Bubonic Plague.  Known as the “Black Death” during the Middle Ages because it kills the body from the inside, turning the skin tissue necrotic, making the skin black. Official medical term: Yersinia Pestis. Diagnosis: death, unless immediately treated with antibiotics. As we stood there in disbelief, we wondered what century we were in.

It had seemed to start the night before, when we noticed that our Apricot Siamese, Ling, hadn’t eaten or drunk all day. Furthermore, she was hiding under the dresser. When I pulled her out, she was hot to the touch and clearly dehydrated: the skin of her neck where I’d scruffed her remained standing, a sign of dehydration. Also, she was silent: a warning sign with any Siamese, who talk to people and to other cats simply because they love to talk, and especially with Ling, who seems to love the sound of her voice so much that she talks even when she jumps off the bed. To no one. Just for fun. As the vet’s office was already closed for the day, I left a message that we would be bringing Ling in first thing in the morning, told them her symptoms, and went to bed worried – not having any idea what was wrong with her.

The next morning, about an hour before the vet opened, I was looking for all the cats – as I always do when leaving the house or upon coming home – and I couldn’t find our youngest, Sophie. She didn’t come when I called, as we’ve trained all our cats to do. They don’t always answer when they come, it’s true, but when you call, they come and sit so you can see them. She didn’t come out from wherever she was sleeping. She hadn’t come out to eat breakfast: the one time of the day they get any canned food. I wasn’t able to find her in any of her hiding places. My boyfriend and I began to panic.

Had she gotten out the front door somehow the night before without our noticing? Since we live on a mountain in the Rockies where wild animals prevent our going out in the dark, this would have been her death sentence. There are bears, lions, cougars, bobcats, coyotes, foxes, and owls here, any one of which will eat cats or dogs. There are no stray animals on this mountain. In the four years we have lived in this house, we have never seen a single stray, though we have seen bobcats, coyotes, and a bear, all of which were in our own front yard.

We have a covered kennel attached to the house, and the cats can go out into it, but they cannot go anywhere. They cannot roam. (We think the kennel would keep out most of the wild animals except bears, but if any other animal approached the kennel, the cats would come running back into the house through the cat-door, and if a bear – the only animal which could conceivably tear the kennel apart – tried to then get into the house by tearing apart the wall around the cat-door, we would be on the phone to 9-1-1 since all our lives would then be in danger.) I went outside and looked at the kennel, thinking Sophie was hiding behind the small doghouse in its corner which serves as their “club-house”. No Sophie.

After another half-hour’s increasingly desperate searching, I finally found her. Under my boyfriend’s dresser – a place she’d never been before – curled up in a fetal position in the corner. Unresponsive. I pulled her out. She was hot to the touch. On her jawline was an abscess – or so I thought. She would also need to visit the vet to antibiotics and a thorough cleaning of the abscess. The fever, however, surprised me.

Still, being used to having cats who occasionally wrestle and kick each other with their hind claws, leaving an abscess, and having been taught, years ago, by the vets how to clean and take care of one, I attempted to at least get the pus and blood out of Sophie’s abscess before taking her to the vet, along with Ling, who was listlessly lying on the bed.

When I picked Sophie up, she fought so hard that I dropped her. She’d never done that before. Instead of running away after she’d struggled to get loose, however, she just lay there on the floor. Very odd. She fought hard enough that I dropped her but then didn’t run away? I had my boyfriend hold her while I gently pressed a warm, wet cloth to the abscess. She fought so violently and repeatedly that both of us were seriously scratched, to the point of bleeding rather profusely and being bruised around the scratches. Another anomaly. Not just for Sophie, but for any of our cats. Usually, when I take care of one of the cats’ abscesses, they lie there and purr since the moist warmth keeps the abscess from closing, helping it drain, and relieving any pain it might cause them. Also, I think it makes them feel pampered since they soon come to look forward to it.

Though I noted that Sophie’s abscess seemed to be near a lymph-node, and that she seemed to have other swollen lymph-nodes, my first thought was not that she had Bubonic Plague – never would that have entered my mind. No, my initial reaction was that I had to clean the abscess myself, before the vet opened, so that the pus would not drain into her immune system through her lymph-nodes and spread an infection throughout her body.

Who knew?

We put both of the cats in crates and headed for the vet. Our regular vet doesn’t work on Saturday, so we saw one who had never treated our animals. She examined Ling first. A fever. Dehydration. Nothing else she could detect. She said she had to take a blood sample any time a cat had a fever because of the serious nature of fevers in cats. We asked what the possibilities were. She tried to reassure us by not telling us, advising us to wait till the blood results came back. As the assistant took Ling to the back for the blood draw, and the vet took Sophie out of the next crate, we found ourselves longing for our regular vet, who not only communicates with us as if we are capable of understanding everything she says – even the Latin medical terms – but treats us with respect, as “parents” rather than as simply “owners” of a sick animal.

As soon as this other vet pulled Sophie from the crate, she shrieked, released her, and virtually ran to the wall, grabbing rubber gloves and a paper-mask for her nose and mouth. She also barked at the assistant to put them on, which the assistant hesitantly and very slowly did. The vet opened the examining room door that led to the back surgery/treatment room and yelled at the assistant who was drawing Ling’s blood to don gloves and mask. Then she cautiously returned to the examining table, where I was holding poor little Sophie in my scratched arms, her bloody, abscessed chin resting on my cut forearm. The vet lifted Sophie’s chin to see the abscess I’d cleaned. Behind her mask, to our bewildered astonishment, she began to giggle.

“Oh, my god, it’s a bubo,” she said. “I’ve never seen one in real life. Only in pictures. Look: it’s a bubo.”

“A bubo?” I said.

“Yes,” she said, still giggling annoyingly (okay, it may have been nervousness, but my boyfriend and I were both incredibly unhappy with her behavior and vowed never to let anyone but our regular vet see our pets again).

“A bubo?”

“Yes, bubo is from Bubonic Plague…”

“I know what a bubo is,” I said. “The Middle Ages was one of the periods I studied in school.”

“This cat has Bubonic Plague. That’s a bubo that’s burst.”

Her entire demeanor then changed. She talked about death – of both cats there with us – and possible infection of all the other cats at home since Sophie, as the sickest, must have been infectious for days, passing the Plague onto Ling through grooming, and now both were severely contagious.

“You mean the other cats might have the Plague?” I said.

“They might,” she said, “but I’m more worried about the two of you. Look how many deep scratches you have. And you, you cleaned the bubo. Were you wearing gloves?”

She then yelled at me for not wearing plastic gloves while cleaning what I thought was an abscess, while my boyfriend and I stood there, dazed, not sure we were hearing her correctly. Meanwhile, she  told us that both Ling and Sophie had the symptoms of Bubonic Plague; they had to have blood drawn and sent to the State Health Department; they had to immediately be put on antibiotics. She ordered us to go to the Emergency Room at the major hospital in Albuquerque (almost 2 hours away) as soon as we left her office.

We did not go to the hospital. The cats were so ill, we could not leave them alone that weekend. In fact, my boyfriend and I were up all night Sunday with Sophie, who was delirious, did not recognize her name, fought like a rabid dog whenever we tried to give her the medications or to hydrate her, and whose eyes were unfocussed. We were sure that she would die that night, so we stayed up with her.

She survived, though she was still very sick. But by Monday morning, both my boyfriend and I were feeling ill ourselves: we had crushing headaches, unbelievable body pain, swollen lymph-nodes in our armpits. Additionally, I had a cough that would not stop, accompanied by a dreadful pressure in my chest.

Stress? I hoped that’s what it was as I went to the computer to look up Bubonic Plague symptoms. What I found horrified me.

Yes, the Bubonic Plague still exists. All over the world. In fact, the military in virtually every country, including the United States, has the Plague bacteria in cold-storage, in case it’s needed for a vaccine in the event of a biological-Plague-weapons attack from another country. Of course, I believe that’s the only reason anyone would keep samples of the Bubonic Plague: to protect themselves from someone else’s using it as a biologic-weapon…

As I continued to read, I  grew more frightened. Bubonic Plague is the most common naturally occurring Plague. People exposed to Plague need immediate treatment. The highest incidences of Bubonic Plague in the US occur in New Mexico and Arizona, though it has also been documented in Colorado. It is not unusual for the fatal disease to move from an infected animal to a human who handles it – especially if the person is bitten or scratched – though the most common method of transmission is from flea bites.

Just as it was in the Middle Ages, when millions of people died.

40-60% of Europe’s population was destroyed as the Plague swept across Western Europe, arriving with the fleas on the rats on the Chinese silk-merchants’ ships. They thought the fatal disease was God’s Curse on them… for something. Yes, it turns the bodies black from gangrenous tissue, hence the term “The Black Death.”

plague-gangrene-hand-450

(Picture of gangrene of the hand caused by Y. pestis; digits and other skin areas that developed this gangrene helped name the plague as “the Black Death.” SOURCE: CDC/Dr. Jack Poland)

In the Middle Ages, people believed The Plague was carried through the air (and one version of it is, when someone coughs), and went to the countryside (if they were wealthy) to get away from the “infected air” , and carried perfumed handkerchiefs or small bouquets of flowers held to their mouths and noses to avoid breathing in the Plague. They burned the bodies of those who died of the Plague in an attempt to prevent its spread. They also locked entire families in their houses when only one person was infected, sealed the house, and marked it as a warning to keep others away.

One of the children’s songs we all grew up singing is from that era.

Ring around the rosies,
Pocket full of posies,
Ashes, Ashes,
We all fall down.

As in “fall down dead”. When we played and sang that as children, holding hands and going around in a circle as we sang, then falling down “dead” at the end of it, we had no idea it was about the Bubonic Plague.

Did you?

(“Ring Around the Rosy: Meaning Behind the Nursery Rhyme”)

The Plague is believed to have originated in Northwest China, near Mongolia, where there was an outbreak, within the last three years, that killed hundreds of people. The outbreak happened to occur within a 100-mile radius of the facility where the Chinese have the Bubonic Plague stored. In deep freeze. The government claimed that an accident occurred and the Plague was released through the air-vents. World Health Watch-Groups suspect that the Chinese government intentionally released it into the atmosphere to determine whether the Plague was still viable.

It was. It is.

Bubonic Plague, which affects the lymph system (i.e., the immune system) has a mortality rate of 60-80% if left untreated. Even if detected early and treated, the Plague has a mortality rate of 15%. Treatment should be initiated immediately, or, at least, no longer than 24 hours from suspected exposure. Patients exposed to the Plague should be hospitalized in isolation/quarantine units.

Bubonic Plague can migrate into the lungs, at which point it is called Pneumonic Plague, when the mortality rate rises to 90-100% without antibiotics. Bubonic Plague can migrate into the blood, is then called Septicemic Plague, which, untreated, has a mortality rate of 99-100%. One of the first symptoms of Pneumonic Plague is chest pain and an incessant cough.

I had chest pain and a persistent cough.

Along with all the other symptoms my boyfriend and I shared.

I immediately called my Doctor’s office, informed them what had happened, and asked if we could come in to get tested. They said they were not equipped to either isolate us nor to test us for The Plague, and that we were, under no circumstances, to come to their office. Same message from the next several clinics and Urgent Care Centers. We were instructed to go to the Emergency Room immediately. (We were also yelled at for not having gone on Saturday). Still not believing that we ourselves were at any health risk, I called the State Health Department, where the Head of Infectious Diseases, openly horrified, insisted that we go immediately to the ER at the largest Albuquerque hospital as it is the “only facility in the state equipped to isolate/quarantine you, test you, and treat you.” She was very upset that we had waited till Monday 25 June and ordered us, literally, to hang up, get into the car, and go.

We did so.

Once we were there, we dutifully wrote, under reason for visit: Exposure to Bubonic Plague. We were told to go have a seat, where we waited, constantly moving whenever someone else got too near, for over an hour.

“They don’t seem very concerned that we were exposed to Bubonic Plague,” said my boyfriend at one point. “They didn’t even give us masks.”

“I guess that vet overreacted… maybe we can’t get the Plague from Sophie and Ling. Maybe we should go back home. I’m afraid Sophie might die while we sit around here waiting…”

Then we were called back, where we waited another hour. Without any special treatment or masks, though I, at least, repeatedly told everyone we came into contact with that we had been exposed to the Bubonic Plague.

The nonchalance and seeming indifference ended when the ER doctor picked up our charts.

We were whisked away into quarantine, where we were forced to remain for almost nine hours. The door to the examining room was closed. A red warning sign posted on its window. No one entered that room without gloves, mask, and protective garments over their clothes. The doctors there also yelled at us, being very upset that we had not come in on Saturday.

Since the sickest cat, Sophie, was still extremely ill and non-responsive, we begged the Dr. on call to let one of us go home to be with her in  case she died. We promised that as soon as the one who remained in the hospital returned home, the one who had left to be with Sophie would come back. The Doctor apologized profusely but said that neither of us could leave the hospital since we were already showing symptoms of the plague. I was showing more than my boyfriend since I had been scratched, as he had, but had also cleaned the abscess – I mean, burst bubo. I had more swollen lymph-nodes under my armpits, and a cough that would not stop (which necessitated a chest X-ray to ensure that the plague had not complicated into Pneumonic Plague). We both had headaches, fever, body aches, and decreased appetite.

8 large vials of blood were taken from each of us. 4 from each were tested immediately to determine if we would even be permitted to leave the hospital that day. The other 4 were to be sent to the State Health Department. Beyond feeling very sick, we were terrified that Sophie would be dead when we arrived home, and that all our other pets would have become infected and showing symptoms.

After they finally released us, we went home, where we found Sophie and the other cat prostrate with fever and plague symptoms. Still alive.

There were also five Voice-Mails from a Dr. from the  State Health Department. He informed me that he had already received the tests on the cats back from the State Lab and that both were positive. He wanted us to go to the ER. We informed him that we had just returned. He requested that, though we “might be over the infectious period” – he couldn’t be sure – that we “self-quarantine by remaining in the home for at least 5 more days” so that we would not infect any other persons.

He needn’t have worried about our going anywhere. By the next morning, we were in agony (and understood why Sophie fought so hard whenever we tried to give her the medications: the headache and body pain alone are devastating).

He informed us that after the 5 days isolation, the State Health Department would be sending out representatives to check our house and property for evidence of fleas (we had none) and Plague-carrying animals, all abundant in the mountains where we live: mice, pack-rats, rock-squirrels, jack-rabbits, white-tail rabbits, etc.

For the next five days, my boyfriend and I did not get out of bed, except to check on the cats, give them their medications, and hydrate them, because we were so ill ourselves. We had, indeed, been exposed to Bubonic Plague, which still exists all over the world, but which, in the United States, is concentrated in the Southwest, in New Mexico and Arizona (no one knows why). The area we live in, we were told by the State Health Department Doctor, is called “the Plague Capital of New Mexico” because it has the highest number of documented cases of the disease, as well as the highest number of animal and human deaths.

Why is this not general public information?

It would hurt the tourist industry.

(Just to be fair to the state officials, bureaucrats, and travel/hospitality industry, tourists aren’t warned about all the wild animals in the Rocky Mountains either, and many of those tourists who visit the state parks and natural areas let their dogs run free and “lose” them. Forever.)

Fortunately, both my boyfriend and I survived, though we were very ill. Ling was on antibiotics, on an increasing dose, for six weeks. Sophie, who did, indeed, almost die, was on increasing doses of antibiotics as more swollen lymph-nodes were discovered, and was treated for over three months before she began to recover. Our regular Vet, also a specialist in small animals, surmised that Sophie, as the most severely ill, had been infected first; and that Ling, who is her buddy, got infected from grooming her. The State Health Department did not find any evidence of fleas, mice/rat infestations on the property, dead rabbits who might have died of plague, etc. The cats do not roam since we live on a mountain where there are wild animals; they cannot get out of the kennel; no evidence of any dead animals who are plague-carriers was found around the kennel or, indeed, anywhere  in our yard.

The Vet believes that a jack-rabbit may have come near the kennel when Sophie was out in it, a flea may have jumped onto Sophie, bitten her, and infected her, etc. It is her best guess since the animals were clearly infected and we were exposed to the point where we were exhibiting symptoms.

Ling and Sophie

(Ling and Sophie, healthy, happy, and snuggling love-buddies, once again)

I suppose the only good thing to have come out of this ordeal is that, supposedly, once you have survived Bubonic Plague, you are immune to it. Unless it mutates, of course, and you are exposed to another version…

(video link: “Ring Around the Rosies” )

Top comment to this video:
“You might as well be singing
Symptoms of serious illness,
Flowers to ward off the stench,
We’re burning the corpses,
We all drop dead.

Indeed.

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Filed under Bubonic Plague, Cats, Documentary/Historical Video, Memoir, Music Videos