Recalling his parents’ Holocaust survival story, which brought some audience members to tears last night, Dr. Harold Bursztajn stressed the importance of individual charity before an audience of 20 in the Ryan Library for Ethics and Education.
“I should have brought some tissues, for heaven’s sake,” Bursztajn joked while telling the story.
Choking up several times, Bursztajn relayed his parents’ story of hiding from Nazis in a sewer bunker for a year. Several students wiped away tears as he shared his parents’ tale of bravery, compassion and romance.
Bursztajn, a co-founder of the Harvard University Program in Psychiatry ‘ the Law, emphasized that his father survived the Holocaust only because of the kindness of others.
“We understand why people do evil, but it is more interesting to look at those who do good,” he said. “Why would people do good when flow, the way to survive, is not?”
Bursztajn’s parents, Abraham and Miriam, worked on a sewage brigade together in the Lodz ghetto in Poland. Abraham had narrowly escaped execution at a camp and later received an offer to become a Jewish police officer. He refused, insulting the German officer who had proposed the job. As punishment for his resistance, he was assigned to the sewer brigade.
Through tears, Bursztajn told how his parents came to work together. Miriam was on a train to the Auschwitz prison camp in 1943 when she and Abraham locked eyes, each remembering a chance meeting a year before. Abraham told one of the soldiers they were shipping off a member of his sewage battalion, and Miriam played along, escaping the train.
Abraham used his cleaning position to scope out the underground sewers. Abraham and a friend used stolen wire cutters to break into a warehouse and steal cement, but were spotted and shot at by German soldiers while returning. Abraham was shot in the leg, but managed to heave his bag of cement and then himself into a dumpster, later carrying the cement back to the ghetto, despite his bullet wound. An unknown doctor secretly helped Abraham get the bullet out of his leg with a coat hanger so soldiers would not identify him as the culprit by his bleeding leg.
With the stolen cement, Abraham and his wife constructed an underground bunker housing 14 people.
“The garbage saved my father several times,” Bursztajn said. “The Germans had a thing about cleanliness, and dogs would bark at the garbage.”
If the Germans’ dogs kept barking at those in hiding, the guards would attribute it to confusion at the garbage’s smell. Abraham and Miriam with 12 others hid out in the sewers, venturing out at night to scrap up food.
After one year of living in the sewers, the group finally escaped the bunker when several Russian soldiers came in a tanker to clear the area of recently planted and dangerous land mines in 1944. Bursztajn said his parents knew something was different when it was completely quiet outside one day. They heard a voice in Russian telling them to get out.
His mother decided she would investigate, though she knew she could easily be killed.
“The Russian tanker officer told her to get out of here,” he said. “There are mines everywhere. The whole place was going to blow. But she went back anyway [to alert the other stowaways].”
The tanker officer warned her of the mines the Germans had planted to catch any remaining people in hiding. As the group exited the sewers, a mine went off near them.
“As they were making their way out, there was an explosion, and the Russian tanker cleared the rubble, helping them escape,” Bursztajn said.
The exact spot of their bunker exploded about 15 minutes later.
Years later, the couple was still helping people escape oppression. Up until they left Poland, Bursztajn’s parents helped Jewish victims escape from Russia to the West. Bursztajn was born in Poland and moved to the United States when he was nine.
The lecture was the second event in the “Witnesses to the Holocaust” series organized by Bernice Lerner, the director of BU’s Center for Advancement of Ethics and Character. Lerner has been hosting survivors since she first began teaching “Resistance during the Holocaust,” a College of Arts and Science writing course. In an effort to reach more people, she opened the lecture series to all members of the university.
“I tell students they’re the last generation to see survivors, and it is their job to carry the story,” she said. “This is a great privilege. The Holocaust was such a huge event, I think the only way to understand it is through individual stories.
“I hope they come away thinking about human capacity to do good in extreme situations,” she continued.
Students were visibly touched by Harold’s story. School of Education freshman Samantha Rabinowicz came to the event because of a personal connection. Her grandmother was a Holocaust survivor who also risked her life to save others, helping with the “underground railroad.”
“Survivors are now dying,” Rabinowicz said. “I think doing this will make a world of difference. People who don’t know about [the Holocaust] can learn from others’ stories.”