Child of the Holocaust, Surviving Every Day

Rabbi Joseph Polak was three years old when the Holocaust ended. His survival story is still unfolding.

Judy Simon,

Rabbi Joseph Polak
Rabbi Joseph Polak
By PR



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We have heard, read and watched many stories of people's experiences in the Holocaust. We have encountered detailed descriptions of the persecution these adult survivors endured. But what we often forget is the stories of the children born during the Shoah. These children never had a normal childhood, never experienced a normal family life. These small ones had to deal with returning to the world after their terrible ordeal, a world in which their own parents were horribly changed in every way. The child survivors tell a different story.

Rabbi Joseph Polak, born in 1942, saved his family in utero, by delaying their deportation to Westerbork by a year. In Westerbork, there was a surreal experience of normalcy, of good food, of excellent health care. But it was the gateway to almost certain death, as every Tuesday morning a train was filled with Jews who were taken east.

Rabbi Polak's family ended up in Bergen-Belsen, where the small boy played hide-and-seek among the piles of corpses. In 1945, at the age of three, his family was aboard the "Lost Transport," which journeyed to Troebitz, and where Rabbi Polak's father succumbed to his illness and was buried. At this point, the child was adopted by a Dutch family, as his mother was too sick to care for him.

Rabbi Polak's first vivid memory was of the meeting with his mother in a hospital in the Hague. "I remember that everything in the room was white. I saw a woman in the bed. They must not have told me that I was going to meet my mother," Rabbi Polak recalls. "Hello madam," he greeted the strange lady. "Don't say 'hello madam,' say 'Hello Mother!'" he was told. Mrs. Polak first had to prove that the child was her son. And then she gave him a small red siddur (prayer book) and a pair of tzitzit (ritual fringed garment). She told her young son, "You are a Jewish boy. These are things a Jew needs every day."

Rabbi Polak describes his entry into school in Montreal as a six-year-old who didn't even know how to play, let alone make friends. He asked his mother to stop speaking to him in Dutch. It was only many years later that he discovered that fully two thirds of the boys in his seventh grade class were child survivors like himself. They had worked so hard on fitting in, on silencing the pain of their past, that they didn't even realize that they were in the majority.

In meetings with older Holocaust survivors, Rabbi Polak describes the painful negation of who the child survivors are. Many adult survivors told the children, "You don't really understand. You were just a kid. You know nothing about what happened there." This denial of their experiences made the younger survivors feel like fakes, like liars. Now that virtually all Holocaust survivors alive today were children at the time of the horrors, they talk about their experiences with one another. "We feel a need to tell, to share our stories. We are the last witnesses to what happened. We were there," he explains.

The book that Rabbi Polak authored about his childhood and beyond is called After the Holocaust the Bells Still Ring. Tune in to hear excerpts from the book, to hear about how Holocaust survivors grapple with G-d, and to meet an extraordinary individual, whose very existence and positive outlook are an inspiration to all who meet him.


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