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Polish President Cites Survivor at Knesset


Greer Fay Cashman,
March 17, 2005

One of the greatest compliments that Miriam Yahav may have received in her life was delivered by Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski when he stood up at a state dinner hosted by President Moshe Katsav in the Knesset Tuesday night and quoted what she had said in her spontaneous outburst at Birkenau at the end of January of this year.

Miriam Yahav (previously Merka Szevach) shows her tattoo with her Auschwitz inmate number as she delivers a speech in front of the memorial in the former Nazi concentration camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau. [Photo: AP]

Referring to her by her maiden name, Merka Szewach, and commending her excellent Polish, Kwasniewski repeated her protest.

The Nazis took away her name and gave her a number. She was no longer Merka Szewach. "What right did they have to kill my family? What right did they have to kill my people?" she had asked at the commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. "Why? Why did they do that, and why did they burn my whole family here?"

Kwasniewski was full of admiration for the 78-year-old Beersheba great-grandmother who had then declared: "I am happy as a survivor because I can live as a citizen in my country, Israel, where I have an army and a president." He cited her as an example of Israel's remarkable history of tragedy, struggle and heroism. "We are honored to be guests in the independent, democratic, vibrant State of Israel," he said.

Contacted by The Jerusalem Post to get her reaction to being cited by the president of Poland, Yahav was amazed and delighted. The sole survivor of her family, she had sworn after the war and after the pogroms that followed the war that she would never set foot in Poland again.

But a little less than 20 years ago, she had woken in a cold sweat from a nightmare in which she had resisted jackboot-wearing Nazis, and told her husband that she had to return to Poland. He would not allow her to go alone and accompanied her along with their two daughters.

Yahav had written books and poems about her experiences. Although she had spoken Hebrew since childhood, her spelling was poor and her daughters had corrected the manuscripts.

When they arrived at her block in Auschwitz and saw the conditions under which she had lived, her daughters burst into tears. "They had never understood my suffering. They had only corrected my Hebrew. What I had written had not penetrated."

Yahav, whose family lived for centuries in the Polish city of Bialystock after having been expelled from Spain during the Spanish Inquisition, immediately made up her mind to take youth groups to Poland so that they would understand what the generation of the Holocaust endured.

Before being sent to Auschwitz, she had been an inmate in Treblinka, Majdanek and other camps and could talk about the atrocities she had witnessed in all of them. She now shares these memories with youth groups that she accompanies to Poland - traveling to the land of her painful past as often as six times a year.

"I'm two people in one body," she said Wednesday. "I'm working for the future. I was only 12 years old when the war broke out. They took my roots. They left me with no one. Now I have ten grandchildren and a great grandchild - but I am still alone. I cannot forget. I cannot allow anyone else to forget. The last thing my mother said to me was: 'Merka, you go. Perhaps you'll survive and tell the world what happened...'"

That's what she intends to do for as long as she has breath.



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