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William & Rosalie

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William & Rosalie is the gripping and heartfelt account of two young Jewish people from Poland who survive six different German slave and prison camps throughout the Holocaust. In 1941, newlyweds William and Rosalie Schiff are forcibly separated and sent on their individual odysseys through a surreal maze of hate. Terror in the Krakow ghetto, sadistic SS death games, cruel human medical experiments, eyewitness accounts of brutal murders of men, women, children, and even infants, and the menace of rape in occupied Poland make William & Rosalie an unusually explicit view of the chaos that World War II unleashed on the Jewish people. The lovers' story begins in Krakow's ancient neighborhood of Kazimierz, after the Germans occupy western Poland. A year later they marry in the ghetto; by 1942 deportations have wasted both families. After Rosalie is saved by Oskar Schindler, the husband and wife end up at the Plaszow work camp under Amon Goeth, the bestial commandant played by Ralph Fiennes in Schindler’s List. While Rosalie is on "heaven patrol" removing bodies from the camp, William is working in the factories. But when Rosalie is shipped by train to a different factory camp, William sneaks into a boxcar to follow, and he ends up at Auschwitz instead. Craig Hanley powerfully narrates the struggle of the couple to stay alive and find each other at war's end. Now in their eighties, William and Rosalie come to terms in this book with the loss of their families and years of torture at the hands of Nazi captors. Unique among memoirs from this era, the book connects directly to the present day. The Schiffs' ongoing and highly effective campaign against prejudice and discrimination is a heroic culmination of two lives scarred beyond belief by racism. William & Rosalie artfully combines biography with timely lessons on the nature of mass hate, a stubborn phenomenon that continues to endanger every life on Earth.

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one: “When will people stop hating?”

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chapter one

“When will people stop hating?”

On this lovely Thursday at the end of summer the citizens of Krakow move as usual through some of the finest architecture in Europe. Towering gothic churches, stately

Renaissance homes and trendy cafes with gilt lettering crowd together around the main square. The true heart of the city is the storybook castle up on the hill where the Polish kings are buried. Below its thick wall flows the shimmering Vistula River.

It’s 1939 and radio is a big deal. People are amazed the technology can bring them news from the other side of the earth. Inspired by the breakthrough, many students at the university are obsessed with math and electronics. Four centuries earlier Copernicus learned enough math here to figure out that the earth goes around the sun.

Not everybody is caught up in the radio craze, however.

The bearded men in long black silk coats walking under the iron streetlamps spend a good bit of their time mastering ancient religious texts. Some believe in a miracle-worker who lived in the dark mountains on the horizon where melting snow feeds the river.

 

two: “In this ghetto we were married”

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chapter two

“In this ghetto we were married”

Amber was big business in Poland long before the country had a name. Primitive people thought the sunshine-colored tree resin they dug up out of the ground could bring them luck and make them young again. When Roman nobles started buying the pretty stuff, the Vistula was already part of the

“amber road” that carried Mediterranean and Byzantine traders north to the main deposits on the Baltic coast.

Some of these men were Jews who noticed that locals on the southern banks of the river mined salt, another valuable commodity. A few merchants settled in the convenient town that began to gather around Wawel Hill. Other Jewish settlers in Krakow worked the trade route between Provence and eastern outposts that would eventually bloom as Prague and Kiev.

In the Middle Ages more Jews arrived, fleeing countries where the Crusades had whipped commoners into anti-Semitic frenzies. There were waves of refugees when Jews were blamed for the bubonic plague and later during the Inquisition. Friction with the native population was a given. Eight hundred years before the Nazis came to Krakow, a teacher protested that city authorities had no right to punish his students

 

three: Plaszow: The first camp

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chapter three

Plaszow: The first camp

In a valley between two sterile hills a hulking man stands on a gallows. He fills a meticulously tailored gray uniform with a high black collar. A silver eagle and skull adorn his hat. Six-foot four without the hat, he is not dwarfed by three noosed men standing on chairs beside him. The giant glares down from his platform at thousands of prisoners in geometric array. It’s showtime for Storm Captain Amon Leopold Goeth.

“You’ve all been warned many times before,” he shouts.

“You break the rules, you get what you deserve.”

The baritone bounces off the hastily built wooden barracks flanking the broad dirt square. This is the roll-call assembly yard, where justice is always loud and one-sided. The men with rope around their necks have been accused of sabotage. The charge can mean escape, smuggling, possession of valuables, disobeying an order—anything the guards please. A piece of salami in your pocket is flagrant sabotage.

The Storm Captain considers himself an athlete, but he has gone to seed during his tenure as commandant of Forced

 

four: “It has to have an end”

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chapter four

“It has to have an end”

One hundred and twenty people can barely breathe, so tightly is the boxcar packed. Down the tracks it lumbers under a quarter moon past farm fields ready for harvest. Some prisoners sleep standing up; one pinned against the wall next to

Rosalie looks like he’s asleep. His body will be offloaded soon with others gone breathless.

There was screaming when the guards whipped everybody in. Now it’s hushed. Blue-black light from a little window high up in a corner paints the prisoners’ heads and shoulders. This is the first of four nights without food or water. Prisoners must relieve themselves where they stand.

The wheels clack on the tracks. Sometimes the train stops and stands for hours. Three times soldiers pull off the dead.

On the third day there’s enough room for the weakest to sit on the squalid floor. Nobody wants to sit but nobody can stand up four days in a row.

Rosalie is right under the window. She tries to distract herself from her burning gut by staring out at the sky. She sees clouds and the odd flight of birds, little black things. When the car stops for hours on the last night she fixes on a speck of

 

five: “I wish I could have helped more people”

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chapter five

“I wish I could have helped more people”

Outside the front gate at Auschwitz a dead man is bound to a post with ropes around his chest, thighs, and throat. He wears dull gray pajamas with fat navy stripes. Over his heart an upside-down yellow triangle points to a hole in his pajama top that matches the hole in his back. From these holes, a gallon of dark stain has drained into the uniform. While rows of bald prisoners file past the dead man a live orchestra on a bandstand plays an upbeat march. It’s a sparkling fall day.

When Heinrich Himmler toured the camp the year before, commandant Rudolph Hess confided that he was having trouble with escapes. The SS National Leader told Hess to prop up every escapee his men shot as a display at the main gate. He felt that terror was the only language prisoners from more than twenty countries could all understand.

When Himmler had taken charge of the SS in 1929 it was a street gang with 200 members. He now commands 800,000 men and the new army that grew out of the Death Head assassination teams. He runs thousands of secret prison camps, major industrial companies, a military spy network and the

 

six: “Remember how I lived my life, Rose”

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chapter six

“Remember how I lived my life, Rose”

It’s four in the morning at Camp Skarzysko. Rosalie sleeps with two other women on a bottom bunk shelf. During the winter of 1944 shared body warmth has been a lifesaver in the drafty barrack. Mania sleeps on one side of Rosalie and their friend sleeps on the other. Lately a bad case of dysentery has kept this girl running to the latrine.

At four in the morning Rosalie wakes up and senses something real wrong. Both she and the sick girl sleep on their right sides and as usual she can feel knees against the back of her thighs. But the body behind her isn’t making breathing noises. Not wanting to acknowledge this, she does nothing.

There’s no point in rushing the inevitable. The two hours will fly by before they must carry their friend out and set her in the dirt by the door where strangers will strip off her clothes.

In the bunk for those two hours at least the dead woman will retain a little dignity.

When the wake-up bell sounds Rosalie helps move the body through the door while Mania falls to pieces. She tries not to look at the gaping mouth and unblinking eyes. During months of loading her body cart she has seen hundreds of

 

Family photographs

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seven: Three days in the grave

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chapter seven

Three days in the grave

The locomotive engineer who pulled his train off the camp spur at Auschwitz onto the main line three hours ago had a much simpler life before the Reich took the railroads over and painted swastikas on everything that rolled. The German train system had been the pride of Europe, 33,000 miles of beautiful tracks and 700,000 people with sane, productive jobs.

Twelve feet behind the engineer there’s a loud rifle bang and a scream in the first open gondola car. He looks out at an overcast afternoon full of wicked gusty winds, neat farmhouses and snow-flocked trees. Twelve feet behind him another rifle goes bang and another wounded prisoner screams. He pulls back the throttle. Twenty kilometers an hour, twentyone, twenty-two.

Crouching down in the rear corner of the first car, William watches a gut-shot prisoner squirm on the floor of the open wagon. The wounded man starts a fit of convulsions.

A second bang punches a crude hole above his left eye and leaves him still. A third bang makes another standing prisoner jerk up like a marionette before he crumples in a heap. One

 

eight: One hundred miles of rapists

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chapter eight

One hundred miles of rapists

The Jasna Gora monastery is not far from the HASAG plant where Rosalie now spits up blood every day. She and

Mania chew their bread crusts close to the shrine of the Black

Madonna in the monastery chapel. Art experts say the icon of the Virgin is the handiwork of a Byzantine master. Many

Polish Catholics believe that Saint Luke painted the portrait of Mary while she was alive.

By Christmas 1944, the Nazis have murdered six Polish bishops and two thousand priests. Hundreds of plundered churches have been locked and seminarians must study in secret. Half a century later, one of these seminarians will ask the Jewish people to forgive Catholics for failing to help them during the Holocaust. Apologizing for wrongs the Church inflicted on Jews throughout the ages, Pope John Paul II describes the Holocaust as an indelible stain on the twentieth century and admits that centuries of Christian antisemitism may have facilitated the genocide.

Rosalie and Mania are too crushed by cruelty and cold to debate the history of hate. Frozen birds are dropping out of ancient oaks all across southern Poland and a typhoid epi-

 

nine: A human being

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chapter nine

A human being

Semi-comatose in the hole William hears a German voice:

“Now I’m going to show you what happens when you try to escape.”

Fiery noon sunshine shocks his retinas as the guards toss the boards aside. The blinding flash of sky is interrupted by dark figures in helmets who reach down, grab him and jerk him back up into the world. Blinking, raw from bug bites, and covered with soil, he is too weak to stand. The soldiers hold him up for display in front of thousands of prisoners. When the officer tires of mocking him he is thrown on a bunk to die. A French Jew saves his life.

“He brought me soup for a few days until I got my strength back. I think he saw my escape as an act of resistance and assumed I was some sort of brave macho guy. He invited me to come to France after the war to start a new life. He said he would help me find a girl. I was touched because the French prisoners tended to stick to themselves.”

Four days after William is unearthed the camp commandant announces that Gross Rosen will be evacuated. The Russian winter offensive refuses to slow down. With rockets and

 

ten: Ghost town

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chapter ten

Ghost town

Against a late afternoon sky full of dark snow clouds Rosalie spots the three towers of Wawel castle. She has hiked a hundred miles in shoes that keep her feet dry but make her toes bleed. Three miles outside the city, she and her companions stop to rest.

“We had to prepare ourselves for what wouldn’t be there.”

One thousand years earlier, a Jewish merchant from Spain walked into town past the same spot where the girls sit shivering. Krakow was unknown to history until he took up a pen to describe the place as a center of commerce. Poland converted to Christianity the very next year.

The girls get up and trudge towards Wawel Hill, where men have lived for at least 12,000 years. The first inhabitants left stone weapons behind; later encampments traded with Nero’s empire. When the Vistulan tribe showed up, legends say their chief built his fort where the Renaissance castle stands today.

Krak was the name of this mythical king, the ruler plagued by Smoke, the child-eating dragon. In real life, the Germani

 

eleven: On the border

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chapter eleven

On the border

“It is not true that I or anyone else in Germany wanted war in 1939. It was desired and instigated solely by international finance conspirators of Jewish blood or working for

Jewish interests.”

In his suicide note Adolf Hitler tried to shift the blame for the six years of pain he forced on the world by invading

Poland. The day before he dictated the note he learned that

Heinrich Himmler had betrayed him. A radio brought the news down into the bunker. When Hitler heard that Himmler was trying to negotiate a separate peace he screamed until his face turned brownish purple. The thinker of the new

Germany had finally been abandoned by his doer, the man who translated hate into bodies.

Himmler killed himself three weeks later. After the Allies spurned his absurd diplomatic overtures his last days were desperate. Of the 800,000 elite killers he commanded in his prime, only two nervous aides remained. Forced to drive his own bulletproof car, the SS National Leader promptly ran it into a ditch. He shaved his moustache, donned an eye patch, and disguised himself as a sergeant. When the British caught

 

twelve: The future of hate

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chapter twelve

The future of hate

Warsaw ghetto fighter Alexander Donat did not consider the Holocaust the last chapter in the book of human cruelty.

He saw it as the preface to a future age of total chaos. With great passion and urgency Donat warned that a new generation would destroy the world with nuclear war unless mankind could keep hate from seizing power again.

Near the site of the Kennedy assassination, the West End district in downtown Dallas is a collection of old warehouses that have been redone as restaurants, shops, and nightclubs.

The temporary quarters of the Dallas Holocaust Museum occupy a corner by an old railroad track. William and Rosalie lecture here at least twice a week.

In the auditorium today they tell the short version of their story to eighty-three seventh graders from a suburban school district. It’s a tale that museum director Elliott Dlin is careful to put in context.

“The Schiffs are very much the exception,” he says.

They survived the Holocaust; most did not. So we shouldn’t look for patterns or models of survival. The

 

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