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WHY ME, GOD?

The Story of JEHOSZUA CYGELFARB

POLAND. IT IS THE summer of 1993. I am standing in front of a neglected old building I had never thought I would see again. Our tour guide does not need to tell me about this place, because I know it well. I am one of the few surviving Jewish slave labourers who once worked inside. When I was first brought here, I was only thirteen. That was fifty-three years ago. In February 1940 it was a commanding building, dominating the surrounding area, busy with trucks and trains arriving and departing throughout the day. Today it is a shell, only a stark reminder of those imprisoned Jews whose desperate struggle to survive was written in blood and shattered glass. If the bricks and mortar could speak, they could tell many painful stories of those who had worked inside - their loves, their degradation and too often their tragic deaths.

Although the building still functions as a glass factory, it does so at a much diminished capacity since the day the Germans marched the remaining Jews out the front door to Germany and a concentration camp called Buchenwald. We were the survivors from the Piotrkow Trybunailski ghetto. Ironically, the glass factory was both a brutal hell and a safe haven, for during the extermination of the ghetto we who worked within its confines were permitted to live a little while longer.

Looking at the building is like a shock treatment. The memories I have suppressed these many years fight their way to the surface. I try to curb my thoughts, but they refuse to be buried. Tears fill my eyes, but I force myself not to cry because tears have never helped. Since the war, I have tried to forget what I saw and suffered. I was only a child. I should have been allowed like any child my age to go to school and be taught to appreciate the traditions of my faith. Instead, I learned not to make a sound while being beaten, to show no expression when watching an execution, to slave long hours creating a product that, if done improperly, meant death for anyone associated with the mistake or perhaps for just being too close to the perpetrator. I was denied any rights and treated as a sub-human.

I turn away from the building and realize the guide is staring at me. Impulsively I say, "Can we go inside?"

My question surprises him. He turns to the security guard and informs him in Polish of my request. The guard stares at me curiously. He says something to the guide, who shrugs.

"He wants to know why you want to go inside," the guide asked.

Why do I want to go inside? There is nothing but pain beyond the doors, but it pulls me like a magnet. I feel drawn to the front steps, while at the same time my thoughts scream, don't go in! Don't go in!

The guide and the security guard are watching me as I struggle with my answer. Finally I force the words out. "I worked inside during the war."

The guide offers me a solemn look before relating my answer to the security guard. The guard nods his head in understanding and beckons for us to follow.

Once through the doors, I am flooded with realities of years past. I sense the vibrations from the operating lathes from the main room ahead. I detect the pungent odour of glass being prepared. I also smell fear, my fear, the fear that hovered in the air as we worked, wondering if we would survive another day. Perspiration runs down the sides of my face and my heart beat accelerates. Stop! I tell myself. The war is over. There is nothing to fear, but my heart continues to race.

I pause at a window overlooking the railway tracks. It is as if nothing has changed. I gaze and remember the sights and sounds that filtered from outside this thin sheet of glass. At any moment I expect to see cattle cars overfilled with people, hands thrust through the openings, clutching at the air, waving frenziedly, their voices pleading for water and food. I try desperately to shut the images and sounds from my mind. I tell myself those terrible years are over, but the tears silently fill my eyes.

I force myself away from the window and catch up to the security guard as he enters a larger room. The dirty windows prevent much sunlight from penetrating, but isolated beams of light squeeze through the many broken panes. As I gaze about, I see workers, but where there used to be hundreds, now there are only about seventy-five, and of the many large ovens that line a wall, only one is being used. The dirt, the grime, the broken walls fade, and I feel as if I have physically returned to the past. I think I hear the shouts of the German overseer as he prowls the floor watching for the tiniest lapse in production. My eyes gaze about in quick jery motions looking for the source of my imagination. I know the building is almost empty, yet my mind refuses to take in what my eyes see.

A silhouette in the far recesses of the room captures my attention. A coldness brushes over me as I sense what the object is. I hurry towards it, unable to believe my suspicions. This huge room is almost empty of equipment, and yet, before me is my lathe.

Why in this vast emptiness does only my lathe remain? I stare at it. If it were not for this machine, I would have been put to death like the tens of thousands who did not work in this building. The world had gone mad when I was young, and only by some strange twist of fate had the madness passed over me and I survived.

Why?

Why was the one thing that had any meaning for me still here?

My trembling hand reaches out and I caress the wheel, the bracket and the frame. I feel all my resistance crumbling. I close my eyes. The grief and pain of my experiences overwhelms me. My despair teeters from the memories flooding my mind and the barrier I erected crumbles. I do not want to cry over what is long past. I have rebuilt my life, married and have children. Please, I beg myself, don't, but I can no longer contain my grief and I begin to sob, expressing muffled sounds of my despair.

"Why? Why? Why?

"Why, God was I spared?

"Why did you make me see those horrible things?

"Why didn't you let me die too?

"Why me, God?

"There is no one left . . . I am all alone."