A Mother’s Search

A Mother’s Search

From A 5th Portion of Chicken Soup for the Soul

A Mother’s Search

“Would you please put this in the Wailing Wall for me?”

I carefully held the small paper that had a picture of Jerusalem’s Western Wall on it. Below, in neatly printed ink, were the words: “To find my son Pieter.”

“Of course. I’ll be glad to do it,” I told my friend Marti Nitrini, when she learned of my upcoming trip to Israel. “Can non-Jews put items in the Wailing Wall?”

Marti, a Holocaust survivor, assured me that they could. “But the women have to go on a separate side,” she explained.

I first met Marti several years ago when I wrote a piece in the San Diego Union-Tribune about The Diary of Anne Frank. She had called me.

“I was in the same concentration camp as Anne Frank,” she said quietly. Intrigued, I asked Marti many questions about her life. We decided to meet in person.

While we sat sipping tea in her Mission Valley condominium one morning, Marti poured out her tale of horror to me, with details she hardly told anyone before.

A native of Prague born in 1918, she and her two older brothers had a happy, privileged childhood. Her Hungarian father and German mother owned small department stores that carried leather goods and custom jewelry. Her parents had wanted her to attend an all-girls school, so she went to a nearby cloister.

“It was a Roman Catholic school, and I was the only Jew out of 500,” Marti said. “The nuns were so nice and wonderful. I never forgot it. And I still visit when I go to Prague.”

Marti was married at a young age—fifteen—to a handsome man ten years her senior with whom she had fallen madly in love. Despite her parents’ initial reluctance, they had a very happy marriage. Their baby boy, Pieter, was born in 1938.

Marti’s happy world shattered one day in 1942 when her family received orders to assemble at a certain location, to be transported to “a special resort” for Jews.

“If you didn’t show up, they’d come and shoot you,” she remembers. “They assembled thousands and thousands of people. You could bring only what you could carry.”

Marti and her husband and small son were sent to a Czech concentration camp called Theresienstadt. She and Pieter lived in a small room, about 300 square feet, with four other mothers and seven other children. Her husband was in another barracks. Later they were sent to Auschwitz, in Poland. Marti recalls having only one bowl of soup with potato peels and one tiny slice of bread to eat all day. All she had to wear during the cold winter was a cotton shirt and skirt.

“It was at Auschwitz that we started to find out . . . that we saw the chimneys and started to realize what was happening,” she quietly recalls. “You couldn’t believe it. A normal person couldn’t believe that something like this was going on. But you saw the chimneys and smelled the sweet smell of burning meat.”

When General George S. Patton’s troops smashed Hamburg, 5,000 people were needed to clean up the rubble. “My husband came to me and said, ‘Look, if you stay here, you will not survive. I’ll keep Pieter with me.’”

Marti recalls having “to parade naked in front of SS men” to be “selected,” then traveling in railroad cars for three days to Hamburg, where she was so hungry she would look in garbage cans for food.

“One day, I found a burnt pancake that someone had tossed out,” she says. “That was my highlight, one burnt pancake. If you found a turnip to eat, it was like a million dollars. We used to eat burned wood and leaves.”

Marti tried to run away but was caught and beaten, then forced to do hard labor. Then on April 1, 1945 (her birthday), she was moved to Bergen-Belsen, where there was no food, except for one daily slice of bread that the SS had poisoned, making everyone sick and weak. It was at Bergen-Belsen that Marti saw Anne Frank.

“She was lying on the bunk in a coma,” Marti says. “I remember her dark hair and her big eyes. She was all alone there, lying in bed like a skeleton.” Anne died not long after that.

On April 15, the British liberated Bergen-Belsen and Marti helped to move corpses that were lying all around so that the tanks could drive in. Of the 50,000 inmates who survived to see the liberation, 25,000 died within days of it.

Marti lost forty-three relatives in the Holocaust, including her parents and her husband. To this day, she has never known what became of her son, Pieter Reich, who would be fifty-nine.

She came to the United States in 1945 and remarried four times—divorced once and widowed thrice. She never had any more children. Not long ago, Marti was videotaped by Steven Spielberg’s company for the Shoah Foundation, which documents the stories of Holocaust survivors so that no one ever forgets what happened.

A few years ago, Marti visited Israel to search for Pieter at the Hall of Names at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem. She found his name on a list, which noted that he was last seen in Bergen-Belsen. To this day, she still holds out hope that he is alive, and has made numerous efforts to find him.

When I visited Yad Vashem recently with a group from Solana Beach Presbyterian Church, I walked through The Children’s Memorial Hall, which commemorates the 6 million Jewish children who perished in the Holocaust. In a quiet, darkened, mirrored room, six burning memorial candles were multiplied into an infinite number, symbolizing these children’s souls. As sad, eerie music played, the names, ages and hometown of each child was read in a solemn voice. I thought of Marti’s son, Pieter, who was only six when she last saw him. I could hear muffled sobs of people—of all faiths and nationalities—walking through the memorial.

Later, as I stood at the women’s section of the Western Wall, I paused briefly and reread Marti’s poignant plea for her son. How could a mother bear to not know for certain what happened to her child? I wondered. How has Marti been able to endure this heartache all these years?

Then I stepped up to the wall, folded her note as small as possible, and stuck it into a crevice. This is the very least I can do for you, Marti, I thought, as I said a prayer for her and Pieter. Since meeting Marti, I have admired her emotional strength and cheerful attitude despite the evil adversities that she has had to endure.

I recalled what Marti had said to me earlier. “You’ve got to go on living. One door closes and another opens, and you just keep on going.”

Sharon Whitley

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