Telling the Holocaust Story—at Zabar’s

An aging survivor feels compelled to describe her experience while she still has time

In the Zabar’s café on 80th St., beneath signs for knish and pastrami, a young Brazilian tourist wipes tears from her eyes as she poses for a selfie on her iPad with Paula Weissman, who is 87. “Thank you,” she says, rising to leave and placing a hand on Weissman’s sloping shoulder.

Every Saturday and Sunday, Weissman walks the three blocks from her house to Zabar’s and sits for hours, sipping through a plastic straw on hot coffee with milk and copious packets of sugar. “You’re English?” she says, overhearing a stranger’s accent. “I remember when the English soldiers liberated us from the camp. Their little red berets…”

In the 60 years she has lived in New York, 30 of which she spent working as a waitress at the kosher restaurant Fine & Shapiro, Weissman says she never spoke of her past—of losing her entire family to the Holocaust, or the time she spent in Auschwitz. “People would say, ‘Oh, you have an accent,’” she recalled. “I says, ‘Yeah, I’m European.’ That’s it. I didn’t want their pity.”

But a close brush with cancer in 2015 saw her hospitalized and seriously ill. Lying in her bed, she says, she felt compelled to start talking about it and, for the first time, sharing her story. “Something kept saying: ‘You must do something. Maybe God wanted you to stay alive, to talk to people so they don’t forget,’” she said. “Something kept pushing.”

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Zabar’s has become the venue for telling that story. Weissman has a full-time helper at her home on 77th St Monday through Friday, but spends her weekends sitting at the café’s central table, among families and tourists, holding court. “I just want people to know,” she says. “I feel obligated, now, because, with how many years I have left…”

Late on Sunday mornings, after watching Pastor Joel Osteen on television, she takes her seat at the central communal table of the café, littered with detritus from other people’s meals. The staff are mostly Hispanic; the food overwhelmingly Jewish. The fluorescent lights beam yellow onto the plastic tables.

Conversation often turns to politics: an Irish man, his three long-lashed children hanging off his shoulders, talks to an older Israeli woman about his experiences with the IRA, and why he had to leave Ireland. Wearing a glittery blue sweater and a plastic headband, Paula sits opposite, half-listening to them and a few other conversations. Sometimes she jumps in; sometimes she is content to sit in silence.

Lately, there is another pull that inspires her to tell and retell her story. Weissman whiles away the hours at home watching television or listening to the news on the radio: what she hears these days troubles her. The current refugee ban has been “painful” to watch, she says. “It’s unbelievable. It’s sad to see it.” She came to the United States as a refugee in 1954, after years of internment at a Displaced Persons camp in Germany.

Often, in fact, it is comments about the news that inspire her to start a conversation or tell her story. “With the things going on in Syria,” she says, pausing, “I feel sympathy for those people. With the news, they talk about what’s going on in the world and you cannot ignore it. How can you ignore something that happened to you in your life?” Playing with a sugar wrapper, she sips from her straw as she tells strangers about her life.

Some of those strangers, in time, have become friends: Charles Bronstein, a local photographer who works at the musical Hamilton, arranged for her to see the play for free and often meets her at the café. Another woman she met there, hearing how much she had enjoyed the musical, took her to Central Park to see Hamilton’s statue.

Most of all, Weissman worries that people will forget what happened. At her synagogue, she says they commemorate the Holocaust just once a year—she’d prefer it to be more frequent. People may see films about it, she says, but they quickly forget. “They should know that those things happened. Maybe by me talking about it, I’m helping them to understand.”

On Tuesday afternoons, she hosts students in her home, organized through the social services organization Dorot. She was horrified to learn that a recent student had decided to join the Israeli Defense Forces—partly because of the danger, she says, but also because of the animosity that characterizes the conflict in the area. “I tell them, ‘No hatred. Don’t hate nobody. You are hurting yourself,’” she says, shaking her head. “You don’t accomplish nothing by hate.”

Weissman’s husband of 60 years, Antonio Garcia, died last year after a long illness. She carries a photocopy of his ID card in the pocket of her walker. They lived on 77th Street for all of that time, but had no children. Once again, she is alone in the world – except for the people at the market’s café.

“I am very blessed that I go to Zabar’s,” she says. “The people are open to different things. I don’t care if they are Jewish or Chinese—it gives you a feeling that there is hope for humanity. In this way, you create a feeling of togetherness.”

“I love the coffee. That’s why I come.”

Paula Weissman

On Zabar's

After the Nazis Came: Paula Weissman’s Story

I was born in the Carpathian Mountains. The name of the town was Velykyi Bereznyi. There were woods, mountains, fresh water, farmland. It was quite a big town—people had stores; outside of the town, people had farms. We had a big garden: potatoes, corn, a big apple tree.
When I was a kid, we’d get milk from the farm. They would milk the cows and I would bring home the milk. I never liked milk, and my mother was so upset. She said, “You gotta drink milk!” This was warm milk. To this day, I only use milk when I drink coffee.

My parents spoke Hungarian among themselves and Yiddish in the house. My father was in the Hungarian army. In his mind, he thought that the Hungarians are friends, they’re not gonna kill nobody. But that was his imagination.

At school, I spoke Czech. I was 13 years old. In 1942 or 1943, I remember the planes flying over my town to Russia. We all watched. I went to school. I had no idea. I had one brother, eight years old at the time.

One day, in the spring, between March and April, I wake up and the Nazis were there, out of the blue. We were sitting outside—it was a nice day—and my mother was talking about Passover. They just came to the house and took us all, the whole family, put us in a cattle cart. Nobody tells anything. On each side of the cattle cart was a man in charge with a big shotgun, like in a cowboy movie, in case you escape.

We wind up in Poland. But you don’t know where you are going, and I hear people talking. I remember that the children asked their parents and I’d overhear conversations: “Where’re we going?”

We stopped to get water—there was a man working on the railroad, smoking a cigarette. And I’ll never forget this: People ask him, where are we going? He wouldn’t talk, just flicker the ashes from his cigarette. Now I understand why he did that, he was afraid. He was trying to tell us that, ‘You’re going to die.’ But he couldn’t talk because they were watching him. Even if he would want to tell you, he would be maybe killed. Then the cattle car kept going.

Eventually, after some hours, it stopped. It was in the night, 3 o’clock in the morning. Dark. People come, very tall Nazis. They had two dogs and very large flashlights. They tell you to get off the train, in German. They were told to pick out people to live and those to die. I was trying to get to my mother and they pushed me like this, aside. I kept running back to my mother and my brother. Two, three times, as I’m running back to my mother, the big Nazi, a very tall man, he had an insignia, he was laughing that I want to go to them. To him, it was a joke.

But as the light came, around 5 o’clock in the morning, I realized there was a line of people like me, my age, not older or younger. This was Auschwitz, but I didn’t know where I was.

We just stand in line, then we march, and they take us to a place with chicken coops. Inside, the people spoke Polish, and they had a yellow band around their arms. They were Jewish, but they were from Poland, and they were in charge: they called them kapo. The Germans made them in charge to tell us what to do. You have no idea where you are, why you’re there, where you’re going. Everything is a secret. They were very well organized not to tell, because we were scared, especially young children. I remember we were crying. When I was standing there, I saw young children crying and I didn’t understand. They must’ve known something, because they were crying for their mothers.

There were bunks, but there was nothing else there—no blanket, no mattress, nothing. You gotta be quiet, that I remember. You go to sleep, then you get up and your head hurts from the hard wood. They keep putting their finger on their lips, like this: Don’t ask questions.

The next morning, 3 o’clock, you wake up, they put you in a line. You’re waiting to get a tattoo. The line is from here a mile—it’s just unbelievable. You stand in line from early morning for three, four hours. Nobody is allowed to talk. They go along the line and they tell you not to talk and not to ask any questions. This went on every day, every morning; you go in line, for days and days. Each place has two ladies with a yellow band. They give you food: cooked potatoes in a shell. That’s all. No bread, no nothing, just a potato. And you’re so bewildered. You live a normal life with your family, and suddenly you’re in a place like that.

Paula Weissman

Paula Weissman (r) sits with a friend at Zabar’s central communal table.

I am very sensitive to smell and I asked these two young ladies: “I smell burned rubber,” I said. They looked at each other. They were smart. But I didn’t know why. They said, “They are baking bread,” which was a lie. This was the crematorium. That was how close we were to the disaster.

I had no idea. No women, no men, all children my age. Every day this went on, every day the same routine. Nobody tells you nothing. You see people crying, families. Nobody talks, nobody knows, so they can’t tell you anything. These people in charge with the yellow bands, they said, “No talking.” This went on for two, three weeks or so, the same routine, I don’t know how long.

One day, I am in line, and I overhear the loudspeaker asking, “Who wants to go to Hamburg?” I guess they were trying to get people to work in Hamburg. Immediately, I put my hand up. I want to get away from here—I don’t see no future here, I don’t see no change. When I heard the announcement, I volunteered immediately, I put my hand up.

In Hamburg, there was snow on the ground. Our job was to take cement blocks and build temporary housing for the Germans, because their buildings were all bombed. There was a lady who made a big pot of soup behind a building. There was no bathroom, so you’d go there and see a big kettle where she was cooking soup. You go there and you find something to put the soup. I had a hard time finding something. She didn’t want us to talk to her because she was afraid. If she would get caught, maybe they would kill her. You would make believe you were going to the bathroom to get the soup.

I must have mentioned the soup to somebody, because somebody said to me, “Would you like to switch?” She heard me say they have soup. I said, “Yeah, I don’t care. Go ahead.” So I went where she was, usually. That night, all people that went where I was before got killed. There was an accident—the streetcar may have derailed. When I came back that night from the other place, they mentioned the name of the person that I switched with. They said, “They all got killed.” So I was alive, because of that soup business. Maybe two, three hundred people got killed that day.

*

I don’t remember how, but they took me to a place called Bergen-Belsen. There were mountains of dead people, their eyes open and their hands stretched out. I guess they didn’t have anybody to take them away, they just lay there. The mountains were so big that you couldn’t go that way, you’d try not to step on them. Very hard, because you had to go in that area. I’m climbing over dead people, and one person I recognized as a neighbor from my town. I go over and I wanted to talk to her, because her eyes are open and her arms are stretched out. I think, “Gee, she looks familiar!”

She was from my town; she was maybe 18 years old. A neighbor. Then I realize it’s just dead people. You become so immune to everything. I didn’t cry.

But you’d see planes flying overhead, and I thought, “Is the war gonna be over soon?” I say to myself, “This is going to be good. The war’s going to be over.” I saw a lot of planes, American, English, you hear people talking: “The war’s going to be over soon.”

Suddenly people say the war is over. I thought they were imagining things. I saw English soldiers walking in the street. Somehow I wound up on the street, laying on the ground. I passed out. I was 80 lbs. I remember because they took me to hospital on a stretcher. They had little red berets. I was too weak to talk, but I guessed the war was over.

They kept me there about a month, in the hospital. I couldn’t eat nothing. There were a lot of nurses inside the hospital. I remember they took a teaspoon, they tried to put food in my food and it didn’t go in. Nothing stayed. This went on, and on. They saved my life. I didn’t know where I was, I kept thinking, “Maybe the war isn’t over. Maybe I’m in a dream.”

When you are hungry, you imagine things; that keeps you going. You dream that you’re alive; you dream that you’re eating. I said, maybe I’m imagining that I’m alive. Maybe the war is still on. But I see people go back and forth in white uniforms with a red cross, I keep looking. I couldn’t walk. I had a nurse on each side to help me walk, and this went on and on until I got a little stronger.

When I was in Germany, I was trying to go to Czechoslovakia to look for some relatives, not to go back to where I came from, because I knew they were all killed. Somebody said, “All you do is cross over the mountains, in Austria.” And that’s where I got captured by the Czech guards.

I completely forgot the language—I don’t know how. How can you completely forget a language? I started to sing a song that I learned when I was five years old, in Czech language. That’s all I remembered. To this day, I still remember. They teach us the song at kindergarten.

The Czech guards were crying. They said, “You can go anywhere you want.” But I had no money, nothing—where are you going to go? I wanted to go to Prague, but I had no money, so I decided to go back to Germany and stay there until my papers came through.

Somehow, I decided that I’ll go to America. To Brooklyn.

Some people went to Australia, some chose to go to Canada. I chose America, because I remember my father said, “See this picture? That’s your uncle in America!” Everything stayed in my head. You have no idea where you’re going, what you’re doing, nothing. But you know you’re free.

They put me in a hotel in New York on 103rd St. You stay there two, three days, and then you have to go. On the ship, they gave me $2. That was it. I didn’t know how much that was. You don’t know if $2 is $10, $20…

A man was in the lobby of the hotel using a phone booth. I says, “Do you speak Yiddish?” He says, “Yes.” He was very nicely dressed, a lawyer or a doctor. I said, “I need a job very bad. I’m here in the hotel, I just came from Europe.” I tell him the story. “I must leave the hotel because new arrivals are coming, they need the space!”

“I got a job for you,” he says. “I know European people, a husband and wife, and they have a big restaurant on 100th St. They have a little girl, four years old. They speak Hungarian”—I picked up Hungarian in the camps—“They need somebody to just walk with the little girl on Broadway, because they’re working in the restaurant.”

It was a beautiful place, white tablecloths and waiters, elegant. I was so happy to get something. The little girl was Giselle, four years old. I wish I knew where she is now.

They gave me a room, I walked with the little girl, I was in heaven.

I told people how I came to Auschwitz. They said, “My dear. You are one of thousands and thousands who went through that. Those other people don’t exist. Just accept it.”

And it was beginning to sink in that it’s no use looking, that I’m all alone. You don’t believe it, but you have to. You lie to yourself. But you keep thinking, ‘Maybe one day…’ and then you say to yourself, “Don’t be ridiculous. You’re fooling yourself.” You accept it as it is and go on with life and make the best of it.

In time, I moved to Brooklyn. I looked for signs saying ‘Help Wanted’. And that’s the story.

He was trying to tell us that, ‘You’re going to die.’

Paula Weissman

Potatoes

Paula Weissman remembers the Czech nursery rhyme she learned at school.

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