My name is Victor Novak. In 2005 I was trying to find a Princeton University professor who was an accredited Holocaust historian, whom I read about in a newspaper article, but his name escaped me. I wanted to tell him about my wife, Hanna.
This is her story:
Not many of the inmates were non-Jews. No matter what, I fit none of the classifications. I am not: a Jew, Jehovah’s Witness, homosexual, gypsy, Communist, or other political deviant. I was put to hard labor. Those prettier than me were sent to army camps where there were SS controlled brothels and the women became soldier’s toys.
I was starving, but I finally got a piece of bread; I was fooled by the thought that the small crumbly piece of dried dough would be followed by a pat of butter. Butter was the highlight of my day and I can’t forget its promise.
I am here because I stooped down to help a man who lay motionless in the street; I soon discovered that he died from a gunshot wound.
As I said before, there was no longer anything in my life that held my interest better than the sweet softness of melting butter.
Any other food that I was given to eat paled by comparison. Most was stale or rancid or rotten and if I were lucky it was only tasteless. The other alternative was that there was no food at all. It was a horrible nightmare. People were milling around looking for morsels of food, crumbs. My stomach hurt as if a giant hand grabbed its softness and squeezed until I could bare it no more and continued to squeeze until I lost my mind.
People no longer spoke to each other; they just focused on food or things that they never thought of as food such as grasshoppers or even cockroaches. We had to work hard even with an empty belly; we had no choice. We were put on a diet of very little food.
From time to time I had flashbacks about the man who lay in the street. He had been my grocer. Especially, now I can remember the wonderful breads he sold along with milk, eggs, cheese, and of course the sweetest butter. I’ll always remember how he dealt with our IOUs that he wrote on tiny little pieces of paper and kept under thumbtacks that he never reminded us of and for which we paid him when we could. When asked about them he explained. “I know you will pay when you can. We are all part of this dark night. We must care about each other and wait for the light.”
I thought I was imagining things when I saw the usual food provider arrive with a small tray. It became obvious, the idea was to torment us, only provide enough for some and keep the rest squabbling. The guards loved to find an excuse to injure or kill one of us. I felt like one of the lucky ones, when I got a pat of butter. It was so soft and beautiful; golden and represented the culmination of all of my cravings.
The butter helped to remind me that there used to be good things in the world like bells on Christmas or sleeping late on Sunday mornings. Above all, the butter, more than anything fooled me when my eyes were closed; it made me feel like I was back home. For a sliver of time I could hear my mother’s voice. “Wake up Hanna. Help me make the pancakes.” I almost asked, “Do you want the white tablecloth or the one with the blue teacups on it?” That was before I realized that I was going mad. I remember how my mother would melt butter over pancakes, how she would make an omelet on a butter-greased skillet.
I realized that I was empathizing with the Jewish people in their predicament, not because of something I read, or someone told me gory details about. People would have difficulty to believe, without being there, that man could treat others as I had experienced first hand. I had been picked up by the Gestapo and I was sent to Treblinka concentration camp.
Others were sent immediately to pseudo-showers only to be gassed to death. I had only known Anna for a day when she had been selected by a camp administrator’s flip of a coin for prostitution or the showers. Anna’s luck was thin. She had been ransomed to the Gestapo for the equivalent of $10, by a quisling. Those people were not a majority, but in too many instances, destitute Poles, who had been taught the centuries’ old prejudices that served the Reich for even measly rewards.
Anna told me, “I had planned my escape, but that morning it was foggy and everything looked different under its moist veil. I came upon two young women, who themselves looked out of sorts. Even before I could finish my words, “Could you show me the way to…”
“Come with us. We will show you a way.” They led me to two very handsome officers, but members of the SS.”
In the end I had never gotten to taste the butter, because it was swept away by a raggedy blonde hair blue eyed little girl who in her real life had been very likely treated, as a girl of her age should have been. It’s understandable that she thought nothing of taking a pat of butter from an adult woman, as I sat with tears in my eyes. My reason, having been reduced to visualizing the goodness of the world, through eyes that witnessed wholesale death, while I suffered from starvation, tiny fingers stole my world away. “My butter, my butter; please, give it back to me. Can’t you see that it’s mine,” I said, as I attempted to tackle the evil urchin, but tripped over my own feet onto the floor that smelled of urine and feces.
“Please, come with me Frau Novak.” It was the voice of the camp leader, Herr…..
His words were polite, which I hadn’t heard for weeks; the hypocrisy of it. I recognized him. He had stomped an old woman to death with his boots. This Nazi prepared to deliver me, as if he were without fault for people’s certain death, as if others were the only ones with guilt. Unbeknownst to me, a smiling man, perhaps in his fifties stood waiting patiently for me at the end of a long road.
I don’t know how much time passed, while the Nazi continued his politeness. He fed me a small recuperative meal. While I washed away the filth, sweat, and body lice that I acquired during my travail, there wasn’t the lack of privacy punctuated by sporadic peering eyes that we had to endure as inmates. Then he provided me with clean clothes.
I found out later that my husband, Victor, had worked tirelessly to secure my freedom with the help of the Red Cross in England. Because we were Polish, Victor served in the Polish army in England. I asked the smiling man, “But what about the other people? Does anyone care?”
The Smiling Man moved his head from side to side as if it were an upside down pendulum. “We try.”
He just shrugged and I thought… What about the raggedy blue eyed little girl or Anna?
Until people learned how to make butter there was probably nothing that compared to it, especially in a place like Treblinka. In memory of all those women and children, whom I’ve tried to remember, but failed, to this very day I can no longer eat butter nor does it represent to me that there are good things in the world. Fortunately, I am now free. It must be, so I can tell my story, and I must tell and retell it.
Robert Haveson retired from Electronic Engineering in 1995. From 1972 to 1980, he taught calculus at a small New Jersey college. A former South Brunswick resident, he now lives in Fort Lee.