Holocaust survivor, author speak at Academy's Holocaust Remembrance

  • Published
  • By Don Branum
  • Air Force Academy Public Affairs
Eighteen: That's the age of many of the young men and women who join the Air Force Academy each year. It's how old Renee Rockford was when she traveled to Tel Aviv, Israel, to report on the World Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors in 1980.

Eighteen was the age of her father, David Bram, when the Third Army, under Army Gen. George Patton, liberated him and a handful of other survivors from the Buchenwald concentration camp near Weimar, Germany, on April 11, 1945.

Both Rockford and Bram spoke April 8 at the Air Force Academy's Holocaust Remembrance Day observance: a somber luncheon at the Falcon Club, decorated with photos of exhibits at the National Holocaust Museum in Washington and with candlelight flickering beneath the projection screens on either side of the room.

Rockford spoke first, recalling her experience at the World Gathering.

"I'm hiding in the fire escape stairwell in a high-rise hotel," she recalled. "It is the second or third day ... I'm there with my father, but I'm also there with press credentials, covering the event for two major metropolitan daily (newspapers). ... There were survivors who, upon seeing the press credential around my neck, shared with me their absolutely consuming need to have their story told, and told to the world."

Over several days, Rockford interviewed many survivors, including Raphael Stieglitz, who moved to Hollywood, Fla., after his rescue.

"He still carried a photo of the young wife he lost in the Holocaust, but he had no photos of his two children who'd been murdered," Rockford said. "He told me about what happened to him in the 12 camps that he'd survived: about the medical experimentation, castration -- of course without anesthesia -- and about being the only one of his family to come out alive. He told me about using a portion of his small life savings to make that trip to Israel just in case, just in case he could find a familiar face."

The emotional weight of his stories forced her to hide in the fire escape until she could compose herself and return to hear more, she said.

"But I did keep my promise to Raphael," she added. "After that event, I told his story in multiple newspaper articles. He continued to stay in touch for some time until his death, and through him, I really learned it was possible for a body to survive but for the soul to be ravaged and for the heart to be broken. How he must have wondered whether he had done his duty as a survivor? Had he properly articulated his story on behalf of his wife and his children? Had he acted as a true witness?

"And I have wondered whether I have properly told his story, and if not for me, who would do so?" she continued.

Few of the Holocaust survivors Rockford interviewed for her book, "The Triumphant Spirit," still survive, she said. Among the departed are Vladka Meed, who helped organize the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

Still alive, however, is Elie Wiesel, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, author of more than 40 books and a professor at Boston University. And like many other Holocaust survivors, Wiesel "still speaks with urgency and strength and conviction -- not just about the Holocaust but about all human rights," Rockford said.

She and her husband met Wiesel during a dinner at Regis University. The university president, knowing Rockford's family history, gave her the seat next to the professor.

"I asked Wiesel about his writing and his teaching, I told him about my father," she said. "And then I wondered to myself and asked him aloud: 'Mr. Wiesel, you who have survived some of the same unspeakable horrors of so many Holocaust victims that I have interviewed, how is it that you maintain your belief in the human race ...?' I wanted him to tell me, just as I wanted my father to tell me, that there was a reason to believe it would all be OK, that there would be no more Holocausts, that we had seen mankind at his worst and that we, as a human race, will rise up.

"Wiesel looked into my eyes, and he said, 'I do not believe, but I must continue to speak,'" she continued. "It was then that I realized what it means to say 'Never again.' I had to stop looking to others, to survivors, to reassure me that the world would survive."

Bram didn't have the energy to celebrate when men in American Army uniforms arrived at Buchenwald in April 1945. But now, he said, "Anytime I see someone in an American uniform, my heart just blossoms. I feel like you are protecting my freedom, and I'm to a point where I'm relying on you for my grandchildren to be free."

Bram fielded questions about living conditions in the five camps he lived in during his five years of imprisonment. Escape was impossible, as the prisoners were too weak to make the attempt due to malnourishment.

"We were there for one reason: not to survive," he said. "It was just a matter of time -- if Hitler had won the war, G-d forbid, none of us would be alive right now anyway, because we couldn't have survived much longer. We were always sick, we were all barely getting out of bed in the morning."

He returned to the Polish town where he grew up after the war to find that some of his family's former neighbors blamed the Jewish people for Nazi brutality.

"My home, where I had been living, was no longer there, so I asked the Polish family living in the house next to it ... I tried to communicate with them," he said. "He says to me,
'What are you doing here? Hitler didn't kill you? You shouldn't have made it here. ... You Jews don't belong here.'

"But there were also the opposite: There were good Polish people who helped the Jewish people during and after the war," he added. "You can't always expect to be welcomed or involved. There's always going to be someone who hates you regardless."

Hatred later evolved into denial, despite the best efforts of Army Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, who would later become the president who brought the Air Force Academy into being. After visiting the Ohrdruf camp, Eisenhower encouraged government officials in Washington and London to send journalists and legislators who could provide evidence "to the American and British publics in a fashion that would leave no room for cynical doubt."

But Bram said he doesn't see a point in returning hatred with hatred.

"I am not a hateful person," he said. "The thing I would like to see is the people who committed the crimes. They're the ones who should caught, should be punished -- with justice. Hating does not bring any relief. Hating only stimulates more hate and creates more problems. I do not think we should hate, but we should do everything we can to bring justice to people who commit crimes."