As Long as I Live, I Will Tell My Story
(Published Winter 1999 edition of the Yad Vashem Quarterly
In the summer of 1942, at the tender age of fifteen, Dov Freiberg
was transported from the Warsaw ghetto to Sobibor extermination
camp. Over the seventeen-month period that Freiberg spent in the
camp, up to 260,000 Jews were murdered in its six gas chambers.
On 14 October 1943, together with over 350 fellow inmates, Freiberg
escaped Sobibor and fled to the surrounding forests. After spending
ten months in the forests, he was liberated by the Russian army
in July 1944, and made his way back to Poland. Finding that there
was nothing left for him there and that his family had perished,
he set his sights on immigrating to Palestine. After departing
on the Exodus in the summer of 1947, and being sent back to displaced
person camps in Germany by the British, Freiberg finally arrived
in Palestine in January 1948. He immediately joined the Haganah
and fought in the War of Independence in the Golani brigade.
I met with Dov Freiberg, one of only five remaining survivors
of Sobibor, and his wife, at their Ramle apartment to discuss
his dedicated contribution to Holocaust education over the last
forty years. He began by explaining to me how he became involved
in this endeavor.
In the early years of his life in Israel, he found that there
was a great reluctance on the part of Israeli society to listen
to the stories of immigrants who had survived the extermination
camps in Europe.
"No-one wanted to listen to us. We were treated like second
class citizens. So we learnt to keep quiet."
It was only during the Eichmann trial, when survivors like Freiberg
were called upon to give testimony of the atrocities they had
seen and suffered at the hands of the Nazis, that this prevailing
attitude changed and the Israeli public's interest in the Holocaust
increased. Suddenly, Freiberg was invited to give talks at schools,
army bases, and other institutions:
"People would listen to me talk and they would be riveted.
I realized how important it was for me to do this. When people
were walking towards the gas chambers at Sobibor, they would cry
out, "If you survive, tell the world what they did to us,
avenge our deaths!" It is because of this that I feel that
I have an enormous obligation to tell people what happened. We
have to know what happened and how. People ask me why the Jews
walked into the gas chambers like sheep to the slaughter. I am
hoping that by hearing one man's personal story of the Holocaust,
that the tragedy of the Holocaust, on a grand perspective, will
be understood. If you hear someone talk about the murder of six
million Jews, you can't really absorb it, but you can relate to
the story of an individual and it can affect you deeply."
Freiberg's dedication to Holocaust awareness and education has
brought him into close cooperation with Yad Vashem. He has delivered
countless lectures to visitors of all ages and nationalities,
spoken at international seminars and lead youth groups on tours
to Poland. When he was first approached by Yad Vashem to accompany
a youth group to Poland, he was very reluctant to return to a
country that still espoused anti-Semitism and had caused him so
much pain. However, feeling drawn to see once again the places
of his childhood, he agreed to go. Shortly thereafter, he was
again asked to lead a tour to Poland - this time he only agreed
because his two adult daughters were permitted to accompany him.
"I stood there at Sobibor -- with my daughters on either
side of me -- as a victor and not a victim!" Together with
his daughters, he also found his father's grave and was able to
recite kaddish for the first time. His third trip to Poland was
at the invitation of the late PM Yitzhak Rabin on the occasion
of the 50th anniversary of the uprising of the Warsaw Ghetto.
Freiberg believes that all Jewish youth should experience Poland,
provided they have been thoroughly educated about the Holocaust
so that they can understand what they are seeing when they get
there. He believes that nothing can compare to the real experience
of standing in front of the furnace where thousands of Jewish
bodies were burnt in Majdanek or seeing piles of belongings of
Holocaust victims, or of visiting places in Poland that once had
thriving Jewish communities. But his intention is not to induce
youngsters into a state of heavy mourning and anguish - indeed,
in the evenings he urges them to visit discos and have fun.
"What's important is that they know what happened during
the Holocaust, not that they mourn and wail about it. I do not
want to take away the joy of their youth."
Talking about his experiences has brought Freiberg tremendous
comfort and fulfillment. He admits however, that no matter how
many times he tells his story, there comes a point when he cannot
go on: "Something gets caught inside me, and I see myself
back there, but this pain never prevents me from going on."
Indeed, in the midst of this explanation, he suddenly became overcome
with emotion and was unable to continue. But true to his word,
after collecting himself, he broke the heavy silence with a joke,
commenting that "the older [he] gets the more emotional [he]
become[s]." He also gets great satisfaction from answering
his audiences' questions, because they challenge him to think
about issues that he hadn't considered before and allow him to
describe experiences in more detail.
He recalls one question that amazed him. A 10-year-old girl asked
him whether he'd ever wished that he'd never been born a Jew.
He explained to her that he'd been raised and educated in a traditional
Jewish home - the thought had never even occurred to him. There
was also the incident when an Israeli soldier asked him why he
hadn't left the Diaspora for Palestine before the war. To this,
Freiberg replied with an equally provocative question: "How
is it that youngsters like yourself, who have the benefit of having
learnt the lessons of the Holocaust, leave Israel to make a few
more dollars overseas?"
Now, at eighty years old, Freiberg realizes that the number of
Holocaust survivors is dwindling. Recognizing his own mortality,
he has preserved his own story for coming generations in the three
books he has written, so that his story might live on after his
"Already there are Holocaust deniers. The ashes at Treblinka
are still visible, yet people deny that the Holocaust ever took
place." He believes that ongoing Holocaust education is vital,
especially amongst youth. He sees a great improvement in the standard
of Holocaust education in Israel's schools and takes great comfort
from the popularity of his first book, "Remnant of Sobibor"
which is already in its fifth edition. He hopes that as long as
there are books, recorded testimonies (such as the Spielberg Testimonial
Program), museums and Holocaust educators, the lessons and story
of the Holocaust will live on through future generations.
But for now, says a resolute Freiberg, "as long as I can
stand on my two legs, I will tell my story where ever they want
me. It is not important to me where I am invited. Whenever I am
called, I go and I speak."