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As Long as I Live, I Will Tell My Story

(Published Winter 1999 edition of the Yad Vashem Quarterly Magazine)

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 death.
"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."