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While researching a project I am heavily involved with, I came across the writings of a woman named Ella Adler. The name won’t mean anything to readers, though there is a slight industry connection.
Ella, who died in 2007, was the wife of Harry Adler, a New York businessmen who together with his partner Stewart Damon created a business called Duty Free Shoppers in 1962, a Geneva-based mail-order catalogue business selling tax-free goods to American tourists in Europe. The business quickly floundered but was saved by the intervention of a certain Charles ‘Chuck’ Feeney and Bob Miller, who bought the name, enterprise and stock, later of course building a retail empire of the same name (now DFS Group).
In Googling the Adlers (pictured below), I found out that Ella Adler (nee Arbinger) was a survivor of the Kraków-Płaszów and Auschwitz-Birkenau German concentrations camps, later arriving in the US as a stateless refugee. Her husband Harry, also Jewish, had been among the first American troops to arrive at Buchenwald Concentration Camp on 12 April, 1945, one day after its capture.
Although not relevant to my project, I was now intrigued by their joint stories and discovered Ella Adler’s memoirs online. On a day when the world awoke to further news of the slaughter of the innocent, this time in Pakistan, to follow last week’s atrocities in Brussels, her words describing with almost unbearable pain man’s inhumanity to man are well worth repeating here.
Here they are:
The ride to Auschwitz-Birkenau, although seemingly interminable, lasted only four to six hours. I carried with me all I owned: the clothing on my body, a toothbrush, a lipstick, a picture of my mother and [sister] Ida’s letter.
When the heavy door of the train car was opened, an ugly dusk had fallen. Through my incomprehension, weakness and hunger, I could make out the tall, silver, shadowed, cane-shaped high electrified barbed wire poles looming over me. Crisp, well-tailored officers pulled us out of the train cars, jabbed, prodded and shoved us into lines while others of them gazed at us with steely, cold hatred, indifferent to our humanness.
The Nazi propaganda had worked. Those young officers were trained to see us as inhuman, infested vermin. We were almost living proof of a well instrumented self-fulfilling prophecy. Kapos in striped, filthy, prisoner uniforms herded us like undefined animals into a large room where we were separated, men from women, and told to undress. Shivering and cold with no respite from our sufferings, all that we possessed including our last remnants of dignity were taken from us.
We were not shaved, but naked, grey and sallow. We were inspected, turned around, looked up and down, classified and delineated. Who will live and who will die? By a flick of a clean manicured hand foppishly playing God, life was categorized to death.
Later Ella recounts arriving in the USA soon after the war, most of her family members having been wiped out by the Nazis.
Nearing New York Harbor, I saw with my own eyes what I had only heard about. There she stood, that green painted giantess, the Statue of Liberty, holding her torch to the sky and giving me the· grandest welcome anyone had ever received. My heart rose in my chest and pounded louder and louder as tears swelled in my eyes. Feelings of joy and guilt surged through me. “The others who perished should be here to share my happiness.” “Why was I chosen for life?”
America would save Ella. But even there she had to battle prejudice, being called ‘Damn refugee’ on more than one occasion as she struggled to adapt to life in the new world post the horror of the old. We live in an age where hatred of race, religion and refugees is spreading with grotesque, often mainstream acceptance and chilling momentum. Ella Adler’s memoirs testify to where, taken to the ultimate degree, all that can end.