Last Passover Holocaust survivor Malka Springer celebrated her 82nd birthday. Since World War II ended, Malka has rebuilt her life, with her very own family, and yet has remained attached to her childhood doll – one she says, helped her survive the war.
Springer was born in Poland in 1930 as Malka Chesher. Growing up in a non Jewish neighborhood, Malka was not allowed to go to kindergarden or play with the other kids. Her only sister was 10 years older, and Malka was the only child in the house. “The only friends I had were my dolls.” One particular doll turned out to be especially important.
“It was a very small doll,” Malka remembered, “it had real hair and eyes that opened and shut.” She named it ‘Heidi’. When the war broke, Malka was 9 years old. Her family fled to the east, and Malka took one doll with her – Heidi. For months the family walked east until reaching a labor camp in Russia.
“One day I was lost in the forest,” recounted Malka, “I was scared and crying, I took Heidi out of my pocket and asked her what to do, and then I saw she was pointing with her hand. I decided to follow that direction, and that is how I found my way back. She saved me.”
Malka and her parents survived the war, thanks to her older sister who married an officer in the Red Army. The rest of the family perished. Malka met Yosef Springer after they returned to Poland. They fell in love and decided to get married and Come to Israel in an illegal immigrants’ ship. In Israel they built a dairy farm that supported them for 40 years.
“After we came to Israel Yosef kept telling me to throw the doll away, but I couldn’t. It was a remnant from my home in Poland, and I insisted on keeping it. I didn’t even let my daughter to play with it. I told her the doll saved my so we must keep it safe.” To this day, the doll remained in excellent condition.
When Malka’s daughter saw Yad Vashem’s call to contribute objects and documents form the Holocaust for preservation, she convinced her mother that Heidi would be better kept there.
Malka said that at first she hesitated, but then she realized that it would be the best way to keep and honor the doll. “The first night without it I felt bad, but I don’t regret it. I know it’s in good hands now.”
What is strength? First, we may need to ask what strength we’re talking about. Mental strength? One’s will? The strength to withstand difficult situations and make decisions? The strength to survive? And perhaps this is simply about physical strength?
For 67 years I’ve been asking myself how I found the strength. The strength to face, every day, the blows that destiny poured on me in that cursed place known as an extermination camp.
The strength to wake up every morning at five to the sound of screams and run naked, in summer and in winter, to the frozen shower. The strength to return to my block wet and receive the dark water masking as coffee, the stale bread and piece of margarine we swallowed in seconds, to put on the striped uniform that was too big for me and the wooden-soled shoes, and to rush to the courtyard where we were counted, until the order was given: Arbeitskommandoes formieren – get into working groups.
The strength to head out of the camp every day, in rows of five and marching in the same pace, with the Kapo ordering us: Muetzen ab – remove your hats – as SS soldiers counted us. Again.
How did I find the mental strength and will to survive another day, and then another day?
And where did I find the strength to present myself as a boxer, feeling this may turn out to be a positive decision? After all, this strength bordered on chutzpah, as I was no boxer. Here too was an expression of that will to make every effort, realize an objective that appeared to be impossible, and survive the horror.
I also found physical strength. At the boxing ring I used the little strength left in my body in order to face fellow inmates who were professional boxers. I did it all in order to receive the extra liter of soup served every evening by the camp commander, the man who initiated these fights for his own personal pleasure, a private show organized at the camp.
Sixty-seven years have passed, and I still don’t know where and how I found the strength.