Dr. Nathan C. Moskowitz is a Renaissance man. He is a neurosurgeon, neuroscientist, painter, inventor, religious scholar, accomplished author, Assistant Professor of Neurosurgery at the Johns Hopkins Medical School, and much more (for a complete bio, please see below). I had the good fortune to interview him about his most recent accomplishment, the publication of Kuzmino Chronicles: Memoirs of Teenage Holocaust Survival (Shoah Forensics Art Institute Publications, 2014).
In Kuzmino Chronicles Dr. Moskowitz shares the story of his parents Holocaust saga as told in their own words. Leib and Gittel Moskowitz were both raised in Kuzmino, a small town in Trascarpathia, in what was then Czechoslovakia (presently Ukraine). Leib and Gittel entered the camp system in 1944 as teenagers and it was there that their paths diverged. “Book I: Kuzmino Chronicles of Leib Moskowitz,” recounts Leib Moskowitz’s early life in Trascarpathia, his wartime experiences in Auschwitz-Birkenau and Mauthausen, liberation, return to Kuzmino, stint in an American DP camp in Germany, and immigration to the United States. “Book II: Kuzmino Chronicles of Gittel Moskowitz” tells Gittel Moskowitz’s story, starting with her childhood in Kuzmino, arrest by the Hungarian Police, time in Auschwitz, Ravensbruck, and Malchow (a sub-camp of Ravensbruck), liberation, return to Kuzmino, and her eventual arrival in the United States via the United Kingdom. Leib and Gittel reconnected in the US and married in 1951.
Dr. Moskowitz enhances his parents’ testimony with a carefully constructed historical frame. He interweaves original documents and photos collected in the International Tracing Service Archive housed at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC and the rich archives at Yad Vashem in Israel.
I asked Dr. Moskowitz about his experiences interviewing his parents, conducting historical research, and compiling Kuzmino Chronicles. This interview will be published in three parts.
Q: Not all Holocaust survivors wanted to talk about their experiences or share them with their family. Others felt a great need to talk about what happened. I am curious, what was it like in your family?
I grew up in a home with three Holocaust survivors in my immediate family: my father, my paternal grandmother, and my mother. Their individual desires to talk about the Holocaust spanned a broad emotional spectrum.
My father’s mother (who died when I was thirteen) never spoke one word about her Holocaust experiences, not only to me, but also not to my father or my mother. As a result of researching historical records for Kuzmino Chronicles, I unearthed documents from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum recording that my grandmother was liberated from Dachau on May 5, 1945. It is well known that American forces liberated prisoners from the Dachau camp on April 29, 1945, and then proceeded to liberate the prisoners who had been sent on a death march from Dachau in early May 1945. I commented to my father that her date of liberation correlated with the date of liberation of those on the death march, and hence she must have been one of those prisoners on the death march. I asked him if he could confirm that this was indeed the case, and if she ever discussed the dreary details of this death march with him. He told me that she never spoke to him about anything that happened to her during her incarceration, and that he was completely unaware that she was on a death march, despite the fact that this certainly must have been the case based on all the historical records. I was quite surprised. I speculated that my grandmother never spoke to me about her experiences because she might have thought I was too young to understand, and that perhaps she wanted to spare me from some kind of emotional trauma. Apparently she didn’t even breathe a word of her experiences to her own son, who like herself went through concentration camps. Not only that, but my father likewise, never even once thought about asking her about her experiences.
I first learned about the Holocaust from my mother when I was approximately four or five years old. I remember her reading a book (before I learned to read) with black and white photos on the front and back covers. Appearing on the back cover was a photo of very emaciated people wearing striped uniforms, huddling together behind a barbed wire fence. Appearing on the front cover was a photo of a middle-aged balding man wearing black glasses. It turns out that this was a book about Adolf Eichmann’s trial in Israel.
She noticed me staring at the photograph on the back of the book, and she rhetorically asked me “you see these people? I once looked like them”. She then gave me a very brief history of what she and her family had gone through, and informed me that she was the sole survivor of a very large family with eight children. She was tattooed with a number, but when she came to the United States she was embarrassed by it, so she had it surgically removed. She showed me the scar on her forearm. She said that because her entire family was killed, she I didn’t have any uncles, aunts or cousins. I then asked her to explain to me what the words “uncle, aunt and cousin” meant, never having heard those strange words before.
With respect to the book’s front cover photo, she told me that this was the infamous Nazi, Adolf Eichmann, and she then read to me the quotation underneath his photograph of him bragging that he killed over a million Jews, and that he regretted not killing even more. This was probably the most information she ever personally shared with me until I interviewed her for Kuzmino Chronicles. Over the ensuing years, she sporadically and intermittently discussed a few of her particular experiences in passing, but in general, she spoke very little about them.
My father, likewise, didn’t speak much about his experiences, but I knew that both he and my grandmother were concentration camp survivors. At about the same time frame that my mother was reading the Eichmann book, my father, on a separate occasion, showed me a rescued, damaged, family photo of him when he was an eleven year old child standing next to his mother and his thirteen year old brother, Herman. His brother’s face was entirely missing due to the damage. This photograph (see: “Image I”) left a very powerful impression on me and haunted me for a very, very long time. I couldn’t get that image out of mind; the image of my uncle’s faceless face. It was like a puzzle. I wondered what his face might look like.
I finally thought I solved this puzzle when I found Herman’s Mauthausen prisoner card on the Yad Vashem Central Data Base of Shoah victims’ names. The card listed his physical attributes including his height, the color of his hair, the color of his eyes, the shape of his face, the position of his ears, the spaces between his teeth, his broken nose, and the scar behind his left knee. These physical descriptions provided a wealth of forensic information allowing me to reconstruct him artistically in two separate paintings.In one painting I portrayed him the way I perceived the Nazis viewed him (see: “Image II” ), and in the other painting, I portrayed him idyllically, the way his family would see him (see: “Image III). After creating these paintings I thought this would make an excellent Holocaust educational project for students to learn about the Shoah.
I therefore founded The Shoah Forensics Art Institute and devised Project Ezekiel wherein High School students forensically reconstruct Holocaust victims’ images from their Mauthausen Prisoner cards downloaded from the Yad Vashem website.
In order to complete the entire puzzle of the damaged photo, in collaboration with a very dear friend of mine, a renowned portrait artist (Judy Horowitz), the entire family photo was artistically reconstructed (see: “Image IV). This became the front cover of Kuzmino Chronicles. Ultimately it was this painting that inspired me to write my parents’ memoirs in order to fill in the blank spaces in my family’s history, just as I had filled in the blank spaces of my Uncle Herman’s faceless face.
In addition to my nuclear family of three Holocaust survivors, my parents socialized predominantly if not exclusively with other Holocaust survivors and their children. I recall my father often commenting to his friends, when they were in their forties or fifties, how incredulous he was that they were still alive at such a ripe old age. He gesticulated and smiled asking them “When we were there, could you have dreamed in your wildest imagination that we would be alive at the age of forty five?” One of his friends laughed and shook his head, “No never in a million years. I would have been tickled pink if I knew I was going to live another week”.
My parents and their friends as a general rule were joyous and grateful to be alive, savoring every minute and day of their lives, considering themselves exceptionally fortunate to have cheated death.
I went to a Jewish elementary school (Yeshiva) in New York where the majority of the students were children of survivors. Nobody talked about their parents being survivors, but I assumed at a young age (as I assumed my colleagues did), that if you’re Jewish, you are a child of Holocaust survivors. That was my immediate experience. I lived in a Holocaust survivor bubble. It was only later in life, as a teenager that I met other Jews whose parents were born in America, and who weren’t in concentration camps. When I met these people I was initially shocked, I didn’t believe that Jews like that existed.
Q: The term “second generation Holocaust survivor” has become a popular phrase used to describe the children of Holocaust survivors. What does this term mean to you?
I strongly dislike this term simply because it is inaccurate and misleading. There is no such thing as a second generation Holocaust survivor. There is only one generation of Holocaust survivors. It is only that generation that suffered their experiences and survived. Their martyrdom and their survivorship are not bequeathed to, or reflected upon, their children and descendants. Their children and their descendants, have shared lives with them, and /or are acutely aware of their progenitors’ history, and perhaps are mores sensitive to their plight, and are more motivated to learn about this epoch. Nevertheless, this doesn’t transform them into a second generation survivor.
I understand the sentiment for constructing this term. This anticipates the ultimate demise of Holocaust survivors, and the gaping hole that will be left in their absence, hoping that the second and third generation can somehow stand in their ancestors’ shoes to testify to the reality and horrors of the Holocaust. I completely understand this sentiment. But ultimately, especially when it comes to the Holocaust, unvarnished honesty and truth must prevail, despite the sincerest of motivations.
Nathan C. Moskowitz, MD, PhD, FACS, FICS is a visionary painter, neurosurgeon, neuroscientist, and inventor. He is the author of a neuroscience book Molecular modulation of chemical presynaptic neurotransmission (Praeger Press) and of a biblical art book The Color of Prophecy: Visualizing the Bible in a new light (Gefen publishing House). He has published over thirty scientific articles related to neuroscience and neurosurgery, multiple articles on biblical analysis for the Jewish Bible Quarterly, as well as over forty patents/patent pendings of medical device designs and applications. He has exhibited his paintings either in solo or group exhibitions in Europe, Australia, and the United States, and one of his paintings is in the permanent collection of the Yad Vashem Art Museum in Israel. He is currently Assistant Professor of Neurosurgery at the Johns Hopkins Medical School, a member of the Arts and Letters Council of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, and president and founder of the Shoah Forensics Art Institute.