A Matter of Survival

Not many people have the honor of meeting a Holocaust survivor, so when I got a phone call offering the unique opportunity of hosting a Holocaust survivor for the day at our school, followed by a book signing, I couldn’t believe it.

I fast-tracked approval for the event through the administration and arranged to pick up the survivor and take him to and from my high school 20 miles outside of the city. I expected a stoic, reserved person, but instead David Faber was a vibrant, energetic man who in no way matched his professed age of 85. His wife, a fellow survivor, was talkative and charming. I couldn’t wait to introduce them to my students.

A photo of David Faber from the back of his book. Credit: DeLyn Martineau

A photo of David Faber from the back of his book. Credit: DeLyn Martineau

David Faber has one of the most amazing survival stories on record. David’s family was comprised of his parents, seven sisters, himself and his older brother Romek. When his little hometown of Tarnow, Poland, became occupied by the Nazis in 1942, they lived in an apartment building that soon devolved into a ghetto. His oldest sister escaped to England before the Germans surrounded the neighborhood with barbed wire and began requiring Jews to show their papers each time they went out. Residents lived in fear because armed Gestapo would regularly sweep the buildings and force people out, shooting anyone who resisted.

The family felt more and more afraid, so they moved to a warehouse and lived above a bakery, sneaking down at night to get flour and eggs to make bread, their only food. Romek cut a hole in the wall just big enough for a person to squeeze through into a small area above the attic of the adjacent building. They hung a picture over the hole, and when the Gestapo came on their roundups, the family could see them from the upper floor and have time to get everyone safely into their hiding place. Unfortunately that didn’t last long, and David’s family moved again.

Romek would frequently disappear for weeks at a time, and the family didn’t know if they would ever see him again. What they didn’t know was that Romek was working with the Resistance. Romek would appear after an extended absence with little explanation as to where he had been, but his family was so glad he was alive that nobody questioned him. One night, Romek took David with him to meet with some Resistance fighters, but they were waylaid by some Gestapo officers who recognized Romek and took them both to an office where they were questioned about a “blue file” which neither of them knew about. David watched Romek get tortured and killed. The officers decided David was too young to know anything, so they let him go.

David ran back to the abandoned apartment building where his mother and sisters waited anxiously for their return. David had never before lied to his mother, but when she asked him about Romek’s death, he didn’t share any details. At age 14, David had suddenly become the head of the family because their father had been killed a few months earlier. As the man of the house, it fell to David to provide for his sisters and ailing mother. He searched all the empty apartments for stashed jewelry, and when he found some, he sneaked out and traded it to a sympathetic farmer for some food.

He had just returned to his family with a couple of chickens and some bread when all of a sudden they heard telltale noises from the lower floor. Before anyone could react, the Gestapo burst through the apartment door. David, small for his age, slid unseen under a couch, but the men shot his sisters and mother. One of the officers jumped up and down on the couch, jabbing into David’s stomach over and over, making him vomit. He couldn’t make a sound, though, so he endured the pain until the officers left. He came out from under the sofa and collapsed in grief over his dead mother. As he heard his cries echo around the room, he marveled at how quiet it was, and realized he had to face the world alone.

David had survived, but it wasn’t long until he was captured. Over the next three years he was sent to a total of nine concentration camps, eventually becoming liberated from Bergen-Belsen in 1945. At the time, he weighed only 72 pounds at just past his eighteenth birthday.

Still, liberation wasn’t the end of his suffering. With no family, with no idea where he was and far from home, David was left to wander, begging food and shelter where he could find a kind face and helpful nature. He eventually made his way to England where he stayed with his sister until he fully recovered. Then he moved to the U.S. and began lecturing about his experiences. In 1990 he published his story in a book called Because of Romek. It is one of the most moving and intense stories of survival I have ever read.

Holocaust survivors have levels of post-traumatic stress that are so severe that their children, and even in some cases their grandchildren, have symptoms. Each survivor deals with the trauma differently. Some bottle it up, some make the lecture circuit, and some write books. David Faber has done all of these.

The Fabers had never been to Colorado Springs, so after sharing their wonder at Pikes Peak I bundled them into the car, and loaded at least 300 copies of Because of Romek into my trunk. On the way to the school I pointed out a small herd of pronghorn antelope, which I figured might surprise them, but they were nonplussed. “What is THAT?” Lena said as we drove past a junkyard. “We don’t have those in San Diego.” She pointed at one of the large car graveyards, a familiar part of the prairie landscape. She was fascinated. She couldn’t believe someone would keep those old pieces of junk.

I pulled up in front of the school, helped the Fabers out of the car, and arranged to get the books into the gym where we were hosting the event. Students from both the middle and high schools were invited, but we also put the word out to the local population, so about 500 people were in attendance for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

After I introduced David and made Lena comfortable in an office chair next to my seat, a hush fell over the crowd. For two solid hours, David related his story and answered questions about his experience, even showing his number tattoo: 161051. The audience was spellbound. Not one person moved the entire time. Anyone who has ever sat on bleachers for a basketball game knows how uncomfortable they are, but nobody so much as took an audible breath. The best part was, each time David related an anecdote, Lena would whisper in my ear, “And that’s not half of it…” and then she would share further details that only I could hear.

They sold out of books that day, even breaking into the stash set aside for David’s next stop. I could tell he was exhausted when I helped him back into the car afterward, but when I inquired about his energy level, he said, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead,” showing a sense of humor that had lain dormant most of the day. Lena clucked over him like a mother hen, and I sensed a deep connection between these two, even though they hadn’t met until much later in their lives at a Holocaust survivors group. Their similar experiences created a bond between them that passes understanding, and I witnessed this amazing connection as I drove them back to their hotel.

Photo Credit: DeLyn Martineau

Photo Credit: DeLyn Martineau

I was so moved by this experience that I sent David an email the next day thanking him and expressing all the appreciation and well-wishes from my students and the community. I am so grateful to have met David Faber; for one who has faced death so many times, and bravely, surely he was kept alive for a reason. He survived because of Romek, and has dedicated his life to sharing his story so the world will not forget the atrocities of the Holocaust.

To hear David tell part of his story, go here.