In a time when so many children are facing the scourge of war, the physical and psychological coping skills of a young Roman Ferber details the exacting process of survival in a newly published biography, Journey of Ashes: A Boyhood in the Holocaust. (Excerpts can be found at www.journeyofashes.com)
“I’m mindful,” says Roman, (now a man in his eighties), “that all over the world, children in war zones are being traumatized and orphaned by violence, exile and other severe deprivations. Their bodies sometimes wounded, their minds broken by loss and what they have to endure daily. The world must take serious notice of wasting entire generations of children. Those Syrian kids in the refugee camps in Lebanon and Jordan need their lives to be made whole so they can bring their skills and gifts to the rebuilding of their country. It’s not about bricks and mortar or peace treaties, but how you heal these kids from having their spirits damaged by war and turn them into confident, healthy adults. This is both an international and local responsibility. Above all, it's a human imperative. ”
Co-authored by writer, Anna Ray-Jones, Roman’s story explores the wartime experiences of one of the youngest survivors on Schindler’s List. He has never forgotten the lessons of survival he learned in those war years and is sensitive to the plight of children in similar situations today.
By the time he reached his twelfth birthday, Roman had been confined in the Krakow Ghetto, and the camps of Plaszow, Gross Rosen, Brinnlitz, and Auschwitz. Thanks to his older brother, Manek Ferber and his friendship with Oskar Schindler, Roman found himself one of the youngest Jews on Schindler’s list, along with his father, grandfather and an 8-year old cousin, Wilús Schnitzer. However, even the famous list didn’t save them from being exiled to Auschwitz where the lives of children where extinguished daily. Once his father was sent on a forced march to Germany in 1945 (where he was murdered) Roman was left to care for Wilús alone. It is a tribute to his enduring courage and his sturdy sense of self that the two kids survived.
“When we were both detained in the camps, I made my father a firm promise that Wilús and I would survive at all costs, that I would find any way possible for us to live through the Shoah. In Plaszow, I traded waste paper for food, firewood and warm socks. In Auschwitz, I connived as a garbage collector with other boys to harvest decaying fruit and bread from the camp’s dumps, food waste from the German kitchens. Some of it was still quite good so I traded it for other resources. At age 12, I was demon card player and would also win food for my cousin and me, especially from the Dutch and French prisoners who often received Red Cross packages.”
Roman goes on to say that his survival focus kept him hyper alert, that although missing an education, his energies were set firmly on how to live to the next day, to always look busy, ask for work, try to find food at all costs while keeping a low profile away from brutal Kapos and bored soldiers who would sometimes use kids as target practice.
What does he have to say to those children of today confined in refugee camps?
“Thank God there are some caring people around you who will get you fed and keep you safe. If you are without your parents, even if you’ve missed school for some years, take whatever you can learn and make it useful, get a sense of how the camp works, take care of younger kids and help them. No bad thing is forever, so take your courage in both hands and see if you can find ways to transcend your situation. Above all, never give up! ”
And to the adult world that looks on?
“Over a million and a half kids were murdered in the Holocaust--both Jewish and Gentile--while the rest of Europe and the USA met our situation with indifference,”
Roman’ story in Journey of Ashes (now available on Amazon) traverses a fine line between humor and tragedy. It presents a fascinating, lively memoir of a boy growing up surrounded by the German occupation in Poland. Ray-Jones’
The work is also a timely rebuff to the recent eruptions in Europe where chants about gassing Jews makes anti-Israel protests into “…raw anti-Semitism finding a semi-respectable outlet.” Roman is a living witness to the dark places and senseless brutalities such extreme reactions can lead us to.