A few years back, a friend named Sonya told me about her father, who survived the Auschwitz death camp but lost everything else, including his young wife and 2-year-old son. He had come to America after the war, started a new life, a new family, worked into his old age as a sign maker in Detroit.
“He reads your column,” Sonya said. “He’d like to meet you.”
I promised it would happen, then, of course, never followed up. Now and again, she would mention it, and I’d say, “Oh, sure, sure, let’s make the time,” but again, I fell short.
Last month, in the empty days between Christmas and New Year’s, I finally went to see Sonya’s father. At this point, he was in a nursing home, having broken his collarbone after falling on the way to the bathroom. His body was thin, almost skeletal, a boy’s body under the sheets, but his face, round yet bony, thin lips, narrow eyes, revealed the weariness of a tortured life.
“Hello, I’m -“
“I know who you are,” he said, smiling, his voice weak.
He was 91. Or 89. No one is sure. It really doesn’t matter. Once I heard his story, it was clear that the remarkable thing about Harvey Vinton wasn’t how long he lived, but that he lived at all.
Why he managed to survive
He was born Chaim Weinstein in a small Polish town, and his real first name, in Hebrew, means “life.” Yet from birth it seemed that name was to be tested. Three days after he came into this world, his mother died. He grew up poor, raised by his grandmother. In time he married and had a son of his own. He was a fine artist and found work as a sign painter and monument carver. Thanks to beautiful penmanship – today you would call him a calligrapher – several shops in his hometown welcomed customers beneath his handiwork.
Then the Nazis invaded Poland. Jews were rounded up, humiliated, forced to wear yellow stars, earmarked, by Adolf Hitler, for murderous extermination. One evening, Chaim was returning from work when his train was stopped by German soldiers. He never made it home. Never saw his wife or son again. They were butchered in one concentration camp, he was taken to another, then another, then another. Before the Nazis were done with him, he was a prisoner in 11 different pits from hell.
Auschwitz was the last.
There he slept inches away from other Jewish prisoners who, like him, were kept so hungry and filthy you could scrape lice from their arms as if rubbing off sand from the beach. At night, he might whisper a few words to someone, and in the morning, find that person stiff and dead. Corpses were everywhere; no one hurried to take them away. To reach the toilet – which was only a piece of wood – he had to waddle through ankle-deep human waste. He was weak to the point of collapse, every day, because there was no real food, only rotted scraps and potato peelings. And these were the quiet moments, before the sun woke the Nazi guards and their daily torture commenced.
The purpose of the death camps was to wipe out the Jews entirely, and Chaim was put to work on various tasks, sometimes digging ditches for the bodies of his slaughtered camp mates. Dead Jewish corpses were stacked everywhere, women, infants, old men, waiting to be tossed into a pit. Some of them, Chaim remembered, were still gasping, still alive in a pile of death. He yearned to help them. What could he do? Their minutes were numbered. His, too, he thought.
But Chaim survived. He survived with his hands. The Nazis, having discovered his unique penmanship, used him to write letters. They used him to paint signs or portraits in their houses. He was a possession for the officers, a Jew with a talent, and so, even though the guards would sometime sic the dogs on him, allowing them to chew his legs and chomp on his arms, they didn’t let him die. They always pulled him out and used him elsewhere. In this way, he lived when most everyone else died. It was, for the rest of his days, his blessing and his curse.
One winter day in 1945, Auschwitz was liberated by Russian soldiers, and an emaciated Chaim found himself alone in a strange village. People were saying, “You’re free. Go.” He stepped into the street. The sky began to spin. Then he collapsed.
He woke up in a hospital, stricken with typhoid fever. It was a disease that killed nearly everyone who had it. But true to his name, Chaim lived through it. He was sent to another camp, this one for displaced persons. He met a woman there. They married.
A few years later he came to America.
How he searched for meaning
A holocaust, for those who survive it, might be past tense, but it is never the past. Through his years in Detroit, through his 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s, Chaim Weinstein – who changed his named to Harvey Vinton out of fear that his Judaism would mark him again – woke up screaming. He had horrible dreams. He had dark, sullen moments. He couldn’t help but tell his story to family or dinner table company, often to the point where someone would say, “Enough, stop.”
Stop? If only it would stop. He read incessantly about the Holocaust, the death camps, as if studying might yield some answers, some peace. He watched documentaries. He watched “Schindler’s List.” He retained his skill at drawing and calligraphy, but he never allowed himself to truly practice his talent. His love of art had been corrupted by the Nazis, as had his sleep, his memories, even his name. He was alive, but he saw ghosts.
Last year, Harvey fell into a coma. The reasons are still unclear. But when he came out of it, four days later, he spoke of an epiphany. He said he had been watching a TV program on the Animal Planet network when something came over him.
“The way those animals interact, the intricacies, the details,” he told his daughter. “How could there not be a God?”
From that point forward, he seemed a changed man. Smiles came more easily. His voice and tone were calmer. He stopped talking about wanting to die, although he insisted he was “ready.”
And, as it turns out, he was.
When I saw him, he was terribly weak. He spoke only of his shattered collarbone, his love for books and his mother, whom he never met, but whose photograph was on the bedside table, as if to study her face for an upcoming reunion.
“I don’t know how much longer I’m gonna be here,” he said, not worried, not sad, as if he were simply curious about the schedule. Before I left, he thanked me no fewer than five times for coming.
Chaim Weinstein/Harvey Vinton died this month, on Jan. 5. He was found in a bathroom, unconscious, and expired minutes later on the bed in which I saw him. He missed, by a few weeks, the 60-year anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Perhaps he didn’t need the reminder.
But we do. We need to go to the nursing homes, to the senior centers, we need to hear the stories that are slowly being silenced by age and decay. A child of Auschwitz would now be 65 or 70. An adult prisoner would be approaching 90. The mantra Jews recite for their 6 million Holocaust victims is “never forget.” But to do that, we must never stop hearing the story. Be at peace, Chaim Weinstein. I should have come sooner.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. To read recent columns by Albom, go to www.freep.com/index/albom.