Child Holocaust survivors meet in Israel
( AP ) - In 1939, 5-year-old Erna Blitzer left France with her parents and older sister for a vacation to visit relatives in Poland. They never made it home.
She was on the run from the Nazis for the next five years. During that time, she watched her mother die. Her father was forced to witness the execution of his wife's entire extended family and then bury them.
Erna and her older sister survived by hiding in a barn in Ukraine where they could not bathe for nearly two years.
"When I was 10, I couldn't speak, I couldn't walk," she said. "I was a shell filled with lice and vermin."
This week in Jerusalem, Blitzer, now Erna Gorman, joined dozens of other child Holocaust survivors to share stories and keep the memories alive. Participants at the conference also included the children of survivors, many of whom grappled with their parents' pain as they grew up.
About 800 survivors, along with their children and grandchildren, attended this week's annual gathering of the World Federation of Jewish Child Survivors of the Holocaust.
A cacophony of languages - English, Hebrew, French, Yiddish - filled the lobby of the Jerusalem hotel where participants attended lectures, workshops and discussions aimed at reuniting long-lost friends and guaranteeing their dramatic tales outlive them.
"Most of the children did not survive," said Gorman, 73. "Those of us who did were all helped by a Christian, by someone. Otherwise we wouldn't be here. At Auschwitz, the children were taken directly to the gas chambers."
For Gorman, the memories were so painful she could not speak about her childhood for 50 years. She said she kept them even from her husband and two sons until a news report about German skinheads pushed her to break her silence in the early 1990s.
Six million Jews were killed by the Nazis during World War II, including 1.5 million children.
"We call ourselves the last living witnesses," said Stefanie Seltzer, 69, president of the umbrella organization, which includes 64 groups of child survivors from more than 20 countries. "It seems so unreal that we lived through this. It's amazing that we are here at all."
Seltzer, who was hidden by a Polish prostitute during World War II, established the organization in 1985 as a support network for survivors. Today, it includes thousands of members.
"We used to focus on our trauma, on our experiences. Now it's on projects of education, memorialization and social justice," she explained, citing their recent initiative to speak out on the Darfur genocide as an example.
As Holocaust survivors grow older and their numbers diminish each year, the organization has begun including their children and grandchildren in the gatherings.
Seltzer said Holocaust survivors and their children often did not discuss the past as a means of mutual protection: The parents didn't want to tarnish their children's youth, and the children didn't want to hurt their parents by pressing the painful memories. Now the lines of communications have improved.
The annual conference now bears the all-inclusive title of "Holocaust survivors, second and third generations, spouses and families."
Isaac Kot, 52, from Boston, said he felt a responsibility to take part. His Lithuanian father survived the ghettos and the camps and then fought in the resistance before emigrating to the U.S., where he remained mostly mum. His father died 11 years ago.
"The torch has been passed from my father to myself. It's my job that his story, and others' stories, are not forgotten," he said.
The scars of the Holocaust are evident decades later. An Israeli group has initiated a class-action lawsuit against Germany, saying survivors' children suffer from a slew of psychiatric ailments, from irrational fear of starvation to incapacitating bouts of depression.
But this week's gathering was not all dour. There were also lavish meals and evening entertainment.
"We cry all day and we dance all night," Seltzer said.
For Gorman, whose father and sister died years ago, the conference is an opportunity to connect with those who can relate to her childhood.
"I needed someone to understand me. I needed someone to fill in the gaps. I needed to mesh my life together," she said.
Gorman, who lives in the Detroit area, started the Michigan chapter of the child survivors organization and now shares her stories with her family and others.
But for years, she longed to reunite with a long-lost childhood friend with whom she hid in Ukraine and whose picture she still carries in her purse.
Before her visit, Gorman tracked down the woman in Israel, and this week, they got together for the first time in more than 60 years.
"We looked at the picture and we looked at each other and we just knew," she said, tears welling in her eyes.