I Survived the Holocaust. But I Have Nightmares About Cats.
This account is from a new project called “Beyond the World War II We Know,” a series from The Times that will document lesser-known stories from World War II. Though much of the project will focus on the end and aftermath of the war, our second dispatch takes place in 1941, when the Germans were planning a surprise attack on the city of Lvov in Poland, which was annexed by the Soviet Union two years earlier. Celia Kener was 6 at the time. She would eventually be detained and sent to Lvov’s ghetto and then separated from her entire family, but it’s the events that followed the German assault that continue to haunt her today.
I was very excited about an upcoming ballet recital, which happened to be taking place the day the Germans invaded. The recital was canceled, and I was extremely upset about it. More than that, my father was drafted into the Russian Army on that same day, and my mother and I didn’t know if we would ever see him again. But we were still in our own home in Lvov; we had not yet been forced into the ghetto. When I went outside to play a few days later, my friends not only stayed away and pointed at me, but they called me names, like smierze, which translated to “smelly Jew.” I was only 6, and I didn’t understand what was going on.
My friends’ teasing attracted the attention of an officer, who grabbed me and shoved me onto a truck. I couldn’t call my mother because he was dragging me by my arms and hair. Other children were already detained on the truck — behind chains, vomiting and crying out of fear. I latched onto the legs of another officer who was manning the vehicle and spoke to him in Polish, asking if he had children of his own who were innocent like me. I don’t think he was German, because he understood Polish, but he had on a uniform and was perhaps working for the Germans. I must have touched a sensitive note in his heart. He grabbed me by my long blond braids, threw me down off the truck and told me not to leave my house during the day, which was when the Germans came around without warning to search for Jews to take away to unknown destinations. By the time I returned to the apartment, my mother had already been mourning my death, because nobody came back from those trucks.
Friends and family told us that we needed to go into hiding. My aunt and uncle heard about a church steeple where people were hiding during the roundups. We went there in the evening. Mom went up first and grabbed me because I couldn’t climb up. Her nail scratched my cheek, and it started to bleed. The steeple was not large, but there were at least 20 or so people already hiding there, including my aunt and two cousins. It was very cold, but we were not allowed to speak or cry, and everyone was shushing one another as we fell asleep to the sound of church bells and gunshots outside.
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At dawn I woke up to a very loud scream, and it didn’t stop. It was coming from a woman with a baby wrapped in blankets. I looked at her just in time to see a cat scurry away from the bundle. My mom grabbed me and pulled me into her arms to calm me down, as I realized that this cat killed the baby. My mother tried to explain that the cat was innocent, that it had curled up for warmth and suffocated the baby while we were all asleep.
Shortly after, we were forced to go to the ghetto, where the horror started: I saw people with shaved heads and the Star of David carved into their foreheads, oozing with blood. But the incident in the steeple always stayed with me as the moment I realized I had to be afraid.
Years later, I was living in the United States with a family of my own. We went to the beach on a Sunday and left the door to the house slightly ajar. After putting my children to bed, I went to take a shower, and as I opened the shower door I saw a tiny innocent cat sitting on the bathroom floor. Without even covering myself, I ran to the windows, screaming frantically to my husband and the neighbors who were chatting on the porch. My screams woke my daughter, who, upon hearing her mother screaming, wouldn’t calm down.
After that I kept dreaming that the cat would come back and suffocate one of my children in their sleep. I even transferred this fear onto my daughter. Today she is a grandmother, and when she sees a cat across the street, she gets hysterical. In dreams — and even in reality — when I see a cat, they are connected with suffocating.
This account has been edited and condensed for length and clarity. Celia Kener told her story to Jake Nevins, the New York Times Magazine’s editorial fellow.
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