Couple write separate books on Holocaust experiences

08/02/2007
By Used with permission from the Lowell Sun Online. By SUSAN McMAHON Sun Staff

Poland was broken.

Split in two, to be precise, carved up among the Germans and the Russians in exchange for a non-aggression pact that turned out to be very aggressive indeed.

Rita Blattberg was born on the German side, Alexandre Blumstein on the Russian.

Alexandre Blumstein always remembered the years of war and Holocaust. Rita Blattberg Blumstein drowned in the mist of memories, of snippets and vignettes that did little to clarify her past.

The Blumstein family hid in a dirt hole underneath a farmhouse, saved by Polish friends. The Blattbergs fled to Russian Poland, the lesser of two evils, where they were deported into the labor camps of the Soviet Union. They survived. Polish Jews died by the millions.

Married, they decided to tell their stories separately.

Alexandre Blumstein, with a grin, calls it a conjugated quantity, their knack for leading parallel lives. Rita Blumstein, with a benevolent glance, asks him not to use scientific words.

But, sometimes, there are horrors that are best described through the precise use of mathematics. Like the science of probabilities, and the fact that less than 1 percent of the Jews in Grodno, Alexandre's hometown, survived the Holocaust.

For an entire nuclear family to survive, the odds were even less.

The photos of grandchildren smile from the front of the refrigerator. In the office downstairs, in a pink photo album, are the pictures from the days before, and the days after.

Nobody took pictures in between, you see.

But Alexandre Blumstein points to the old black-and-whites, pointing out his father, mother and brother, smiling at the pictures of him as a young child. There was skiing, and a hotel, and a surgery practice. A life in Poland before the war.

And yet, in these after-war days, the photos have become litanies of the dead. A cousin who was killed by the Germans. Best friends who died in the concentration camps. The farm under which the Blumstein family dug out a shelter and lived for 18 months.

There are the days he remembers the most, the winter of 1942 and 1943, the days of the dead, when he lived in a hole and neighbors and relatives were piled onto trains.

The diaries Blumstein kept as a child, when his family was in hiding in Poland, hidden through a Polish friend of his father, Dr. Antoni Docha, were lost. He is not sure when, or how. But when he opened his belongings after the family moved to France in 1947, they were gone.

But the memories remained. And those, Blumstein knew, he had to write down.

"For me, it was a sort of necessity. If I passed away, I needed something to recall this awful time I lived through as a child," he said. "Every Holocaust survivor wants to bear witness." It was as if a book had always existed inside of him, waiting for the right time to seep out. He began writing in the 1970s, whenever he had a spare moment. He returned to the pages after his retirement from University of Massachusetts Lowell in 1996, and fleshed out the skeleton of facts he had originally written. He filled his book, "The Little House on Mount Carmel" with as much as he could remember, with as many names and stories as he could oblige.

There are the faces that stare out from the past. There are the reasons he had to write.

"My cousin, she was denounced in the street and she was murdered. Her story will never be told," Alexandre Blumstein said. "This is why I wanted so much to tell my story."

Rita Blattberg Blumstein never had much desire to tell her story. All she could remember from her young life during the war were snippets of time in the Soviet Union after her family had been deported from Soviet Poland to a labor camp, and then the ghosts that convalesced in her hometown after her family's return.

After 500 years of family roots in one spot, they had been scattered to the wind. Many were dead. Some survived in other countries. But none remained.

"Growing up, there was this feeling of void, of loss, of exile. It was a sense of lack of place that was constant throughout my life," she said.

Then, after her father died in 1995, a sense of place roared into her life. A box, filled with postcards from grandparents during the war, asking about Rita when she was young and keeping up familiar correspondences with her family, was among his possessions. She found it, and read the postcards, and realized what was happening all around her when she was but a small child.

Most of her grandparents would die. Her cousins and uncles and aunts would die. Of the 24 immediate family members in Poland, only one survived the Holocaust.

And then, to suddenly have remembrances so real, to have the handwriting of the lost in front of her eyes, made her very angry.

"This is what hit me in the gut. This is what I had not internalized before," she said. "I never thought of myself as a Holocaust victim. Until I found those postcards." The postcards, along with her own remembrances of childhood and her mother's memoirs, which were taped before she died, formed the basis for the book, tentatively titled "Like Leaves in the Wind." Alexandre Blumstein, 73, had come to terms with his past over the years. Rita Blattberg Blumstein, 66, only found her history years after her past had concluded.

"It was painful, because through the postcards I lived through the destruction of my family," she said.

The couple married in France nearly 44 years ago. Both chemistry students in Paris, they moved to the United States so Alexandre Blumstein could take a post-doctoral position.

Each spent most of their careers in the chemistry department at UMass Lowell, settling in Chelmsford. They are professors emeritus.

They now have two daughters and three grandchildren.

Those are the pictures that greet you on the refrigerator. Those are the ones the Blumsteins prominently display.

"I want to show the pictures of my grandchildren," Rita Blumstein said. "The future."

"A Little House on Mount Carmel" is available at the Barnes and Noble website, and can be ordered by calling ISBS Publishing at (800) 944-6190. "Like Leaves in the Wind" is scheduled for a March publication date.