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Jan
09
2010

The Fifth Diamond: A Special Jewel in the Genre of Holocaust Horror Stories, part 2 (of 5)

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Irene Weisberg Zisblatt writes of swallowing the same diamonds over and over again for a year in order to save all she has left of her family. What else does she say—and why is it not believable?

Apophenia: the phenomenon of seeing things that aren’t there. People will see, and believe, what they expect to see, what they want to see, or even what they are told they are seeing, as often as they will see, and believe, what they are actually seeing.

By Carolyn Yeager

Part Two

(ST=Shoah Testimony, FD=The Fifth Diamond, LD=The Last Days, RI=Radio Interview. See Part One for further explanation.)

Zisblatt’s story really starts in 1939, when the Jews in Hungary begin to lose rights and entitlements, like her right to attend the public school. According to Zisblatt, this continued and worsened until 1942, at which time Jews fleeing Poland and Ukraine for Palestine began coming through their little town, some with terrible stories to tell. The one Zisblatt repeats in her Shoah testimony and public talks – and which was used in The Last Days, not only by her but another survivor as well – is this: she overheard a man who spent the night at their house telling her father that “he saw Nazis tearing Jewish infants in half and throwing them in the Kneister river,” which she remembered from school was a river in Ukraine. The next day she asked her father about it and he told her that it wasn’t true, to forget it. In her book, Zisblatt changed that story to Germans killing Polish Jews, including women and children, and burying them in mass graves (p. 15).

She hasn’t listened to her father. Though it’s definitely not true, just another tale passed among Eastern European Jews at the time, she continues to repeat it to the children and teenagers to whom she speaks.

(Another atrocity story that she passes along is the one about SS men picking up Jewish children by the legs and banging them against the side of trucks. She both tells in The Last Days, and writes in Fifth Diamond that she saw through a crack in her barracks wall on her first night in Birkenau: “I saw trucks coming, and screams in the trucks, and I saw two children fall out of the truck, and the truck stopped and one SS man came out from the front and he picked up the children [by their legs] and he banged him against the truck, and the blood came running down, and threw him into the truck. So, that’s when I stopped talking to God.”)

From then on, she relates personal suffering that builds to the climax of her participation in a fictional Death March, followed by a fictional “liberation” by American General George Patton’s soldiers in a Czechoslovakian forest. The most notable contradictions that fill her story are the following:

Brother David dies at home and at Auschwitz

(Shoah Testimony) Zisblatt recounts that in 1943 she lost a brother, about 5 years old, who died of Scarlet Fever. In the same year, her two paternal grandparents also died of natural causes. Toward the end of her ST (@3hr6min), she says she would like to go back to her hometown to visit, because “my grandparents and my brother are buried there.”
(Fifth Diamond) Her brother David, who would have been 5 in early 1943, is listed with her family members as perishing at Auschwitz in late1944 at age 7 (page xvii). In her talks at schools and elsewhere, she thus makes the claim we hear from so many survivors: I lost my entire family at Auschwitz; I am the only survivor.
(Last Days) None of this is brought up in Spielberg’s film.

Friendly policeman sealed up their house

(ST) Around Passover time, the authorities are taking Poleno Jews from their houses and transporting them by rail to the nearby large town of Munkacs [12], where a ghetto had been created. Their houses were then sealed up. Zisblatt says her family home was sealed up by a policeman friend of her father’s, with the family inside, in an attempt to fool the authorities and not be sent to the ghetto. She then blames the policeman for “squealing on them,” though it’s clear they could never get away with such a scheme.
(FD) The story of the policeman friend changes. He becomes a “Righteous Christian” with a Jewish wife (p. 21). He offered to seal up their house if they would take his wife in with them. Zisblatt says the wife was an assimilated Jew who had not known, before Hitler, that she was Jewish, and was deported with them. However, she is quickly forgotten in the narrative.

Zisblatt’s autobiography The Fifth Diamond is endorsed on the back cover by motion picture icon Steven Spielberg with these words: “Irene Zisblatt eloquently speaks and inspires today’s generation with her personal story of remembrance and survival.” Remembrance and survival – does that mean it doesn’t have to be true?

Confused about Passover and their deportation

(ST) The day after Passover, the police came in the early morning and broke down the door of their house. When asked about the date, Zisblatt says “I know it was on the 3rd, it was right after Passover, we didn’t have time to put away the Passover dishes; either April 3rd or May 3rd. Then she said, “Everybody (Jews) was home when we had Passover; the day after Passover everybody was gone, and the day after that, they got us.” Passover in 1944 was April 8th. Other’s accounts contradict the deportation date [13].
(FD) They celebrate Passover in their sealed up home; the following night men broke their sealed door with an ax. This time she includes Nazi soldiers along with local policemen who “rushed up the ladder” to their attic, but she gives no dates.
(LD) She says “Two motorcycles was the whole Nazi regime that occupied our town.”

Different relatives in the Munkacs ghetto

(ST) When she, with her parents, uncle and siblings arrived at the Sajovits brickyard in the city of Munkacs, her mother’s mother was already there, with her mother’s two sisters and their families, and had made a space which they joined. She says they expected her father’s two cousins but they never arrived. Time spent in the brickyard was one week or less.
(FD) This time, they meet only her mother’s mother there, alone (p. 27). Her mother’s five sisters and brothers are listed on page xvii as perishing in Auschwitz but she writes nothing about them except for Bencie, who lived with the grandmother.
(LD) Only says it was raining a lot, and guards with big German Shepherd dogs on tight leashes walked around all the time.
Nowhere does she mention that the ghetto was administered by a Jewish Council, whose president was Sandor Steiner.

Diamonds rolled or sewn, many or just four?

(ST) She says as a kind of afterthought that before getting in the train cars leaving Munkacs, her mother “rolled” diamonds into the bottom of one of her skirts, and into her sister’s skirt. She says, “Of course, my sister was only 4 ½ years old, but I guess that was a way of preserving things. And she said to me, ‘Take care of this skirt. In case you have to work at a different place than I do, and you don’t have anything to eat, take out the diamonds to buy bread. But be very careful not to lose it.’” Now how do you ‘roll’ diamonds into the bottom of a skirt so that they won’t come ‘unrolled’ and be lost?
(LD) Her mother rolled diamonds into her skirt, but not into her sister’s.
(FD) It becomes quite a different story. Before Passover, while they are still at home, her mother calls her over and shows her four diamonds which she is going to sew into the hem of one of Chana’s skirts. These are “her mother’s diamonds,” the implication being this is all there is. She is told to guard them closely, never to sell them unless she is hungry – then she can use them to buy bread. All four diamonds go to her because she is the oldest daughter; none go to her sister.

Trip to Auschwitz

(ST) She says the train doors never opened, they never saw light, never got water; there was one pail for bodily elimination. Other survivors contradict this [14] and describe stops for fresh water when the men actually got out and cleaned the pails. Said it seemed like forever, but does not give a specific time of travel. Nor does she mention her extended family being in the train.
(LD) She heard the “cattle car” doors bolt on the outside and they were locked inside for five days. Says, as above, they never opened the doors, never gave them any water.
(FD) The SS forced 100 people into each box car [15] and gave them one small pail to use as a bathroom. Again repeats that it was a five day trip with no water, but others who made the trip said it was at most 3 days and they got two pails, one with water.
If it was really as Zisblatt describes it, no one would have survived the trip. But her whole family got off the train and were all able to move and behave quite normally. She herself goes through disinfection and doesn’t say that when under the shower she took the opportunity to parch her thirst. If she were telling the truth, dehydration would have been a major concern at the time.

Sees some or all of her family members going into gas chamber?

(ST) After they arrive at Birkenau she is separated from her mother and two youngest siblings, then sees them get into a black truck. She is led into a shower/delousing building, and after undergoing that process she emerges into a courtyard from where she again sees her mother and 2 siblings, now getting off the truck and walking behind a building that she learned later was the ‘gas chamber.’ (@1hr20min) Quite a coincidence that she happened to see them twice! She says she never saw her father and brothers again after they left the train.
(FD) Story changes. Her grandmother is now with them. In this version, before she enters the shower/delousing building, she watches the four of them walk past the trucks and enter a low bunker behind barbed wire fences. Then she sees her father and 3 brothers entering the same building! Now she has all 8 of her close relatives accounted for as being immediately gassed.
(LD) Speaks of being separated from her mother and two youngest siblings; no grandmother mentioned; no talk from her about the gas chambers in the film.

Swallowing her mother’s diamonds only once versus over and over again

(ST) When undergoing the initial disinfection process, she remembered the (unknown number of) diamonds rolled into her skirt and eventually put them in her mouth and swallowed them when she saw they were examining inside people’s mouths, and pulling gold teeth (@1hr18min). After this, there is no further mention of the diamonds in her ST; they are a thing of the past. In her mind at this time in 1995, she may have visualized them as tiny diamonds, which is why she could use them to “buy bread.”
(FD) She swallows the (four) diamonds for the first time and retrieves them the next day in the latrine, continuing to do this throughout her time of incarceration. Her insistence on keeping her mother’s diamonds is a major theme of the book. She also writes that the workers examining inside mouths during the initial disinfection “were removing fillings and crowns, and pulling gold teeth” (p. 36).
The pulling of the gold teeth is not believable, as it would have caused excruciating pain, a bloody mess and infection. Gold teeth were only removed from corpses.
(LD) She talks of her first time swallowing the diamonds, and says “The whole time I was in the camp, I swallowed the diamonds … so everytime I swallowed them, I had to find them again.” She adds: “(In the latrine) I never sat on the hole, because I had to find my diamonds.” Said she would rinse them off “in the mud, or […] in the soup that we were gonna get.” (Unbelievable! That would be a serious crime for which she could truly be shot.) One day she was caught defecating in the corner and had to swallow the diamonds without “rinsing them off.” This filthy stuff is not repeated in the book.

When did she decide the diamonds were important to her story?

(Radio Interview) In 1997, according to Zisblatt, she got a call from the Shoah Foundation about being in a film. The woman said, “You’re talking in your testimony about diamonds, but not telling us where they are … where are they?” Zisblatt answered, They’re here. “Can we come see them?” they ask. Zisblatt says, Absolutely. So they came with a crew of 18 people to film her for The Last Days.
Remarks: In her ’95 taped Shoah testimony, she tells of getting diamonds from her mother, but after swallowing them the first time, never mentions them again. I don’t know why the film producers picked up on the diamond angle from her testimony; she doesn’t show a pendant with diamonds during her filmed testimony. But in the filming for The Last Days in 1997, she speaks at some length about the diamonds and shows a pendant with four gems, saying these were her mother’s diamonds she had saved by swallowing and defecating them out again and again.

To be continued

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[12] Interwar Munkacs was about 50% Jewish (like Poleno), filled with Hasidic Jews wearing their traditional garb. The first movie house was established by a Hasidic Jew; it and most stores closed on the Sabbath and Jewish holidays. The Jews of Munkacs were the first to be restricted to a ghetto.
[13] Peter Kleinmann, a Munkacs Jewish resident of the time, writes in The Fallacy of Race and the Shoah (University of Ottawa Press): “Just after Passover, on 18 April 1944, the kehilla announced with posters and proclamations by drummers that all Jews must move into the ghetto. Within a week, 13,000 Jews from Munkács and some 14,000 from surrounding areas were rounded up […] and held in the ghetto and those from the rural areas were held in the Sajovits brickyard.” That would put the Zeigelstein’s arrival considerably later than two days after Passover on April 10th.
[14] Other survivors have recorded that it was a three day trip and the train stopped several times for water. Each train car had two buckets; one for water, one for bodily elimination. The men got out at each stop to clean the pails and get fresh water. See John Mandel at http://holocaust.umd.umich.edu/interview.php?D=mandel&section=10 and Peter Kleinmann at http://www.cjvma.org/e/albums/kleinmann/039-042.html
[15] Peter Kleinmann reported 50 to 60 people in each box car.


For the other parts of this article please click on the links below

Part One

Part Three

Part Four

Part Five