July 21, 2015 4:12 PM MST
Young Joe Rubinstein. 'Auschwitz #34207 The Joe Rubinstein Story'. Courtesy of author Nancy S. Geise, used with permission
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'Auschwitz #34207 The Joe Rubinstein Story' by Nancy Sprowell Geise. Cover image courtesy of Nancy Sprowell Geise, used with permission
Two things that Rubinstein had kept hidden for 70 years until agreeing to the book: he was forced to work as a Sonderkommando (Special commando/death brigade), moving bodies from Auschwitz's gas chambers to open pits, and was sexually assaulted repeatedly by a fellow inmate, a capo whom even the SS guards feared, author Nancy Sprowell Geise said.
The author had offered to leave out those two most gruesome of all the indignities. But Rubinstein told her, “'The story is not complete without them. This needs to be told.’” Although extremely worried about his family’s reactions, after the book came out in April, Rubinstein's grandson told him, “'I never loved you more.’”
Rubinstein's story began before dawn on a frigid morning in one of Radom, Poland’s Jewish ghettos, when German soldiers with machine-guns forced 21-year-old Joe, wearing only a thin undershirt, pajama bottoms and no shoes, into a crowded open truck. “'But I haven’t done anything wrong,’” he kept saying. Overnight, several of the captured men froze to death. That was just the first of many “miraculous, improbable escapes from death” during more than two years at several camps, Geise told the rapt audience.
He arrived at Auschwitz, the most notorious Nazi death camp, on April 30, 1942. He was made a Sonderkommando (Special commando/death brigade), moving thousands of corpses. “He prayed for their souls and prayed that his family would not be among them,” the author said. Rubinstein’s entire family was killed in the Holocaust, including his widowed mother, his identical twin, and three other siblings. (They were among the 380,000 Jews from Poland's Radom District who lost their lives during the time of the German occupation, according to the Radom Regional Commission.)
When Joe was transferred to a coal mining sub-camp of Auschwitz, he thought the worst was over. But there, he was repeatedly sexually abused.
In the book, written in Joe’s voice, he says, “Death would have been easier than spending the rest of my life trying to forget and forgive myself" for the sexual attacks. "The only thing that kept me from taking my life was the realization that my death would have been the final victory of evil, taking every last morsel of my being and that of my family.” He adds, “Every day, I chose life.”
And how did he manage to continue choosing life day after day, camp after camp, until being liberated when he was perilously near death from TB and starvation?
“He never gave up on life, on love, or God,” the author noted. “He’s amazing. He says, ‘Tell everyone life is precious, love life, love God.’”
Knowing that no one he had loved was alive, he never returned to Poland. He and a fellow freed inmate, a German Jew, went to Germany. There, he fell in love with a Catholic woman, Irene -- and they've been married for 68 years. They emigrated to the United States in 1950.
In New York, this man who had been barefoot when seized by the Nazis, and whose feet were bloodied by the wooden clogs he wore in Auschwitz (Joe explains "If my feet became infected, I would not be able to work and I would be shot.") -- became one of America’s leading shoe designers.
His shoe sketches got him hired by Beth Levine, the designer (and wife) of Herbert Levine Shoes -- so esteemed that it had a retrospective at New York's Metropolitan Museum in 1976, a year after the manufacturer closed. Rubinstein became the lead designer for Nina Shoes.
Later, in yet another improbable life event, he and Irene moved to the Midwest, to a retirement home managed by Geise. Noticing part of his usually covered tattoo #34207, Geise eventually asked whether her daughter might interview him for a school project. “'Never,’” Rubinstein responded.
Geise never mentioned it again, but after they became well acquainted, he asked her to write his story. “Joe realized that when he dies, everything would die with him. His (current) family and the family he lost deserved for his story to get out,” she explained.
“I'm the most unlikely person to do this. I’m not Jewish. I’m not a Holocaust scholar.” She thanked the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) repeatedly for their extensive research and additional help, and "for their dedication to helping us all never forget."
“I crawled into a cave, a very dark cave, for three years to write it.” She published the book on Amazon.com, and it shot to #1 in Amazon's Holocaust memoir section, and remains at the top of the list. It's also on BlueInk Review's Best Books of 2015.Among the many very positive write-ups, the prestigious "Kirkus Reviews" termed it "A riveting, well-documented account of survival that’s harrowing, inspiring and unforgettable."
Geise's other book, “The Eighth Sea,” which she describes as “historical Christian fiction,” also has done very well. Initially, she had no confidence in it, and stashed it away in a drawer for 23 years.
So the author encouraged everyone to “Follow your dream; don’t give in to fear.”
And regarding the Holocaust, “The most important thing we can all do is make sure that people never, never, never forget.” The museum presented her with its Coin of Excellence.
"This book is dedicated to the millions of Holocaust victims who did not live to share their stories."
For more info: “Auschwitz #34207 The Joe Rubinstein Story," by Nancy Sprowell Geise, who will speak at the Library of Congress in October. U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, 100 Raoul Wallenberg Place, S.W., near the Washington Monument on the National Mall, Washington, D.C. 202-488-0400.