April 21, 2003

The Tale of the Gold Buttons

By Eric Rangus

“My mother tells a story of a day when the Gestapo came through Krakow, in Poland, collecting people,” Lili Baxter says to the students in her class, “Women and the Holocaust: Voices of Caring and Courage.”

The members of this junior-level women’s studies class, in preparation for today’s lesson on resilience, have read selections from the book Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust, by Yaffa Eliach.

Hasidism is a devout form of Judaism that first appeared in what is now Ukraine in the early 1700s, and its founding is credited by some with revitalizing the Jewish community in Eastern Europe.

Storytelling played a major role in Hasidic culture, and the main themes of Hasidic tales are love of humanity, optimism and a limitless belief in God and the goodness of humankind.

Such emotions may appear out of place in a class about the Holocaust, but Baxter’s family story, which shares the magical realism (and chilling reality) of the Hasidic tales the class has spent more than an hour discussing, is tragically relevant.

The Gestapo would go through apartments, ransacking them, and throwing people out onto the streets. My father was in Russia at the time, and my mother shared an apartment with my brother, Danusz, who was not even 3. My parents were in the Underground, and my mother was hiding contraband in a false drawer of a dresser.

Soon the Gestapo came into their apartment, and while tearing it up, they found the contraband. The captain came in, wearing a long black coat with large, gold buttons. Danusz, who was so young, ran up and began playing with the shiny gold buttons on the Gestapo officer’s coat.

When that happened the officer softened. He patted Danusz on his head. “I have a little boy back home in Germany,” he said, “And I miss him very much.” The captain paused.

“Nothing is going to happen to you,” he said finally. “Your son saved your lives.” And with that the officer motioned to men ransacking the apartment to leave. The captain closed the door behind them.

“And that’s the tale of the gold buttons,” Baxter says.

Not a sound is audible in the classroom. Not a single breath. Not a bird chirping outside, not a foot shuffling on the floor. The room is a vacuum.

After about three seemingly interminable seconds a small sniffle from a student breaks the quiet. “I think that’s a Hasidic tale,” Baxter says finally, and the class collectively exhales.

Danusz did not survive the war. He was gassed at Auschwitz.

“There is a moment, a common moment, in Holocaust testimonies,” Baxter says. “It’s when families are separated. Whether you go left or right—immediately to the gas chambers or whether you go to work.”

When Bertha Kshensky, Baxter’s mother, was taken to Auschwitz by cattle car, Danusz was with her, as well as her mother and the two children of her older sister (she and her husband had gone into hiding).

As the new arrivals were separated into two lines, Bertha’s mother saw immediately what was happening. The line to the right was to the work camps. The line to the left was to the gas chambers. Bertha’s mother turned to an SS officer and said, indicating her daughter, “This woman is young. She can work.”

The officer nodded to another stormtrooper who pulled Bertha by the neck out of line and threw her to one side—the work side. Her mother and the children were pushed to the other. Bertha never saw them again.

“She has this look that she gets,” says junior Allison Schaefer, an English/women’s studies double major and student in the Holocaust class, speaking of Baxter. Baxter has discussed her family's past with the class and also has invited several guests, including Holocaust survivors, to speak.

“She smiles when she realizes you understand what she is talking about. You feel like she’s going to let out a huge sigh of relief,” Schaefer says.

“‘Enjoy’ is an interesting word, but I think that’s what I was aiming for with this class,” Baxter says. “I want students to be able to look at this material, but feel OK about it—that they aren’t alone when they look at it.”

To be sure, over the semester the class has ventured into some very dark places. “I feel like I can lead students through a domain that is very painful,” Baxter says. “I told them the first day of class that they would be reading material that is so difficult and the descriptions so vivid about what was done to human beings that they could leave the room. There was no shame in leaving.” Almost all of them stayed.

As the semester ends, though, the subject matter becomes less heavy. The underlying theme of the half-dozen Hasidic tales read by the class—and the ultimate act of resistance during the Holocaust—is survival.

Just one Kshensky family photo survived the war. It is Baxter’s only physical connection to her older brother. Baxter was born after the war, and the tale of how she came to be is as remarkable as any other.

Baxter was born in a displaced-persons camp in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1947. That was where her father, Markus, ended up after the Swedish Red Cross liberated him in 1945 from the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany. Bertha, after the Russians liberated her from Auschwitz, returned to Krakow after the war, working as a bookkeeper.

In the years immediately following the war, Holocaust survivors established an informal communications network. People would pass along stories about who they had seen or where others were—all in an effort to reunite scattered families.

Every afternoon, Bertha would stand in a courtyard in Krakow and read off the new names on the survivor lists. News would most often come by word of mouth or by letters. One day, a letter arrived from New York saying that Bertha’s husband was alive and in Sweden.

Bertha fainted.

Prior to that letter, she did not know he had survived.

With no other means of transportation, Bertha walked from Krakow to the Baltic Sea coast (about 300 miles—roughly similar to walking from Atlanta to Charleston). She paid off a barge captain with a gold ring to take her to Sweden. When she got there, she again walked to the displaced-persons camp, where she and Markus were reunited.

After Lili was born, the family moved to France, where the Jewish girl from Poland with a Swedish name (Baxter’s given name was Lilia) had it changed to the more continental Liliane (which she shortens to Lili in conversation). Lili’s family lived in Paris until 1955. In November of that year, the family (with another new edition, Lili’s younger brother, Marcel) emigrated to the United States, moving to New York, where many Holocaust survivors had settled.

“Growing up, there was a lot of trading of stories,” Baxter says. “There was always a sense of collective identity.” There never was a time, Baxter says, that she didn’t know about what happened during the Holocaust. And tragic though their losses were, the fact that both Markus and Bertha survived, as well as four of the 11 children in Markus’ family, the Kshenskys had much for which to be thankful.

As Lili grew up, she threw herself into activism and education. She worked for civil rights and women’s rights and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English at Hunter College and the University of Pittsburgh, respectively.

Now a first-year lecturer in women’s studies, Baxter is no stranger to Emory. She earned her doctorate in women’s studies last spring. And in fact she helped establish and lead the University’s first women’s studies course as a graduate student in 1976.

“We were studying women’s biographies, looking at women’s lives, and there was a realization that a whole dimension of culture, interaction, science, all the disciplines at the University, was in the shadows,” says Baxte, who was studying English.

She had hoped to shed light on this dimension in a dissertation on women’s biographies, but instead Baxter went to work for the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change. She did leadership development, worked with college and graduate students, and helped develop training materials on King and nonviolence that are still in use today.

A desire to integrate her activism with the academy drove Baxter to return to Emory for a doctorate. Her dissertation was titled, “Called To Heal and Re-create Ourselves: Shame, the Holocaust and Nonviolence.”

Baxter also sits on the board of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation and has been elected national chair of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the country’s oldest interfaith and peace organization. Because Baxter’s life and loved ones (Markus has passed away, but Bertha currently lives in New York) have been touched so intimately by violence, it is no surprise that Baxter has devoted her life and career to ending it.

“Part of this is payback,” Baxter says. “This is just my place.”

In the late 1980s, before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Bertha and Lili went to Poland. Bertha pointed out the Gestapo headquarters where she worked as a cleaning woman and—with another cleaning woman, a Polish Catholic—hid a small Jewish boy in broom closets and bathrooms for months so the Gestapo would not find him. (He survived the war.)

They went because Bertha wanted to erect a monument in that city’s Jewish cemetery with the names of the people in her family who perished during the Holocaust. One of those names is Danusz Kshensky.

“It’s so someone would know they existed,” Baxter says.