Originally published in San Diego Jewish Journal, October 2016 issue
By Natalie Jacobs
“I have never felt that sort of physical revulsion before,” Leo Jassy says over the phone one afternoon. “It’s sort of absurd because it’s such a beautiful place and people are so nice. You can really become lost in how pretty and how serene and gentle everything is, and how nice the people are and how good the food is.”
Leo is talking about Bergen-Belsen, the surrounding German towns and what they’re like today. His mother, Sally Jassy, was held in Bergen-Belsen for months until the camp was liberated in 1945. This past April, Leo and his daughter, Sarina, visited Bergen-Belsen together after being accepted for an episode of the mobile streaming app Go90’s show “100 Things.”
When the British arrived 71 years ago, Sally was 18 years old, among the 60,000 sick and starving prisoners. She had been held captive by the Nazis for five years in various places, from her home in Poland to a ghetto there, then to Auschwitz where she “lost everybody,” through the death march and finally to Bergen-Belsen.
“Why I was saved, I don’t know,” she says over the phone from New York, her Polish accent still thick even though she has never returned to Europe. “You know what? I tell you honestly, I was guilty in the beginning. I felt guilty. Why me? Why me? Why not my brother?”
Sally says her brother was a “genius in Poland,” who could have “given something to the world.” Even though she knew her immediate family had been killed, she held onto hope that maybe she was wrong, maybe they or some other relatives were spared. After liberation, frantic and alone in the displaced persons camp, she eventually found out only one uncle – out of 35 aunts, uncles and cousins – had survived.
From Auschwitz, Sally, who was called Sala at the time, was taken with Dr. Mengele to a cold barrack with other girls and later sent off to Germany.
“They sent us with 1,000 girls from Auschwitz – Hungarian, Polish, all kinds. … It was a big farm and we worked there. We dig ditches for months … against the Russian tanks.”
In the winter of 1945, Sally and the other surviving girls were taken on what came to be known as The March, led by the Nazis against the advancement of the Russians.
“If somebody couldn’t walk,” Sally remembers, “they killed them right away. It was winter. People were falling over the snow. It was terrible.”
After some time, the marchers arrived to Bergen-Belsen.
“When we came, I tell you this was the worsest [stet] camp I ever was in. People were dying on the street and the sidewalks. Every day, dead people. I was still strong and I was still walking. Can you imagine all after what I went through? And I was ok.”
Sally relays the story with an unwavering sense of awe. She says she always told her son Leo the stories, from the time he was 3 years old.
“I talked right away because I felt it’s important that we are speaking out. That we’re speaking out about these experiences.”
Leo says that gave him a darker view of the world – a “slanted view of humanity” – one that he made a conscious effort to keep from his daughter, Sarina, until he knew she was ready.
“I grew up understanding that there was true evil in the world,” Leo says. “My childhood was impacted by that.”
Both Leo and Sally say they were purposefully vague about the details with Sarina until she reached high school. Sarina says she knew her dad always had a historical interest in World War II, and that her grandmother offered the emotional perspective.
“I wanted to approach it from a position of strength that yes, there was evil,” says Leo, “but we defeated it. So it’s not insurmountable. No matter how bad it can be, it’s not insurmountable, even though she never really knew how bad it was.”
It was during her Bat Mitzvah classes that Sarina started asking her grandmother more pointed questions and when her 9th grade literature class was reading books written in the World War II era, Sarina asked Sally to speak to the class about her experiences. That’s when Sarina learned the full story, with all the gruesome details that had been left out for years. After that, Sarina decided she wanted to see the place where her grandmother was liberated.
Sarina is a dancer who has been on television before. Through that work, she’s Facebook friends with a casting agent who shared information about the “100 Things” show. It was the opportunity Sarina had been looking for.
“We had to send in a video and write a little bit about what we wanted to do so they can understand what they’re trying to put on their tv show … It was like a shot in the dark kind of thing,” Sarina explains of the application process.
Leo says prior to their Bergen-Belsen episode, the show “100 Things,” “dealt basically with people jumping out of airplanes and swimming with turtles … Things they’ve always wanted to do with their lives, I guess. Mostly fun stories.”
The Bergen-Belsen episode is the 12th for the series that features shows about conquering a fear of heights by ice climbing, an intergenerational skydive, and a vacation on a volcano.
Leo says their Holocaust episode was a departure for “100 Things” and he wasn’t initially sure how his daughter’s dream of going to Bergen-Belsen would be portrayed in their context.
After a few more months of correspondence, Sarina and Leo were accepted onto the show. After talking with the producers, Leo says he felt they saw the Jassy story as a way to say something deeper. On April 13, 2016, they filmed at Bergen-Belsen for about 11 hours. The episode, which aired in September, lasts 11 minutes.
“I noticed, within the 11 minutes,” Leo says, “they made a point of saying a couple of things that perhaps are not as obvious to the viewer but were obvious to me.”
Specifically, Leo’s thinking of a part in the episode where he, Sarina, the show’s host Sebastian Terry and Stephanie Billib, the memorial representative who served as their guide, walk down a road, past houses. Leo asks if that’s where the prisoners walked, and if people lived in those houses. Stephanie responds with an emphatic “yes.”
“You always hear the story about Germans saying ‘oh, we didn’t know anything,’” Leo explains to me. “It’s a big collective excuse that permeated German society for years. ‘We know nothing.’ … the prisoners had to walk from the rail head past this town, in the tens of thousands. There’s no way [the townspeople] could have not known that something was up.”
Leo sees the producers’ choice to leave that part in the finished episode as evidence of their conscious effort to “set the record straight” or at least use their platform to say something more meaningful than perhaps they were used to saying with other episodes.
One thing Leo thought could have made the episode stronger was something Sarina said when they were standing on one of the mounds, atop a mass grave. In the raw footage, the host says the people under them died nameless. Leo recalls what his daughter said afterward:
“‘You know what one of the worst crimes of humanity is? When you are born, you are given a name, everyone is given a name. The crime here is that these people died nameless.’”
Leo says everyone was stunned by that comment.
“There were interesting things like that that were coming out of her brain. She was 15 when she did the show, [and] her perspective is radically different than mine.”
It’s hard to discern Sarina’s emotion in the final version of the show. The 11 minutes mostly focus on Leo, the host Sebastian, and long walks through green landscapes. But speaking with Sarina, it’s clear that she has been trying to find the words to express what she experienced, and how that ties in with her understanding of her own family’s history, since she returned.
“When I was there seeing it and taking it all in, yes I was physically there,” she says, “but mentally it was like another thing. It didn’t even seem like it was real because it looks like this green, lush park. It could be outside my house and it could have a swing set and playground. But what you really don’t know is in that little tiny mound, there’s 5,000 dead bodies of persecuted Jews and my people and our heritage. And then my grandmother was there, and the possibility that I could be standing exactly where she was…it’s just so deep and powerful that it almost doesn’t seem like it could be real.”
When Sally first heard that her son and granddaughter would be going to Bergen-Belsen to see the place where she suffered for so many months, she says initially she couldn’t believe it because she has noticed that lately, there haven’t been so many books or movies about the Holocaust. She worries that with the survivors dying off, it will be easier to forget.
“Then, I say yes, it was ok with me,” she recalls, after she got over the shock that her family was going to tell her story on television. “I said it’s good that the children … they going to display the videos for children, for classes. That’s what I wanted, that’s why I was talking all those years with children. … I want they should know. They should know and they should talk about it, they should raise their voices.
“I’m very proud of my son and Sarina, what they did. It was very hard for them, I’m sure. I can imagine what Sarina went through. She went through a lot, I know that. She told me she cried, I said it’s ok to cry, I cried a lot too, but I’m still talking. I cry but I’m still talking.”