The Sound of Mutilation

Before the Nazis amputated her arm, Sara Fershko was a concert violinist. Today she's struggling to pay her medical bills

Sara Fershko's clearest memory from 1941 is that the most beautiful morning of her life as a young musician directly preceded a night so horrific she wanted to kill herself with cyanide. The 24-year-old Warsaw Philharmonic violinist and lyric soprano had embarked on a great adventure: The Russians had dispatched her and a handsome pianist (who would later become her husband Hayim) from Poland to entertain partisans behind Russian lines. "We were in a beautiful river village playing at dawn," she recalls from her Miami Beach apartment.

The audience of soldiers gazed up at the pretty brunette with a flower garland on her hair. The dawn was golden. "What I remember most is that the air was so still," she says, "that each note from my violin fell like --" she puts the fingers of her right hand close together "-- a pearl. It's the last time I played for anyone." Within an hour the sky was black with German planes. Nazi tanks would soon flatten the town.

The Russians, armed only with Molotov cocktails and pistols that fell apart in their hands, were massacred, and Sara was knocked unconscious during the assault. She awoke in a hospital staffed by Russians and commanded by newly arrived German officers "with eyes the color of ice," she says. No one knew she and Hayim were Jewish, "but the Germans are mystical, like Russians, about music," she explains. "They believe it inspires the listener with great power, courage. And we were playing for Germany's enemies." The punishment was ingeniously cruel for two musicians: Their left arms were amputated at the shoulder -- without anesthesia.

Sara's agony was so excruciating that a sympathetic Russian nurse slipped two cyanide tablets into her remaining hand. But Hayim whispered to her all night. "I was young, and if I didn't commit suicide I would find a wonderful life," she recalls him saying. They were rescued from the hospital by friends who cared for them in Siberia until the war's end.

But the lucky break that saved the Fershkos' youthful lives subjected Sara and her now deceased husband to a stringent old age in South Florida. Their Siberian sanctuary was so far behind battle lines that there was no need to conceal their identities.

"Because they never had to assume false names in Siberia -- what laws governing reparations to Holocaust victims call 'deep hiding' -- legally the German government doesn't owe one cent in medical costs to Sara Fershko, not even for a fake arm," says attorney William Marks, whose Washington, D.C., practice is entirely devoted to shepherding Holocaust survivors through the complex, almost impenetrable, codes of restitution.

And because no one at the Russian hospital knew Sara was Jewish, any bid for reparations, even for her medical costs, is even more problematic. "Regulations prescribe payments to survivors persecuted for race or ideology, not for playing music to the wrong crowd," Marks notes. "Even if she could provide the Germans with documentation that the Nazis gave the order to sever her arm, the one-in-a-million shot she has at money would depend on the whim of the caseworker reviewing her application. The world of reparations is governed by whim."

So Sara receives no reparations. What she would like is the money for a prosthesis and a nurse to come by occasionally to help her put it on, something she was unable to coax from Medicare. According to the Holocaust Documentation and Education Center, there are 25,000 Holocaust survivors in Miami (the second largest survivor population, after New York, in North America). The group is formidable in size, but its advocates are engaged primarily in a cosmic war over history, memory, justice, and denial, always aware that the clock is ticking as Holocaust witnesses age and die.

Sara lays a discolored, once orangey-pink, stiff rubber arm next to the vegetarian cookbook on the coffee table of her small, spotless South Beach apartment. The fake fingers still wear red nail polish and her wedding ring. "I thought it was a miracle, that it would make me look pretty again, when it was made 40 years ago," she says. "There was an artist who worked at a Manhattan department store making mannequins. He took a mold of my right arm and formed a left hand at the end of it. It doesn't bend. It just hangs. But I wore it on concert stages and it made me feel better in my evening gowns. The problem is, I always needed an assistant to help me because the straps are so complicated. Maybe that's what happens when an artist and not an engineer designs something."

The Fershkos took up permanent residence in America in 1954 and earned their postwar living by giving concerts, despite their amputations. They lived in New York until 1977, when they moved to Miami Beach. Hayim arranged his own music and taught himself to play the piano one-handed. Sara couldn't play the violin with an unbendable fake arm, so she concentrated on singing. The couple toured in Mexico, Canada, and the U.S. They even appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show. Gossip columnist Earl Wilson introduced them, alluding to their "survival of suffering" but offered no explanation for their missing arms. Each year they gave a concert at Miami's Olympia Theater (now the Gusman Center) under the blue ceiling decorated with pinpoint lights that twinkled like stars. They kept performing until 1985, when Hayim's Alzheimer's and heart trouble made it impossible. Through the years, the war over reparations raged around them.

Since 1953 Germany has paid $58 billion to more than 500,000 Holocaust survivors, according to the Times of London, but application procedures often involve more than 30 forms, some written only in German. There are three major reparation agreements, each with different terms. The first, begun in 1952, when the Fershkos were living in Israel, stopped accepting applicants in 1965. Sara and Hayim were ineligible through a fluke of geography. In an exhaustive analysis of the reparations agreements, the Times explained that the Israeli government refused to allow individual reparations for its residents after government officials received death threats and citizens demonstrated violently against taking "German blood money." Instead, Israel accepted German goods and funds to be used in nation-building.

The second reparations agreement (begun in 1980 and still accepting applicants) was known as the Hardship Fund, which offered survivors earning a joint income of less than $21,000 annually a lump-sum payment of $3000. The Fershkos earned too much to qualify as hardship cases. Germany's third restitution agreement, begun in 1993 and scheduled to end in 1999, is known as Article 2. To be eligible, a survivor must have a single annual income of less than $14,400 and be able to prove that she spent six months in a concentration camp or eighteen months in a ghetto or in deep hiding. Sara meets none of those requirements.

To aid the thousands of survivors like her, the Miami-based International Network of Children of Holocaust Survivors is pressuring Germany to set up a health insurance fund to pay the medical costs of survivors. Network president Rositta Kenisberg, who is also the executive vice president of the Holocaust Documentation and Education Center at Florida International University, successfully lobbied for a resolution from the U.S. Congress backing her efforts. It is a cause that exhausts those fighting for it. Kenisberg is the daughter of an Auschwitz survivor and tours the country arguing for the medical fund and encouraging letter-writing campaigns. "I can't answer questions about medical costs coolly; I always end up talking for almost half an hour about torture," she sighs.

Even if Germany does set up a fund to pay health insurance and medical costs, it is unlikely that it would happen soon enough to help Sara, who is 80 years old. While others focus on getting survivors' medical costs from a country an ocean away, Sara must meet her daily needs alone -- cleaning her apartment, combing her hair: "I'm still vain about it. If I have to stay indoors three days to get the style right, that's what I do."

One final option for survivors who can't prove the Nazis caused the physical problems they now suffer in old age is a category of damage called "Nerves." No one knows exactly what this term means, although it can include night terrors, flashbacks, and a sensation that, roughly translated from the German, means "world-lostness." But Sara will not apply under the Nerves provision. "It's a matter of pride. I can't relive that feeling of complete helplessness just to get money from people who don't want to give it," she says. In a confessional and litigious society, this note of dignity is almost quaint.

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