Interviewed January 18, 1995
Concord Oral History Program
Renee Garrelick, Interviewer.
When Sonia was born, her Dad planted a tree outside their apartment in Krakow. Four years ago I had the privilege of visiting that courtyard and touching the leaves of that tree as it blooms today. Her father, I'm sure, planted that tree as a symbol of life. There has been no one as a symbol of life and a spirit that really touches all of us as Sonia. - Bill Miller, Social Studies Teacher, Concord Middle School.
As a survivor of the Holocaust, I come from another world. I come from a universe when my people were condemned to torture, to death for no other reason but because they were Jewish, even the children. I'm sure you know not all the victims were Jewish, but all the Jews were victims. I like to start my presentations with a poem, which I hope will give you an idea of that other world where I will be taking you.
"Come, take this giant leap with me
Into the other world, the other place,
Where language fails and imagery defies,
Denies men's consciousness and dies upon the altar of insanity.
Come, take this giant leap with me
Into the other world, the other place,
And trace the eclipse of humanity where children burned while mankind stood by
And the universe has yet to learn why."
What I'm saying is that normal standards don't apply to the Holocaust. That it is indeed a whole other world, in fact, we have no language to describe this experience. Someone said that the Holocaust is a crime without a language and really we're struggling all the time to find the right words, simply because words like cold or hot don't mean the same thing in that other world. It doesn't mean that you forgot to put on a sweater this morning or you maybe decided to skip lunch. In that other world, hunger meant going without food and water for days. Words like suffering or being sick -- the other day I had a cold and I was under my warm afghan with a pitcher of orange juice, and my husband walked in and I'm smiling and he says, "You're miserable, why are you smiling?" I said, "Because I'm miserable in comfort." You know what I mean. It's a whole other world. In that other world, being sick meant probably being killed that night because we were not allowed to be sick.
So I'm going to try and give you a little bit of my experience, tell you a little about my early childhood, and then I'll try and take you through the five concentration camps, through the Krakow ghetto -- in general through those six years of darkness.
My early childhood was normal and uneventful and very pleasant. I lived with my parents and with my only sister with whom I survived. That is a miracle because many families were totally wiped out, not even one person survived. In my family, out of 84 people, my sister and I survived, so again the numbers are numbing. Sometimes when you talk about 6 million or you talk about the other countless millions of people who suffered and were victims, you become numb, but maybe when I tell you this one figure of 84, and my sister and I stopped counting after that. As a matter of fact, our numbers are not correct because we found out since that my grandmother was adopted, so it means that there is a whole part of my family who we haven't even begun to count.
My childhood was normal. I was pampered and protected like any other little girl. Two things I want to mention about that very early childhood, one is that I remember my grandmother, who I just mentioned. She had a farm. She was a truly liberated woman. After her husband died, she continued running the farm, and was very much respected by the other farmers. What she did for us is that she would open up the farmhouse to the grandchildren and to all our friends in the summer. Some of my best memories are of the summers on the farm. The smell of fresh baked bread, picking mushrooms and berries, in general the warmth of having a large family around you. Sometimes we kids slept four or five people to a bed. We giggled way into the night. Those are very precious, wonderful memories. Of course, the tragedy of this memory is that none of these people survived except for my sister and me. The other memory I want to share with you is that when I was a little girl, I remember my parents talking about trying to get out of Poland. The Jews were already in deep trouble in Germany and in other parts of Europe. I remember the long discussions when my uncles and aunts would get together. When they all thought I was sleeping, they started discussing our future, our lives, and I would have my ear to the wall and I would listen. What I would hear was that there was no place for us to go. There wasn't a country in the whole wide world willing to take any number of Jews. The United States had very strict immigration laws. There was no Israel -- the British were in Palestine where today is Israel. They just would not allow any numbers of Jews. They came out with this white paper. Just when we were in mortal danger, they closed the doors to Palestine.
Actually what happened was the average Jew like my family, why I say average is because if you had an awful lot of money and there were some people with a lot of money, you could perhaps buy a visa to a neutral country like Switzerland, or if you were brilliant like an Einstein, some country might invite you, but if you were the average people like my family, lower middle class, we were literally trapped and we were slaughtered.
For me the nightmare really begins in 1939, although you know that the years of the Holocaust I usually refer to as being between 1933 and 1945, with the invasion of Poland. Suddenly, Poland is invaded by the Nazis. It happened on September 1, 1939 and immediately the bombs came falling. My sister was hiding in her room all the time. She wouldn't even go into the shelter because she was waiting for a boy with whom she was very much in love, and he was off fighting the Nazis in the Polish Army. Eventually the miracle happened and he did get back, and they were married later on in hiding. In the meantime, September 6, 1939 as soon as the Nazis got into my city of Krakow, the special rules and regulations for the Jewish people came into being. The Jews were always singled out for special treatment. Now the Polish people suffered greatly, we all know that, but very often the Jews became the victims of the victims because of anti-Semitism especially in that part of Europe. Very often Polish people would denounce a Jew, would tell the Nazis or SS where a Jew was hiding. Very often they would take the property of the Jewish person in return for the favor of having them turned in, and so we had a lot of collaborators. Our rules were constantly changing, and immediately the early persecutions began. My father's business was taken away so there was no more money coming in. Schools never opened that fall which I really didn't mind, as you can imagine. I was eleven years old. Within a week or so we had to wear the armband which, of course, singled you out amongst other people. The band in Krakow was on the left arm, a white band embroidered in blue. I really remember embroidering mine. I took great pride in doing that for some reason. So people began to disappear. As I said, every day there were new rules and new regulations. We had to give up jewelry, fur coats, bicycles. You can live with that. I remember my mother saying, "Hey, it's not going to last long. The Germans are civilized people. It's not as bad as it appears right now."
In the meantime, my sister Blanka's boyfriend Norbert came back from the war, and they were married in hiding. That is another whole beautiful chapter that I write about in my book because again the beauty of it is that they both survived. Just another miracle amongst all this horror.
For me, I still didn't feel very persecuted or in great danger. I was with my parents. I really didn't think that things were as bad as some people were saying. The first time I saw my father cry, and it wouldn't be the last, was when I asked him what had happened, he told me that my favorite uncle Henry was arrested by the Gestapo. He was arrested right in the very beginning when the Nazis arrested the leadership of Poland -- teachers, doctors, lawyers, university professors, priests. They sent most of them to Auschwitz. When I asked my father why he was crying, apparently my uncle has been arrested a few weeks earlier and they had kept it from me, and that particular day my aunt received an urn of ashes, so obviously they knew that he was killed. Why I'm bringing that story in so carefully is that I have a little document that I received recently from a person who heard me speak. There is a book from Auschwitz, and she was very excited when she heard that my uncle was one of the very first people to be arrested and brought to Auschwitz. Auschwitz at first was just a prisoner-of-war camp for political prisoners, later it became a death factory. So when she heard that I had an uncle that was one of the very first victims, she immediately went looking for his name and sure enough, his name is in that book.
Another reason I bring this along is because you realize that today we have people that denied this history. At first we called them historical revisionists because they were revising history. I always called them historical distortionists. Now we are simply calling them deniers. They deny this history. There are people and if you look carefully in your library, you may find some books that claim this never happened. I can't tell you how angry I get. I'm very upset and this is one of the reasons I speak out. I actually started speaking out almost twenty years ago. You may not realize that most of the crimes committed was documented by the killers themselves. They took the photographs, they took the films, they had most of the documents left behind, so how can you possibly deny something that was documented by the killers.
Before we knew it, the walls came up around a small section of Krakow, and the ghetto for the Jews was built. How many of you have seen "Schindler's List"? Oh, many of you, great. Then you remember that film really portrays three places that I was in. One is the Krakow ghetto and the other one is the camp Plaszow and of course, Auschwitz. I also survived two other camps afterwards. Unfortunately, I never knew about Schindler. I didn't know about it until my friend showed up one day in a displaced persons camp and I found out that she had survived because of a man named Schindler, so I was not lucky enough to have been part of that Schindler rescue.
In the ghetto when we were herded in, I lived with my parents. Conditions were horrific. We were terribly crowded. There was death. There was hunger. There was lots of disease. I remember being so crowded. If you can imagine a normal apartment of two or three rooms, each room had at least three or four families. I remember when my mother hung a blanket from the ceiling so that the three of us had a little bit of privacy. My sister and her husband lived in another part of the ghetto. Immediately they started taking away, and here is where language fails. When you hear me say transports, taking away, that's normal language, what I'm saying is that they were taking people to their deaths, which is something they kept from us. Mostly the announcements would tell us that people were taken to work, to labor camps, conditions would be wonderful, families would be reunited. Most people went peacefully, quietly, and especially if bread was given. In Warsaw there was one incident where they gave out a whole loaf of bread to anybody who would line up peacefully, so people were literally fighting each other to get in line to be sent off.
In my ghetto, at first they took away the children, the old and then the sick. The sick was anyone who was either physically or mentally handicapped, the old was anyone 55 or older, and I'm very uncomfortable with that, and children under 14. Children under 14 were condemned to death, and of course, that made us feel that perhaps they were really being truthful in telling us that we were going to work, apparently children under 14 were not strong enough. In any case, I had a problem, a very serious problem, because I was not 14. My parents got me papers, and there were all kinds of documents that we always had to have with us, that claimed I was 14. They never told me how they performed all these little miracles because I was a little brat with a big mouth, and they were always afraid that if I was caught I would probably talk and endanger other people. So they never told me how they managed to get me these papers, but I had papers that claimed that I was about 3 or 4 years older, and I was temporarily safe. My mother, however, was suddenly on the list. The list that meant that the people would be taken away. One night the police came with a list and I find it hard to talk about it so I usually cop out and read a poem that I wrote that night. Incidentally, my poetry was written in Polish, and eventually I had to write it all down from memory because my diary in which I wrote all these poems was destroyed. We were not allowed to have anything personal, anything like a photograph, a piece of jewelry, anything that you would hold dear was totally forbidden. So my diary had to be destroyed too. I did reconstruct most of it right after the war and eventually I translated most of the poetry into English. This is part of the poem.
"I promised I would tell the world
But where to find the words to speak of innocence and love and tell how much it hurts,
About those faces we can pale, those dizzy eyes around,
Six million lips that whispered help, but never made a sound.
To tell about the loss, the grief, the dread of death, and cold,
Of wickedness and misery. Oh, no, it can't be told."
My mother was taken to Belzec which was one of the five death factories built for no other reason but to kill as quickly and as efficiently as possible. Auschwitz was the biggest of all the death factories, but Auschwitz was also a work camp besides being a death camp. So we never saw my mother again.
My first camp was Plaszow Those of you who saw "Schindler's List", I think he really depicted Plaszow very, very accurately. I felt when I watched the movie, I felt myself transformed. I really felt like I was there. Plaszow was built on two Jewish cemeteries, if you remember. I witnessed death for the first time when we were building roads from the memorial stones from the cemetery, and we were breaking up those stones, that was heavy slave labor. There was my sister and I, my friend, her mother and another woman. If you remember Commandant Amon Goeth, I think Spielberg made him a little more human than he was. He was the one if you remember would shoot people for target practice. He had these big dogs with him that would tear people apart. He really was a monster; a big, fat man with a white scarf and shiny boots. That day he came to my group and he didn't like the way my friend's mother was working, so he took out a gun and shot her. The gun had a silencer so we were not even aware of the fact that the woman was shot, she just fell over and Sasha was ordered to put her in a wheelbarrow and take her down the hill. I think what I remember most from that experience was not even the horror of witnessing this murder, but I heard my sister whispering next to me right in my ear, keep working and don't look up and if he kills me, she said, you go on working or he will kill both of us. I can literally feel this horror even today because by then the very thought of losing my sister became a nightmare that I still have today. It is a nightmare of losing the one person that you still had with you, always with you. I said very little about her but she was always there protecting me and making me "behave" because as I told you I was really an unruly brat, not ready to obey rules and order, and she was wonderful trying to keep me alive.
You realize that Plaszow was not an extermination camp, what I mean is we didn't have a crematorium, we didn't have a gas chamber, what we had was that hill that you saw in "Schindler's List" where people were stripped of their clothing, shot, thrown into the ravine and the bodies were burned. Even though we didn't have a crematorium, there was always the smell of burning flesh in every camp, in the ghetto too. The smell is something that I don't think any survivor will ever be able to get over. The Auschwitz smell is something that I immediately experience every time I hear of another revisionist or someone who denies the Holocaust, I can smell Auschwitz. Of course, I get angry. How can they tell me that it didn't happen?
I'm going to share a poem with you now that makes me feel better. It's a poem about my father. My father and I became very close. When my mother was taken away, it was like we were really clinging to each other. Unfortunately, when we got to Plaszow, men and women were separated, always in every camp. So I was with my sister. Norbert, my father and other members of my friends and family were in the men's part of the camp. I managed to sneak in to see my father. Of course, that kind of thing would have been punishable by death, probably. But I sneaked into his barrack, and it is such an incredible and bizarre, beautiful memory. There was a boy about your age, probably cheating about his age too, and he was sitting on his bunk, and I think you know what the barracks look like, three rows. In good times we had a meter for two people. In bad times, sometimes there were five of us on a bunk or there were no bunks. There was this boy sitting on the middle bunk and I was sitting on my father's bunk. The boy took out a harmonica and started playing a song and of course, you realize that was totally forbidden. As a matter of fact, just to show the punishment for that sort of thing, just a few days before, they hanged a boy his age because the boy sang a Russian song. I just want to give you an idea of the punishment. We had a lot of executions - hangings. The other person whom they hanged that day was an old man who tried to kill himself. I have a long poem in my book about that. The Nazis would not allow us to die unless they chose the time, so they patched him up and they brought him to the roll call and they hanged him. Still this boy was defying the rules and played this tune and my father looked at me and said, "You and I never had a chance to dance together." So you imagine a little girl and her father dancing in a concentration camp. I call the poem "Victory."
"I danced with you that one time only
How sad you were, how tired, lonely.
You knew that they would take you soon,
So when your bunkmate played the tune
You whispered, ‘little one, let us dance.
we may not have another chance.'
To grasp this moment, sense the mood,
Your arms around me felt so good
The ugly barracks disappeared,
There was no hunger, and no fear.
Oh, what a sight, just you and I,
My lovely father once big and strong
And me, a child, condemned to die,
I thought how long before this song must end.
There are no tools to measure love
And only fools would fail to scale your victory.
My father was taken with a transport. From Plaszow we also had many transports leaving. My father and Norbert were taken shortly after that moment that I talked about. He was taken to Mauthausen and he was killed just before the end of the war. This was the camp where Norbert survived and this was also the camp where my sister and I ended up, and I'll have you there in a few minutes.
My next camp is Auschwitz, and I think more has been said about Auschwitz than another place. It has become a symbol of the Holocaust. I went back in 1986 with a large group of Christians and Cardinal Law. I went back to Poland and this is where I found my tree that you heard about. It was an incredible experience, going back. There's no way you can prepare to go visit Auschwitz, and there is certainly no way you can prepare for a return visit to Auschwitz. Today it is a museum. I swear the smell is still there. It will never leave. The barracks were clean and it was quiet. Auschwitz to me will always be cold and wet. The screams, the selections, we went through many, many selections. In Auschwitz perhaps it was Dr. Mengele or somebody else, you would strip out of your clothes, stand there shivering, then you would go through the selection either to the right or to the left. At this point, I don't think I really cared if it was right or left as long as I was with my sister. As long as we were not separated. This business of being separated is such a trauma, such a feeling of helplessness, even today. In Auschwitz there was a mark on the wall so that any young person, even if you were 14, that didn't quite make it up to that line, you were immediately sent to the gas chamber.
The other thing that I want to mention is about that big lie. You know I think they lied to us all the way to the gas chambers. I remember when my mother was taken away. I remember when they told us to come peacefully, to come quietly, you're going to be resettled for work, now even in Auschwitz we were told to fold our clothes carefully, we were sometimes even given a piece of soap and you're going to the showers, except that you realize that very often there was no water, gas came out of the shower heads. So they kept us quiet. We knew but we didn't know. We heard rumors but we didn't believe. In fact, the whole Western world knew way before we did. By 1942 the leaders of the Allies of the Western world knew exactly what was happening to us. People escaped, people came to bear witness, but unfortunately, we were not a priority, which is very painful for me to think about, to talk about, the bystander syndrome.
You realize they were bombing a factory. I remember a factory near Auschwitz but when the witnesses, people who escaped, pleaded with the Allies to bomb the railroad tracks just to slow down the killing machine, they wouldn't do that. They would not bomb the tracks, however they did bomb a factory within two kilometers of Birkenau where the railroad track ran in, where the box cars came in. For me, by the time I got there it was too late. Most of my family was killed. But the Hungarian Jews should not have perished because the world knew exactly what was happening and Jews could have been rescued.
On the 16th of January, 50 years ago, the Nazis decided to evacuate Auschwitz. Actually what was happening was that the Russian armies were nearing and they decided to take us deeper into Germany or Austria. It's just so mind boggling. The war was almost over but they never gave up. For me actually had I only had someplace to hide for 10 days because Auschwitz was liberated by the Russians on January 27, and except for a few people who were too sick to be moved, and I guess they were too busy to kill them, other than that they found just a few of the people who were experimented on, Dr. Mengele did great experiments on twins. Very few people, some children who were in the hospital, those who were experimented on were still alive. Fifty-eight thousand people were sent on the death march from Auschwitz. I think for me the worst was yet to come after this particular death march.
The death march is an experience that is impossible to speak of, it's unspeakable, it's unthinkable, in fact. You cannot imagine how cold we were. We were not dressed for a hike in the winter. We were not prepared for that kind of weather. It was snowing. My sister found out that you can die very easily by lying down in the snow, so even when the guards were so tired they let us rest, my sister would not let me rest because I could die in the snow. So she poked and pushed. In general, we were starving. We lived on snow. This went on for so many days that I can't begin to tell you. I wrote about some of the experiences in my book, some of the horror of being so totally dehumanized that you were praying for a bullet. Mostly people were just dropping along the road and freezing to death. Finally they found some cattle cars for us. And that is a whole other universe too, the cattle cars. Sometimes 120 or 140 women in a box car made for maybe two horses. People were literally killing each other, going mad. There was no food. In the open cattle cars, sometimes farmers would throw food in like raw potatoes and we lived on that. We mostly lived on snow if the cattle cars were open.
Again after many, many days, we ended up in Bergen-Belsen. I think most of you know about Bergen-Belsen because Anne Frank ended up there after she finished her diary. Unfortunately, her diary ends with the beautiful words that she still believes in humankind. However, her life did not end with any thoughts of humankind. She died an ugly death of typhus. She fell off her bunk. She was with her sister Margot, and we know now what happened to her.
To me Bergen-Belsen was worse than Auschwitz, and that is really saying something. In Bergen-Belsen they threw 300 women in one barrack that was meant for maybe 50. There were no bunks, no blankets. There was no work and no food. We knew by then, because you realize that I lived through six years of that -- the experienced survivor, you didn't work, you didn't eat. They just left us to die and every day we would throw out the corpses. Everybody had typhus. One night we managed to sneak behind the German kitchens and picked up whatever they threw away, and had we been discovered, I thought it was very brave when it really was very dumb, we would have been shot. I was going to read my icicle poem but I think I want more time to just talk with you. So if we have time, remind me and I will read it later. The icicle poem is about standing on roll call which is another kind of horror that perhaps not enough has been said about. Sometimes, they made us stand there in that snow, in the rain, in the heat. I have some documents that say we had to stand there for fourteen hours. If somebody dropped dead or didn't show up for roll call, we had to be accounted for, every last prisoner. That was another kind of horror, another kind of hell, holding each other up. The very last part of that poem, I say I'm cold, hungry, hurt, does anyone know I am here, does anyone care? It always makes me think that I have almost, almost come to terms with the victim and the victimizer; it's the bystander that I still have so much problem with. Maybe that's why I'm here talking with you, hoping that you'll never stand by when someone else is in trouble. There is always something you can do. I don't usually preach, but let me just say that today your lives are not that easy. You live in tough times. There is so much stereotyping and so much scapegoating. If you would only speak up. Next time you witness something that could be stopped, think of me. Remember it happened. The Holocaust started with words. Someday invite me for three hours, and we'll talk more about that.
We got out of Bergen-Belsen because somehow my sister heard they were looking for 30 women to go to a labor camp. A labor camp was like another chance at life, because at labor camps they didn't kill as often or as brutally as they did at other camps. Somehow we were still probably in better shape than some of the other people. I don't how that was possible. My sister was so sick. She must have weighed 65 lbs. She had typhus and was very sick. But somehow they took 30 of us to another camp. Again the cattle cars on that trip was something I will never forget. My sister was dying, and there wasn't a darn thing I could do for her. I can taste the helplessness even today. Once I managed to catch some rainwater for her. That trip was another horror because practically everybody had typhus. Let me just stop and tell you that out of the 300 women of us who came to Bergen-Belsen, 30 of us got out and 5 of us survived, so that gives you another idea of the statistics.
We survived that cattle car ride again and my sister was still alive when we got into this very small camp called Venusberg. It was supervised by SS women who were terribly cruel, at least as cruel as the men, and I don't know why we expected women to be kinder. I got one serious beating from an SS woman in that camp because I got in line for food, and my sister was too weak to stand and I gave her my bowl and then I got in line again, and this particular SS woman recognized me. How she did that I don't know, because we all looked the same -- the walking dead. She beat me up and I didn't get my second bowl of soup. Again many, many stories about that camp. Finally, I also came down with typhus. I was in this camp for the dead and sick. It was a barrack where people who were too far gone physically were thrown. Then orders came to evacuate that camp also. My sister came with a friend and somehow they smuggled me out of the barrack for the sick because that one was not going to be evacuated. They would just burn it down. They dragged me onto cattle cars -- my last trip. That trip took 16 days. It was very hot or perhaps it was my temperature. Typhus is the most debilitating disease, and I was so sick. The only memories I have of that trip was whenever they would stop the cattle cars, they would open up the sealed doors to throw out the corpses, my sister would prop me up against the back of the door and she pinched my cheeks and made me look somewhat alive. If you didn't have someone watching over you, you would be thrown out. I do have to say one thing about these trips, and I've been asked why we were sent to so many camps. It is mind boggling. The Nazis were losing the war on every front. The Russians had come in from the east, the British, the Americans, the French, it was just about over -- I'm talking April 1945.
By the way, Bergen-Belsen was already liberated. We were still sent from one horror place to another, and we had priority. I remember when I was still well enough to look through these little windows with the bars, I would look out and I would see German soldiers and armaments sidetracked and we had priority to take us to yet another death center. The whole history doesn't make sense. Finally the 16 days to Mauthausen ended and somehow we made it up the hill. There were only 5 of us still alive, and one was dragging the other. Mauthausen was a horrific camp, and I remember these chills running up and down my spine.
In response to student questions:
We were so busy surviving just hoping to survive another day, I'm not sure we had time to mourn. It was an initial shock when someone next to you was killed or that someone just dropped dead, but we were too busy surviving. It is just an ugly piece of history that I would much rather tell you about dancing with my father then about, for instance, waiting for my friend to die so that I could get her shoes or her scarf or whatever it was that a friend might have had. There's is nothing redeeming, nothing pretty in that history; it was just ugly.
As to the cattle cars, you have to realize there was not enough room to sit, so mostly we were standing, leaning on each other. People were literally going mad because there was no place to turn, no place to sit, people were fighting for that little extra space so that they could lean back. It was hell. You cannot possibly imagine 120 women screaming and dying and going mad.
Do I still hate the Germans? First of all, that's a wonderful question. No, I don't have that kind of hatred or vengeance. Still we were in Europe one year and I heard a lot of German talk in an airport, and it just sent shivers up and down my spine, especially when I see someone in their late sixties, seventies, I can't help but wonder where were you, what did you do? But let me make it clear that I certainly don't believe that young Germans today are in any way responsible for the sins of their fathers or grandfathers, but I do think the German nation has a very special responsibility, to be responsible for the past and for the future and to learn about it and to learn from it hopefully.
I don't think we really realized what was happening. It was done in small steps. First, you are taken out of your home. I think going back to my house was quite a traumatic experience, just seeing the apartment. I could just literally hear my sister giggling when I walked in there. I could see myself doing homework so it made it real. I don't think we knew exactly what was happening because it was happening in steps. Most of my family were killed in the city of Tarnof. They were simply rounded up and shot in the square. I just found out recently that one was hacked to pieces. But I didn't know that. I was still with my parents. We didn't know.
I think when the transports started out of the ghetto, by 1941 and 1942, we knew, because some people escaped. People tried to tell us that there were places built for no other reason but to kill, and we wouldn't believe it. Professor Langer says that we don't have room in our consciousness for that kind of information. You really can't believe it. It happened gradually, and then we were so busy surviving that I don't think we realized until it was perhaps too late for some of us.
Yes, there was a time when I gave up hope and gave over to despair. There were lots of times. I don't believe anyone would not tell you that under those circumstances, you always had hope. It is interesting that in this horrific history of the Holocaust, people want, human nature is such, that we want to see something redeeming, something good. I've heard people say to me, you survived so you could be here speaking to us. That's a lot of nonsense. My survival is nothing but dumb luck. One reporter asked me, if there had not been a war, would you have been a poet, a writer, a speaker? I probably would have been a brain surgeon, I don't know. How can you possibly judge what would have happened if I had a normal life?
But, yes, I gave up many times. Fortunately, I had my sister with me and she wouldn't let me. When things got very bad, we did have thoughts of giving up or killing ourselves. First of all, we were not allowed to kill ourselves, and secondly, I think that there is always some hope. Suicide is so final that I didn't think it was a good idea, and I still don't now. There's always tomorrow that might just be better, you never know. But I don't think that I had the time to sit there and be a philosopher under those conditions, I would just plain give up. What hurts the victim is not even the pain, the agony, the loss, the physical pain, its when you are abandoned and alone and nobody cares. That's why we keep talking and that's why I'm here. I'm hoping that you will remember to speak up. You know you live in a free country. If I ever survived in the Soviet Union or some place, I would have been killed a long time ago, but here we can speak up. If you don't like something, you can speak up. You can fight city hall, and that is such a wonderful freedom. Again as I said before, I don't usually preach or pontificate but you can make a difference. So don't let anyone ever feel that they're totally abandoned whether it is Somalia or Bosnia or Haiti, make sure these people know that you care. It's very important.
It was very traumatic to have to burn my diary. You know that I think that I always knew that I would be here talking to you about it because we made it into a very dramatic event. My diary was found in the ghetto by a friend who was sent to the ghetto from Plaszow to clean that part of the city. He smuggled it back to me. That night my sister heard we had my diary and it was very dangerous to have anything personal and there was a pot belly stove, and we somehow managed to have four or five friends together, and we very dramatically tore out the pages and fed them into that fire. It was like I knew that some day a young woman in a school would ask me about it and I could give you that very dramatic moment blow by blow. I felt horrible. We were all crying. But before I burned it, I remembered all my poetry and most of my memories. I kept repeating them to myself whenever we were standing on the roll calls or in the cattle cars so I was able to reconstruct it after the war.
As to the camps and which one was the worst, I think Bergen-Belsen was the worst for me. It was such utter hopelessness. We were totally dehumanized. When you don't work, even heavy slave labor is somehow more humanizing than just rotting away. I think that was awful. Auschwitz was no picnic. Plaszow was pretty horrible. The other small labor camp was awful but not because it was such an awful camp; it was so horrible because my sister was dying, we were just at our wits end. Although the war was almost finished, we didn't see ourselves surviving another month. By the way there were 1600 small subcamps that you never heard about.
I don't know if it made me stronger to have all my human rights taken away. I wish I wasn't so strong. I wish it hadn't happened. I don't think I'm stronger than any other person who has gone through some trials and tribulations. What I'm trying to tell you is that I really feel that there is nothing that you can look at about the Holocaust and feel that it made me a better person. I really don't think so. The only thing that perhaps, perhaps, has come out of that evil history is that hopefully we are going to learn something about ourselves and about each other. Maybe, just maybe, we might be able to change things.
My sister and her husband were reunited in Mauthausen. Norbert came looking for us. He was, as I told you, in Mauthausen, and he heard that they brought a small group of women from Poland, and he came looking for her. There was this incredible reunion. I understand that every war-hardened American solider just openly cried when they reunited. I told you before that the Nazis kept such marvelous documents, everything was documented. As a matter of fact, the book from Mauthausen is in Israel and I saw it. Blanka and Sonia survived, my father was killed, Norbert survived -- everything was documented. They were reunited. We then spent about three years in displaced persons camps, and then Norbert found an uncle in Peabody, Massachusetts so the three of us finally made it here.
There were symbols of freedom -- a butterfly. I'm always wearing one. Some day I have to find that poem about a bird that I wrote in Polish but never translated. Because out of the clear blue sky, there was a bird that showed up in Auschwitz, which was miraculous The bird flew over the fences and that was that, but I couldn't. The clouds, a bird, a butterfly definitely made you feel that there was freedom some place, not for you at the moment but it was there.
You realize that Hitler himself could not have accomplished what he did. It took a whole nation, that's what makes the Holocaust so unique, it took a whole nation of people. Hitler did give the orders. He was the original person who had this insane idea of a perfect world with an Aryan nation, everybody blue-eyed and blond, but he had plenty of help. So I'm not sure he would really be the one to talk to. The whole nation helped in one way or another, if not literally, then by standing by and not speaking up. Somebody designed the crematoria, somebody ran the railroads, it took a lot of people to accomplish this kind of horror. So I'm never really quite sure what I would say to Hitler, and I may not even want to talk to him.
I went back because Cardinal Law and a large group of Christians were going, and I do a lot of work on Christian-Jewish relations, and I felt it was an opportunity I couldn't resist. Actually it took me three weeks before I said yes. I really didn't want to go, but I went. I admire the Cardinal greatly and I though it would make it more real for that group. What happened instead is that it made it so much more real for me. It was an incredible experience. I haven't gone to the museum yet in Washington. I really don't want to, but I probably will, just like going back to Poland. Just like doing this book. It took me 50 years to keep my promise to my mother. She asked me to tell the world, and for 50 years it was in the back of my mind, and finally with the encouragement of "Facing History," I finally sat down and wrote it, "I Promised I Would Tell."
We had such a phobia about going to a hospital even after the war. It took us a long time. What happened finally in my case is that I married a doctor. So I just had to get over this, and I found out a hospital is a place where you help people. But for us, hospitals were places from which you didn't return. After the war, when I was very sick and they put us in this part of Mauthausen, quarantined because I still had typhus, my sister immediately volunteered as a nurse because we wouldn't be separated. She was worried that somebody just might decide to do away with me. Besides, you realize that a lot of survivors died after the war. Forty percent of the survivors died once they were liberated, they were just too far gone.
The three years that we spent in the DP camps, this gets me very angry, even after all the hell that we had gone through, we still had no place to go. There was no Israel, the United States had very strict immigration laws, and we had no place to go period. Do you know that in those years, the Nazis found it easier to come to the United States than the survivors? That really gets me angry. As I said earlier, Norbert finally found an uncle in Massachusetts and he brought us over.
Again, Hitler himself could not have done what happened. It took a lot of people to help him. It was an incredible plan that they devised, the final solution. Ten weeks of "Facing History" is still not enough, and I taught a course at Salem State for 10 weeks, and that is not enough to make you understand some of the background and roots of anti-Semitism. How this possibly could come to happen. I am more concerned with the bystander, because I think the bystander can make a difference.
When I heard first about those books that denied the Holocaust, particularly one professor from Northwestern University, I went to see a friend of mine, a lawyer, and I was going to sue him. The lawyer said you can sue him for defamation of soul and I almost did that. Then I decided no, I think I'm going to fight my way and speak up. If you forget everything that I said today, try to remember that you met a survivor and that it really, really happened. Believe me, nothing would please me more than to tell you that this book is fiction. Wouldn't it be wonderful if this book is fiction? But it did happen, I was there, so don't let anybody tell you that it didn't.
I never wanted to change my religion so I wouldn't be persecuted any longer. I felt doubly pleased to be Jewish and having survived. This is not a lecture on anti-Semitism or Judaism but it is my favorite subject, but the Jewish people survived 2,000 years of incomparable persecution and to have survived and to be able to stand here and talk to you today, and especially to have a nation that we can call a Jewish nation, is an incredible accomplishment and an incredible privilege. I never felt that I wanted not to be Jewish. I did have my battle with God as you know from reading this book, but I finally reconciled that by telling myself instead where was man rather than where was God. I had a friend who survived, lives in Paris, and he has a son and he never had his son circumcised. He was so hung up on the fact that especially in Poland, only Jewish boys were circumcised and so it was very easy for a policeman to say drop your pants and recognize that you were Jewish. He was so hung up on that, that he would not allow his son to be circumcised.
I don't think things ever happen in the same way again and again in history. They do repeat themselves but not in the same way. We kind of feel the word Holocaust should relate only to this particular tragedy, however, the other tragedies happening around us are very discouraging. There was Cambodia, there was Vietnam, there is Bosnia today. I think there is a lot to be thinking about and a lot to change. What I'm saying is that we are learning. I wouldn't be here talking to you if I didn't think I was making a difference. Just looking at the newspaper today and seeing that Bosnia and the other places that are in trouble are still first or second page news is encouraging. Can you imagine what a comfort it would have been to me, to us, if we had been on the front pages? If we knew someone cared? I think we are beginning to learn to care about what is happening to other people.
Normal standards don't apply to the Holocaust, but when I talked before about anti-Semitism and collaborators and people turning other people in to the police, you must remember that there were very brave Christians who did save a Jewish child or a Jewish family. You don't realize that especially in Poland, if you were found harboring a Jew, you were killed. So I'm not sure at what point you stop being a bystander and endanger your own life. The questions are not simple, and there are certainly no simple answers.