Holocaust survivor shares her experiences with Univ. community
Inge Auerbacher was sent to a concentration camp when she was just seven years old. She told the story of her survival.
Thirty-seven miles west of Krakow near the former German-Polish border, on Jan. 27, 1945, Soviet forces liberated Auschwitz, the largest death camp established by Nazi Germany. Seventy-five years later, people around the globe still remember that day.
On Jan. 27, Brandeis’ Center for German and European Studies and the Goethe Institute screened Claude Lanzmann’s nine-and-a-half hour documentary “Shoah.” The next day, Inge Auerbacher, author and Holocaust survivor of the Theresienstadt concentration camp — located in what is now the Czech Republic and liberated on May 8, 1945 — spoke to the Brandeis community in the Shapiro Campus Center Theater about her experiences.
The evening opened with an introduction by Miriam Reichman ’21, the event’s planner. Together, students lit six candles to represent six groups that perished during the Holocaust — children, fathers, mothers, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and brothers and sisters. Reichman reminded attendees that with so many who did not survive, these stories enable the next generations to put names to the faces of those who suffered.
After the audience watched a video and listened to students in the Public School 22 chorus from Staten Island, New York, singing a song based on “A World of Peace,” a poem that Auerbacher wrote, Auerbacher started her portion of the evening by saying that part of what made the children who sang that song so special was that they were so diverse. “We are all a part of the same human family,” she said. She said she speaks for the 1.5 million innocent children who lost their lives in the Holocaust and emphasized that Jews are part of a religion, not a race. “There’s Black Jews, there’s Chinese Jews, Korean Jews. I was in India, there was a synagogue with all Indian Jews,” she said.
As Auerbacher, a world-traveler, writer, chemist and photographer, began telling her story, one of her poems was displayed on a PowerPoint behind her. It read, “I am a star: only special children wear a star, I am noticed from near and far. They have placed a mark over my heart. I’ll wear it proudly from the start … I stand tall and proud, my voice shouts in silence loud: ‘I am a real person still. No one can break my spirit or will!’ I am a star!” The star referred to in her poem is the yellow cloth star that Jewish people were forced to wear on their clothes in Nazi-occupied Europe. Auerbacher brought the star that she wore and, at one point in her presentation, showed it to the audience.
“I want to take you today on a journey of my first ten years growing up in Nazi Europe,” Auerbacher began. On Dec. 31, 1934, Auerbacher was born in Kippenheim, Germany. She was the last Jewish child born in the village, and the doctor that delivered her was a part of the Nazi party, though “he still treated the Jews in a decent way,” she said. Later on, he became involved in the Nazi euthanasia program that killed people with mental and physical disabilities. He went to prison for many years after the war.
Just six months after her birth, Auerbacher lost her German citizenship. Today, Auerbacher explained, she could recover her citizenship, but does not care to. “I am an American citizen — good enough for me,” she said.
Until November 1938, the Christians and Jews in Auerbacher’s village coexisted. However, on Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass, between Nov. 9 and Nov. 10, every window in her home was broken and her synagogue was burned down, memories that remain vivid in Auerbacher’s mind. During Kristallnacht, the police arrested her father and grandfather. Auerbacher, along with her mother and grandmother hid in a shed until all was quiet. She said that the Jewish men were taken to the Dachau concentration camp temporarily. Her father and grandfather returned home, but her grandfather died shortly after.
Auerbacher said she returned to their hometown synagogue again in 1966. Today, it has been rebuilt, but she said you can still tell that something bad had happened there.
Despite her family's efforts to escape Germany, the world closed its doors to refugees, she said. The Auerbachers sold their home and moved in with her grandparents in a smaller village that was predominantly non-Jewish. She said that the people there were nice and at the end of the street there was a bakery that Albert Einstein’s great-grandparents owned, though she never had the opportunity to meet the scientist himself. It was here when she met her best friend Elizabeth, who was not Jewish, with whom Auerbacher kept in touch until her recent passing.
Auerbacher said that in her life she has had two heroes. The first she encountered on her way to school: Auerbacher was often bullied by those who were not Jewish, because she stuck out for having to wear a yellow star, but one day a Christian woman, whose name she does not know, gave Auerbacher her lunch and walked away quietly. The second hero was her grandmother’s maid, who saved photo albums so Auerbacher had access to her own childhood photographs. Her grandmother was taken away by Nazis in 1941 and executed in Latvia.
In 1942, at the age of seven, Auerbacher was deported with her parents to Theresienstadt in the former Czechoslovakia. Besides their clothing and Auerbacher’s doll, Marlene, the Nazis took everything else from them. Auerbacher said that the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. currently has her doll, but when she dies, “I want her in my casket,” she said.
Auerbach noted that she did not have a number tattooed on her arm, explaining that these were only given to prisoners in Auschwitz. However, she remembers her number and said it was “tattooed on my soul and heart.”
Auerbacher showed the audience photos of Theresienstadt, whose barracks were large brick structures and were crowded with families. One notable part of her time in the camp was when the International Red Cross came to inspect the camp and was fooled into thinking the conditions of the camp were immaculate. For this inspection, the Nazis “beautified” the camp in order to prevent observers from knowing about its poor conditions. For example, they painted houses and gardens to show the camp in a positive light. It was at this time that a ten-minute documentary was made about the “beautiful” camp conditions for use as propaganda.
Auerbacher was in the camp for three years. On May 8, 1945, when Auerbacher was 10 years old, the Soviet Red Army liberated the camp. However, Auerbacher said she does not recall it as a positive day. Despite being free, everyone knew that not all of their relatives had survived, and there was a typhus outbreak in Theresienstadt. Both of Auerbacher’s parents survived, but upon returning home, Auerbacher’s family found out that their grandmother did not, because she never returned home.
After spending nine months in Germany, legislation by President Harry Truman allowed her family to come to the United States. Upon arrival, Auerbacher fell ill with tuberculosis that she picked up while in the concentration camp. She spent two years in the hospital before beginning high school at age 15. After graduating in three years while taking summer classes, Auerbacher went to college, where she got sick again and spent another year in the hospital. However, she ultimately finished higher education and became a chemist, continuing her post-graduate work in biochemistry. She went to Germany with the goal of becoming a physician. However, in 1968, people were still acting upon Nazi beliefs, she said, and therefore did not stay to pursue that path.
A theme that defined Auerbacher’s time in the camp is the importance of hope. She ended her talk by reading her poem “Hold me Tight.” Auerbacher had a best friend who, along with her mother and father, was sent to Auschwitz and died in the gas chambers. In her poem, Auerbacher interprets how her friend’s mother tried to maintain hope as they walked toward the chambers. It starts off full of promise before her friend’s mother realizes they were not going to survive. The last three words were “hold … me … tight …,” and with each of these final words, Auerbacher’s voice quieted to a whisper.
A theme that Auerbacher emphasized throughout the presentation was that a bystander who does not help is just as guilty as those who performed the act. Auerbacher also touched on the idea of forgiveness. Although she is never going to forgive the Nazis who performed executions in the Holocaust, she does not necessarily hold their actions against their grandchildren, she said. For example, the grandson of the commandant of Auschwitz has reached out to her, she said, and they will be meeting up in Europe.
According to her website, Auerbacher travels to share her story. She has won several awards, such as the Doctor of Humane Letters in 2005 from Long Island University, and the Ellis Island Medal of Honor in 1999. She has written best-selling books, including “I Am a Star,” telling the audience that each and every one of them was a star.
Reichman admired Auerbacher’s work, which led Reichman to invite the survivor to Brandeis as part of her efforts to increase Holocaust education on campus.
“I got involved with Holocaust remembrance initiatives at the end of my freshman [year] during Yom HaShoah — Holocaust Memorial Day,” Reichman in a Feb. 2 email to the Justice.
She said she was disappointed that there were only a few events that were organized to remember the atrocities of the Holocaust and the six million Jewish people who lost their lives. In order to bring more Holocaust education to campus, she “created a visual display that went up outside the library in honor of the victims of the Łódź ghetto.” She said that there were many students on campus who did not know about the ghettos that the Nazis created. After seeing low attendance at another event on campus where the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor spoke, she found a group of students motivated to build more extensive Holocaust remembrance education.
Reichman got in touch with Auerbacher, and the ensuing “12 minute conversation left me with a huge smile on my face because Ms. Auerbacher is just so full of life,” Reichman said. Originally, Auerbacher was supposed to come to campus during Yom HaShoah in April, around the time of another planned display to honor the children of Theresienstadt and artwork and poems created in the camp. However, Auerbacher had already booked another talk at that time, so she came to honor International Holocaust Remembrance Day instead.
“It was rewarding that I was able to pull together such a successful event with a large turnout in approximately the span of a month, proving all those wrong who doubted me,” Reichman said.
She added that she did not expect that 157 people would register to attend the event, 142 of whom were undergraduates. “It is our duty, as the last generation that will get the chance to listen to those who survived hell, to seize every opportunity we have to hear their stories. It is upon us to preserve their memories and share their stories,” she said.
The event was co-sponsored by Together Restoring Their Names, the Center for German and European Studies, Chabad at Brandeis and Brandeis Hillel.