Pleasanton Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - November 26, 2010

Survivor recalls Holocaust for Foothill students

Speakers shares the horrors so they will not happen again

by Glenn Wohltmann

Never again.

Holocaust survivor Susan Greenwald told Foothill High School honors English students that they need to remember the past to prevent it happening again.

"My story takes us back to the first part of the 20th century," Greenwald began her hour-long narrative, describing encounters with Nazis, as well as Hungarian, American and Russian soldiers.

Incorporating a geography lesson into her personal history, Greenwald explained that when Germany was divided following World War I, Czechoslovakia -- her home country, which she described as democratic and freedom loving -- was created.

Greenwald described a number of factors that contributed to the outbreak of the Second World War, including British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's attempts to appease Hitler by allowing it to annex Czechoslovakia.

"The Allies (England and France) that tried to avoid World War II," Greenwald said, "allowed him to demolish our little country."

Germany, "just couldn't pull itself together" after World War I, she said, due to a bad economy and political upheavals and the rise of Adolph Hitler.

"The number of his followers grew and grew and so did his popularity," Greenwald said, and people grew envious of successful businessmen. "Hitler's followers looked with envy at those people. That envy changed to jealousy, then jealousy turned to hate."

On Nov. 9, 1938, "a terrible thing happened in Germany. It was called Kristallnacht," she said. "The brownshirts (Hitler's followers) went out and broke all the shop windows of Jewish shop owners."

Two days later, she said, Czechoslovakia was divided between Germany and Hungary, which joined the Nazis, and led to a rise in anti-Semitism.

Greenwald described being segregated in school; during class outings, students would sing racist songs directed at her and the other Jewish students. War was declared and as it progressed, she said, life became more difficult for Jewish families in her small town. They couldn't get jobs and were kicked out of school.

In 1944 -- the day after Greenwald's 19th birthday -- German troops crossed the border. Two days later, Jews were ordered to wear yellow stars of David when they went outside, prompting a mix of reactions from others in the town.

"Some laughed. Some crossed the street," Greenwald said. "There were some who treated us as before, treated us with respect."

They were forced to move into ghettos, segregated areas walled off from the rest of her town.

"We were not allowed to go through the gate into the rest of town," she said.

One day, she said, "the old, sick, pregnant women were all put into trucks."

"The streets were full of people and they were looking at us. Some laughed," Greenwald continued. "There were those who cried and you could see their horror and sorrow."

Her stepfather -- a doctor -- was shipped away. Greenwald, her mother and brother were ultimately loaded onto trains.

"We had no idea where we were going," she said. After traveling two or three days, "the doors opened. We saw lots of S.S. soldiers with dogs... later we found out we were in Auschwitz."

Greenwald noted the infamous sign that hung over the entrance to the death camp -- "Arbeit macht frei," or work will set you free.

She said men and women were split up, and she and her mother were separated from her brother, not knowing it was the last time they'd see him.

"We let him go without a hug, without a kiss," Greenwald said.

The women were forced to strip and had their heads shaved, then led to the showers.

"S.S. soldiers were standing there with guns and we were there naked and bald," she said. They were given dresses by a Jewish trusty, then led to barracks, which consisted of wood planking without blankets or pillows.

The food was a sort of gray porridge, and Greenwald said, "That was our only food for the day and we had to eat it to survive."

They were ordered to stand in lines for roll call several times a day.

"If somebody sat down or fell down, soldiers would take them away. We never saw them again," she said.

At night, the women could see flames and smell a strange odor. They were told it was a chemical factory.

"Later, we found out that was the crematorium, working day and night, seven says a week," Greenwald said.

After three months in Auschwitz, she, her mother and an aunt were among 1,500 women taken to another camp, where they were provided with shoes and clean clothes for the first time in three months.

While a third of the women were forced to work in a munitions factory underground and subject to almost daily bombings by British planes, Greenwald, her aunt and mother were among the group that got the less dangerous job of cleaning construction debris from apartments being built for Germans.

For her 20th birthday, her gift was a used toothbrush, which she described as a luxury after not being able to brush her teeth from May to the following March.

In April, German soldiers disappeared overnight from the camp. She and the others were driven 30 kilometers by Germans in street clothes to another death camp, Bergen-Belsen, where they unknowingly spent the night in a barracks filled with dead bodies.

After several days without water, she said, "We gave up all hope, seeing all the death around us."

When she and the other women were ordered to dig a mass grave, they refused, and ran off, less worried about being shot than what could have happened had they stayed.

The area was soon liberated by the British army, which immediately set up mobile kitchens, although Greenwald and the others couldn't eat much because their stomachs had shrunk. All 1,500 contracted typhoid fever.

On a train headed home, she said she saw what the war had done to Germany.

"I tell you, there was hardly a home left standing," she said. They were handed off to Russian troops in Budapest, who didn't provide them with food and reduced the women to begging.

They arrived home to find her stepfather awaiting the train as he had every day since arriving home. They later found out that her brother had survived Buchenwald, another death camp, only to die of tuberculosis nine days after the end of the war.

Greenwald's narrative seemed to provoke some uncomfortable reactions for the students, with some shifting in their seats uncomfortably while she spoke.

While most of the students have read about the holocaust, listening to someone who lived though it makes a big difference, according to sophomore Benjamin Dunn.

"When you hear someone, you can feel the emotion and you can feel how they express it," Dunn said.

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