Foothill High students hear about holocaust from Czechoslovakian survivor

Describes events leading up to Nazi Germany regime's atrocities

Never again.

Holocaust survivor Susan Greenwald told a Foothill High School honors English class 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, German, American and Russian soldiers.

Incorporating a geography lesson into her 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 November 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 -- Germany 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 dogsā€¦ 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 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, and then led to barracks, which consisted of wood planking without blankets or pillows.

The food was a sort of grey 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 on 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 days 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 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 unknowing 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 1500 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 at 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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Like this comment
Posted by Sunshine
a resident of Highland Oaks
on Nov 9, 2010 at 8:56 am

Bravo to Ms. Greenwald for sharing her story with our youth. Too many kids have no concept or understanding or what occurred during that time period. They need some connection to the reality of the consequences of hate and violence.

Like this comment
Posted by Rick
a resident of Parkside
on Nov 9, 2010 at 11:18 am

I agree with Sunshine above...........

Ms. Greenwald - Thank you for sharing your story, and may God Bless you.

Like this comment
Posted by Andy
a resident of Birdland
on Nov 9, 2010 at 12:13 pm

I hope the kids listened intently to Ms. Greenwald, they will appreciate more the great Country we call the U.S.A.

Like this comment
Posted by ca94566
a resident of Castlewood
on Nov 10, 2010 at 4:58 pm

Mrs Greenwald
Thank you so much for sharing your story with these students; it is so important to keep the Holocaust story alive, so this it is not repeated. So many do not believe this could happen to a human.

My husband lost family in Czechoslovakia in the camps during the war. They took his father, but he was hidden for the duration of the war.
Right, then the onset of Russian control and communism.

Today, living in the USA as a citizen, he is thankful for his blessings of freedom and our constitution.

God bless you

Like this comment
Posted by ThankYou
a resident of Del Prado
on Nov 11, 2010 at 8:33 am

Mrs. Greenwald thank you for sharing your story. It is so important for young people to realize that history is so much more than what's in textbooks. It is also important to realize that our elders have much to teach and pass on to the next generation. Please keep telling your story to as many children as possible.

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