Lice, dysentery, bedbugs, fleas and two showers a year.
These aren’t childhood memories a woman should carry with her, yet when concentration camp survivor Inge Auerbacher talks about her young life in Theresienstadt, a Nazi-run camp in Czechoslovakia, a vitality and optimism seem to transcend the horror.
Auerbacher is now 78, but when she spoke at a church in Omaha, Neb., recently, she told the gathering, “I’m still that little girl,” the little Jewish girl who was shipped off from her native Germany at the age of 6.
A fierce, cold north wind didn’t keep the large crowd from turning out to hear Auerbacher’s presentation. Perhaps, like me, many were thinking, How many more opportunities will I have to hear a survivor of the Holocaust speak in person?
“We are the last voices,” said Auerbacher. “Another 10 years? Let’s face it: gone.”
Auerbacher grew up thoroughly German — “more German than Hitler,” she likes to say –as the only child of middle-class parents in a village where her family had lived for 100 years. Her father fought for Germany in World War I.
After Kristallnacht, the “night of broken glass,” when Jewish homes and synagogues were attacked throughout Germany, her family’s horror began. She was just 3 years old when their home had all the windows broken out. When she was 6, she was forced to wear the yellow Star of David and take an hour train ride to attend a special Jewish school.
But soon she and her parents were deported to Theresienstadt.
There were no gas chambers there, but there was a crematory where thousands of the dead were burned. And, Auerbacher says, from Theresienstadt, “the tracks went straight to Auschwitz.” More than 88,000 people from Theresienstadt were sent to extermination camps.
Remarkably, Auerbacher and her parents survived and settled in the U.S. after the war.
Two things from her story stood out. One was a vision of the little child by herself on the train to school, being taunted and pushed by others, hovering near a window so she could turn her left side with the star away from sight.
One day, she said, a woman walked by and quietly placed a brown paper bag by her side and then walked on wordlessly. Inside the bag were warm buns.
“That woman will never be forgotten,” Auerbacher says. “One never knows what a small act of kindness can do.”
The other lesson: In the pictures Auerbacher has of her German village during the time of deportation and in the photos of the Czech village that housed the camp, windows look down from ordinary houses where ordinary people could see clearly what was happening. In one picture, a little girl Auerbacher knew as a child watches men being loaded onto trucks.
“What were you thinking?” Auerbacher asked her years later, when she revisited her childhood village, now devoid of Jews.
“I was just looking,” replied the woman who was once the little girl in the photo.
People knew, said Auerbacher, and yet, they did nothing.
Auerbacher is, in her own words, “a tough cookie” who survived when only 1 percent of children in the camps did. She survived tuberculosis after the war, became a chemist and authored several books.
But for those of us who ponder her story and the wider story of the murder of 11 million Jews and others under the Nazi regime, how can we fail to ask ourselves the question, Who are we?
Are we the woman who delivered a small but courageous gift or the onlookers who watched and then turned away?
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