11/15/05 — Freedom's responsibility

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Freedom's responsibility

By Renee Carey
Published in News on November 15, 2005 1:47 PM

Remembering the horrors experienced by Jews during the Holocaust and mourning those who lost their lives in concentration and death camps are not enough to stop a similar tragedy from happening again.

Knowing the consequences of inaction and understanding the responsibilities that go along with freedom are what matter for the future, Holocaust survivor Gizella Abramson told an overflow crowd at Wayne Community College Monday night.

And the place to start is with the nation's young people, she said.

Mrs. Abramson spoke as part of the World View lecture series and Wayne County Reads programs.

She challenged the students and adults present to think not just about her experiences and those of other Jews during World War II, but also about a citizen's responsibilities to his or her country and humanity.

"I am here because of the young people," she said. "You are our future. You must know what it feels like to be not wanted. You must know how it feels to wear a yellow patch on your back.

"I want you to understand the preciousness of every human being and the preciousness of freedom and the preciousness of a land that allows us to come and talk about the past."

Little more than a child herself during World War II, she told the story of how a summer visit to her aunt and uncle's home in Poland at age 11 led her to a journey that showed her how hatred and intolerance as well as courage and determination can change ordinary people into heroes and survivors.

And just as importantly, how intolerance and hatred can turn neighbors into enemies and intelligent people into vicious, unfeeling killers.

While she visited her aunt and uncle's family, German tanks moved into the town in which they lived, which was near the border between German-occupied western Poland and the eastern portion, which was under the control of the then-USSR -- an arrangement made through a non-aggression pact between the two countries.

She recalled the first time an officer from Adolph Hitler's SS kicked in the door of her family's home and along with a local policeman, lined up the family members along a wall.

"In 15 minutes, everything of value was taken away," she said.

She said she found out later that the SS officers knew almost upon arrival in the town exactly where to find every Jewish family.

"They asked, and people pointed," she said.

She remembers a call for all men ages 14-25 to line up for a work detail. The order was presented as optional, but later turned into a roundup. Later, she and her cousin watched as the men slumped back home -- weak, bleeding, exhausted, beaten.

She found out that the men had been used to load food from Poland into train cars headed for Germany and then were ordered to construct a tower of bricks and stone without mortar. The men were then ordered to transport the tower across a street.

"When the first brick fell, the man's head was bashed in," she said. "Of the 3,000 to 4,000 who went, only 22 came back."

Later, mothers were offered food for their starving and struggling children as well as medicine if they would come to a central square.

Her aunt, remembering the men's experience, refused to let young Gizella and her cousins go.

Mrs. Abramson said she watched from a tree as trucks pulled up into the square.

"I saw policemen pulling away children from mothers," she said. "The mothers were then pushed into the trucks. We never heard from those mothers and we never saw those children again."

She also remembers many encounters of hatred, when she walked through the streets of town with her doctor uncle, once respected, now forced to walk in the gutter and avert his eyes.

She described the yellow star she was forced to wear as a Jew, as well as the spitting, the racial epiphets and the stones and garbage thrown at her as she walked through town.

"I remember thinking, I was from here," she said. "My father fought for Poland. Why was I different from them?"

A few months later, in October, families in the town were ordered to gather what they could carry and sent to live in crowded ghettos.

Little water and almost no food as well as extremely poor living conditions made her time there filled with fear and struggle. Survival became the watchword.

It was here that the young girl became a heroine, one of a band of teenagers who would remove the stars from their clothing and sneak out through a hole in the wall to the farmer's market to secure some meager food for the families housed in the ghetto.

Potato peels, cabbage leaves, a few soft apples and some beans were considered treasures.

She wasn't afraid to go until one of her fellow teens was shot as he tried to re-enter the ghetto after a market trip. Then, she said, she understood the real danger.

She also remembers being called to created a diversion outside a building one day to cover the cries of a newborn baby.

The baby's birth was a bright spot for the young girl.

"In my mind, that baby was hope," she said.

On her next trip to the market, she encountered some Czechoslovokian women, and remembering her uncle had been considered a favorite doctor among many of these people, she decided to use that connection to get a little more food which she would use for the baby.

The women did indeed recognize the doctor's name and handed her rare treats -- an egg, some bread as well as vegetables.

She remembers kissing the woman's hand and then her feet.

"She pulled me up," Mrs. Abramson said. "She said, 'don't ever do that again. We are all brothers and sisters.'"

The woman walked her back to the wall, protecting her along the way.

Mrs. Abramson said one of her regrets to this day is that she did not ask the woman's name so that she could be honored for the compassion and courage she showed.

Mrs. Abramson said her joy with the baby was short-lived.

One day two SS officers and gestapo came into the ghetto and called out the name of the baby's family.

The gestapo took the baby by the leg and swung it in a circle, then threw him in the bushes.

The mother was restrained in a corner by other ghetto residents, Mrs. Abramson said, not out of a lack of compassion, but out of a need to survive. A cry from the mother would have been considered a sign of rebellion by the officers.

"Had that woman screamed, we would all have been killed," she said.

Soon after that, her uncle instructed the young girl to leave the ghetto to go to a safe house. Along the way, she saw a clearer picture of the horrors being carried out by the soldiers.

She recalled being hidden along the side of a road and watching a truck unload hundreds of Jewish men who were ordered to dig a ditch, disrobe and then stand by the edge. They were then gunned down by laughing Nazi soldiers.

Many such ditches and others like them used at the camps became graves for Jews during the war, she said.

"If you go back to Russia, near the borders, there will be mounds where thousands and thousands of Jews are buried in unmarked graves," she said.

Mrs. Abramson escaped execution and capture for many months using fake credentials. Then, one day was part of a group that was sent to a work camp.

Mrs. Abramson described her time in the concentration camp and how she witnessed others headed for the gas chambers and the cruel day-to-day struggle to stay alive.

"If you made it to breakfast, you worked to make it through lunch," she said.

Looking healthy was critical, she added. The Nazis wanted the healthiest, strongest workers for the camps. Anyone who was considered weak or elderly was sent to the gas chambers or shot.

Survival became the key -- staying alive long enough to be ready when rescuers came.

And then one day she was chosen to be part of a group that was leaving the camp along with doctors, engineers and other skilled men from among the Jewish prisoners.

It was on this trip that salvation came, but only after she witnessed more executions and threats by her captors.

As the group was walking along a road, she felt the ground rumble.

"The only thing I remember is a tank coming out of the bushes with half a red star on it," she said.

And then she heard a soldier shout, "You are free."

Mrs. Abramson said she recovered in a hospital until emigrating to the United States in 1945. She was 16.

For years, she said she hated Germans, refusing to speak the language or acknowledge anyone with that heritage.

One day, she became physically ill when she encountered two German women on a bridge.

"I sat down on the bench, and I remember shaking," she said. "Suddenly I realized that that hate was not going to do anything to any German person, and it was killing me."

So, from that day forward, she decided to become a teacher -- and a lecturer.

Her gift to her new country, she said, are the memories she takes to high schools and colleges.

It is her way, she said, of making sure no one forgets either those lost or the lessons the world can learn from the horrors of the Holocaust.

She challenged the students present to be part of protecting freedom, standing against injustice and celebrating the diversity that surrounds them.

"May the flag always wave in the breeze, and may you always protect the freedoms you have been given," she said.