Holocaust survivor shares her story

Mar. 10, 2013 @ 05:20 AM

Susan Cernyak-Spatz's family was torn part in 1939 when she and her mother left Vienna, Austria for Nazi ghettos and concentration camps. Her father traveled in another direction.

 They had begun their journey through the Holocaust.

She was a teenager when she and her mother traveled together, leaving their home with bare necessities, allowed only one suitcase.

"We had to turn over all the radios, phonographs, anything of value. Most of the world was not aware what was going on . . .Germans were the biggest robbers and they sold everything, even electric irons to finance the war," she said.

Cernyak-Spatz shared her story at Isothermal Community College last Wednesday for the Humanities 170 class students.

Today the 90-year-old Holocaust survivor shares her story of the horrors the Holocaust and tries to encourage people to step up against prejudice and to be "human."

Her mother was among the millions who perished in the gas chambers. 

After the war she was reunited with her father. After marrying a United States serviceman she came to America.


Born in Vienna in 1922, she experienced the horrors of the Holocaust from refugees in 1938 to internment in Theresienstadt in 1942, to deportation to Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1943, the Death March in 1945, and after three months in Ravensbruck, liberation in May 1945.

She was a witness to the Nazi Ghettos from 1933 to 1945. "Twelve years of my life were taken from me . . ." she said.

But Cernyak-Spatz was among a small fraction of Jews who survived the Nazi concentration camps. 

With her at Isothermal and in Rutherford County last week was Dr. Susanna Kokkoen, director of Christian Friends of Yad Vashem, International Relations Division in Jerusalem, Israel.

 "Take a stand against biogtry, racism, prejudices, stereotypes . . You will use this for the rest of your life. If you don't speak up, who will?  It is my responsible, nobody else. If not, I you . . .There is hope after all that has happened," she told students.

Kokkoen travels around the world speaking to Christian, Jewish and civic audiences about the Holocaust, anti-Semitism, and Israel," Kokkoen told the students.

"Anti-Semitism . . . is hatred of the Jews." she said. "But this is not just a lesson in history. Today anti-Semitism has changed its form and we have the responsiblity to act in the time we are living today."

She said during the Holocaust years, "many children lived in church institutions. . .sombeody had to collect the children, somebody had to kill the children and somebody had to bring them to the crematoriums .. .the whole society was involved in a crime. It was all totally legal and immoral at the same time."

"Peace and evil is not going to work," she said.

When she introduced Cernyak-Spatz she said, "We have a rare opportunity in North Carolina to have her. She experienced the whole gammet. Genocide, hatred, anti-semitism, ghettos, deportations, prison at Auschwitz-Birkenau."

"It was a killing for killing sake," Cernyak-Spatz began of the Holocaust.

"There was no economic reason, not just a genocide. . .no political reasons and the free world did not know what was going."

She and her mother lived in the ghetto, where the Germans concentrated the Jewish population and forced them to live under horrible conditions.

When she was transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1943, she said she was one of the "lucky ones" to be able to travel in a passenger car.

Once they arrived at the Nazi concentration camps, she said they were all chased out of the trains, Cernyak-Spatz said.  "I remember seeing a row of lights up ahead, like they were all on a fence."

At Birkenau she said when she got off the train she saw two Red Cross ambulances but they were not there to transport sick people, but to transport corspes.

They were told to either walk or get on the truck. On the truck, women were told "don't worry . . .you will take nice shower. You'll be with family."

Cernyak-Spatz said the women were led down an entrance to an underground area that resembled a school dressing room. 

"Women were told to put their clothes on hooks and the women were given a little piece of soap. They were primitive showers room with pipes in the ceiling. When the doors clanged, the women turned on the shower and there was no water. From the pipes came the gas. . .Two to three minutes to die and then they were thrown into pits.

"There was burning, moaning and screaming. Then it stopped."

During the experience of the Nazi camps, she saw 14 men who had received their PhDs.

 "They were stripping people of their clothes. They were told what to do. . .processing and stripping people," Cernyak-Spatz said.

Those who escaped the gas chambers went to work, wearing clothes and shoes of dead Russian soldiers.

"I was one of the lucky ones to get shoes, not clogs," she said. "Clogs made your feet hurt . . .they would bleed and get infected."

When she got to the camp, she was given a tattoo —  34042.

"You lost all individuality. You were a number in a big book. We were given a bowl for food and our water to drink like an animal. No spoons. We also used the bowl for elimination."

There was a kerchief tied around her head and it had to be tied exactly right, she said.  "There was no shuffling of feet."

"Every night there was another selection of women going to the gas chamber. They did not go quietly. . .You had to learn 'do you want to live or die?' . . .I learned I wanted to live and I learned who and what to avoid," she said.

She said sleeping on a top bunk in the camps, keeping her hands and face as clean as possible and always being at roll call were among lessons of survival.

Collecting cigarettes butts was a way to keep the hunger away.

"If you knew someone on the inside, their objective was to help. I was very fortunate.

One day it was an absolute fluke," she began. 

A person on the inside who had lived in the Prague, recognized Susan's accent and wanted to know where she was from. They had a mutual friend who was a journalist.

"Two days later I was out. I was given a dress, an apron, socks, shoes and I got a job in the administrative office. Once inside . . .you could not be kicked out."

She was among 15 women who survived in the group.

Cernyak-Spatz also worked in the construction department. She became ill during that time and was hospitalized for several days. After being released from the hospital a head commander came into her barracks and began handing clothes and food to all the people there.

"At that time the Germans were not as bad and Jews were not as good. The commander saved 25 people. Gave us clothes and backpack with as many supplies as we could carry and told us we were going on a walk.

"We marched out of the camp in knee high snow. It was so cold. We came to a rail station and got into open-freight cars. We were packed in like sardines. When the train would stop we would eat and drink the snow and also relieve ourselves in the snow," she said.

In May 1945, the end of the war was being celebrated.

"We, too, were liberated at the check-point and were told to go back from where we had come. We told them we had come from an extermination  camp. . they had not heard of that," she said.

"As we walked down the dusy country road for the first time in years there was not a guard. We did not have to follow orders. It felt so strange. I was free. . ."

Cernyak-Spatz told the students they would most likely leave Isothermal and go to another university for higher education and could possibly receive their PhDs like the men in the concentration camps.

"If you get a job and go to work for another country . . . no matter what someone else does or asks you to do, "Will you please remain human?"Cernyak-Spatz asked.