This semester I am taking a class called The Holocaust through German Film, Literature and Art. Yesterday was the highlight of the semester. Dr. Susan Cernyak-Spatz talked to our class. Dr. Cernyak-Spatz is a 96-year-old Birkenau-Auschwitz survivor.
She came to talk to us because she knows that she doesn’t have forever on this earth, and she doesn’t want her story and the truth of the Holocaust to die with her. She said that she wants us students to be her legacy, and so I will pass along her story.
She is very concerned about modern anti-Semitism, both here and abroad. And she warned us about allowing something so atrocious to happen again. She talked about the Wannsee Conference, when, on January 20, 1942, 15 high-ranking Nazi Party and German government officials gathered at a villa in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee to discuss and coordinate the implementation of the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question.”
That was the point she drove home repeatedly. It was the decision of only 15 people that determined the fate of millions. She warned us to be careful what we believe and how we become persuaded.
And most importantly to never forget.
From Teresienstadt to Birkenau-Auschwitz
In 1941, she and her family were sent to Teresienstadt concentration camp in the Czech Republic. They remained there for a short while until they were sent to Birkenau-Auschwitz in 1942. Upon arrival, she saw the chimneys of the gas chambers billowing with smoke, the guard towers, the machine guns and a sole German ambulance. The ambulance, she said, was a part of the cruelty of the Nazis used to play a psychological trick on the prisoners to seem like they could — or even would — help. But she came to learn that the ambulance transported the Zyklon B canisters to the camp and hauled away the empties.
Upon entrance, the sickly, the very young, the older and the weak were separated immediately. At this time, Susan was 21 years old and in good health so she was able to avoid the first selection.
Her mother, however did not. She was gassed in one of the five gassing chambers housed in the camp within hours of arrival. There were five gas chambers that could hold more than 10,000 at a time. There was a selection of at least this many prisoners every day. For three years.
Next, Susan was then shaved, given the clothes of dead people and issued a rust colored metal bowl that was to be used for “both input and output.” She lamented that this was the most dehumanizing part.
She learned quickly from the other prisoners that she should sleep on a top bunk to avoid spilled bowls, how to wash her hands without water (dirty hands got you killed immediately) and which of the block leaders were “halfway human.”
When she pulled up her sweater sleeve to reveal her tattoo, I was struck. It was the first Holocaust tattoo I’d ever seen. I wasn’t unaware, I’d just never seen one in person before, and now I was seeing it from three feet away. Almost the length of her forearm. Her number, followed by a triangle to denote that she was a Jew — so that the SS officers wouldn’t mistakenly take a non Jew to the gas chambers.
She spoke a number of languages at the time, including: German, English, Spanish, French and Slovak. This skill proved valuable throughout her time in camp. Not the least of times was when she met a Slovak block leader with whom she had a friend in common in the Czech Republic. The block leader got Susan a job on the inside of the camp.
Susan said that this was the only way she stayed alive. Her job was to type names, numbers and ages of the prisoners brought in. Books filled with lists of names. Inside the camp, she said life was different for her and 14 other workers. They had access to showers, actual toilets and better food.
At one point, Susan became ill. She was hospitalized and because she came from inside the camp, she was treated well. She had a bed to herself, she got all the medicine she needed and, in about 7-10 days, she was healthy again and returned to the offices. Her job had been given away, but she was moved to Kanada Kommando where the sorting of the possessions of the Jews brought to camp took place. This is where Susan worked until 1945.
She remembers the three SS officers who were in charge of her and the other workers. She said they were sort of protective of the women. They gave the workers advice and helped them out when they could. She believes that in order to avoid being sent to the front, the officers used the women in the offices as an excuse to appear necessary and therefore keep an easier command.
The Kanada Kommando was between the 4th and 5th gas chambers and so she saw the prisoners who were selected to be gassed brought in every day. She said she couldn’t let herself get emotionally torn down. She just did her job and she lived.
When the Germans were sure they were losing the war, they sent the prisoners on a death march. The US Holocaust Memorial Museum explains the death marches like this: “Prisoners were forced to march long distances in bitter cold, with little or no food, water, or rest. Those who could not keep up were shot. The largest death marches took place in the winter of 1944-1945, when the Soviet army began its liberation of Poland. Nine days before the Soviets arrived at Auschwitz, the Germans marched tens of thousands of prisoners out of the camp toward Wodzislaw, a town thirty-five miles away, where they were put on freight trains to other camps. About one in four died on the way.”
Susan said that when the orders of the death march came, the three SS officers in charge of the women in the office told them to find the warmest clothes and the best shoes and the most food. Susan didn’t know why, but she did as she was told. After days of trudging through knee-deep snow without rest, food or water, she made it to the train platform, where she was advised by an SS officer to get into an open coal car. She didn’t understand why, but upon arrival at Ravensbrück, the closed cars doors were slid open and everyone inside had died.
From here, she was left stranded, wandering, wondering where to go and what to do next. When they saw a Jeep come along the road, they were so happy and she spoke to the GIs in English. “Where do I go now?” she asked. The American soldier looked at her and said, “Go back to wherever you learned English, I guess.” She is still baffled by the soldier’s lack of understanding that she had nowhere to “go back” to.
She asked the officer, “How do I know that I’m actually free?” He said, “Go ask those officers for their submachine guns.” The SS officers handed them over to her and she still remembers how heavy they were. She said that as she walked along the road she realized that she’d been under guard for three years and suddenly, she could do whatever she wanted. “That was liberation,” she said.
Eventually Susan was taken to a Displaced Persons camp where she was fed, clothed and interviewed about possible family members. She soon discovered that her father was alive and they were reunited.
Susan later met and married an American man with whom she has spent her life here in the US. She earned her PhD and taught in the Department of Language and Culture Studies at UNC Charlotte. She is a mother of three.
I had the opportunity to ask Dr. Cernyak-Spatz a question at the end of her talk. I asked her if she has forgiven and if so, whom. She said that the country of Germany has done the most to repair the relationships with people of Jewish faith. She said that she has many German friends of the younger generations but that she won’t talk to the Germans of her generation. She said she has no way of knowing what their involvement in the Holocaust was but that many were complicit or enabling. She said that she doesn’t forgive them and she doesn’t know how they forgive themselves.
Privately, I asked her a question about being called a survivor and if that was OK with her. She thought I was nuts for suggesting she might not be. I explained that in cancer treatment it’s a term that is thrown around a lot and it’s always made me uncomfortable. She said that cancer is a horse of a different color. With cancer, patients are helped and cared for. They are wanted to live and expected to. She said that the Nazis didn’t want her to live. They tried to kill her. And she survived and she’s very proud to be called a survivor.
I think that drove home the point to me of why it’s not a term I identify with. Yes, I am alive while many who have had cancer are not. But when I hear “survive” I think of things like car crashes, gun shots and concentration camps. When I think of my experience with cancer, I think of healing and being well, but not narrowly escaping certain death. I’m glad I asked her. It cleared up a foggy area for me.