BY ABBIE TUSCHMAN
Though Nazi Germany and the genocide of 6 million Jews are often mentioned during high school history classes, it’s not every day that students have the opportunity to listen to a Holocaust survivor. On Friday, January 31, Multicultural Club invited Irene Zisblatt to CCHS to speak about her experiences as a prisoner at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.
“We’re the last generation to hear these Holocaust survivor stories firsthand,” sophomore Tamar Shani said. “As I am a granddaughter of four Holocaust survivors, the topic hits close to home.”
Zisblatt grew up as the oldest of six children in a resort town in the mountains of Hungary. When Germany invaded, the Jews in Zisblatt’s town were forced to pack their bags and relocate to a ghetto where shelter, food and water were scarce. After living in the ghetto for some time, Zisblatt’s family and others were told they were going to work in a vineyard in Hungary.
They were packed into cattle trains, 100 to a boxcar, without food or water and only a small bucket in the corner for a bathroom. Zisblatt’s father periodically looked through a crack in the boxcar wall to see how far they were from the vineyard. Once they crossed the border into Poland, it became clear that they had been lied to. They were in the boxcar for five days and four nights before arriving at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.
“When the train stopped, I thought that we had survived the worst. But I was wrong,” Zisblatt said.
When SS officers forced everyone out of the cattle trains, Zisblatt spotted what appeared to be a factory in the distance and pointed it out to her mother. What Zisblatt saw were the smoking chimneys of the crematorium where her parents and siblings were soon burned after being poisoned by Zyklon B in the gas chambers. But Zisblatt, separated from her family, survived. She was one of the prisoners at Auschwitz-Birkenau subjected to Josef Mengele’s experiments.
“I saw hatred so strong when Mengele experimented on us without anesthetics and the pain was so unbearable,” Zisblatt said. “I saw joy in his eyes watching me suffer.”
Zisblatt befriended another prisoner that Mengele experimented on, a girl named Sabka. The two escaped from the SS during a death march in April 1945. They were rescued by American soldiers, but Sabka died of typhus while the two slept in a Red Cross van.
After the war, Zisblatt stayed at a displaced persons camp in Salzburg, Austria. After two years of processing, she finally moved to New York in 1947 to live with her uncle. As a child, Zisblatt feared that others would not believe the atrocities that she experienced during the Holocaust. She kept silent about her experience for nearly 50 years. But after seeing “Schindler’s List” in 1993, Zisblatt was inspired to come forth about the suffering she endured.
“I will not be silent. I will not forget the victims.”
“I will not be silent. I will not forget the victims,” Zisblatt said. “As long as I am able, I will speak worldwide to improve human conditions.”
Aside from giving talks to share her story, Zisblatt has documented her experience during the Holocaust in the book “The Fifth Diamond” and was featured in the documentary “The Last Days,” executive produced by Steven Spielberg.
For CCHS students, seeing Zisblatt speak was a chance to hear from one of the 400,000 remaining Holocaust survivors and to bear witness to the genocide of millions.
“[Multicultural Club] thought that passing down Ms. Zisblatt’s story and learning more about the Holocaust through her experience would be an amazing opportunity for our school to experience,” Multicultural Club Co-President Amanda Arocha said. “She’s an amazing woman and I’m honestly so happy that I got the chance to see her in person and listen to her story.”
Photo by Anabella Garcia