“Someone must survive to tell the world.” Those were the words Tosia Schneider’s mother repeated to her young daughter in the winter of 1942, during the days before she died of typhus contracted from vile living conditions in the Tluste ghetto in Poland.
Schneider, 81, of Dunwoody, was 13 when Nazis took over Poland. Over the next few years, she saw almost all of the area’s Jewish population gunned down into pits in nearby forests, starved to death in ghettos, packed onto cattle trains bound for death and labor camps, or simply disappear -- never to be heard from again, as was the case with Schneider’s father, who met an unknown end when he was kidnapped by the Gestapo.
Schneider spent the rest of the war doing farm work at a labor camp. When it was liberated, the then-16-year-old was the only member of her immediate family still alive. Accepting the idea of survival meant turning away from her mother’s final plea to "tell the world."
“It was something unspoken after the second world war,” she said. “When I came to this country, a very loving cousin said, ‘Forget about the past. Start a new life.’ And, quite frankly, there were no words to express it.”
Schneider was in her 70s when she promised a close friend she’d speak about the Holocaust to a school group in Austell. Afterward, she received 94 letters out of the group of 100 students she had just addressed, and decided to revisit her reluctance to talk. “It was an eye-opener. It made me realize it’s our duty to teach the young and to tell them that to look away from evil is not an option,” she said.
Schneider published her memoirs three years ago, with her mother’s last words as the title, and now speaks routinely.
Atlanta architect and author of two memoirs Benjamin Hirsch remembers a similar silence for many years among the community of 200-plus Jewish families who settled in Atlanta after World War II.
Hirsch designed two of the city’s most visible Holocaust sites, the Memorial to the Six Million at Greenwood Cemetery and the Breman Museum’s Absence of Humanity exhibit. He’s currently writing a third memoir.
His memorial at Greenwood was dedicated the first Sunday after Passover in 1965, and the Atlanta Jewish survivor community has held a Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day, ceremony there on the same Sunday every year since. Inside the memorial are plaques with names of people from Atlanta families who perished, their bodies never recovered, including Hirsch’s mother, father and two youngest siblings.
Hirsch’s mother secured passage on a Kindertransport to Paris for five of her children, including 6-year-old Ben. The train left Frankfurt on Dec. 5, 1938, less than a month after Kristallnacht when Hirsch watched his family’s Freidberger Anlage Synagogue torched and ransacked.
That was the last time he saw his mother. Nazi police had already taken his father, a dentist, on Kristallnacht and sent him to Buchenwald. Hirsch would hear confirmation in 1954 that his father was murdered in Auschwitz in 1942, while his mother and two younger siblings, who had been too young for Kindertransport passage, were executed in the gas chambers at Auschwitz in 1943.
In the early 1940s, the surviving Hirsch children settled in Atlanta.
“When I first was asked to talk about the Holocaust in 1967, I said, why me? I wasn’t even in a camp. It turns out there were only two people in Atlanta who were talking around that time," Hirsch said. “Many of the survivors who went to the camps came back initially feeling the need to tell the world what they had gone through. After they came to America and people would ask them about their experiences, they would attempt to tell them.
“In some cases people would respond, ‘oh I know what you mean. Here, we had to ration coffee, cigarettes and gasoline.’ After hearing responses like that, most of them shut down, and for decades refused to talk about their Holocaust experiences.”
But as survivors are aging, more are speaking before large groups or writing memoirs.
The Breman Museum began its Bearing Witness Holocaust survivor speaker series in December 2009. Crowds have grown to more than 300 people at a time.
“It’s become the most successful program we’ve ever done,” said Phyllis Lazarus, media relations director at the Breman. “People realize they can touch history by hearing it directly from those who lived it.”
Atlanta remembers the Holocaust
Memorial to the Six Million, Greenwood Cemetery. Rain or shine. 10:30 a.m. April 11. Greenwood Cemetery, 1173 Cascade Ave. S.W., Atlanta.
The Breman Jewish Heritage & Holocaust Museum. 1440 Spring St., free admission following ceremony. 1-5 p.m. www.thebreman.org. 678-222-3707.
Congregation Etz Chaim. 9 p.m. April 10. 1190 Indian Hills Parkway, Marietta. 770-973-0137.
Georgia State Capitol. Noon. April 16. North steps of State Capitol Building, 214 State Capitol, Atlanta. 770-206-1558 or 678-839-6281.
Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta. Memorial garden dedication at 11 a.m. April 25. Yom HaShoah ceremony is at 4 p.m. April 11 at 5342 Tilly Mill Road, Dunwoody. www.atlantajcc.org.
Congregation Beth Tefillah. 6:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. April 14. Congregation Beth Tefillah, 5065 Highpoint Road, Atlanta. Contact Teddy Sable, 404-843-2464, ext. 110 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kennesaw State University. Free concert for Holocaust Remembrance Day. 8 p.m. April 13. Dr. Bobbie Bailey & Family Performance Center, 1000 Chastain Road, Kennesaw. http://baileycenter.kennesaw.edu.
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