Danger in Forgetting: Eyewitnesses to the Holocaust: Sonia Weitz

This documentary looks at the struggles of Holocaust victims through their own eyes.

Transcript (Text)

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[SIDE CONVERSATIONS]

As a survivor of the Holocaust, I come from another world. I come from a universe where my people were condemned to torture and death for no other reason than because they were Jewish. Of course, not all the victims were Jewish, but all the Jews were victims.

It is true that the Holocaust was a very special moment. This event has shown mankind at its lowest, where a civilized, cultivated nation has created a mechanism of destruction of another people.

And, of course, when the war started, immediately we lost. We lost our homes. We lost our way of life. We lost all our—everything that we owned, everything that we—all our hopes. We could not believe it. We could not believe that cultured people would set out to murder other people, men, women, children, babies.

There is in an entire history, there has never been a similar moment in which one could say the world will never be the same after that.

First of all, I survived five camps. So by 1945, I was already a survivor of Płaszów, Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, and Venusberg. Płaszów was not an extermination camp. We didn't have any crematoria and there were no gas chambers. But there was a hill where people were stripped of their clothing. They were shot. They were dropped into a ravine and their bodies were burned.

It was a pretty awful place. But the worst part was during executions. And I particularly remember one, and there were many. An old man and a young boy were hanged on the gallows. We were standing for hours on the roll call. And then the execution took place.

The boy was punished for singing a Russian song and the man because he attempted to commit suicide. And that was totally unacceptable. We were only allowed to die when our masters chose the time for us. And so the SS went wild when they realized this man cut his veins. And so they patched him up. They sewed him up. And they hanged him.

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My next camp was Auschwitz. The smell of Auschwitz is something that I will never forget, especially when I hear and read about historical revisionists, distortionists, people who claim that the Holocaust never happened. I wish it hadn't, but it did. And the smell of Auschwitz is always there to remind me.

From Auschwitz, we were taken on the death march. It was very cold. The roads were very slippery. We lived mostly on snow. And I remember my sister would not let me sleep because it was very easy to die in the snow. And I remember just wanting to lie down and die. And, of course, my sister would always push me, and poke me, and drag me along. And she would not let me die.

After many, many days, the death march for us ended. And they found some cattle cars. And they took us into Bergen-Belsen. I think Bergen-Belsen was worse than Auschwitz. Bergen-Belsen was a death trap. There was no food. There were no blankets. There were no bunks. We would sneak behind the German kitchens to steal whatever they threw away. Had we been caught, we would have been shot.

Then suddenly, one day they decided to select 30 women to go to a work camp. And somehow my sister and I were among the 30 people who were taken. The camp was called Venusberg. And by then, there were some prisoners of war in that factory. We were not allowed to communicate with them, of course. But through the grapevine, we would hear that it was almost over. Just hang in there and the war will be over. And we tried. We tried to hang in there. And I got very sick with typhus.

The very final transport for me was to Mauthausen. So by then I weighed about 60 pounds. I had typhus, tuberculosis, a few other problems. The trip took 16 days.

I only have one memory, of my sister, with whom I survived, propping me up against the back of the car. Because when they opened the sealed doors every few days to remove the corpses, if she had not propped me up, pinched my cheeks, they probably would have thrown me out with the others.

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My memories of Mauthausen are very vague because I was really too sick to even get off my bunk. I know there were five of us on a bunk, just like sardines. And my sister would always make sure that my head was facing, not the wall, but forward so that I wouldn't suffocate.

And then one day, when I was very sick, and really, really more dead than alive, I looked up and I saw a black soldier, an African American soldier. And I had never seen a black person before.

Unfortunately, the Allies knew exactly what was happening to us by 1942, when my mother was killed. But not the soldiers. The every soldier didn't know anything about the Holocaust, about concentration camps. They were totally unprepared.

And so when I looked up that day, May 5, 1945, and I saw an African American soldier, with a horror on his face, I thought he was the Messiah. And so I wrote this poem for him.

A black GI stood by the door (I never saw a black before) He'll set me free before I die, I thought, he must be the Messiah.

A black Messiah came for me... He stared with eyes that didn't see, He never heard a single word Which hung absurd upon my tongue.

And then he simply froze in place, The shock, the horror on his face, He didn't weep, he didn't cry But deep within his gentle eyes ...A flood of devastating pain, his innocence forever slain.

For me, with yet another dawn, I found my black Messiah gone And on we went our separate ways, For many years without a trace.

But there's a special bond we share Which has grown strong because we dare To live, to hope, to smile... and yet, we vow not ever to forget.

As the war came to an end in April and May 1945, Allied forces opened these camps. Of course, there was a huge, huge upwelling of hope and—on the part of the inmates. And it meant the end of the horror, or at least the worst of the horror.

When the camps were open, it was blazoned to the world. And it should have been. Every change in newsreel was a further report on another camp that had been found, and the horrors that were there.

--by American troops. Everywhere are the emaciated dead.

It was like you could recognize the Jewish people. Broken in body and spirit, they looked like walking—walking corpses.

There was a lot of confusion. There was a lot of—there was a lot of unexpected problems. There's no way to project what was going to happen. And whatever planning had been done, things didn't come right together the way they might have hoped.

Germany was, of course, a mess. It was—it was a country that was very badly bombed, partly destroyed, people were traveling from east to the west, from the west to the east, from north to the south.

One of the major problems that emerged was that displaced persons, of which the estimates are that there were 8 million in Europe.

There was no place for us. There was nobody that cared. You know, we thought that when the war ended, that the world will open up its arms, they will roll out the red carpet. And they will say, we are so happy you survived. And we will help you, we'll help you. Well, nobody did that.

The typical survivor—Jewish survivor—would come out into a world where there was almost nothing going for them.

We thought that, first of all, things would go right back to normal. I mean, you know, we'd go back home. And that families would just come from all corners of the world. And we'd be a family again. Of course, that didn't happen.

Right after liberation—of course, I was very sick. So I was in some kind of a hospital in Mauthausen. And then a miracle happened and Norbert, my sister's husband, came looking for us. And suddenly we were a family, which was unheard of at that time. And he took us to a place, an abandoned farm in Linz, the city of Linz, which was not very far from Mauthausen.

Eventually, I started writing poetry again. I was still—I wasn't walking. I was—most of my days were spent in bed. Some wonderful American doctor showed up to take care of me. I remember he came with this bag full of miracle pills and shots. And I started recovering.

One day, I was just recovering, I was just beginning to walk. He came in and said he had a surprise for us, that he wanted us to be his guests at a concert. He came with a Jeep, with a driver, first time I was ever in a Jeep.

And it was wonderful. It was just wonderful. It was late summer, early fall. And there were fields, big, green fields. And in the fields, there were thousands of soldiers, American soldiers, sitting on the ground, lounging around, smoking, talking, laughing. And all the soldiers were on the ground. But there were three high-ranking officers sitting in three chairs.

So as we drove up, our friend introduced us to these officers. They stood up. They shook hands with us. And then the most amazing thing happened. And that makes me cry because this general told the other two to allow us to sit in the seats, in the chairs. And they sat on the ground. And I think I just began to feel human again.

The Allied military was able to take care of, repatriate, or find some adequate place for 7 of those 8 million displaced persons by September 1945, some four months after the war had ended. But there were still 1 million. And out of that million now, nearly a quarter, 200,000, 250,000, were Jewish survivors. And almost none of them have been cared for. And they had grouped into camps.

The orders came from General Lucius Clay, that we were going to be all—from each of those homes and from all those apartments, wherever we all were, that we were going to be transferred to a camp. Well, those camps were terrible.

The American armed forces placed them in camps. In some cases, in pretty much the same camps they had been in before.

Hygiene was an enormous problem. People would, you know, just—to get rid of things or so on, would throw things anywhere, on the floor. Cleanliness, the keeping of cleanliness, was a problem.

Theft was not considered something—I mean, stealing was not something that you wouldn't do because if you needed something, you took it. You tried to take it. So you had to fight in order to keep onto your things.

And here, they then in camps that were abysmal—and the food, and clothing, and the rest of it. And then—and many of them then began to try to break into the wider society. And it was very, very difficult for them.

We were—we were staatenlos. We had no—we didn't belong to any state. There was the fear that—what are we going to do with our life, because there was nobody to help us. There was absolutely no help coming from anywhere.

And we waited. We waited. We were, like, in limbo. We knew the war was over. But we were still in camp.

My feelings at that time were that I just wanted to get better and start leading a normal life. But, of course, there was no place for us to go. And so I spent three years in a displaced persons camp. In fact, in three camps—Haid, Hart, and Bindermichl.

I don't think that any American, born American or any American, could ever imagine what it feels like to be stateless, staatenlos. Stateless means that you have no country, no one to protect you, no privileges, and no rights. I mean, if you get arrested or if someone committed a crime against you, there was very little we could do about it.

And there was really no other place for us to go. The United States and all the other civilized nations had very strict immigration laws. There was no Israel. The British would not allow us to come in. And we were literally stuck.

The life was totally off balance. We were forever mourning. We would meet friends in the street. And this one lost a child. And this one lost a parent. And then suddenly, someone found out that the whole village or the whole city was executed.

People reacted in many ways. My reaction to surviving, at that point, was totally different from my sister's. I, for one, could not live enough. I was in love with somebody else every other day.

I tried to stay up late. And, of course, Blanca and Norbert were my family. And they wouldn't allow the things that I probably would have—I would have really been wild had it not been for them. I needed noise and life. And I needed to be with people all the time. Not her. Blanca needed to be alone.

And so I always have this vision of her sitting quietly in a room, whenever she could find a quiet place. She would sit quietly, listen to the radio, with her eyes closed. And she needed solitude, and I needed noise.

There was this almost catharsis of speaking and of telling. And—and—and—and, actually trying to—to—to—to—empty oneself from all that was in people's memory.

People began to restructure themselves. And within a few months, suddenly it became a viable society. And they started to publish a newspaper. And within the three years that I have spent in Landsberg, I have seen a total transformation, from this chaotic camp of refugees, into a small Jewish town, with its football team, with its theater, with its cafe.

Basically, we governed ourselves. We—we established a police force. We established, like, a welfare office, where people could then go for help. Packages were coming at that time from United States, from Jewish organizations. So there was a warehouse. And we could go in orderly—orderly manners—and get something.

That somehow prepared us to be to be citizens of a civilized society.

And so these years were like—I don't know, sometimes I think maybe they were decompression years. I had friends. We had parties and friends. I belonged to a dramatic circle, a theater group. We took courses, anything that was offered.

I remember the feeling of being a superman, a superwoman. I became so filled with that idea that I had suffered it all, and seen it all, and lost it all. And I've been there. And what else could possibly hurt me?

We had lived through so much. And we had suffered so much. And we lost so much, that you couldn't just pick up the pieces. And yet, we did. So it's a real contradiction.

There were weddings, people that married, people had babies. people who lost whole families. There was a family. There was a man who lost 12 children. He got married and had children. So it's—I think survivors are pretty incredible people.

That they came through that and many of them were able to create such effective and in many cases socially valuable, highly valuable contributions to society. These people are amazing.

And you can't say all. I never made a survey. But many of them were very positive people.

Even the survivors, who let's say on the surface became sort of normal people, they were broken people. Broken people, sort of put together from bits and pieces, glued together. So—so we've somehow managed. We managed. But underneath, there was this feeling of something very, very sadly and tragically broken.

I really did not know how many members of my family perished until many years later. I knew my father was killed in Mauthausen because my brother-in-law was a witness to it. I knew my mother was killed because she was taken to Belzec and nobody returned from there.

It was many years later that my sister and I sat down, tried to make a tree, and we came up with 84 members of our family who perished.

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There is something in man. There is something in our humanity, which is made out of the best things and of the worst things. It's like—like the concept of God, in whose name the most beautiful things are done but never have so many people been killed in the name of anything else.

What would I be like if I'd had go through that, and lost the family, lost your home, lost everything? And then you're finally clear of it. And your friends, that you've praying were going to come, and they come. And thank God, they do come. And—and they don't really care.

I like to say that we chose life, that we went on. We mourned. We cried. And then we went on to some kind of a normal, productive life.

Of course, we try to tell our story to the younger generation because the survivors are diminishing in number every day. In another 10 years, there won't be any survivors left. And we feel that by conveying our message, we sort of make witnesses out of those who hear us. And hopefully, they will always remember what happened to us and make sure that it won't happen again.

Come, take this giant leap with me—into the other world... the other place where language fails and imagery defies, denies man's consciousness... and dies upon the altar of insanity.

Come, take this giant leap with me into the other world... the other place and trace the eclipse of humanity... where children burned while mankind stood by, and the universe has yet to learn why.

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