Sonia Schreiber Weitz recalls her childhood experiences during the Holocaust and explains why she has chosen to “bear witness” through writing poetry.
Sonia Weitz speaks about her experiences before and during the Holocaust.
As a survivor of the Holocaust, I come from another world. I come from a universe where my people were condemned to torture and to death for no other reason but because they were Jewish. Of course, not all the victims were Jewish, but all the Jews were victims. My first poem will hopefully make the other world a little more real for you.
Come, take this giant leap with me / into the other world. . . the other place / where language fails and imagery defies, / denies men'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.
What I am saying is that normal standards don't apply to the Holocaust, that it is unspeakable and unthinkable. In fact, the Holocaust is a crime without a language. I want to speak about my experiences during the Holocaust. I survived five Nazi camps and the Kraków Ghetto.
But first, a few words about my early childhood. I was born in Kraków in Poland. I lived with my parents and with my only sister, with whom I survived. Again, that's a miracle that the two of us survived. But when you consider that in a family of— well, we stopped counting at 84. Out of 84, only my sister and I survived. So, of course, it's not a miracle, it's a tragedy.
My early childhood was very normal, very uneventful. I was pampered and protected like any little girl. I have wonderful memories of my grandmother. And, in fact, I brought a photograph with me, today, of my grandmother and just three of her many children. My mother is in that photograph sitting on the floor. She's, perhaps, a year and a half old. The summer months that we would spend on the farm were wonderful. My memory of picking mushrooms and berries and a wonderful smell of fresh baking bread.
The other memories that always come back to me when I speak about my early childhood is when I remember my parents and other members, aunts and uncles, would talk about trying to get out of Europe. Now, getting out meant that you had to have someone who was willing to take you in, perhaps in the United States. There were very strict immigration laws. We could not go to Palestine because the British would not allow any numbers of Jews to come in. In fact, in '39, they literally closed the doors to the Jewish people who were trying to get out.
And so there was no place for us to go. And no matter how my parents and the other members of my family tried to figure a way out, there just wasn't any. And so we were trapped. And we were slaughtered. For me, the beginning of the end starts in 1939 with the invasion of Poland. The Nazis marched into Poland in September 1939. In fact, they marched in on the 1st of September and by the 6th, in six days, they took my city, Kraków, and immediately the early persecutions began.
We had to wear the armband with the Star of David. There was forced labor. My father's business was taken away, so there was no money coming in. There was this incredible secret wedding, my sister marrying Norbert in a cellar. It's a moment I'll never forget.
The very first victim in my family was an uncle of mine who was arrested together with the leadership of his city, my uncle Henryk. And he was taken to Auschwitz before it became a real death factory. He was killed and his ashes were sent to my aunt. This was the first time I saw my father cry. And, of course, it would not be the last. Very shortly after the invasion, I remember leaving Kraków for a little while, in fact, we went to the city of Tarnów where most of my family were killed. Most members of my family were rounded up in the square and shot. Others were taken at different times and killed.
My first memories of the Kraków Ghetto are of a wall going up around a small section of the city and the Jews were herded in. The Kraków Ghetto was pretty much like every ghetto you've ever seen in documentaries only smaller, let's say, than Warsaw.
Conditions were horrific. There was hunger. There was death. We were terribly crowded. I remember living, perhaps three, four families to a room. And we would hang blankets from the ceiling just to have some sort of privacy.
They started taking away— now, of course, we didn't know at the time that these people were destined for death— but they started taking away, rounding up, the old, the sick, and the children. Old was anyone 50, 55, perhaps. The sick were anybody who was either physically or mentally handicapped. And then the children. Children under 14 were transported out.
We, of course, didn't know what was happening to them. But somehow my parents managed to— I was in trouble because I wasn't 14— and so they managed to get me false papers, which claimed that I was 14. And so we begin to cheat. I cheated a lot. Later, I cheated with my sister. I made myself older. She made herself younger.
At one point, I cheated by getting a document, somehow— my parents never told me how this was done, because they were always afraid that, was I caught and tortured, I would have probably told how I got it and endangered other people. So I have no idea how this was done. But one time, they managed to get me papers which would allow me to get out of the ghetto with Aryan papers claiming that I was not Jewish. My mother even dyed my hair blonde.
And so we cheated in many ways. Temporarily, I was safe because I was cheating and had the papers that I was 14. However, the lists were growing constantly. And one day my mother was on the list to be evacuated, to be sent out of the ghetto. And the transports were going constantly. And there's that one horrific night when my mother was taken away from us.
I always find it very difficult to talk about it, so perhaps I'll read just part of a poem which I wrote in my diary that night in the ghetto. Later on, of course, we were not allowed to even have paper or pencil and I would remember my poems in my head. And eventually, after the war, I wrote them down in Polish and then finally, finally into English. This is part of that poem which I wrote that very night when my mother was taken.
I suffered, but / I didn't cry: / The pain, so fierce, so deep . . . / It pierced my heart / And squeezed it dry. / And then, I fell asleep. / Asleep in agony / And dreams . . . / A nightmare that was true . . . / I heard the shots, / The screams that came / From us, from me and you. / I promised I would / Tell the world . . . / But where to find the words / To speak of / Innocence and love, And tell how much it hurts . . . / About those faces / Weak and pale, / Those dizzy eyes around, / Six million lips / That whispered "help" / But never made a sound . . . / To tell about / The loss . . . the grief / The dread of death and cold, / Of wickedness / And misery . . . / O no! . . . it can't be told."
My mother was taken to Bełżec. Bełżec was one of the six death camps in Poland. And, of course, we never saw her again.
Soon my sister and I, Blanca and I, Norbert, her husband, and my father were taken to our first camp. The very first camp was Płaszów. Płaszów was not an extermination camp, for lack of better words. Truly, there is such a lack of words in this piece of history.
What I mean by saying not an extermination camp is that 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. There were hangings. There were lots of public hangings. I have a long poem about the hanging of a young boy and an old man. The young boy was hanged because he sang the Russian song. And so the punishment is just something that is mind-boggling.
There were dogs that would tear people apart. We had a commandant who was a real monster. He would come inspecting us at work. One time when I was digging ditches and building the road from the Jewish stones of the Jewish cemetery on which the camp was built. We were breaking up the stones, and he came by and didn't like the way my friend's mother was working, so he took out a gun and shot her.
He would order prisoners to run and he would shoot for target practice. It was a pretty, pretty awful place. We had all kinds of floggings, all kinds of public punishment. But I was with my sister and I was with her all the time. And being with her was a great comfort. And, of course, this was not a camp that was as bad— and everything is so relative and there's such a lack of words— it was not as high security either, not as high security as, for instance, Auschwitz or Bergen-Belsen.
And I want to share another poem with you, which makes me feel a little better. It's a poem about my father. My father and Norbert were in the men's part of the camp. My sister and I together in the women's part. And I sneaked in to see my father one day. And there was a boy, probably also cheating about his age, playing a harmonica.
And you already have an idea how dangerous it was to have anything personal because of that boy who was hanged when he sang a Russian song. But still, he hung on to that very precious thing that he had and he played his harmonica. And my father looked at me and said, "You and I never had a chance to dance together." And I call this poem "Victory."
I danced with you that one time only. / How sad you were, how tired, lonely . . . / You knew that they would "take" you soon . . . / So when your bunk-mate played a tune / You whispered: "little one, let us dance, We may not have another chance." / To grasp this moment . . . sense the mood; / Your arms around me felt so good . . . / The ugly barracks disappeared / There was no hunger . . . and no fear. / Oh, what a sight, just you and I, / My lovely father (once big and strong) / And me, a child . . . condemned to die. / I thought: how long / before the song / must end / There are no tools / to measure love / and only fools / Would fail / to scale / your victory.
And my father was taken away shortly after that, with Norbert. They were taken to Mauthausen, to another unspeakable place. And my father was killed just weeks before the end of the war. My next camp was Auschwitz. My sister and I were taken to Auschwitz. And Auschwitz, I think, is probably the most notorious of all death factories.
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. I remember Auschwitz as being very cold. I remember the selections, who is to live and who is to die.
I remember being very wet and very cold. And I remember being dismissed before we got our numbers and our heads shaved. So many people were brought in that time— that particular day— that they never shaved our heads or put numbers on our arms. From Auschwitz, we were taken on the death march.
Now the death march from Auschwitz has been written and discussed many, many times.
It was January 16th. We were taken on this march, about 60,000 people. Certainly not dressed for a hike in the winter. 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, of course, if you died, you were left. If you could not keep up with the column or you could not march fast enough, if you were lucky, you rated a bullet. If not, you just dropped by the roadside.
And so every morning, the roads were loaded, strewn with bodies, with people who just didn't make it. 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. And, of course, through all the other horrors, she was always there supporting me, helping, always finding that extra piece of bread.
After many, many days, that death march for us ended. They found some cattle cars and they took us into Bergen-Belsen.
Of course, cattle cars are a whole other universe, too. These cattle cars were open so we were covered with snow and we lived, literally, on snow. Also, occasionally, going through Czechoslovakia, I remember there were some brave Christian farmers who would throw potatoes— raw potatoes— into the cattle car.
And I usually talk about that because there was so much horror, so much collaboration among the native populations, especially in Poland, that I like to point out that there were some brave people who occasionally saved a Jewish child or even a family. And, of course, those we call the Righteous Among the Nations. They are indeed.
Well, 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. And the only food we ever got was we would sneak behind the German kitchens to steal whatever they threw away. Had we been caught, we would have been shot.
It was truly a death trap and typhus was the killer. Everybody in Bergen-Belsen had typhus. And we were all beginning to die. Then suddenly one day, they decided to select 30 women to go to another camp— to a work camp, slave labor camp. And there were maybe 1,600 of those around the countries, Germany, Austria, Poland, and France and others. And somehow, my sister and I were among the 30 people who were taken to this other camp.
Again, we were put into cattle cars. This time my sister was already sick with typhus and dying. And I remember growing up very quickly because there wasn't a thing I could do for her. She was really dying and I was totally helpless. Once I caught some rainwater for her. After many days of that horror, we got into the small camp.
The camp was called Venusberg. It was run by SS women who were very brutal, very cruel. In fact, I got my one and only physical beating from this woman because I got into line for food and my sister, who was very sick, could not stand in line, so I gave her my bowl. And I got in line again, even in that "good" quote-unquote camp, we were starving. And I was very hungry but when I got in line the second time, this particular, monstrous, big SS woman recognized that it was my second time and she beat me up. And so I never got my second bowl of soup.
There were many other instances there that were really of horror. We also worked very hard. We worked making airplanes for the German Reich at Messerschmitt. 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. And typhus is a very debilitating disease. You have a very high fever, throwing up, diarrhea, very thirsty. And certainly, we had no medical care whatsoever. I was thrown into this barrack for the sick from which very few people returned. And when they decided to evacuate that camp, too, they would have probably— or I'm sure they did— burned that barrack with all those people who were too far gone. My sister and another friend dragged me out of there.
Again, we were put into cattle cars, my very last trip. Those cattle cars took 16 days. Sealed, very hot. And perhaps it was the temperature of maybe 105, 106, whatever I had at the time. I was mostly delirious, mostly, totally unconscious. I do remember instances when they would open the sealed doors and my sister would prop me up against the back of the car and she would pinch my cheeks and make me sit up somewhat straight so that I would not be thrown out with the corpses.
And that's how we made it through the 16 days of horror. We got into Mauthausen. Mauthausen was the camp where my father and Norbert were taken. The camp where Norbert survived, where my father was killed just weeks before the end. And I remember very little except being very, very sick. We were six on a bunk like sardines. And I remember one day, I looked up and there was a black soldier, a black American soldier.
You see, the Allies, of course, knew what was happening to us by 1942. Unfortunately, we were not a priority. In fact, they refused to bomb the railroad tracks which took the victims to Auschwitz. And so the leadership of the Allies knew what was happening. The soldiers didn't. And this particular black soldier that I remember was standing there totally devastated. The horror on his face is something that, even in my state, I cannot ever forget.
And I was unable to really distinguish between nightmare and reality. I weighed about 60 pounds and I was really more dead than alive. I have one memory of that soldier and I will conclude my presentation with this poem which I call "The Black Messiah."
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.