Lifestyle Gizella Abramson, eyewitness to the Holocaust

Sunday, March 15, 2009 3:00 AM

Buzz up!

A retired teacher, Gizella Abramson speaks to teachers about her experiences in the Holocaust. She spoke recently at Temple Emanuel in Greensboro. Photo by Susan Shinn (external - login to view), Salisbury Post

A photo of Gizella Abramson’s mother which appears in a resource book published by the N.C. Council on the Holocaust.

Abramson’s ID also appears in the guide.

Abramson talks with a small group of teachers after her presentation to some 150 educators who attended a day-long workshop on the Holocaust. Photo by Susan Shinn (external - login to view), Salisbury Post

E-mail to a friend (external - login to view)

(external - login to view)

By Susan Shinn (external - login to view)
sshinn@salisburypost.com (external - login to view)
GREENSBORO — Gizella Abramson, all 4 feet, 11 inches of her, stands at the back of the social hall at Temple Emanuel in Greensboro, preparing to talk to a room full of teachers.
She's talked about her experience many times. She doesn't get nervous beforehand. "Big G upstairs" (God) is never far from her thoughts. Neither is her family she lost in the Holocaust.
Abramson is the sole survivor of her immediate family — her father and her mother and her younger brother.
Every time she recounts her experiences as a young girl during World War II, she sees the scenes unfold before her eyes.
She shares her experiences with teachers, so that they may in turn teach their children.
It is never to forget.
It is never to repeat.
It is never to be a bystander, to simply watch when you should speak up.
The thing about the Holocaust, says Linda Scher, is that it was a statewide, systematic effort.
"It took an enormous participation over a long period of time," Scher told teachers in a workshop March 4. "It was sustained."
Scher is director of Holocaust education workshops for the N.C. Council on the Holocaust. She wrote a 158-page teacher's resource book, of which Abramson is a part.
Not only is there eyewitness evidence, Scher said, there is demographic evidence. There are birth certificates, but not correlating death certificates.
Ironically, the Germans were excellent record keepers.
The Nuremburg trials used such evidence to convict Nazis of horrendous crimes.
"It took the support of an enormous amount of people to kill 11 million people — 6 million Jews and 5 million others," Scher said.
Abramson is one of those eyewitnesses.
Scher said it's important to put faces on the story of the Holocaust, to read memoirs and autobiographies.
For the 150 teachers gathered, Abramson became that face.
Dressed in a taupe suit with a snazzy print scarf, Abramson, with her curly gray hairdo, could be someone's grandma.
She's offended when you ask her height, even though you've been warned already not to ask her age.
For Abramson, the war came to Poland in 1939, when Germany declared war.
"My father was dressed in his uniform, and he had a sword on his belt," she said. "Do not touch it, he says to my little brother. He and his favorite horse went away."
In four days, her father returned, the end of his sword gone.
"Poland is no more," he told his family.
Germany took western Poland, while Russia occupied the eastern part of the country.
Abramson's family lived in the eastern part near Tarnopol.
"We had to leave our farm," Abramson said.
Her father owned land, which was very unusual for Jews at that time.
Russian teachers taught school, and Abramson and others pretended they couldn't understand, although she could speak Polish, Russian and German.
In the summer of 1941, Abramson was sent to live with her aunt and uncle in Lutsk, Poland, for her friends were beginning to disappear.
" 'Til today, I wonder whether my mother had a premonition," Abramson said.
Abramson stayed with her Aunt Lucy and her Uncle Yanek, who was a physician.
He had studied in the Czech Republic (then Czechoslavakia) and Abramson — who easily picked up languages — began to love Czech.
One night, they were forced into the cellar. Others who knew her uncle came, knowing he would help.
The next morning, Abramson said, "there was an eerie, eerie silence. My uncle announced, the Germans are in town."
"There was complete silence. Complete silence."
Now there was a 5:30 curfew, and Jews were not permitted to shop until 5 p.m. When her aunt arrived at the store, the shelves were bare.
People brought them food.
One day, Abramson was told there were special papers on the bricks of all the homes.
"I didn't believe it," she said. "When I looked out, what I saw, I shall never forget. There was a tremendous group of Jewish boys wearing yellow patches."
From then on, every Jew had to wear a patch.
Soon after, Abramson said, "On Thursday morning, the Nazis announced they needed a lot of help from young Jewish men. They went, 14,000 young men. None of them — none of them — came back."
On the street, now, nobody talked, nobody laughed, nobody joked.
Again, Abramson was sent away. Her aunt told her to take care of herself. Her two cousins, 5, and 8, went into hiding in a barn with a Czech farmer. They survived.
Abramson had been told to go to another farm.
"Now I was all alone," Abramson said.
She kept walking until she came to a small forest. She was so tired and sat down behind a tree to relax.
She fell asleep, and when she awoke, she looked through the bushes and saw a group of Jews, who were ordered by the Nazis to dig holes.
"Then they ordered them to undress. Then they ordered them to turn around."
"Nobody asked permission," Abramson said. "The shots began and people began to fall."
She saw a young woman holding a baby.
"They knew how to shoot. First, it was the mother. Then it was the baby."
She didn't know how long it took for these people to die.
The policemen were joking, laughing while they were working, burying the bodies.
Abramson closes her eyes, and she can see it now.
"I just walked," she said. "I just walked."
Eventually, she was taken to a house, and awoke with a damp rag on her head.
The people there took care of her for a few days, then an elderly man came to question her, speaking to her in Russian. It turned out these people were part of a Russian resistance movement. They learned she could speak German and Russian, and enlisted her help.
After that, Abramson pretended to be a maid.
She was glad for the work.
"When you work," she said, "you don't remember. You don't think."
She worked for a German officer, and was made to memorize everything she observed and heard. She reported to her handler at the farmer's market several times a week. She was in her early teens.
Her next job was working for the Gestapo at a military headquarters.
They wore black uniforms, "boots so shiny you could see yourself."
By copying a key using silly putty, she helped the resistance blow up a munitions depot. In escaping with the handler, she was captured and send to Majadnak, Poland — a death camp.
She saw Jews crucified.
The women and girls slept in wooden bunks, stacked three high.
"You better not remember your name," Abramson said. "You are not a name. You are a number. God help you if you forget your number."
She filled her wooden shoes with newspapers to make them more comfortable.
She worked in a field with a stack of stones attached to her back. The guards laughed at her.
One girl collapsed.
"They beat her so she didn't move anymore," Abramson said. "Everything had to be done to perfection."
To keep herself going, she repeated, "I'm still alive," over and over.
Lunch was a watery soup with a piece or two of carrot, a cherry, small pieces of bread.
"We were so hungry," she said. "You had to eat it very fast."
The spoons had holes in them.
Eventually, Abramson was pulled out of prison to be a translator.
She didn't have a choice.
"You don't want to die," she said. "You don't want to help these people."
She was beaten and whipped numerous times, so much so that she endured several surgeries on her right leg over the years.
She was left for dead, but then taken to Germany by the Russians when the war ended.
"We looked like death warmed over," she said. "We didn't look like human beings."
She awoke in a bed in clean, white sheets. She was in a hospital camp in a small town in Germany.
She was covered in bandages and tubes.
"Don't move," the nurses told her. "The war is over, and you are free."
An English doctor was very kind to her, asking, "Are you OK? Does it still hurt?"
Abramson learned to walk again. She had plenty of food to eat.
"This was heaven," she said. "You just never had heaven like that."
She didn't quite know what was happening until a black orderly gently picked her up and took her to the window.
There was a flag flying outside and he looked at her and said, "America, America."
"This is when I knew I was free," Abramson said. "Tell your students how precious life is. Let that flag fly. May that flag always fly.
"I thank you for preparing our future to become wonderful citizens of the United States of America."
With a slight limp, Abramson walked away.