Surviving the Holocaust: Full Show

>>Irene Vogel Weiss: You don’t ever expect
to be hauled out of your house, put on a train and marched into a gas chamber and be choked to
death. There is something in all of us that, no matter how terrible it is, that
you want to live another day. [music] [inaudible]>>Irene Fogle Weiss is about to speak to
an auditorium filled with students at Woodson High School. It’s not the first
time she’s done this. As a former teacher she has spent a lot of time talking to
students. But these days her lessons for students are quite personal. She’s
sharing her own story, the story of how she survived the Holocaust.>>Student: What made you
decide to kind of talk about it and do presentations on it.>>Mrs. Weiss: Mm-hmm well I couldn’t talk
about it for at least 25 years. Uh, I really was, sweaty palms and pounding
heart. There was no way. You know, you can tell your parents were killed. You can
tell your parents died. But you can’t tell that you arrived to a place where
the the reason for being there was to be killed it, and all the rest that went
with it. So and I didn’t talk about it for a long long time. But that horrific time in
history should be passed down to the next generation. So that is why I’m
speaking to make sure that people know it and think about it and analyze it and
learn from it.>>Narrator: Irene’s story begins in a small
town in Czechoslovakia in the 1930s. She lived there with her father who ran a
lumberyard, her mother who stayed at home with the children, an older brother, an
older sister, and three younger siblings. During her childhood, Irene and her
family lived a very normal small-town life until the Nazi Party began to take
hold across Eastern Europe. In 1939, the Germans annexed part of Czechoslovakia. The Hungarian government followed suit and annexed the area where Irene lived. Hungary had already embraced many of the Nazi beliefs. Suddenly Irene’s Jewish
family had become subjects of a very anti-jewish government–they were
Hungarian Jews. Almost immediately things in Irene’s town began to change. [music]>>Mrs. Weiss: Hungary joined alliance with
Germany. And so everything became Nazi, Nazi-fide. But I did go to Hungarian middle school by
this time. And that’s when, 12, 13, where we had to wear a yellow star on
our clothes. And so you know that was like a target and certainly wasn’t safe. It was a small farming town and they did, sixth grade was the end of education. So
our parents were very keen on sending us for more education, so as we got to be
passed sixth grade…by this time I was the third one who was sent to the big
city to commute. And I actually went on the train which was most unusual. It was
a one track railroad town and sometimes I was the only one getting on and off. And it was the farmers went by horse and buggy, you know, whenever they needed to go. And so I was traveling for a while where the train was full of soldiers and
crowded and all that. But with the yellow star — I remember for a while I would pin
the star on instead of just sewing it on permanently. I pin it on and walk to the
train because I wasn’t afraid in my town with it. When the train came I took it
off and put it in my pocket. And then I would continue in the big city where I
had to walk from the train to the school I didn’t put it on because there I had
no protection whatsoever, you know. But this only lasted a few trips because
once they stopped, they throw us out from school there was no reason to go anymore. But it was a terrible thing because you were marked, where you were a target.>>Narrator: The Nazis were slowly separating
Jews from society, forcing them to wear a yellow
star banning them from schools and using propaganda to portray them as the source of
society’s problems. Unfortunately too many people were falling for it.>>Mrs. Weiss: The farmers young sons who suddenly
had power. All they had to do is put on a
swastika band around their arm and they were like deputized they were the law. And so and from other towns these young guys would roam around and go the to to
do harm to Jews you know. They’d pull out an older man from the family, they
think it’s a good sport. They’d cut his beard and it … anything like that was
permitted and the police would stand by, you know so. And nobody felt secure
anymore. One day I was coming home from visiting my grandparents with my father. I was on the train and the train is a five-minute ride you know. And these
young hoodlums — see my father had a beard, a small trimmed beard. But beards were
not popular I mean that was only Jewish men who had beards. Today that’s
different. And so on the train, they came up to him, a couple of them, and they
started talking to each other like “well what shall we do, wouldn’t it be fun to
throw him off the train”. And laughing and carrying on, beginning to poke him and
things like that. Nobody in the train said anything. Nobody lifted a finger or
a voice you know. I mean I was like twelve and a half or something and
terrified. But looking out the window, I could tell we’re approaching home and
that’s exactly what saved my father. They were ready to throw him off.>>Narrator: Nazi practices included a systematic
removal of all Jewish influences. Jewish businesses were marked and patrons were
discouraged from entering. Irene’s father lost his lumber business because it was
seized outright by the Nazis with no compensation. Jewish citizens were
suddenly forced to prove their citizenship in Hungary. To prove it they
had to have Nazi-approved documents and the Nazis made those documents difficult
to obtain. Jews who couldn’t prove Hungarian citizenship were deported.>>Mrs. Weiss: Even
though my parents and grandparents were citizens they put on every kind of
handicap possible. My father actually spent a lot of time trying to acquire
that by going from office to office and paying for everything. And and eventually
he, he got the paper. It was, I remember it was, they were almost
celebrating. He came back with that paper “okay we’re safe.” Every step of the way,
from the time this happened until we ended up in Auschwitz, we always
rationalized for the better; always thinking that “okay it’s getting worse
but we see some light” you know. People just can’t accept the worst. And so here
we had this paper and we’re safe. Except they’ll make, don’t show yourself in the
street you know. Don’t, uhm, get involved with the law in any way
because they won’t protect you. Nobody was safe. Even school kids, younger ones
than in high school, say, “I have my rights”, you know you hear that in classroom. Well
what if you don’t have any rights and the police are on the other side. They
they don’t protect you, they stand by while people do you harm or take out anything
from your home. It’s a very difficult concept that we were guilty of something,
we were guilty of being alive. Just by virtue of being a Jew, you were hunted.>>Narrator: The German laws enforced in Hungary
were only the beginning of the persecution of Hungarian Jews. The Nazis had created a
comprehensive plan called the “final solution of the Jewish question.” It was
Nazi code for the complete annihilation of the Jewish people. By 1941, Hitler’s SS
and police forces had become mobile killing units initiating the first
large-scale murder of Jewish citizens both by firing squad and by mobile gas
vans. In 1942, concerned that their existing killing methods were not
efficient enough, the Nazis had completed three extermination camps in Poland. [music]>>Mrs. Weiss: In April 1944, having already
exterminated millions of Jews throughout Europe, the
Nazis turned their attention to the last Jewish community that remained, a half a
million Jews in Hungary. The war was almost over but the final solution was
proceeding with speed and efficiency. We had heard rumors of mass shootings of
Jews in nazi-occupied Poland and in the Ukraine. Then in the spring of 1944, local officials announced that the Jews in my town had 24 hours to
get out of their homes with one suitcase each and assemble at the Town Hall. We
had no idea what would happen to us. A delegation made up of the mayor, police
chief and my school principal arrived at our house demanding that we hand over
money and valuables. People always say rationalized. Ok so we give them some
money and jewelry and, okay just leave us alone type of thing. And so I know my
father gave them some stuff. But he didn’t have, by this time; he never had a
lot you know he had six children to support and we were okay. But you know so but that was after it was announced in the town that the next day all the
Jewish families should report at a gathering place in
the town. So we already knew that we’re leaving although we didn’t know where
nobody ever said where. So you know it was, everything was very scary. And for
parents with six children it must have been extremely terrifying if you don’t
know what will happen to your children and you can’t protect them. After complying, we left the house. My father closed the gate behind us so that our dog
wouldn’t follow us. Along with about a hundred other Jewish people in our town,
my family was taken to an abandoned brick factory some miles away. There we
join thousands of Jewish families from neighboring towns. We were kept there
almost a month in overcrowded conditions. Our food supply from home was quickly
gone and we became dependent on the daily soup ration.>>Narrator: Nazis ordered Jews to
gather in a common area, leaving the bulk of their possessions behind for Nazi
confiscation. The holding areas became known as ghettos. Most people who were
sent to the ghettos had no idea that it was a staging area for transport to
extermination camps. Irene was held in the Hungarian ghetto of Munkacs. There
she endured many hardships and humiliations. Little did she know that it
was the least of what she would experience in the coming year.>>Mrs. Weiss: There were
thousands of people there, they were calling it a ghetto. And it, there was no
sanitation and so they decided that, you know lice and that sort of thing. They
had a legitimate kind of health reason and but the way they put it is they made
an announcement and said all girls under sixteen report to have their head
shaved or their fathers would be punished. You know they were there they. We were not treated like human beings. They could have said “it’s a sanitary
thing, “it’s to prevent …” you know. But I was so terrified I ran to the place to
have my hair cut because my father would be punished. It was always like that, you know. So just cruelty. So my head was shaved. I’d long
pigtails at the time and I wasn’t even then, I wasn’t so terribly upset about it,
because I already saw that my parents and my people were just being mistreated
so bad, that that’s the least of it. The hair will grow back. But actually it I
had no idea that it would give me the first cut at passing the selection when
I got to Auschwitz.>>Narrator: In a strange twist of fate, the humiliation of having her head
shaved in the ghetto would allow thirteen-year-old Irene to pass through
her first life-and-death test by the Nazis. Though they did not know it at the
time, Irene and her family were about to depart for one of the most lethal places
in all of human history, the selection platform at Auschwitz-Birkenau. [music]>>Mrs. Weiss: In the middle of May, a freight
train arrived at the tracks alongside the brick factory. My family gathered our
belongings and joined the crowd heading for the boxcars. Nobody told us
our destination but we feared it would be Nazi-occupied Poland. My family
struggled to keep together. We all managed to get into the same boxcar. For
the sake of modesty, men moved to one side and women to the other side of the
boxcar. A guard slammed the door shut and bolted it on the outside. Now it was dark
in the train. A small slit in the top corner allowed some light to come in. Hours later the train began to move. The only source of air was that small slit
in the corner. There was a bucket for the toilet in the middle of the car. Hours
passed, a night and a day. The bucket filled up. Peering out the slit, my father
confirmed everyone’s worst fear –the train was crossing into Poland. [music] Our knowledge of what was happening to Jews in other countries partly came from
these Jewish families who were sent out of the, you know, deported because they
were not citizens. And so some of them here and there would escape and come
back, a single person and they would tell stories about how in Nazi-occupied
Poland there were these people from all the other countries in Europe who were
thrown out into the forests literally there. Plus the Polish people who were
native you know they were all being mowed down by Nazi gunfire, you know. They’d
just line them up and and shoot people. And and that’s what was going on in
Nazi-occupied Poland. And these people who came back and told us these stories
we didn’t believe it, we did not believe it. We thought they’re exaggerating. They
had some trauma. They experienced something but, you know. So that was our
knowledge of what’s happening in Nazi-occupied countries. Not gas chambers, not crematoriums, not wholesale genocide. None of that. Finally the train stopped. We are in some kind of a camp. My father announced that
our barracks here this must be a work camp. Relief flooded over us we were not
going to be shot in the forest in Poland.>>Narrator: Most of the people on the train
with Irene were unaware that extermination camps existed. They had no idea that they
had just arrived at the most notorious of all Nazi death camps, Auschwitz-Birkenau. When Irene arrived in May of 1944, Auschwitz Nazis were murdering an
average of 6,000 Jews a day, most of them within an hour of getting off the train.>>Mrs. Weiss: There was a lot of shouting “leave everything behind, get out get out
fast.” My mother quickly unpacked some clothing and told us to put on more layers. My
head had already been shaved in the ghetto,so I was wearing a scarf on my
head. I jumped out of the boxcar down onto the platform. About 2,000 other
people emptied onto the platform. My family reached for one another
urgently trying to stay together in the swarm of people, the noise and the
confusion. As soon as we were out of the train, all of our possessions were dumped
onto the platform and were loaded into train, into trucks. A guard shouted “men to
one side women and children to the other.” In an instant my father and 16 year old
brother were lined up in a huge column of men off to one side. I would never see
them again. My mother, sisters, younger brothers and I
were in another large column of women and young children. A chimney was
visible in the distance. Flames and smoke billowed from it. The column edged
forward. When we reached the front, a dozen or more armed Nazi soldiers
blocked our way. One of them held a small stick. The one with a stick motion my
sister Serena, who was 17, to one side. In the next moment he motioned my mother
and two little brothers to the other side. They disappeared from view. Only my
younger sister and I remained, I was holding her hand. The baton came down
between us sending my sister towards where my mother went. The Nazi guard
looked at me and hesitated for an instant. Although I was only 13 years old
and would have been selected with the children, my kerchief on my head and a
big coat that I was wearing confused him. He motioned me in the direction where my
older sister went and turned his attention to women and children lined up
behind me. I hesitated to leave trying to see
whether my younger sister had caught up with my mother. It was not possible for
me to see what happened to her in the crowd. I was devastated to think that
she would be alone in this crowd and so I lingered there for a little while.>>Narrator: This photo was taken by Nazi soldiers at the time Irene arrived at
Auschwitz. It captures the moment when Irene lingered looking for her sister. Children didn’t normally wear scarves on their heads. But Irene was covering her
shaved head with a scarf and wearing the extra layers her mother gave her. It made
her look much older and had likely just saved her life. 13 year-olds like Irene were generally seen as too young for labor and were
immediately sent to the unfit line. Men women and children in the unfit lines
were marched immediately to the gas chambers to die.>>Mrs. Weiss: Serena and I were herded into
a bath house where we were shaved, disinfected and handed prison clothes. We were moved
to a barrack with about 200 other women. We still didn’t know where we were. We
asked the other prisoners when are we going to see our families. A woman
pointed to a chimney and said “do you see the smoke? There is your family.” In the
following days, we were sent to work at a storage and processing area near
crematorium number 4 where we sorted through mountains of clothes that came
out of the trains and also out of the crematoriums and gas chambers. There were
mountains of eyeglasses, toothbrushes, baby carriages, suitcases, household goods,
every kind of item that people thought to bring with them. Because we worked and lived next to the crematorium and gas chamber, we soon had a first-hand
knowledge of what had happened to our families. Day and night columns of women and children and elderly passed by our
barrack. We watched them enter the gate that led to the gas chambers. Sometimes
they called out questions to us. By that point nothing could save them. The sounds were magnified when we worked at night. First I would hear the hissing
of the steam engine arriving at the platform and the whistle of the train. And within a half-hour hundreds of women children and elderly would pass by our
barrack and disappear into the entrance of the gas chambers. Those arriving at
night saw the smoke and flames belching from the chimneys and even burning
bodies in open pits. It looked to them that they were being herded into open
flames. They prayed and cried and screamed. And I would plug my ears with my
fingers. Day and night the transports kept coming. The five gas chambers and
crematoriums operated day and night killing as many as 10,000 people a day.>>Narrator: Auschitz was designed for one
primary purpose, genocide. Blueprints of the
facilities showed deliberate designs implemented to make large-scale gassing
and cremation and efficient operation. The sheer number of murders that took
place there on a single day was inconceivable even for someone who
witnessed the horror firsthand.>>Mrs. Weiss: I was at a window. I was looking. I saw them. They
even called out questions to us. I saw these women. these beautiful little
children. babies sitting on the road waiting their turn. And I would, you know,
My eyes saw it. My brain didn’t accept it and my whole system didn’t accept it. That’s how, that’s how, I think, I coped. And not just in retrospect
but I know that I did not have the ability to absorb it.>>Narrator: Although they were
already losing the war, the Nazi seemed even more determined to murder as many
Jews as possible. Irene and her family were among the more than four hundred
and twenty four thousand Hungarian Jews deported to Auschwitz in just eight
weeks. The killing machine quickly reached capacity.>>Mrs. Weiss: The killing was backed
up. Five crematoriums, gas chambers worked day and night. But it still was backed up. And so these people are waiting their turn there at the gate. And they have no
idea what they’re waiting for. And that is my mother and these two
little boys next to her are my two little brothers. And they have no idea. But they are waiting their turn and searching for my sister. She is not in
the picture. Although I certainly understand what happened to all of them,
it is still a painful thing to think that she was having to go through this
terrible time by herself. [music] The selection never ended in Auschwitz. Every day, there was a selection, not just
at the train ramp when people arrived that was the
biggest selection, but after that they constantly looked to see if they missed
somebody, especially children like me. And so every single day I was in great
jeopardy. They would line us in the morning. The routine was that they threw us out of our barracks at 5 in the morning for
counting. It was a way of, of really torturing people. Five a.m. in the morning. you’re thrown out lining up in rows of 5 and just standing there until
about nine, ten o’clock when the German delegation would come out,
all dressed up in their nice clean warm uniforms, having had breakfast and so on. And they would come and count us. And after that we would be dismissed. And so
every time there was this lineup every morning, they had a chance to look down
that row and pick out the young ones they missed, the sick ones they missed, or
someone who just they didn’t like. They wanted some slave labour out of it. But
as soon as you looked like you weren’t capable of working you had to be killed. When people were brought in there the very first thing they did at the train
platform is to separate children, babies, and their mothers and kill them within a
half an hour to an hour upon arriving. So there were no children in that place. And
I, who was just 13 years old, was really considered a child and I was not
slave labor material. So I was never referred to as a child. The word child
was not to be mentioned. We were very much aware the if they pulled you out ,you’re going to die. And suddenly that becomes your your life. And then you’re
also distracted by all the incredible inhuman things that are happening to you. Added to that is starvation and all kinds of other humiliation and suddenly
you’re very confused and very unsure of, I as a child, I really thought that I
was not even on this planet, I didn’t think I was on Earth. Nobody knows this is here. Nobody can possibly know that when the trains
come in that 90 percent of the people are killed immediately. And there is a facility here just for that. This is just the place for killing. So it can’t be on this Earth. I was terrified every moment of my time in Auschwitz. I look back and
I think, oh I was kind of brave wasn’t I? It was okay. Well it seems like I wasn’t. My
sister tells me I cried all the time. I was absolutely terrified because I knew
that they were looking for me, and so to speak. But just everything. The hostility
that was thick you know. And that that we were subhumans, were dehumanized. That is such a terrible feeling that you can’t, that you’re most afraid of your fellow
man. You know I should have been in school and, and not in Auschwitz. Why was I
there? Why was my father and family, why were they there? You know people minding their own business raising families.>>Narrator: Irene says that the system of
terror that the Nazis instituted is still difficult to comprehend. In a matter of
months she had gone from being a normal teenager to a prisoner in horrendous
conditions in a place where she watched hundreds of people marched to their
deaths every day. She knew by now that her mother and siblings had been sent to
the gas chambers. Although her father had survived the selection platform, she
learned that he too had been killed. Her parents, her siblings, her home, her
friends, everything she knew as normal was gone. [music]>>Mrs. Weis: We came from civilization. certain things were were expected. Certain things were normal. And suddenly
to be taken into a place where nothing was familiar and hostility was enormous. We were looked upon as subhumans. They were the superior Aryan race, races like
the Slavic peoples, the Russians, the Poles, they would be designated as slave
laborers to to help the super race. And then there was the subhumans who had to be
eliminated. The Nazi soldiers guarding us, looked at us as subhumans. You could
not look them in the eye. You know, as when other human beings treat you as
subhumans, it is a most terrifying feeling because you have no one to turn
to. This is your, this is the your, your support group. This is what you know, and
suddenly you’re not one of them. It’s very, very difficult to ever bring back
that trust because you could see how people can turn on you in a very vicious
way. Very scary. Truly, truly scary because you
have no place to turn. No one who, um, who identifies you as a fellow human being. It’s–I have a hard time expressing what it feels like to be dehumanized. But the
feeling is primarily terror real terror. These Nazi soldiers did not identify
with us on a human level. So that if our babies are torn from their mothers that
doesn’t affect them because we’re not the same kind of human beings. And they
have the guns and they have the power. So it’s just sheer terror where another
human being doesn’t have any kind of empathy for you. [music]>>Narrator: All around her Irene
witnessed the humiliation and degradation of her fellow Jews. She had
her sister Serena to turn to but both of them were teenagers when they were in
Auschwitz and most of their family was gone. Auschwitz was a massive complex that
held thousands of prisoners across several sub sites. Author and Holocaust
survivor, Elie Wiesel, and author and holocaust victim Anne Frank were in the
Auschwitz complex at the time Irene was there. But more importantly, and
miraculously for Irene, two other people were there that had survived the
selection process–her mother’s sisters.>>Mrs. Weiss: And they were exceedingly wonderful
people, especially one of them who had had a way about her to make you feel
safe; to remind you that you are precious to her; that, she, remind you that you are
her sister’s daughter and not a subhuman being. I didn’t feel so totally alone with her around. To me, she is one of the
angels. She died not so long ago. She did survive the camps. But she was one of the human beings who in those circumstances maintained her humanity and helped for
others to maintain theirs.>>Narrator: Irene would need every ounce of
her humanity to survive what was to come. By 1945, Germany’s defeat in the war was
inevitable but the Nazis were determined to torture the Jewish people until the
bitter end. As the front lines approach their outlying camps, the Nazis forced
prisoners on death marches deeper inside their borders. Irene, Serena, and their
aunts were forced out of Auschwitz on a death march towards the Ravensbr�ck
camp they ended up just west of Ravensbr�ck in a camp called Neustadt-Glewe,
nearly 450 miles away. [music]>>Mrs. Weiss: This definitely turned out to
be a death march. We were not fed or taken care of in any way. Anyone who fell from exhaustion or
sat down was shot. Took us on the highways. In January, the snow, the cold, terrible. The road was filled with people being taken deeper into Germany. Our numbers
were, were just totally decimated. Because they took us, first of all, on the
road for days and nights. There was no facility, no food, no water, no nothing, and
no shelter. And then occasionally they would stop stop us in another
concentration camp which was already overloaded. Though our last trip was in
open cattle cars in the winter. We ended up near Hamburg in a camp where again
the system just didn’t function anymore. And we ended up really starving there
for five months. And my mother’s two young sisters were with us all this time. And one of them now caught typhus and she was taken from there to, back to a
place at the Ravensbr�ck which had gas chambers, this one didn’t have. And then
at the very end, almost at the very end, my sister was picked out because she was
already like a skeleton man. And then I volunteered to go with her because I
couldn’t bear staying alone.>>Narrator: Irene knew what her choice meany. Although she had survived the most brutal of concentration camps, the constant threat
of discovery by Nazi soldiers and a forced death march in the bitter cold of
winter, she did not want to go on without her sister. Dhe knew that they would both
be sent to the gas chamber to die.>>Mrs. Weiss: They put us with other women
selected into a room awaiting a truck to take us to a killing area because this camp didn’t
have a gas chamber. But perhaps because of the approaching Russian front and the
resulting chaos, the truck never arrived. We, actually, my sister and I survived
that day, survived altogether because the truck didn’t arrive that day. [music] [music]>>Student: How was their liberation processing
and how did you eventually get home and survive
those days?>>Mrs. Weiss: When the Russian army
finally caught up with where we were near Hamburg, um, they, that particular unit
they came into the camp. First we saw the guard tower empty and we realized
something happened that the guards were gone. And, and we waited to see if that
was for real. And then a couple of days later some Russian soldiers arrived and
they took a look at us and they left. And we never saw them again. And so we were
left there without any medical help and any transportation and any food. We were
left in very desperate conditions. Some of the women drifted out into the
nearest town and found there abandoned homes because the German civilian
population fled when the Russian army approached. And so there were a lot of
empty homes and some of us would just leave the camp and get into an empty
house and just wait a few days, rest up you know. There was nothing to eat. there
was nothing, there wasn’t nothing, you know, no medical supply or anything. We
found a hospital in the town and some of us entered the hospital just to rest.>>Narrator: It took some time for Irene and
her fellow survivors to trust that they had, in fact,
been liberated, that they were to go free. Every freedom had been taken from them
in the world that they had come from even the freedom to have a family and to
be a child.>>Mrs. Weiss: From my immediate family of
eight only Serena, my older sister, and I survived. All 13 of my young cousins perished
along with their mothers. When I saw children in the town after the war, I
stopped and stared at them. I had not seen children in almost a year and a
half. Children were condemned to death in the world I had just come.>>Student: After the liberation, how did you
get your life back to essentially [inaudible]>>Mrs. Weiss: After a few days, we
would say well we have to get moving towards home. And we would actually walk
on the highway and hitchhike, and things like that. And took us months to get to
where we finally ended up in Prague, Czechoslovakia. We were not going to go
back to our homes because we’d never wanted to go back to the place where
people hated us and through us out. And so what to do next? Where to go? And so we
stayed in this place for a couple of years trying to reestablish our identity. We had no identification papers or birth certificates and anything else. Identification papers had to be reconstructed through witnesses. And, and
then we apply to come to this country and that wasn’t simple. There was a quota
on how many they allowed in. The bigger problem set in after we were liberated. And yes you survived and yes you look around and everybody is dead, and that,
and you have no place to go. And your your position in in the world has
changed enormously. You’re not, you know, it’s very complicated especially for
people older than me, you know. How to pick up the pieces and were to begin
and you, you leave your continent everybody wanted to leave Europe.And the
problems are not over. And you suddenly have new problems. You can’t even
deal with the old traumas because now you have to, new languages,
new jobs, new. You have no money, you have you have no status. Whoever you were
before you’re not, you’re an immigrant. You don’t, you know all kinds of
difficulties.>>Mrs. Weiss: I arrived in Brooklyn, New York. I was 16
by now and members of the family that I did have, you know aunts and cousins, they
insisted that I go back to school right away. Because from every time, every time
after the war, everybody was telling me “you’re a child, you’re a child you must
go to school.” In Auschwitz, mentioning that I was a child would have been the
end of me. But suddenly I was a child. But at 16 and all that I went through, I
didn’t feel much like a child at all. And yet they put me into a huge high school
in Brooklyn, New York. 5,000 students of people like you and others who. There was
a war. They knew there was a war but they certainly were, had their normal
routine. And I didn’t speak English. And I just wandered around the halls. I was in
and out of classrooms. Nobody cared. Nobody knew if I was there, I was
knocking around. And somehow I got a grip of myself and somehow i graduated high
school. But it was very difficult because I was not normal. I had experiences they
had absolutely no idea about. I had a tattoo on my arm which people
didn’t understand. In those days, tattoos were not common at all. And i would be
asked by my classmates “what did you do to yourself? is that your phone number? what is that thing?” And I would break out in a sweat that the very idea
that I had to answer that.>>Narrator: For Irene, explaining to her new
American classmates what she had just been through would have been both traumatic
and nearly impossible. At the end of World War II, many Americans knew very
little about the atrocities the Nazis had perpetrated on the Jewish people. How do you begin to explain a situation so immeasurably cruel that it’s difficult
to comprehend.>>Mrs. Weiss: Having seen how cunning propaganda and teaching of hate can make
people believe that genocide is possible, even a patriotic duty. That killing
civilian population including their children is necessary. And having
witnessed how the best creative minds in the fields of art and medicine and law
and business and religion were enthusiastically enlisted in such a
fiendish cause under the banner of nationalism, it is really very difficult
to continue to have much faith in mankind. [music]>>Narrator: Irene, her family, her friends,
and all the Jewish people of Europe had been betrayed by their fellow man. The
betrayal prompts some of the most troubling questions surrounding the
Holocaust. How did good people allow this to go on? Why didn’t more people help?>>Mrs. Weiss: It was very dangerous for people
to show any kind of help or consideration to
Jews. It was extremely dangerous because anyone who can point out another person
that he helped the Jew or he hid a Jew or he gave him some meal or something
was immediately interrogated and threatened. And their own families were
in danger. There is no doubt about that. So the, the system of terror is such
that everybody’s terrorized, the victim and the victimizer. They don’t toe the
line they become the victims, you know. So I understand that. But, what, aside from that once the propaganda took hold, there was such a fervor of believing that it’s
right to discriminate them to humiliate and and to confiscate their stuff. There
was such a fervor about it that it became patriotism of its own. And, and so people eagerly did it. They were eager to catch a Jew who was hiding and take him
to the Gestapo. And they would be rewarded for it, you know. So it turned
from being victims themselves by not being able to associate with people and
express an opinion to totally falling for it, to believe it. And then, even after
the war, people would say how could you have done such and such. It was the
law, we followed the law and the law was the law spelled out all the things you
could do to these people. And so it became part of patriotism, part of being
loyal. It didn’t, it was no longer something that you didn’t want to do. You want it to do it and you benefited from it. [music]>>Narrator: Irene says that the system of
terror that the Nazis instituted, the propaganda they
used, and the effect of that propaganda on society are things we should never
forget and never stop studying. What happened during the Holocaust was more
than a historical event.>>Mrs. Weiss: What I experienced and Jewish
people experienced was something extraordinarily evil and extraordinarily
different in the middle of the 20th Century. That it wasn’t part of the war. It was, it was genocide within the war. And you can’t just say well it’s over
you know, people died in the war. No this this was some kind of a setback for
Western civilization. And I don’t think it’s not only Jews who understand that
because I think it affected Christian religion in a in a big way. Because the
Christian Europe should have reacted better to it. It, it affected
morality you know, the power structure of what people can do to each other. It was
just some kind of a breakdown of civilization in a bigger way than just
what war can do. War has certain rules. It’s not obeyed but you know there are
rules for war. You can’t, you have to avoid to hurt civilians and it doesn’t always
carried out. But this had no rules the rule here was kill and kill and kill. And
most of all, kill young children so there won’t be a new generation. Kill childbearing women so there won’t be a new generation. Kill the old and
the sick because they’re useless. And confiscate their property and annihilate
a whole group of people without ever being charged of any kind of crime. There
was something very vicious and subhuman in carrying out such as such a scheme. So it has to be talked about.>>Student: Have you ever found it in your
heart to forgive the Nazi [inaudible] who oppressed
you?>>Mrs. Weiss: Well, I will have an opportunity
to talk to a Nazi. Actually I’m going to Germany this coming Sunday. I’ll be a
witness at a trial that is currently going on. The German government is trying
a former Nazi, who, is was a young man that when he was on the ramp at Auschwitz.>>Narrator: Oskar Groening was a Nazi officer stationed at Auschwitz. Known as
the bookkeeper of Auschwitz, his job was to collect the money and valuables from
prisoners as they arrived on the platform, keep accounts of the monetary
value and send the funds back to Berlin. Groening was 23 at the time. And now at
the age of 93, the German government had finally brought him to trial.>>Mrs. Weiss: What they
wanted is to find survivors who came from Hungary during the months of May
and June 1945, four, 1944. In those two months, something like
400,000 Jews from Hungary were deliver to Auschwitz. And the killing
just went on day and night. And he was there on the platform at the time doing
his harmless little job of collecting valuables from people who are
about to be killed. So should I forgive him for what he did so many years ago? I predict
that I will not forgive him. Because when he saw the atrocities, and he says “I saw
atrocities.” He says “I saw that the women and children went, went into the gas
chambers and I saw myself how the gas pellets would drop through the roof into
the chamber and I heard the blood-curdling screams. And then I heard
the screams but getting lower and then there was silence. And I would like to ask him when you heard that did you throw up? What did you
do? Go back to your station at the ramp and collect some more money and valuables? [music}>>Narrator: Irene was one of several Auschwitz survivors that testified at
Groening trial. Though Groening admitted that he is morally guilty for his
association with Nazi acts of terror, he insisted that he never personally
murdered anyone. For Irene, he was part of the system that murdered her family. And
she went to Germany hoping for answers.>>Mrs. Weiss: If he had sat there in his Nazi
uniform, as a 13 year old I would have been terrified and as an 84 year old I will
be terrified. But i was looking at an old man and thinking how could all that have
happened. What was he thinking when he was 21, 22 doing what he did. And why
doesn’t he come forward and say “I’m very sorry. I didn’t think or I was misled or
I was stupid or I was”. Why not come give people some understanding of what was he
thinking. He should hear what his patriotism and his devotion to Hitler caused
to people.>>Narrator: Irene was able to testify at Groening’s trial. She sat 20 feet away from the former Nazi and recounted her family’s
story. She talked about being persecuted in her town, being deported to the ghetto
and ultimately to Auschwitz, and losing most of her family to the gas chambers. She was able to tell Groening the effect that he and the Nazi regime had on her
life. When she finished, he looked at his watch. In the end, Groening was sentenced
to four years in prison.>>Narrator: Today Irene shares her story with
students not just as a history lesson, but as a vehicle for understanding the
concept of humanity. The Holocaust is what can result when we cross the
boundaries of basic civility, when we are careless with how we treat each other. [inaudible]>>Mrs. Weiss: How students and people treat
each other is really at the core that, you know, that, that a human being, have, we all have the
same kind of feelings whether it comes to family or loss or pain or whatever. And, and if you, you know, if you can empathize and recognize that we all feel
the same kind of pain and the same concerns then you won’t be so cruel. It’s
hard for to do that with children because they’re, they want to belong, they
want to be like everybody else, and they’ll inflict pain on others, other
students just that they should belong to the right group. But, it sort of starts
there. This idea of not being, not accepting others. You don’t have to be
friends with everybody but you can’t get out go out of your way to humiliate them
and isolate them.>>Student: So we’re going to be the last generation
that has the chance to talk to Holocaust survivors. So when we teach our children
about the Holocaust, what do you think is the most important thing we teach them?>>Mrs. Weiss: It’s an excellent question. What worries me most is how easily young people
and adults can be convinced to follow an
ideology or a, or a charismatic leader. How do we get young people to think and
analyze what they hear. And today is just as important as it ever was. You, we’re all
bombarded by all kinds of ideologies. What is the truth? Very difficult to find
out the truth. And you young people are in a position to try to sort it out — by,
by thinking, learning, learning how to analyze what you
hear. These people will be voting someday. And that’s, that’s an even bigger job because they have to
be willing to educate themselves in a big way to vote in the right way. It
doesn’t matter that they have to vote one party or the other party, they should
just be informed why they are doing it,.>>Student: We just wanted to say thank you
for coming out here today and talking to us. It really means a lot, yeah.>>Mrs. Weiss: You’re very welcome and
keep my advice of getting well informed. And thinking, thinking,
thinking, and analyzing so you don’t fall for any crazy stuff.>>Student: Absolutely.>>Mrs. Weiss: Okay. Bye>>Narrator: With smiles and handshakes,
Irene finished her presentation to Woodson High School students. It’s one of many
presentations she’ll do this year, sharing a story that is both painful and important.>>Mrs. Weiss: All the people who have gone through this are different than they
would have been, profoundly different. And I think I am profoundly different as a
person then I would have been had I gone through normal schooling and family and
all the rest. You’re touched by something that, that’s difficult to overcome. Like
what we talked about before, like your your trust in human beings. And there is
a lot of disappointment in that, but, and even a lot of pain. The pain never goes
away, the loss. Of course, I’ve had a great joy for my family. That is the best that
one can do — is to do, you know, have, have children and grandchildren. And I had a very fine husband for 63 years. [music]

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