Holocaust survivor says memories must endure
By Sarah Campbell
CONCORD — Dr. Susan Cernyak-Spatz never wants to forget the years she spent in a German concentration camp.
Not the “awful stink” of billowing smoke that “hit her in the face like a fifthly rag” as she stepped out of a car at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
“Nobody could define what it was because no one knew corpses were burning under those flames,” she said.
Not the dehumanization she was subjected to, including being stripped naked, shaved and given a bowl out of which to eat, drink and relieve herself.
“We had no civilized utensils like a spoon, knife or fork … we had to eat with our hands,” Cernyak-Spatz said. “We were animals.”
Not the day that the Nazis tattooed the number 34042 on her left forearm.
“The minute we received our tattoos there was no past and no future,” Cernyak-Spatz said.
No, Cernyak-Spatz does not want to forget. That would be too easy, she said.
“If we forget the past, our country, the world, are condemned to repeat it,” she said. “My main mission right now is to influence as many young people of the next generation not to forget.”
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Cernyak-Spatz, a retired German literature professor from UNC-Charlotte, is fulfilling that mission by traveling across the country and overseas to tell her story.
“If we let 6 million people who died a horrible death be forgotten, we kill them again,” she said.
Cernyak-Spatz spoke to an audience of more than 150 people at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College’s South Campus on Tuesday.
“It’s a story that needs to be told over and over and over again, so that we will never forget,” said Kannapolis resident Karole Northrup, a UNC-Charlotte student.
Cernyak-Spatz’s lecture was part of instructors Sandie Barnhouse and Sherylle Smith’s combined American literature and history course.
“It was very powerful,” sophomore Jeff Bogutsky said. “I was captivated by it, it’s something I’ll never get to experience again.”
Cabarrus-Kannapolis Early College student sophomore Cheyenne Freeman said hearing her speak was “enlightening.”
“It’s a totally different experience than reading it in a book or watching a movie,’ she said.
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Before arriving at Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1943, Cernyak-Spatz spent years as a refugee, moving several times to avoid Nazi brutality. Her family moved from her hometown of Vienna to Prague in 1938.
A day before the German invasion of Prague, her father fled to Poland with the intention of sending for her and her mother after reaching safety.
She didn’t see him again until after the war.
Cernyak-Spatz and her mother were deported to Theresienstadt, a Nazi ghetto in what is now the Czech Republic.
Cernyak-Spatz said the ghetto was being used as a “false front” to convince other nations that the Jews were being treated well.
“I always have to think that the free world was either so stupid or so indifferent to believe that,” she said. “And since I have to believe the free world wasn’t that stupid, I believe they were indifferent.”
At Theresienstadt, Cernyak-Spatz said she also experienced her first “selection.”
“During the Holocaust the word selection took a very sinister meaning — selection meant life or death,” she said. “People would be selected by either staying in Theresienstadt or going east to one of five camps.”
At the age of 18, she was sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau. She was separated from her mother, who she never saw again.
“When I say today that I considered myself lucky to only have been sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau. it sounds strange,” she said. “But Auschwitz was a concentration camp not an extermination camp and out of a concentration camp you could exit alive.”
On the way to the camp, Cernyak-Spatz said she didn’t have any “philosophical” thoughts.
“People always ask me what I felt and what I thought,” she said. “At that point you don’t think of anything but how the hell will I survive.”
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When Cernyak-Spatz arrived at Auschwitz in January 1943, she faced another selection process.
Being young and healthy, she was deemed good for labor. Girls under the age of 14, women with children, those older than 40 and the “feeble and frail” were not so lucky. She said they were sent straight to the gas chamber.
To keep the women calm, Nazi officers assured them they were taking a warm shower and would be reunited with their families soon, she said.
“Sometimes they would even give these women a piece of soap,” she said. “Not until the doors would close and the shower head would not give out water did they know something terrible was happening.”
It would only take about five minutes for the deadly gas to take its toll.
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Cernyak-Spatz said woman who were selected to work at the camp were not free from death’s grip. Instead, they died slowly from disease and starvation.
“Prisoners would be so mentally and physically dehumanized they would be eager to get into the gas,” she said. “Dying was no art.”
She said each day was a lesson in survival.
The first lesson, was to find a top bunk because when guards didn’t empty buckets of urine at night, prisoners would be forced to use their bowls, which they emptied beside their bunks.
“The person underneath got it on the head,” she said.
Finding an inside job was the next lesson because “outside you died.”
Cernyak-Spatz said that since she knew several languages she would translate for another prisoner who worked in the camp’s adminstration building.
That connection led her to an officer who had a mutual acquaintance.
“It was immediately her duty to get me out of the new arrival block and get me an inside job,” she said. “I was unbelievable fortunate … that saved my life.”
She ended up working at a warehouse where 500 prisoners sorted and bundled clothing that was taken from each prisoner.
Cernyak-Spatz said that turned out to be her ultimate lifesaver.
Before Nazi soliders arrived to take the prisoners on a final march to the border, a head commander told them to go to the warehouse and put on as much warm clothing as they possibly could. She said the march was the Nazis final attempt to exterminate them despite losing the way.
To this day, Cernyak-Spatz said she’s not sure what made the head commander warn the prisoners about the walk.
“He saved 500 people’s lives. There were very few who were outfitted like we were,” she said
Cernyak-Spatz was finally free when her march ended at an American checkpoint.
“All of a sudden I could turn, sit, lay down … no one was giving me any orders,” she said. “All of a sudden I had to make my own decisions.
“That was a strange feeling, that was my liberation.”
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Despite surviving the experience, Ceryak-Spatz said her faith in both humanity and God is fractured.
“Humanity forgets too quickly the mistakes that were made,” she said. “That is a frightening thing.”
She encouraged students to “stay human” and “stay a messenger.”
“If in doing a job it mean you would hurt another human being, say no,” she said.
And Ceryak Spatz said if anybody who survived the Holocaust says the experience heightened their religion “they’re lying.”
“When I came out of the camp I could not believe in any God, it simply was not possible,” she said. “I refuse and reject a God that watched over the Holocaust.”
Contact reporter Sarah Campbell at 704-797-7683.