Holocaust Survivor Recounts Ordeal; Urges Students to Be Heroes and Fight Injustices
If pictures are worth a thousand words, the gallery of photos that enveloped the University Commons on Friday, Nov. 9, during Sacred Heart University’s Kristallnacht commemoration, spoke volumes to those who stopped to closely observe each image.
The black-and-white photographs that had been enlarged for events like this, captured young Anita Schorr in her native Czechoslovakia, and told the narrative without words, of her young life that would be disrupted at age 9 by the Nazis.
The photos of the youthful, brown-haired Schorr, along with members of her family that included her parents and a younger brother, encapsulated the period of hope, love and optimism that every young family experiences. That youthful optimism came to an abrupt halt during the fateful night of Kristallnacht, known to the world as the Night of Broken Glass, when Nazis orchestrated violent and horrific attacks on Jews that included dozens of killings, arrests and the burning of books, synagogues and businesses owned by Jewish individuals.
John Petillo, president of Sacred Heart University, characterized Kristallnacht as “an orgy of senseless violence. It was a time of loss, of grieving and of injustice,” he told the audience. “It was utterly diabolical and hideous. It was two days of the loss of the holy and the sacred.”
Kristallnacht is not an event that should be “relegated to history books or bigoted denials” but kept alive in memory to remember those who were perished and so such unjust calamities never happen again, Petillo added.
The light and promise of Schorr’s youth faded that night, but her story as a survivor of one of the worst moments in humanity outlasted those dark years known as the Holocaust. The message she articulated at Sacred Heart University was one of hope as she called on people from all walks of life, especially the young, to be heroes, to end hatred and to be pursuers of justice and peace.
“Be a hero, step in,” Schorr, a Westport resident, said to her audience. “I say that especially to the young people. You are the ones who can make the future better and keep this from happening again.”
Born in 1930 in the Czech city of Brno, Schorr recounted to her captivated audience how the Nazis slowly paved the road of dehumanization of the Jews and the ultimate demise of one-third of European Jewry. First, she was no longer allowed to attend the same schools as her non-Jewish friends, and her Gentile friends were no longer allowed play with her, something she did not understand. Curfews were enforced as were dress codes, and there were unjustified arrests of Jews, and then there was the violence: Neighbors and friends were removed from their homes in darkness of night at gunpoint by German Nazis.
“They did that on purpose because at night, you’re more scared,” she said. By 1939, her life as she knew it ended as Germany invaded Czechoslovakia and World War II began.
By 1941, Schorr and her family were told to pack an overnight bag and board a train to the ghetto town of Terezin. “You knew whatever was ahead, it was not going to be good,” she said.
At Terezin, the women and men were separated – her father, who was 45 at time, was sent to the men’s barracks while she, her mother and younger brother were dispersed to tight barracks surrounded by dozens of people. They slept in bunks beds that Schorr said more closely resembled shelves. Lice and filth was constantly around them. Feelings of hunger also filled young Schoor’s days and penetrated her mind as well as her body.
“The hunger just filled your psyche; all you were looking for was your next fix,” she said.
By 1943, her family was deported from Terezin to the concentration camp in Auschwitz, Poland. Instead of enjoying a carefree youth, Schorr witnessed brutality beyond measure; medical experiments were performed on prisoners, especially the young, and all humanity was taken away from each prisoner. Going in the correct line meant life or death and the fear of getting killed was never far away.
How did Schorr survive years of three concentration camps, forced labor and brutality at the hands of the Nazis? There were moments of humanity demonstrated by the SS officers, including a soldier who shared his sandwich with her. But Schorr, who speaks matter of factly, admitted it was by pure luck and survival skills she gleaned at a young age and a fast decision her mother made when the Nazis wanted people who were strong enough to work in forced labor camps. Even though she was still 13, and years of malnutrition had stunted her development, her mother persistently told her to tell the Nazis that was 18 so she could work and have a chance to leave Auschwitz.
“She told me to go, and she pushed me away from her and my brother, and I didn’t understand why my mother chose my brother,” said Schorr. “I thought she must not love me, and I walked away with a broken heart. Little did I know, the courage and heroism she had to have to make such a decision.”
Schorr’s identity was further stripped – her head was shaved, she was forced to dress in striped prisoner garb and her arm was tattooed with a prisoner identification number.
“Just like cattle,” said Schorr. Her mother and brother perished in the gas chambers a few days after Schorr left the camp for Hamburg, Germany, where she would dig ditches for the Germans and pull bodies out of rubble and buildings destroyed by bombs.
By 1945, the Nazi empire was facing its last days. Schorr was transported to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, and a few months later, the allies liberated the camp.
Schorr said the British had smiles on their faces as they liberated Bergen-Belsen. They entered the camp as saviors, but those heroic smiles quickly disappeared when their eyes locked on the skeletal and sickened individuals who had been denied proper medical care, food and clothing and endured days of working in brutal conditions.
“They were looking at something they had never seen before,” said Schorr. As the British soldiers were hastily trying to feed the hungry and desperate prisoners, they discovered a warehouse full of bread. As the bread was being transferred to feed the prisoners, flocks of birds descended on it, consumed the food and moments later perished. “The bread was poisoned,” said Schorr. “If the British had waited another day to liberate us, thousands of us would have died because of that bread.”
Following the liberation, Schorr learned that her father was executed just two days before the allies came because he was aiding a fellow prisoner who no longer had the strength to walk. After the liberation and Schorr’s recovery at an orphanage, she had to make decisions about her new life at a young age.
“I was too old to be adopted and mothered, but I was also too young to be left alone in the world,” she said. She went back to school and by 1946 joined the Haganah, a Jewish military organization. With the Jewish State of Israel emerging, she fulfilled a dream and moved to Israel in 1948 where she joined the army. Israel became a place where she healed and became whole once again.
While the years of the Holocaust silenced her and millions of others, she decided to end her silence after acclaimed author and humanitarian and Holocaust survivor Elie Weisel was bestowed with the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986 for his memoir, Night, and after the establishment of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. She found her voice and began to tell her story of survival and injustice to ensure that we never forget.
To view a gallery of photos from this event, click here.