Throngs of people packed two venues Sunday to hear firsthand accounts from survivors of the Holocaust, part of North Carolina’s official commemoration of the horrific Nazi genocide of 6 million Jews.
Three Holocaust survivors, who made clear that their harrowing experiences didn’t evaporate after they were liberated, addressed more than 150 people who filled Carswell Concert Hall on Meredith College’s campus.
Well in excess of 300 people subsequently crowded into the school’s larger Jones Auditorium to hear the featured speaker – another Holocaust survivor – and observe the lighting of memorial candles for the Holocaust victims.
Among those in attendance at the event, sponsored by the N.C. Council on the Holocaust, was Susannah Bell, 30. The Chapel Hill resident, a student at Durham Technical Community College, is in the midst of converting to Judaism.
“To move forward, we can’t forget about our past,” Bell said.
Edith Ross, 89, a native of The Netherlands who lives in Cary, told the audience the story of her liberation from Birkenau, also known as Auschwitz II.
“There wasn’t much left of me,” Ross said.
When she was being transported to Russia by the Russian soldiers who liberated her, she was so weak that at one stop that she passed out in a marketplace.
“They couldn’t get us back to Western Europe because the railroad tracks were all bombed,” Ross said.
At the time she was wearing eight dresses, one on top of the other, that she was trying to sell so she could buy food.
But her plight obviously struck a chord. “When I passed out, all the Ukrainian ... women that were selling the food, they must have felt sorry for me and they showered me with rubles all over the place,” she said.
Ross, the one speaker who lightened the grim firsthand accounts with some levity, said it took her six months to return home to The Netherlands. There she encountered an obstreperous border official.
“They gave me a hard time because they said, ‘Where are your papers to show that you are Dutch?’ Well, this was idiotic.”
But the official ultimately let her cross the border.
“I got so mad so I started swearing at him in Dutch and then he said to me, ‘If you can swear like that in Dutch, you’ve got to be Dutch,’ ” she said.
Auschwitz survivor Abe Piasek, 86, of Raleigh, told of having no choice but to rob and steal in the initial days after being liberated.
“I was looking for food,” Piasek said. “We got a Red Cross package, and it wasn’t enough.”
“The first day,” he continued, “I went into a bakery. We (started) stealing bread and the guy hit us. We were afraid he was going to hit us worse so we escaped.”
Harry Weiss, 87, of Raleigh, addressed the arduous journeys to the concentration camp in cattle cars without any water or lavatories.
“A lot of people were so thirsty that they told me some of them were drinking their own urine,” he said. “A lot of them went completely nuts, out of their minds, and they had to be suppressed.”
Featured speaker Zev Harel, who is professor emeritus in the School of Social Work at Cleveland State University in Cleveland and now lives in Greensboro, said during a question-and-answer session that it isn’t easy to talk about his days at Auschwitz and other concentration camps.
“But,” he said, “the legacies of the Holocaust has to be shared. ... Unfortunately, anti-Semitism is alive and well – around here and other places. So we have to do what we can.”