She will never forget how Germany’s concentration camps changed her life, Holocaust survivor Rebecca Yomtov Hauser told eighth-graders at Gravelly Hill Middle School.
Hauser, whose daughter Bonnie Hauser was there to help with questions, has shared her story with previous eighth-grade groups. The students are studying World War II in their social studies and English/language arts classes.
This year has more significance, however, because it marks the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen and other concentration camps.
Hauser, 92, lost her parents, three brothers and two dozen other family members to the Holocaust. Of the roughly 2,000 Jews living in her hometown of Ioannina, Greece, only about 100 remained after the war. There are even fewer today.
She was 20 when Nazi police removed the Jews at Ioannina on March 25, 1944 – Greek Independence Day. They were loaded onto trucks in the market and taken to the train station. Their possessions were confiscated.
The next two weeks were spent squeezed into windowless cattle cars for the trip to Auschwitz. At the concentration camp, they were given a choice: Walk to the showers or wait for a ride.
Hauser’s mother wanted her to ride with the family, but she wanted to walk. She reached the showers and washed with the others. Her head was shaved, and her left arm was tattooed with an identification number – now a faded, blue mark.
Her family never arrived.
Hauser – then-prisoner No. 77128 – was given clean underwear, a dress, shoes and a bowl. She searched among the other prisoners for another Greek. The person she found took her outside, Bonnie Hauser said, and pointed to a building across the camp, where she saw flames and smoke.
Hauser regrets disobeying her mother, Bonnie Hauser said, but she knows it saved her life. More than 70,000 did not survive Bergen-Belsen, and thousands more died after liberation. Typhoid and other diseases were epidemic.
“It was unbelievable that Germany, a nation we thought of as progressive, was capable of such atrocities,” Bonnie Hauser quoted her mother as saying.
The prisoners huddled together at night for warmth on the bare wooden bunks; their days were spent in line, waiting for bits of food or a thin soup with potatoes and cabbage. When Hauser was injured, she hid it so the Nazis would not kill her, she said.
They lived like zombies, Hauser said. She expected they would all be killed.
“One day was like the other,” she said. “We did not know what it was, and we didn’t care.”
But she tried to stay positive and quiet, Hauser said. Catching potato skins as they were thrown from the kitchen door was a “big treat.”
The British soldiers who liberated Bergen-Belsen in April 1945 found piles of bodies, she said. She remembers falling in the mud while the soldiers used bulldozers to dig mass graves for the bodies.
She woke in a Belgian hospital bed and returned later to the family’s empty house in Ioannina. Life there was hard, she said. In 1947, the National Council for Jewish Women arranged with her uncle in America to help her immigrate on a student visa.
The Nazis took many things from her, Hauser said, but not her smile. She wants students to learn from her experience how to stay positive, she said, and count their blessings to be in America.
“Do the best you can, enjoy what you are doing, and have a wonderful life,” Hauser said. “But don’t look at the negatives; look at the positives. Spending your life on negatives is a waste of life.”