What We Can Learn From A Holocaust Survivor
Life is about experiences. Some are not good ones yet, we need to have uncomfortable conversations and reflect so that they never repeat. Fortunately, this happens every April for Remembrance of Victims of the Holocaust. It’s a time people of the United States observe and pause to remember victims and survivors. While there are dedicated days to reflect on the past, appreciation of people doesn’t stop just because April has passed.
For this reason, I’m resharing a story that my daughter wrote (when she was younger) after many hours of interviews with Marsha Kreuzman, a Holocaust survivor. I was lucky enough to join them, listen, and learn from unbelievable discussions. While Marsha has passed away, may her stories stay alive and people never forget what she endured and others like her.
Please know that this is not written for political, religious, or cultural debates. It’s merely to share a true story to create awareness and appreciation for humankind.
Interview summary by Lindsey Sherman (written at age 13)
Marsha Kreuzman is living proof that the Holocaust was one of the saddest moments in history. For my Bat Mitzvah project, I chose to interview a survivor of this dreadful time in history. I picked this as my project when I realized that I am the last generation to hear the real-life story from a Holocaust survivor.
This mitzvah project was special to me, not only because I was hearing an experience from a true survivor, but also that my Bat Mitzvah date is the same day as Holocaust Remembrance Day. I spent a few weeks interviewing Marsha and learning her story.
The first day I met Marsha I realized how cruel the Germans were. They killed, beat, starved, and shot so many Jewish people as well as people from other cultures. Each time Marsha brought up something sad that she had witnessed or was forced to be a part of, it made me want to cry and punch someone. Her story not only touched me emotionally but also changed how I “see” people. You never know if a random person is going to be your friend or turn against you later in life, as Marsha never could have predicted. Life is a mystery.
Marsha is now 90 years old (or young I should say). The story of her life is unbelievable and must be remembered. She was born in Kraków Poland, on May 18, 1923. Poland was a very anti-semitic country, even before Hitler came to power. People were prejudice and hated Jews for no reason.
Marsha went to a Catholic school growing up and hardly had any friends since she was the only Jewish girl in her school. Not only was it hard to be a Jew, but she also found it difficult to have red hair. Most people had light-colored hair and blue eyes. This made Marsha feel very different.
Despite some challenges, she lived in a nice apartment while growing up in Poland. “It was comfortable” as Marsha told me, even though they had no inside bathrooms. She got used to having to go to the outhouse. What was harder to deal with was that her older brother was diagnosed with diabetes. He needed insulin twice a week, which was expensive, and Marsha’s family was not wealthy. There was no such thing as medical insurance then. Fortunately, Marsha’s American relatives were doctors and were able to help by sending insulin to them in Poland for a period of time.
November 11, 1933 was a memorable and sad day. It was the first time they knew for sure that trouble arrived. It was “the Night of the Broken Glass.” Jewish businesses were trashed. Windows and lights were broken. Temples and Torahs were burned and destroyed. It was clearly the beginning of the Nazi War to get rid of all Jews. From this point forward, life got harder.
Marsha remembers September 1, 1939, when her family was not permitted to receive the insulin anymore. As time went on, Hitler became more powerful and robbed the Jews of all their possessions including jewelry, food, money, valuable artwork and their homes. I felt sad when I heard the Germans ripped off a gold watch from Marsha’s hand, which she received as a present from her parents when she was ten years old. It was also upsetting to hear that Marsha and her family were forced to evacuate their home when the Polish people took it over. Life was no longer how she knew it. It truly became a nightmare!
As bad as it seemed up to this point, it only got worse. Over the next few years, Marsha witnessed many horrible events. One included the Germans taking young people away from their families to shoot them just because they felt like it. Those women and girls who were fortunate enough to be kept alive had to work terrible jobs for the Germans. Marsha’s family was taken to the ghetto in Kraków (on the other side of the river) with thousands of others. The ghetto was surrounded by barbed wire, so no one could escape. It was horrible in the ghetto where people were getting shot and dying right in front of Marsha on a daily basis for no reason.
There was some help for the Jews, thanks to people like Oscar Schindler. He provided factory jobs and food for over 1,200 people. It was a chance to survive. There were others who were somewhat “good” as some Germans snuck food to the Jews, even though this came at a cost for help…..the Germans wanted to be paid for the risk they had to take. If caught, they would immediately have been killed themselves for helping any jews.
Marsha’s Dad was spared from death because he had worked in the stables. the Germans thought that he knew about taking care of horses and would be valuable to them by keeping him alive. Little did they know that he actually didn’t know much. Marsha worked in a hospital nearby. Whenever possible, She stole Insulin for her brother as well as food for her family. (Marsha’s dream, from the time she was 3 years old, was to be a doctor.)
Over time, the ghetto became more and more crowded, and living conditions became worse. Marsha has a clear memory of March 13, 1941. It was the day when she and her family were forced to travel to Plaszow. The Jews were crammed into trains. Marsha’s Mom never made it. Marsha witnessed her mother being dragged from her side and shot. Marsha’s brother had a heart attack while in Plazow. He was brought to Marsha, so she could take care of him. She didn’t want him going to the hospital. Her experience at the hospital taught her that they would just kill him. She explained that if there were not enough beds, the Germans would put gasoline or other items in people’s IV, killing them right away. The Doctors would lie and say they died of a heart attack.
Marsha witnessed something else that was horrifying. Her first night in Plaszow, mothers who had given birth were murdered and the babies were slammed against the wall. Marsha was forced to clean the floor and walls of their blood. There were bodies everywhere. It’s truly hard to imagine! This was just the start of her nightmare in Plaszow. They had an early curfew and no freedom. They slept in uncomfortable wooden barracks stacked 3 levels high. Going to the bathroom was not easy either. They had to use an outhouse, which had a long piece of wood with holes. There was no water to wash their bodies or their clothing. Sanitation was a big problem.
Marsha watched as her friends were put to death. Most Germans had no heart. They were vicious and cruel. In Plaszow, people were forced to stand in lines for hours to be counted. There were 1000 in each line. If someone was missing because they tried to escape, the people in their line would have to wait until they found the missing person. It did not matter if it was raining, snowing, or just a freezing day. The commander in charge was like a “devil in human skin”…. He was a terrorizing man. He would shoot people randomly and with no reason whenever he felt like it. He bragged that he wouldn’t eat breakfast until he shot at least one person.
One day, as the Jews were walking to do work, he shot a woman who was walking right in front of Marsha. He was aiming his gun at Marsha but hit the lady in front instead. The lady fell near Marsha, but Marsha had to keep walking on. If she stopped, he would have killed her too. Marsha remembers that the commander had a Dalmatian dog that killed on command. She told me about another terrible event that everybody had to witness. Her friend was hung just because he was whistling the National Anthem of France. Surprisingly, when her friend didn’t die right away and after 3 attempts were still alive, the Germans just shot him.
The story that stands out even more was when Marsha’s group didn’t finish their work due to a rainstorm and lack of stones available to be used. The commander and his team had Marsha lean against a long picnic table with her back facing upward. First, they poured water on her and then used long horsewhips on her back and neck. They told her to count in German 1,2,3,…1,2,3. The whippings put holes in her back that she still has today. “They look like chicken pocks,” she said.
Marsha was not allowed to get treated for these injuries because the Germans wouldn’t permit it. They made her go back to work in spite of the terrible pain they caused. I can’t imagine what that’s like, and I am sad to know that she has marks on her body that serve as a reminder whenever she looks in the mirror. I understand why Marsha says that she had “lost all hope and wanted to die” at the time.
January 13th, 1945 was a date Marsha remembers well. It’s when Hitler declared his “final solution”, which was to get rid of all the Jews. Marsha was taken to Auschwitz, the worst place on earth. She walked there through the biggest snowstorm she ever saw. They were given few clothes to stay warm. No blankets. They walked 5 days and 4 nights, almost 24 hours a day. It’s hard to imagine them walking so far, with only “schmatas” (rags) on their feet. It is no surprise that so many dropped while walking, dying of exhaustion and hunger. It’s amazing there were any survivors!
When they finally arrived at Auschwitz, Marsha and the others were barely given anything to eat or drink. The camp was worse then Marsha imagined. She saw so many dead people around her. Marsha remembers thinking she was “walking on stones,” when in fact they were dead bodies. The Germans wanted her and others to dig holes for the dead people, but they couldn’t because the grounds were frozen. She remembers she put the bodies flat on the ground and covered them in snow. She remembers wishing she were dead too, even if the rumors were true that the Russians were coming to liberate them. No one knew for sure.
Marsha remembers the time she was forced to travel to another concentration camp in BERGEN-BELSEN, Germany in an overcrowded train. There was no room at all. She couldn’t even lie down or she would get trampled. They finally arrived, absolutely starving. She explained how the Gestapo sent her to the field to look for potatoes. She found frozen potatoes that smelled, tasted, and looked like horse manure. She had no choice but to eat these rotten potatoes. For water, they only had the snow on the ground. Hunger and exhaustion was something she had to live with.
BERGEN-BELSEN, just like the other concentration camps, was a horrible experience. The living conditions were unbearable. To this day she still remembers dead people looking up at her from the ground, and their eyes still haunt her. “It’s hard to get it out of my memory,” Marsha explained.
This story has stayed in my mind since hearing about it. So disturbing! Later on, Marsha was transported to other camps. She had traveled in overcrowded open trains, closed cattle cars, and had to often walk endlessly. She remembers there being one bucket “as a bathroom” for everybody on the train. It was unsanitary and disgusting. The trains smelled beyond terrible. When arriving at the camp, she was given orders to put powder in bullets. She purposely didn’t follow these instructions knowing that they would be used to kill more Jews. Why did she risk her life at this point? Well, actually, there was no risk, as “she didn’t care about dying.” She had given up all hope, especially on April 12, 1945, when the Germans came into the barracks to announce “your God just died in America”… President Roosevelt had passed away.
Marsha talked about her experience at Mauthausen in Austria, another concentration camp. There was a Quarry there. She was forced to carry stones up lots of steps and then down again with nothing to eat or drink. It was hard and exhausting.
A life turning moment was Friday morning, May 3, 1945 when two prisoners jumped in the river and swam to Lind, where Americans were reported to be. They told their stories to General Eisenhower and Patton and then soon, the camp was liberated. At one point, Marsha was leaning against a crematorium door at Mauthausen, ready to die, when she heard the words “you’re free!” She had looked up and saw an American soldier, and at that moment her body gave out. She fainted. They picked Marsha up, weighing only 68 pounds, and took her for medical help at the local field hospital. She was given ivs, and medicine, and was told she had to get up and walk around or she might die. She could barely stand, and in fact, she fainted many times. I think I would have done the same. Marsha eventually stayed in Lind at a “displaced person’s camp” for one and a half years. Her Aunt saw an ad the soldiers put in the newspapers with the names of the people in the displaced person’s camp. She recognized Marsha’s name and immediately sent for her.
Life slowly continued to get better for Marsha. She got to study medicine, her life long dream. She was accepted into a University in London, England. She remembers one particularly special day while living in London. A man, whom she knew from the ghetto, got in touch with her. His sister had also been Marsha’s best friend. Marsha was so glad to hear from him. Eventually, this man was to become her husband when he called on the phone and asked her to marry him. About 21 days later, Marsha got her visa to come to America. She married her fiancé on December 21. The number 21 has significant meaning to Marsha. While she was born on May 18, 21 is her lucky number. She got married on the 21st, got her visa to come to America on the 21st, and she got her home in America on the 21st of the month, too.
Marsha shared a little bit about her view on God. To no surprise, she did not believe during those years in the camps. At the time, she could not understand such a god. Now her views are a bit different. She explained that she now believes that there is a god. That there is only one God. “He’s called and dressed differently in each religion but there is just one God. (Buddhism is the exception.)”
I learned something fascinating about Marsha. She has a photographic memory and remembers details of everything. This is both a blessing and a curse. On one hand she remembers everything, on the other hand she remembers everything! It is good because she can remember so many details to tell me about her past at the concentration camps. But, it’s also bad, because she lives with the horrible memories every day in her mind.
Besides sharing stories, Marsha showed me items that truly belong in a museum. She showed me a spoon and other items she took from the camps. Seeing them made her stories even that much more real. To this day, Marsha doesn’t know how she survived when no one was there to help her. It’s an amazing mystery to her that she’s here to tell her story today.
Marsha has been honored in many ways, including given a key to the city of Newark by Cory Booker. Marsha also told me about a recent happy experience, where she got to be prom queen for the night. It was a great story, considering her youth in Europe (1938-1945) was stolen from her. It didn’t allow her the chance to have any memorable events or celebrations that most youth experience growing up.
Final thoughts about Marsha Kreuzman and the Holocaust :
Although listening to the stories during my visits with Marsha were upsetting, I know that she doesn’t want me or anyone else to feel badly for her. She explained that she wants people to know that the Holocaust really did happen. There are people who are “Holocaust deniers”, who say it never happened. My generation has got to keep the world informed about what really happened to people like Marsha. I am part of the last generation to meet survivors and retell their story to future generations. Marsha made me realize that what happened in World War II should never happen again, and it could if people don’t learn from history. I am grateful to have had this sad but important experience with Marsha. I believe her story will continue to impact me as I get older. I plan to share my interview notes and photos with my kids some day.
As I saw at the Holocaust Museum, “Never again!”