Never Forget — San Diego's Childen Of the Holocaust Share Their Stories
April 4, 2013 1:15 p.m.
Michael Sonduck, President and CEO, Jewish Federation of San Diego County
Teresa Racz Fischlowitz, survived Holocaust as a child
CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. Never forget is a phrase used in the Jewish community to mark a sacred trust between the living and the dead. Holocaust Remembrance Day will be observed this Sunday, and a large Jewish community in San Diego is observing with survivors of the Nazi persecution. The witnesses of the atrocities of World War II provide a living link to teach the world about what hatred can do and what courage can survive. Michael Sonduck, president and CEO of the Jewish federation of San Diego County. Welcome to the program.
SONDUCK: Thank you, Maureen.
CAVANAUGH: And Theresa Fischlowitz is is a San Diego resident, she survived the holocaust.
FISCHLOWITZ: Thank you for having me.
CAVANAUGH: Give us some background on this commemoration. Is this a commemoration that's held worldwide?
SONDUCK: Yes, it is, in communities around the world on one day each year, the Yom HaShoah, which is the Hebrew word for the holocaust is remembered in various different ways. In San Diego, we have a very large gathering, usually 600 or 700 people that gather at the Lawrence Family JCC.
CAVANAUGH: And I understand each year, it's a little bit different in that the theme, the focus of the event changes; is that right?
SONDUCK: That's right. The theme year over here is remember, honor, and teach. And the idea behind that is that we have to look forward and teach next generations about what happened in order to understand it. Each year we pick a special theme under that subtheme. And this year, the theme is children of the holocaust, which is why Theresa is part of the program.
CAVANAUGH: You'll be showing a video to start the program? Can you tell us about that?
SONDUCK: Right. The video is the story of five children who were survivors of the holocaust. And it tells each. Their stories. Each of them were children and each of them suffered through this great tragedy, but each of their stories are different, their circumstances are different. And by doing that, we can help people understand that it's not just one picture, it's not just one experience.
CAVANAUGH: I think that is in people's minds a lot, that they know what the holocaust was, they've seen movies, they've learned about it in school, and they have an overarching idea of one kind of experience. Can you tell us a little of what the other people, the other survivors in that video experienced?
SONDUCK: Sure, yes. There are five people who we are focusing on this year. Of course there were hundreds of thousands of children who suffered during the holocaust, many of whom perished. But these five people are people who live here in San Diego, members of the Jewish community, and each of their experiences was different. How they got away, how some of them were stewarded through or shepherded through the process, by righteous gentiles, people who were not Jewish who kept them in cellars or attics or other places. One young man tells his story, who with his father and grandfather hid in the forest. And every couple of day, they would have to find a different place and literally dig a hole to sleep in so they could be protected and covered. Each one of these stories is really quite different. And each person's experience was different.
CAVANAUGH: Theresa, you're a survivor of the holocaust, you lived in Budapest as a child. Your family was one of those families who bought their way into a ransom van. Can you tell us what that means?
FISCHLOWITZ: Well, what happened was when the Germans came to Budapest, which is really the last large town that was occupied, March19th, 1944. The life in Budapest changed. We had to identify ourselves, our schools were shut, and we weren't able to walk on certain streets.
CAVANAUGH: And you brought an important piece of that memory with you today. Tell us about that.
FISCHLOWITZ: Everybody who left the Jewish home for whatever purpose had to wear this over their heart.
CAVANAUGH: A yellow star.
FISCHLOWITZ: A yellow star. And I had parents who saved it. I have parents who I think were exceptional in many ways, but one of them was that he started out in Germany very, very well to do, and convinced that he was a Hungarian immigrant, but now he was in German and he became a German, and he was well to do and important he want didn't flee. And they came closer and closer and closer. Finally in 1937, he fled. And he went to Czechoslovakia, that's where I was born.
CAVANAUGH: I think the thing that is -- there's so many things that are so fascinating and so important about your story. I'm wondering, I think there's an aspect to the idea of buying a way into ransom that is not understood. It's not the kind of experience that people normally associate with a holocaust survivor. What does that mean?
FISCHLOWITZ: What this meant was that there was a man, his name of Kessner, and he was like an advocate for us. He was between the German Nazis and the Jews who lived in Budapest. And he got involved with them in negotiating. The first idea was 1,000 jeeps were to go to the Germans, the Germans were to let 1,000 go. But this didn't work out. Then there was a way of going by train through Turkey and to Palestine. That didn't work out. And in the meantime, they they got 500 of us in Budapest who had given the money already to a collecting place and decided we would be able to go. So we were going to be part of this exchange. We were loaded into cattle cars. We didn't know where we were going, we were hoping that, you know, eventually, we would be in Palestine. But that fell through. So we were in a camp.
CAVANAUGH: You spent your seventh birthday in this cattle car to the concentration camp.
CAVANAUGH: Did you understand what was happening? I mean, were you afraid?
FISCHLOWITZ: I was very much afraid. But that was really because of the people around me who were terrified, and the conditions. I was cushioned by my mother. I really feel that she was an incredible person who kept herself in charge so that she could continue being. So I knew that there were bad things happening by just looking around. But they wouldn't talk to me about it. The fact that nobody knew quite where this train was going. We stopped in the meadows of Poland for several days, and we were allowed to get out and there was nowhere to flee. So we got back. And nobody knew where we were going. So there were awful stories going around. And I was spared most of it.
CAVANAUGH: When you got to the camp, you were kept in a separate area but you could see that the other prisoners --
FISCHLOWITZ: Definitely. The main camp was also an extermination camp. We were told that we were not going to be exterminated. Once we got there, they put us in a separate little Hungarian camp, they called it. But all I had to do was be outside and see what was on the other side of the electrified fence. And I saw the people who were dressed differently, had been fed differently, and had terrible things ahead of them. We didn't know what was ahead. So we kind of hoped it was better. And after 6.5 month, we did get ransomed.
CAVANAUGH: Did all of your family escape?
FISCHLOWITZ: No. My grandparents, both sets of grandparents perished. And they did perish if in Auschwitz. The Germans kept very good records, so all of this is known. And I have two cousins who were in Auschwitz but survived. And one of the two sisters who were cousins was hidden in a haystack for three weeks while she had typhoid fever, and everybody else in the group covered for her for those daily checks of counting the members there. They doubled each other. It was a miracle. I think everybody who survived is a miracle.
CAVANAUGH: Theresa, I was going to ask you, you eventually came to America, you spent years teaching in the L.A. schools. And how do you really survive a childhood like that, looking back, knowing that you were in the center of this cataclysmic event?
FISCHLOWITZ: I think you had great faith in the adults around you. And the fact that I had a mother who was very strong, very dedicated, kept me going, and there must have been a part of me that just had hope. Many people had no hope. I had hope as a child. Children have that kind of hope to begin with. And even after the war, when the communists came over and occupied the country where I was thinking I was safe, we had to flee a second time. But that was not quite so horrible. But by that time, I knew that my father was sitting in Paris trying to get into a country, and nobody would let us come. So that part of the story, I already knew. But the camp, I was really protected. We had a teacher in the camp who caught us 2nd grade, which I was beginning 2nd grade. And she taught us in Hebrew. We wrote in the dirt in front of our cabins. And I just thought it was normal.
CAVANAUGH: Thank you for sharing that. Thank you for telling us your story.
FISCHLOWITZ: Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: And Michael, I want to ask you, are there many holocaust survivors living here in San Diego?
SONDUCK: We actually don't know exactly how many survivors live in San Diego. As time goes on, of course the numbers dwindle. My best hunch is that there's about 50 or more holocaust survivors. There is an organization of holocaust survivors called the New Life Club, but there's also many people who don't belong to the club who are just in the community. There's people such as Theresa who lived many, many years until they were ready to talk about their experience. And then there's experience who have been very public and forthcoming about it. So it is a community that comes together at Yom HaShoah each other.
CAVANAUGH: What's being done to preserve the stories of survivors like Theresa?
SONDUCK: Well, it's quite interesting. There is a great deal that's being done around the world. The Shoah foundation at the university of California is the centerpiece of collecting the stories of the holocaust survivors. They have thousands and thousands of stories on video and audiotape. And those are used for educational purposes in the public schools, as well as in Jewish schools around the world. And then there's other organizations, an organization on the east coast called facing history and ourselves, which is an educational program built around holocaust survivors coming into public schools and telling their stories to children who have no relationship to the holocaust but who are fascinated about the parallels between their life experiences as immigrants and the survivors' experiences.
CAVANAUGH: It's recently been documented by researchers at the holocaust memorial museum that there were many, many more Jewish ghettos and slave labor can camps in WorldWarII than was previously known. 42,500. Does that shock you?
SONDUCK: It doesn't shock me. When you think about Jewish life in Europe before WorldWarII, it was very robust and vibrant. There were Jews throughout Europe so that as the Nazis attempted to collect Jews for purposes of extermination, you had to imagine that they had a very systematic way of doing this. I also think that overtime as with all human tragedies, the layers of the onion will get peeled. Of not only as anthropologists and cultural historians tell more but as people tell more of their personal stories. And as those stories get passed down in families and are collected in local communities such as we do here.
CAVANAUGH: So you do think that there is even yet more to learn?
SONDUCK: Always will be.
CAVANAUGH: Okay. Theresa, you're active in the community sharing your story with younger generations. Recently you spoke with kids at the Monarch School, a school where many of the students are homeless. What was that like for you?
FISCHLOWITZ: It was just wonderful for me because the students I spoke to were 7th and 8th graders, middle school. And I had taught school, but they were the young kids. So hisort of a bad impression of what was waiting for me. And I went into this classroom, and I began talking about my story. It took me two hours, and I wasn't finished. And they didn't wiggle. They didn't fall asleep. They were spellbound, I guess I'd have to say. After two hours, it got stopped because it was a rainy day, and the lunch was brought to them. So that interrupted us. But I'm going back again to other groups like that. I have spoken to my temp and he will to some senior citizens places. And everywhere, the story, I have to tell them that my own is somewhat different because it was in Budapest, which was not settled and taken over by the Nazis till the last moment.
CAVANAUGH: But there must have been a connection with kids who are having -- struggling with no homes, and you with your background of being rooted out of your home and basically --
FISCHLOWITZ: I told the kids at Monarch, I said, you know, I think I'm living proof of the fact that you can have periods of your life when you were young that are terrible. And you want to forget them. But you survived it and you come out stronger. And that's what I consider myself to have done. I came out stronger. I went to 17 schools before I graduated high school. In six languages, in nine cities. And look! I'm still normal.
[ LAUGHTER ]
FISCHLOWITZ: It's wonderful. So I hope to spread that word.
CAVANAUGH: You know, Michael, remembering is important, is necessary. But it's also painful. Do you find that some people in the community would rather not go through a commemoration ceremony every year?
SONDUCK: Sure. And it's one of the reasons why over time we've really changed the nature of this ceremony from just remembering to both honoring and teaching. And we think those are very important. When Yom HaShoah first began, it was mostly a memorial service. And it was mostly to honor the very close family of people who had perished within that generation. Now several generations later, it has to transform. And it's really now about taking those memories and changing them into teachable opportunities so that not only in the public schools such as Theresa is doing but in Jewish schools and religious schools, there's an opportunity to say what meaning do we make out of this in today's world? It's not just don't forget what happened, it's take some meaning out of those memories and make it real today.
CAVANAUGH: The special holocaust commemoration program will be held at the Garfield theatre in the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center this Sunday at 1:30. The event is free, and it's open to the public.