An Auschwitz survivor passed the torch of Holocaust remembrance to Brooklyn College students with words embroidered with hope and revolution.
Students marched through campus from Bedford Avenue to Hillel Place holding “never forget” signs. The size of the march grew as curious onlookers were handed signs and absorbed into the crowd.
When students were seated at the Hillel building, they observed passports of children who perished during the Holocaust. Then they heard from a child survivor, Hanna Wechsler, who brought alive the crime these passports represented.
“I am a proud citizen of Auschwitz,” Hanna Wechsler declared.
Wechsler pointed to the ceiling, her kind and deeply captivating eyes observed something that wasn’t present in the auditorium. She explained, “It says ‘Arbeit Macht Frei,’ which means work makes you free.” Prisoners discovered the falsity of this message after passing through it upon entering Auschwitz.
A young girl’s observations from the train platform were re-lived 72 years later, from the “inhumane smell” of burning flesh, to the expressionless faces of walking skeletons. “They were bags of bones and three-fourths dead,” she said.
The cattle car doors opened and a child’s foot touched the platform. When her foot met with the other, an adult stood, and the child forever gone. “There were no children at Auschwitz, suffering makes you suddenly grow up,” she said.
Wechsler explained that fear ran Auschwitz, constantly hovering in the prisoner’s minds and was a primary topic of conversation. “When we opened our eyes in the morning the only thing we knew was that we were afraid.”
Every morning at 5 a.m. barrack #18 emptied for the day’s labor, while Wechsler hid under the bunks from the S.S. with the help of fellow bunkmates and her mother. “I was non-existent,” Wechsler said.
Her mother’s daring sheltered her from the multi-faceted dangers that swarmed Auschwitz, such as selection, slave labor and starvation. “Mom don’t go,” Wechsler pleaded every evening. Risking death, her mother would sneak a rotten potato or tomato from the kitchens. “If I don’t go you will surely die of starvation,” her mother would reply as she embarked into the night. “My mother gave birth to me every day, she put her life on the line for me,” she said.
Death lurked at every corner at Auschwitz. A swift movement of Dr. Mengele’s finger to the right or left is all that stands between death or life – until the next day’s selection. Interweaving of death and life cemented a fear into a prisoner’s psyche that remained after liberation. Wechsler’s parents miraculously survived and reunited after liberation, but their family life could never be the same. “My father would wake us up screaming every night, ‘the Germans are coming to kill me,’” she said.
As if there were a movie playing above her peripheral vision, Wechsler’s eyes frequently darted upwards for reference as she explained her memories to students. She became the child of Auschwitz when she described waking up next to deceased bunkmates and turned looking towards the cadaver. When she articulated being tattooed by the numbers 8-8-9-8-7, she exposed her forearm to the audience and glanced down at it as she did when those numbers penetrated her flesh one after the other on her first day at Auschwitz.
As she recounted the amputation of her mother’s infected finger, Wechsler put out her ring finger and looked through her mother’s eyes at an external apparition of her younger self. She winced as she described the amputation, and then said “her color changed but she looked at me and said ‘it didn’t hurt,’ but I knew it wasn’t true. I knew on that day that they cut out her heart.”
Wechsler never deviated from her calm and sweet demeanor when she recounted her story. A computer science student, Omar Youssef, during the question and answer session walked towards her and said “the way you carry yourself is beautiful, the life is radiating off of you.”
“You can do anything you put your mind to, God forbid you’re on drugs or you’re fresh and a pain in the neck, you can change it,” she said. Her message resonated with students and left them feeling uplifted and emboldened. “Her experience shows me how to have hope,” said Alex Trim, a film studies major.
Taken aback by the speech, Mohadi Hasan, a Muslim student, began to think about his Bukharian-Jewish grandfather. After pushing himself past his nerves, he decided to ask his burning question, “how do I embrace my Jewish side?” Mr Hasan’s Jewish grandfather was located on the edge of the German frontline. “If the war hadn’t ended when it did I might not be alive today.” Indeed, if the Third Reich’s borders expanded a little further, Mohadi’s grandfather may have ended up as a passport on the table.
“There are millions and trillions of stories that we will never get to know, and in comparison to theirs, my story is a picnic,” she said. “If you ever hear someone on campus denying the Holocaust speak in nice language, you disarm them by being more human than them.” Wechsler requested that the students remember what the woman with an accent and a number told them.
Youssef commented, “there are not so many survivors left. I want to carry the torch to the next generation.”