Holocaust survivor Felicia Weingarten, 78, who as a teenager lived through Auschwitz and other concentration camps, spoke to Dr. Joe Fitzharris' World War II history class last fall. This year is the 60th anniversary of American, British and Russian soldiers liberating the camps in Germany, Austria and Poland, the major ones being Dora-Mittelbau, Buchenwald, Flossenburg, Dachau, Mauthausen, Bergen-Belsen, Neuengamme, Auschwitz, Stutthof, Sachsenhausen and Ravensbruck.
Weingarten, who takes many classes at St. Thomas through the Senior Citizens program, shared some of her memories:
"On April 15, 1945, I was lying on the floor and I had just closed the eyes of the dead girl next to me, when I heard an announcement over the loudspeaker, "The Tommies are here.' Next I heard, "The British Army will set you free.' I was 19.
"Two Tommies, British soldiers, came into our barracks of 500 women in Bergen-Belsen where the dead lay next to the living. They vomited, went back out and put on overalls and gas masks, and came back in with crackers and small cans of water. I could speak English so I asked a soldier to open the water because I was too weak. I also ate a half a cracker. I felt no hunger, no pain, I was a walking skeleton and at the end of my rope.
"I don't come to ask for your pity or to provoke hatred, but it is my business to speak. I speak about what the Nazis did to millions of people, especially the 6 million Jews, to remind you humans are capable of doing unspeakable things.
"If we understand what humanity is capable of, perhaps we will not do it again. The Nazi ideology of parades and flags and hatred was just garbage, yet millions of people fell for it. Sure, some good Germans hated them but it was not enough.
"The Nazis used anti-Semitism to distract German people from the country's problems. One third of the Jewish people in Europe were wiped out, yet we are all part of humanity. Sadly I still see hatred used for evil purposes, as in the U.S. against black people, by the Turks, in Africa, in Cambodia."
The daughter of Moshe Karo, a school principal and his wife Rachel in Lodz, Poland, Weingarten remembered the 1939 German invasion and occupation of Poland, the loss of property, the closing of schools, and Jews like her wearing a yellow star on her left breast and right back. The population of Lodz was 800,000, about one third of them Jewish.
"At first I paid as little attention as possible. I was a teenager and spent time with my friends. Then it got worse. Ordinary soldiers had the power of life and death; you never knew if you would return home alive if you went out.
"Germans arrested priests, rabbis and the intelligensia and did not feed them. They walled Jews into a ghetto surrounded by barbed wire, used us as workers, and starved us. We dragged ourselves to work, produced, and survived on one ounce of oil, one ounce of flour, an onion soup that tasted vile. We were cut off from the world, and shot for sport by guards. We could not hide because we had no food besides the tiny ration. The young men who tried to escape were executed at public hangings we were forced to attend.
"One week in 1942, trucks came and took away the elderly, those with artificial limbs, and all children under 14. Nazis emptied our orphanage and three hospitals. They said people were going to a better place. Those who could work stayed behind.
"We did not know about the camps, but the Germans started building concentration camps in 1933 when Hitler came to power and Buchenwald was built. Auschwitz was built in 1941. Heinrich Himmler gave Hitler's order for the killing of Jews at a conference in January 1942. Adolph Eichmann, who ran the camps, wrote the minutes at that conference and even when the war was known to be lost, Eichmann continued the killing.
"It was beyond human imagination. We could not conceive of that happening. We hoped to live and be liberated by the Allies. When my mother, father and I were loaded on trains and sent to Auschwitz in August 1944, I saw the SS with dogs, the prisoners in striped uniforms, guards yelling at us, and I said to my mother, "Mom, are we in a nut house?' "
They stood in a long line. Guards sent to one side the old, the gray, the sick, the women with small children. Asked how old she was, Weingarten said 18, the guard said "old enough' and sent her to the other side with her mother. After several days without food or water, they and several thousand others were sent to a forced labor camp, one of the many sub-camps of Auschwitz.
"Years later, at home in Highland Park, cleaning house and taking care of my newborn son, that long-forgotten scene suddenly replayed in my mind, and I recalled how close to death I had been."
But she remembered looking at the sky in Auschwitz, blackish red with smoke, and asking a guard, "Why is the sky so red?' The woman replied, "Those are your transport burning. She meant the people I came with. I was speechless. You would have to be there to know what humans are capable of. The Nazis were very efficient at death. Even at the end, they had prisoners dig up bodies, burn the skeletons and grind the ashes to cover up what they had done."
At the camp, she worked in an airplane factory, unloaded trains and helped her mother survive.
"I was young, I could do it. I was strong. You only lived if you worked, receiving a chunk of bread and thin gruel once a day. Even when we tried to sabotage, we had to be very careful."
By February 1945 the Nazis were losing, and Weingarten's camp was on a death march for three days, then sent without water or food on open trains to Bergen-Belsen. Several thousand were served by a few water faucets opened only one-half hour a day. Lice, malnutrition, dysentery and spotted typhus abounded. Her mother died at 48 of typhus.
"I could not save her," Weingarten almost wept to the class.
Freed by the British who bulldozed graves for the thousands of dead, and hospitalized for starvation and typhus, she barely survived. She lived in the U.S. Occupied Zone in Germany waiting for a visa to join her uncle in St. Paul.
A fluent German speaker, she talked often to Germans and only one, a young teacher, admitted she knew about the death camps. The teacher hid a Jewish friend, was caught, and sent to prison. The friend was executed.
"Of course, the Nazis tried to keep the death camps quiet, but people saw Jews mistreated, shot, taken away," Weingarten said. "Were they blind? They were not!"
Weingarten immigrated to New York in 1948 and married another survivor, Leon. They moved to St. Paul in 1950 and had two children.
When a student asked why she thinks she survived, she responded: "I have observed that those who bonded with someone and who tried to be a whole human being as long as possible were more likely to survive. I was with mother and my first responsibility was to her. I was strong and had my friend Gina.
"It was important to have friends, a support group. We tried hard to share when the Italian POWs were able to smuggle tiny bits of food to us. We tried to wash though that took almost superhuman strength to collect water in a bowl and wash. We were dying from hunger, weakness and the cold.
"I talk about this so people will understand and remember," she concluded. "We are all capable of good and evil and I hope most of us choose to be good, not to be cruel to people because they are different."