Holocaust survivor teaches powerful lessons about survival to Baltimore school children


January 02, 1991|By Melody Simmons | Melody Simmons,Evening Sun Staff

Deli Strummer remembers the eighth-grader at North East Middle School who had trouble comprehending the brutality she experienced in a Nazi concentration camp.

The boy was puzzled when Strummer explained that German soldiers extinguished cigarettes on her body.

"He was very upset. He said to me, 'Deli, why didn't you buy them an ashtray?' " Strummer said adding, "For that, I went over and I kissed him. I told him, 'I'll speak to you one day, when you are a little older.' But in his own way, he understood. He was very upset. He said, 'How can you burn a human body?' "

The story is Strummer's favorite because it reaches across a generation and suggests that the horrors she experienced in five concentration camps during the Holocaust will not soon be forgotten.

Ever since she was freed in 1945 from Mauthausen, the death camp known as the "death hole" -- Strummer has angrily told her stories, mainly to children.

"You listen to their questions and you look into their young faces, you read their letters and you know maybe, let's say, out of those 10,000 children, maybe I make a dent, to put it swiftly, in 7,000," Strummer said. "I'm the expert, I know. You have to know how it hurts in order to be able to help people. I love life. To me, I'm not a survivor, I'm a victim. I am a victim of this time and I can't forget."

Strummer, 68, has lived in Baltimore for more than 20 years. She was a medical researcher working on high-risk pregnancies at Sinai Hospital until she retired two years ago.

Today, she is a grief counselor who guides surviving family members through the painful experience of death.

"You really learn to appreciate life when you've been next to dust," she said. "When you march into the gas chamber and you know that only a miracle can save you. If I didn't know so much about human needs, I couldn't be a group leader. I couldn't do it. But I know how people need help. I know what it means to really be lost and the world looks so dark to you."

Strummer, a petite Austrian whose first name is short for Adele, is beloved by the people she helps, many of whom are inspired by her stories and her grit.

In her grief counseling group, Strummer said, she often recalls what kept her alert and believing in God while confined to a concentration camp.

"You give people ideas," she said. "I say, 'I did it, you can do it.' I multiplied and divided in my head for four years to keep my brain sharp. And I never lost faith in God.

"I tell people to regain your life, rekindle your life. But it is very difficult. Grief has no time limit. Some people come out faster and for some it is a slow progress. Most people are lost."

Strummer immigrated to America after the war when, she said, she no longer could remain in her hometown of Vienna. Her surviving family -- two brothers and a sister -- still live there.

"I couldn't stay there . . . every bench in the park told me I don't want you," she said. "My brothers are 'Hitler children,' or kids whose formative years were subjected to restrictions to the Hitler regime. They were two and six years old when all this happened to us. One brother became greedy and very much affected, which was not at all our upbringing. But the baby was the most affected."

When she came to America, Strummer studied the English language and then worked as a registered nurse. She overcame a severe case of shyness to become a public speaker and now tells about "a fire burning inside my heart for peace."

She has dedicated her medical career to helping children, a vow she made in the concentration camp where she witnessed the murders of many infants and toddlers.

"Children were shot down, I saw their little heads being used for target practice," she said. "Children are my cause. I gave six years of my life to leukemia children -- I did everything but give those kids my own blood because I always remember the children of the Holocaust. I feel that I owe to my past, to the people who were absolutely sacrificed, but mostly I owe it to 1.5 million children, innocent children. I'm a historian of this time."

Strummer wrote a memoir of her experiences in 1988 called, "A Personal Reflection of the Holocaust." Her story spans a brief, yet powerful, 52 pages and could be a companion book to Elie Weisel's epic, "Night."

She sells the book for $5 and then orders the buyer to read it and digest the contents.

"I always tell people: 'When you think you have a very, very bad day, take this little reference book of Deli's and you'll realize how good things really are.' "

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