Fallston students hear Holocaust survivors tell of unforgettable horrors

April 03, 1994|By Suzanne Loudermilk | Suzanne Loudermilk,Sun Staff Writer

After 50 years, Deli Strummer still has nightmares about the Holocaust.

She can't forget the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps, she says -- and she doesn't want to. They are experiences the Baltimore resident wants to share with others.

"It is always with the same hope for world peace, and to keep alive the hopelessness of our children who were born at the wrong time in the wrong part of the world," that the 71-year-old survivor recounts her experiences at Auschwitz and Mauthausen, the notorious death camps in Poland and Austria.

Mrs. Strummer brought her story to Fallston High School Wednesday, along with four other Holocaust survivors, as part of a history-class lesson on World War II.

The visitors -- Mrs. Strummer; Dr. Werner Cohen; his wife, Hilda Cohen; Alfred Strauss; and Rubin Sztajer, who all live in the Baltimore area -- answered questions prepared by five groups of 11th-graders.

"It gives the kids contact," said teacher John Holzworth, who scheduled the program to complete a unit on the Holocaust.

In preparation, his students became immersed in learning about the Nazi "final solution," in which an estimated 6 million Jews died.

By Wednesday, they knew the facts. Then, they wanted to know the feelings.

"What kind of thoughts went through your head at Auschwitz?" a student asked Mrs. Strummer.

"Fear, hopelessness, but always the will to survive," she said, as she explained what it was like for a 19-year-old Austrian from a well-to-do family to suddenly have nothing.

"All my clothing, my hair were taken from me; some of my teeth were knocked out," Mrs. Strummer said.

When liberation finally came, she was starved and naked and weighed about 55 pounds, she said. "An American soldier gave me his shirt and some of my dignity."

The audience listened in awed silence. "It hurts to know people died because of their religion," said junior Emily Sack.

Mr. Sztajer, who was also a teen-ager at the time of the war, talked about his long march to Bergen-Belsen, the German death camp where Anne Frank, the 13-year-old Dutch-Jewish girl who wrote her famous diary, died.

"We didn't have much clothes and had paper wrapped around our body to keep warm," he said. "If you fell, you usually didn't get up. . . . You were shot."

The march killed more people than the camps, said Mr. Sztajer, who credits his survival to "a willpower to live and never give up."

At Bergen-Belsen, the 16-year-old's job was to remove corpses, he said. "Each [grave] held 20,000 bodies," Mr. Sztajer recalled.

Then the Pikesville resident paused. "It's too graphic to tell here."

Student Doug Coyner could only shake his head. "I started to bite my thumb," he said. "I thought I was going to cry."

The survivors also talked about the food, or lack of it. A day's rations might include a pan of hot water with "something swimming in it" or a stale loaf of bread. It was never enough, they said.

Sickness wasn't allowed, they told the students. There were no hospitals for the Jewish prisoners and no medicine.

The Jews devised their own home remedies, Mr. Sztajer said. "One of the most popular things was urine, for cuts, a temperature," he said.

The Fallston students didn't look convinced.

But the survivors' own misery was often overshadowed by that of others, they said. Mrs. Strummer told of young children used for target practice by Nazi officers, and both she and Mr. Sztajer remembered the hungry dogs.

"I'm still scared of German shepherds today," Mr. Sztajer said. "They were taught to rip people apart on command."

Mrs. Strummer also witnessed dog attacks on prisoners who were shot, but not always dead, and then rolled down steps to waiting, famished dogs.

"I saw people running with torn limbs, big wounds," she said.

Her most frightening memory was the gas chambers. "The atrocity of the gas chambers stays forever with you," said Mrs. Strummer, who was sent there five times.

"You didn't know whether it would be deadly gas or icy water," she said, as she described hundreds of naked bodies, pressed together, looking up at the pipes -- and waiting and waiting.

For her, each time, it was cold water "that turned hot on your body because you're so scared."

Hilda Cohen, who had been transported to Auschwitz from Frankfurt, Germany, tried to explain what it was like being surrounded by fear and death.

"We shouldn't have had hope," she explained. "But we were young.

"I can't give you good reasons why we survived," Mrs. Cohen continued. "There were good people who died.

"Our mission . . . must be to not let their memory die in vain."

While the survivors praised the movie, "Schindler's List," and the National Holocaust Museum in Washington as ways to keep the memory of the victims alive, they worry about who will hand down their stories.

Mrs. Strummer says it is one reason she talks about the Holocaust. "With my voice, I will have enough people to carry on for me."

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