`Holocaust victor' recounts story of survival

Woman tells of pain in `Out of Ashes' TV documentary

November 14, 1999|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

As American GIs liberated the Mauthausen concentration camp in the mountains of Austria at the end of World War II, they came upon a group of naked women whom they had just saved from death in a gas chamber as the Nazis frantically tried to cover up their atrocities.

A soldier approached one of the prisoners, 23 and weighing 55 pounds. Embarrassed, the battle-weary GI turned his back and gave her his shirt to cover herself.

"The first piece of clothing I had in my free life was this shirt," said the woman, the now 77-year-old Adele Deli Strummer. "The first respect I received was given to me by an American soldier. That's when my love affair with the United States of America started."

Strummer recounts the remarkable story of her survival from five Nazi concentration camps in "From Out of Ashes: The Deli Strummer Story," a documentary on her life that will air at 1 p.m. Sunday on WMAR. In it, the Holocaust victor -- she says she detests the phrase Holocaust survivor -- describes in dramatic, gruesome detail her 4 1/2 years of starvation, torture and degradation at the hands of the Nazis.

"I consider `Out of Ashes' to be my legacy," said Strummer, who came to the United States in 1950, became a medical researcher and retired 12 years ago from Sinai Hospital. "This is something I had to do, not just for our present, but for our future generations."

Strummer tells her story like a woman running out of time. For the past two decades, she has been on the road nearly every day, speaking at schools, synagogues and churches. Now, she is president of the Zarhar Remembrance Fund, which promotes Holocaust education and produced the documentary.

Not all survivors of the Holocaust wants to tell their families, let alone the world, about their ordeal. And those who do are growing older. It won't be long before all that will be left are their testimonies on film or paper.

"People ask me why I do this," she said. "I have one answer. I owe. I'm here. I am alive.

"I understand my colleagues and my comrades who don't want to speak about it. They want to go to Boca Raton and live a good life," she said.

"I can't do that." she said. "I owe. If I feel someday there is no more hate out there, I go to Boca Raton. But I can't do that now."

Strummer was born in Vienna, the Austrian center of beauty and culture, to a father who was a successful businessman and a mother who was a well-known singer. Her mother was born a Christian and converted to Judaism on the day of her marriage.

What began as an idyllic life turned ugly as the anti-Semitism sweeping Europe infected Vienna. At age 19, Strummer was deported with her sister to her first concentration camp, Theresienstadt in Czechoslovakia.

"My mother had a choice in 1938," Strummer said. "Hitler wanted people like her to walk away from their families. My mother said no."

Strummer's mother was sent to a concentration camp, like the rest of her family. "She had a lot of courage. She could have done differently, but she chose the hardest route."

It was at Theresienstadt that Strummer first heard rumors of the Nazi's Final Solution.

" `There is a place called Auschwitz,' " Strummer said she was told by other women at Theresienstadt. " `There are showers there, and they expel deadly gas.' "

A short time later, Strummer and others were transferred to Auschwitz. On arrival, they were stripped and crowded into a room filled with shower heads. Strummer was sure she was about to die.

"We felt each others' fear. We felt each others' sweat," she said. "I looked at the showers, and I prayed.

"Then came that ice cold water," she said. It felt, she said, as if her life had been given back to her.

Her parents and sister also survived the camps.

Going back to Europe to film the documentary was difficult for Strummer. In Auschwitz, she and the production crew stayed in a hotel next to some railroad tracks, and all night long, the sound of trains going by, the metallic screech of steel wheels against rail, tormented her.

In the morning, Strummer told the documentary's producer, Harold Smullian, that she hadn't slept all night.

"She said, `Those are the same tracks that brought me into Auschwitz when I was an inmate,' " Smullian said. "

As frightened as she was in Auschwitz, Strummer said she found going to Austria infuriating.

"Auschwitz made me so scared. Mauthausen brought back the most horrible memories. But Vienna made me furious," she said. "I loved Vienna. I was a proud little Viennese girl. Now, it is hard for me to face people over there. I become resentful, not so much for myself, but because of what happened to so many people."

Strummer said she is haunted by the memory of witnessing the murder of children by the Nazis. That is what motivates her to tell her story, which she has done for nearly 20 years to nearly 200,000 people, most of them children.

"This memory gives me strength everyday to speak about my past," she said. "I want to do much more before the time comes when I can't do it anymore."

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