Students at Northampton Community College had a rare opportunity to hear the story of a survivor of one of the most brutal chapters in human history.
With good humor and smiles that lit up the room, Holocaust survivor Esther Bauer shared her story and took many questions from the audience during her well-attended 90-minute presentation in the College Center’s Reed Community Room at mid-day Tuesday.
Her personal account was a priceless history lesson, one she shares with anyone who invites her to speak.
“The first 20 years I couldn’t talk about it. The second 20 years, nobody wanted to hear it. It’s only the last 19 years that I can talk.” She said it started when a neighbor who was a teacher invited her to speak to her class.
She told a story of a slow descent into the hell of Hitler’s Nazi Germany – as well as a full life beyond it. She survived three concentration camps, including Auschwitz, and nine months of forced labor in a German aircraft factory during World War II.
She matter-of-factly recounted eating watery soup and rotten potatoes, and at times being so hungry that she ate grass. She told of a life without toilet paper, a toothbrush, pillows or blankets -- and sleeping with lice, fleas and bedbugs, once with a dead woman next to her.
She told of standing at attention for hours in the rain, snow and cold while the Nazis counted their prisoners, as well as standing at attention just to request permission to go the bathroom – permission sometimes denied.
She saw a friend standing next to her shot and killed for throwing bread over a fence, felt the lash of an SS guard who enjoyed beating prisoners with a leather belt and heard the screams of people taken from their prison barracks at night and driven in trucks to the gas chambers.
“It was just horrible, horrible. I’ll never forget the smell of Auschwitz, the burning of the flesh.”
She said some prisoners in Auschwitz committed suicide by throwing themselves on an electrified fence, including a good friend who was a teacher and no longer could stand watching children being killed. Bauer said it never occurred to her to do that.
“The will to live is very strong,” she said. “We thought tomorrow we’ll be killed but we hoped that tomorrow doesn’t come. Luckily, I survived all that.”
She said “thousands of other stories were much worse than mine. I was always somehow very lucky.”
A woman in the audience told Bauer: “You have such a phenomenal spirit of beauty and peace and love that I’m astounded by. It’s an honor to meet you.” The audience applauded.
Bauer’s parting advice to students in the room: “You have to see to it this never happens again. You are the future. That is my message to you: You have to see to it that this never happens again.”
The audience stood to applaud her.
There were a few big surprises during her talk.
“I hate to tell you, I’m an atheist,” she said. “I do not go to synagogue, I don’t believe in any religion. I have suffered too much for religion to believe in it. But I don’t want to influence anybody, please. That’s just me.”
She spoke of several non-Jewish Germans who treated both her and her family kindly during the war, including a Gestapo officer to whom her father had to report.
She said she does not hate the Nazis, but she cannot forgive them. “Hate makes you sick, hate makes you ugly. Of course, the people who killed my parents and my first husband and all my friends I would hate. You cannot forgive.”
She said 12-year-old children in a classroom once asked what she would do if she met Hitler today. “I said to myself: ‘What does a 12-year-old want to hear? I said ‘I would punch him in the nose’.”
Loss of civil rights
“I’ll be 89 next week,” Bauer told the audience. She was born Esther Jonas in Hamburg, Germany, in 1924, the daughter of Alberto and Marie Anna Jonas.
Her father was the principal of the Jewish Girls School in Hamburg. Her mother was a physician who worked as a nurse for the German army on the front lines during World War I. Her father was very Orthodox and would only eat kosher food. Her mother came from a Jewish family that knew little about Judaism. “She couldn’t read Hebrew and she had never been to a synagogue.”
Bauer said Adolph Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933, when she was nine years old. At first nothing happened. But then, “every week there were new laws.” Jewish children couldn’t go to public schools or the university. Jewish teachers lost their jobs. Her mother no longer could work as a doctor, only as a nurse.
Young Esther always took a shortcut through a park to get to the subway station until a day when a sign was posted: “Jews cannot enter here.”