She was just a little girl when the world turned upside down, but Inge Auerbacher, now 79, will never forget the horrors inflicted upon her and her people, just for the "crime" of being born Jewish. She spoke of her story, and that of millions of others, on Holocaust Remembrance Day in Birmingham, Alabama.
Many in the audience were too young to remember the events of World War II and the Holocaust, but all listened with rapt attention as Inge described in heart-wrenching detail events that no human being should ever have had to endure. So few remain who can tell first-hand the stories of that dark period in human history, but Yom HaShoah, the Holocaust Remembrance Day, is observed annually on the 27th day of the Hebrew month of Nisan. This year the event fell from sundown on April 26 to sundown on April 27, as a day of remembrance and honor of the lives of six million Jews, lives lost to the atrocities of extreme racism and hatred. Another five million were also killed in the events of the Holocaust.
"Each number is a human being," reminded Auerbacher. "All had the right to live."
Inge Auerbacher embraces her friend Michaelle McGinnis on Holocaust Remembrance Day in Alabama.
The governor of the state of Alabama, Dr. Robert Bentley, has extended the Holocaust Remembrance Day to include the entire week: "Today we pause to remember the victims of the Holocaust and honor the survivors. I have proclaimed the week of April 27 through May 4, as 'Days of Remembrance' in Alabama." This follows a long history of support for Israel: "In 1943, Alabama led the nation as the first, and possibly only, state in America to officially call for the establishment of the Jewish state and homeland." The Holocaust was going on at the time.
It rained on that day in Alabama when Inge Auerbacher recounted her Holocaust survival story. "Even the sky cried today," she told her audience, who were each handed a yellow star to pin on our clothing, just as the Jews had been required to wear to identify themselves during the Holocaust. The weight of that star was eerie, as it was a reminder that those originally wearing it had been marked for death, though they didn't know it at the time. When the star first came to Inge, she was only six years old, but she knew even then that it marked her as different.
Auerbacher was born a German citizen, the only child of her parents, in the village of Kippenheim on December 31, 1934, and was given a distinctly German name, Inge. The name was so common, she said, that when a teacher would ask "Inge" to stand, all the little girls in the classroom would stand. Before the Holocaust began, her mother dressed her in the typical German dress of the day. She carried an "Inge doll," a German classical doll with blue eyes and blonde hair.
Before the Holocaust, Jews, Catholics, and Protestants all lived and worked together in the close-knit community where her family had been for 200 years. Inge was the last Jewish baby to be born there.
Until November 9, 1938, Inge said she had never tasted racial hatred. It was Kristallnacht, "the Night of Broken Glass." Riots began, and every window in every Jewish home and business was broken. The synagogues throughout the region were burned or desecrated. Her father and grandfather were arrested as they came out of prayers, as were all of the men and boys in the village. They were allowed to come home after a time, but it was short-lived. The Jews were required to pay for the repairs to the buildings and windows.
A number of Jews left the country, but Inge's grandfather was optimistic. Germany was his home, and he believed things would turn around, and Hitler would eventually lose power. By the time their family was ready to go, they found that the doors of much of the world was closed to them. Inge's grandparents eventually perished in the Holocaust.
"Many people in Germany just stood by and watched the horrors evolve."
They arrived at a fortress which was a concentration camp in Czechoslovakia called Terezin. For many, it was the last stop before Auschwitz. Nazi propaganda deceived people calling it a model ghetto, a place to keep Jews away from the rest of the population. Nazis even fooled the Red Cross from Geneva into thinking it was just a fortress for the Jews. The oblivion to the reality of the Holocaust was staggering.
Conditions were unimaginable. Inge was separated from her parents for the first four months there. They slept two to a bed. They drank dirty water that was pumped in. Three times a day, they waited in line for the meager rations they called food. "It was not enough to live and not enough to die." The same carts that transported food in were also used to transport dead bodies out.
Fleas, rats, and other vermin shared their crowded quarters. The adults were forced to work each day. Children were not allowed to have school, but a few brave adults took the risk to teach some of the children secretly. The kids played what they called games, which often consisted of digging through garbage in hopes of finding a bit of potato or turnip to eat. Or string. To eat.
But somehow there remained some semblance of hope in even during their days in that dark place. Inge tells of a time when the camp was assembled in a huge field. Guards beat her mother with the butt of a rifle. She heard her father try to encourage her mother, saying, "You'll see. You'll ride in a car again." Inge herself reports that she "never lost faith in God." Even there, during the Holocaust.
Terezin was liberated on May 8, 1945. Inge Auerbacher and her parents survived three years there. Of 15,000 children sent to Terezin between 1941 and 1945, only one hundred survived. Inge is one of them. She is the only one from her elementary school to survive the camps.
Eventually Inge and her parents immigrated to the United States. She made up for eight years of missed schooling, and eventually became a renowned chemist. She now lives in a row house between a Muslim family and a Hindu family, and they are all good friends.
Inge Auerbacher, like many other Holocaust survivors, went on to accomplish great things. But she never forgets. The world cannot forget. Over and over throughout her speech, she lamented the fact that people just looked on, through the events up to and including the Holocaust. No one intervened. Everybody just watched, as unspeakable atrocities were being committed, as fellow human beings were treated as less than human.
On this Holocaust Remembrance Day, Inge Auerbacher said, as she says to young people every chance she gets, "Don't give up. You have to make it, and you will make it."
[Images via Facebook and bing]