In her day to day life, Susan Cernyak-Spatz works as a professor in the Department of Languages and Culture Studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Her students call her Dr. Ceynyak-Spatz, but in the 1940’s, she was referred to as number 34042.
When it comes to her teaching, Cernyak-Spatz speaks from experiencing it first hand when she watched Adolf Hitler’s rise to power after moving to Berlin in 1929. In March 1939, her family fled to Prague where she would later be arrested and deported to the concentration camp Theresienstadt.
Cernyak-Spatz told her story in the Rowe Arts Building on Wednesday, the 78 anniversary of Kristallnacht.
In January 1943, Cernyak-Spatz was moved to the death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau.
She survived her first two months of “outside work” in critical conditions which prisoners would usually die from, until eventually Cernyak-Spatz was able to find connections in the barracks. She used those connections along with her ability to speak several languages to help her get a job in the camp’s administration offices, where she was safe from the deadly outside work details.
In January 1945, Auschwitz-Birkenau was evacuated and the prisoners were sent on a death march. Few survived these marches due to starvation and the harsh conditions of winter.
She emigrated to the United States in July 1946. In 2005, she published her memoirs, which many students purchased and had signed after the event. Freshman DJ Gates was one of the students who decided to pick up a copy.
“This was really moving,” said Gates about her story. “I know there’s not a whole lot of survivors left so I knew I really wanted to attend this. It’s always interesting getting a kind of, first hand experience about historical events.”
The election of Donald Trump as U.S. President the day prior was a topic of conversation at the event, with lots of students asking Cernyak-Spatz how to overcome discrimination and hate as even Cernyak-Spatz compared Trump to Hitler.
“Racial hatred is old as the hills and is always being used for political purposes,” said Cernyak-Spatz. “I am deadly afraid now that what’s going to happen here is going to be the same thing. Right now, it is the Muslims and the Mexicans, according to Mr. Trump and anything that involves them, but somehow they always manage to get the Jews into it and it frightens me because I have grandchildren here and I don’t want to see it happen again. I hope I’m too pessimistic.”
“I felt like [the story] should’ve been a wake up call to people who actually voted for Trump. Actually sitting here, having her say it to their face- that this is exactly how Hitler came to power, should’ve been a wake up call, should’ve made them regret every decision they had,” said freshman Jonas Ford.
Her talk was sponsored by the Center for Holocaust, Genocide & Human Rights Studies and the Department of Global, International & Area Studies, the Department of History, the Department of Languages and Culture Studies and the Office of International Programs.