“You didn’t have very much time for God. What God would be there?”
Students shifted in their seats, uncomfortable and saddened by the words of Holocaust survivor Dr. Susan Cernyak-Spatz. On February 20, the UNC Charlotte professor emerita of German literature gave a lecture that ensured that students would never forget the atrocities of that period. She sat almost hidden behind a table that held a microphone and a dimly lit lamp that would set the somber mood of the hour.
Cernyak-Spatz was born in Vienna in 1922. She lived in Berlin with her mother and father from 1929 to 1936.
“My family was upper middle class,” she said. “We were never really bothered by persecution before World War II.”
But when the Nazi army occupied Austria in the 1938 Anschluss, Cernyak-Spatz and her family were forced to flee to Prague. Soon after, her father escaped to Brussels via Poland, leaving the two women behind.
In May of 1942, Cernyak-Spatz and her mother were deported to Theresienstadt, the “special ghetto,” where people were held before transport to concentration camps. Once they arrived, her mother was sent to the Sobibór camp where she was murdered — a death, as Cernyak-Spatz put it, “probably more merciful than Auschwitz.”
Cernyak-Spatz stayed at the ghetto until 1943 when she was deported to Auschwitz. Auschwitz was the largest camp established by the Nazis, overseeing the deaths of 1.1 million of the 1.3 million sent to the camp. Cernyak-Spatz was sent to the second camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau. It was here that she watched the so-called “Final Solution” unfold.
She described the four large crematoriums, each with a disrobing area, gas chamber, and crematorium oven.
“When the train drove into the camp the only thing you could see was one chimney. It was the first crematorium. There was an incredible smell. A stink. Nobody could identify it because who in his right mind would have known that there were at least one thousand human corpses burning under these flames.”
She was selected for work and received a Russian uniform, taken from Russian prisoners of war who were persecuted second only to the Jews. She was branded with an identifying number, which she unabashedly pulled down her sleeve to show the audience. “34042,” it read in small black numerals, with a tiny triangle underneath to distinguish her as Jewish. “Only the Jewish prisoners could be put into the ovens without any questions,” Cernyak-Spatz explained frankly.
Then she received what would be her only possession: a bowl for drinking, washing and relieving herself. To Cernyak-Spatz, it represented “the total abyss of dehumanization.”
“Dying was very easy. If you wanted to live, you had to work very hard.”
And she did just that. She slept on the top bunk to avoid having urine poured on her, washed her hands and face every day to give the impression that she was healthy and fit for work, and avoided the water fountains, which were full of typhoid. Her most useful trick of all, though, was her multilingualism. She spoke English, German, Czech and French. She became an interpreter for the Slovak block leader, who would often invite her into the blockroom to repay her for her duties. Cernyak-Spatz made connections and was promoted to a bookkeeper, registering prisoners’ names, numbers and professions.
After a brief period of hospitalization in February of 1944, Cernyak-Spatz returned to Birkenau to work in the Kanada-Kommando, sorting food and transports’ property. She found some sort of haven within the camp.
“It was the most luxurious department,” she said.
Life was yet again disrupted on January 17, 1945, when the head of the Kommando went into the barracks and instructed the inmates to grab as many supplies as they would need for a “very long walk.” The next day, 58,000 people from all three Auschwitz camps were sent on the Death March, a 39-mile journey in the freezing German winter. “Fuhrer (Hitler) is dead!” people would shout, but they walked through the excitement. 15,000 died along the way.
They arrived in Loslau, where Cernyak-Spatz and the other women were sent to KZ Ravensbrueck, the largest women’s concentration camp. She stayed there until April of 1945 when they were again deported, this time to the West to avoid the Russian advance. Upon arrival at the American checkpoint, Cernyak-Spatz and her group met an American GI. They told him they came from extermination camps and his eyes widened like she had never seen before. “What the hell is an extermination camp?”
It had been three years since the arrest of Cernyak-Spatz and her mother.
“All of a sudden I could run and jump, sit down, do whatever I wanted. I was free. And that was my liberation,” she said.
Cernyak-Spatz took advantage of that freedom. She worked for the American Counter Intelligence Corps as an interpreter and met someone who reconnected her with her father. On July 4, 1946, she came to America after marrying an American GI. She raised two children, worked in a shoe store, went back to school starting as a freshman in 1963 and obtained her PhD in 1972. She continues to lecture on her experience during the Holocaust and has even gone back with her children and husband to visit the concentration camps.
“It wasn’t easy, but anything was a joy to do as long as I was free and had the chance to have a goal and be alive and productive.”
And what does Cernyak-Spatz want to see in the world now?
“Please stay human,” she said, seeming to lock eyes with each audience member as she asked them to learn from the atrocities of the powerful SS officers and the Nazi regime.
“Please try not to forget and please stay human.”