Holocaust Survivor Recalls Ordeal (Corrected Copy)
By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, April 13, 2001 Editor's Note: Mrs. Rozmaryn was held in Stutthof concentration camp, near present-day Gdansk, Poland. The original story erroneously said Natzwiller-Struthof concentration camp, France.
"With the Nazis, you couldn't be courageous enough, strong enough, rich enough or smart enough to survive the Holocaust. It was just a matter of luck," Tania Marcus Rozmaryn told her audience here.
The 72-year-old Polish immigrant participated recently in the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum's "First Person" program, which features personal accounts by Holocaust survivors.
When the Germans invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939, triggering World War II, Rozmaryn said, she and her family were living in the Polish town of Smorgonie. She had just finished the fourth grade.
Sixteen days later, the Soviets occupied Smorgonie and implemented communist policies, seizing businesses, assets and valuables. They converted the Jewish school into a Soviet school and taught classes in Russian. On June 22, 1941, the German army invaded the Soviet Union and occupied Smorgonie the same day.
Rozmaryn and her mother, sister and brother fled eastward to Lebedev, but they were captured by the Germans. She would learn later that her father had been executed by an SS mobile killing squad.
Forced into the Smorgonie ghetto, the Marcuses were transported to the Kovno ghetto two years later. Rozmaryn said in March 1944 the Nazis shot more than 1,000 young children at Kovno, including her nine-year-old brother, Nathan.
"I can't figure out why I was so lucky to survive," Rozmaryn told the audience. "I guess because I should be able to bear witness and to tell what happened so it should never, ever, ever happen to anyone else in the future."
She said she'll never forget the day the Nazis dragged children down the stairs into the street and bayoneted them to death. This was one of her last memories of the ghettos, fenced-off areas where Jews were held.
She remembers being herded onto a barge and being held there 10 days in the burning sun with only pieces of bread and water to eat. When they reached Stutthof, Germany, they were loaded onto freight trains and taken to the concentration camp there. The camp was outfitted with a gas chamber and crematory for the killing of Jews, gypsies and captured resistance fighters from Holland, Belgium and France.
"When they opened the doors, the first thing was the smell of burned flesh and burned bones," Rozmaryn said. "That's when we realized that we were at a concentration camp and a crematorium."
About 500 prisoners were taken to a large hall and stripped of their possessions. The men and women were separated. "People were kissing and hugging and saying goodbye, because we knew this was our last journey. This was the end," Rozmaryn said.
It was the end for thousands of prisoners, but not the Marcus women. Rozmaryn, her mother and sister survived some of the most inhumane treatment and conditions and the war. Her mother died only about three years ago at age 95. Her sister lives in Israel.
She said one day at the camp, the Germans took 5,000 people to a labor camp to dig huge ditches that were camouflaged to trap Russian tanks. But the prisoners had to first survive going through a gate where the head of the camp was standing.
"If he didn't like someone, he'd shoot them or send the dogs to rip the person to pieces," she said. "They put the bodies on a pile to be taken to the crematorium in a horse- drawn cart."
As she, her mother and sister approached the gate, the German grabbed her and threw her on the pile of old people and children.
"It's beyond comprehension or any explanation, but I felt like an angel took me by my hand," she recalled. "I got up from the pile and walked over to the head of the concentration camp. He looked down at me and I told him I'm just a little girl, but I'm very strong and I work hard. I told him, 'There is my mother and sister over there.'
"All of a sudden, I saw a flicker in his eyes, and he grabbed me by the neck, pushed me through the gate, yelling in German, 'OK, little girl, run to your mother,'" she said. "When I went on the other side of the gate, my mother and sister literally saw me come back from the dead."
The prisoners dug ditches until they were taken on a final death march on Jan. 18, 1945. "They told those of us who were still alive that we were leaving. Many people had frozen to death, many died of typhoid and diphtheria or were killed," Rozmaryn said.
They marched all day in below-zero weather with snow and ice on the road. Those who couldn't keep up were shot; others died from disease or froze to death.
"Both sides of the road was covered with bodies or blood," she said. "At night they put us in an empty high school or in barns, and gave us a piece of bread. We huddled up with the cows to keep warm. We were so hungry. Everybody was looking through trashcans for food when we marched through a village.
"One day, my mother found a marrow bone and gave it to my sister to suck on because she was the weakest," she said.
Finally reaching another concentration camp, they were turned away because the camp was full. They were taken to a small airport, where more than 1,000 people were already being held.
Rozmaryn contracted typhus and lost consciousness. She screamed when she woke up in a bed with sheets, pillows and a nice room with curtains. Her mother and sister told her the crisis was over. "My mother said, 'We're liberated! The Russians liberated us!'" Rozmaryn exclaimed.
That was on March 23, 1945.
Rozmaryn said every day in the ghetto and concentration camp was a bad day. For her, the two worst of the war were the days she found out the Nazis had killed her father and her nine-year-old brother, she said later during an interview.
The aim of the Germans was to humiliate, degrade -- mentally, emotionally, intellectually, she said. The Nazis knew that if they could degrade people in those ways, they could do whatever they wanted with them, Rozmaryn said.
After the war, she became a Hebrew teacher in several Jewish displaced persons camps in Germany. She emigrated to the United States on Oct. 20, 1950, aboard an Army ship. By then, she was married and had an eight-month-old son.
"I didn't speak English and didn't have a penny to my name," Rozmaryn said. "And we didn't have a place to stay." The family found help and a place to live in Brooklyn. "I worked in a sweatshop sewing patches on jackets for $35 a week."
She went to night school to learn English. Rozmaryn decided she wanted to be a teacher, and though she'd only completed the fourth grade before the war, she persuaded the dean of the Teachers Institute for Women at Yeshivah University of Greater New York to give her a chance. After three years at Yeshivah, she graduated summa cum laude. Eight years later, the university presented her its teacher of the year award.
"I'm still teaching," said Rozmaryn, who holds a master's degree in counselor of education and another in marriage and family counselor. She teaches at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, Md.
Rozmaryn educated her two children and grandchildren in the Jewish legacy and modern orthodox way. By doing so, she said, she denied Hitler's goal.
"He wanted the final solution to be the annihilation of the Jewish culture and the Jewish people," she noted. "I can't give Hitler his victory over the Jews posthumously.
"I consider myself extremely lucky to be one of the Holocaust survivors," Rozmaryn said. "I'm extremely grateful to the United States government for inviting me to immigrate to this wonderful country and being afforded all the opportunities for me and my children."