Holocaust survivor inspires audience at Davidson College
by Staff Writer
She spent Word War II fighting for her life. Once reduced to an inhuman prisoner, Susan Cernyak-Spatz survived the Holocaust and continues to share her story. The former prisoner of the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp is a professor emerita of German literature at University of North Carolina Charlotte.
The Davidson College History Department, the college chaplaincy and the Lake Norman Jewish Congregation co-sponsored her talk, “The Perpetrators of the Holocaust Through the Eyes of the Victims,” in the Hance Auditorium at Davidson College Sept. 19.
Born in Vienna, Austria, Cernyak-Spatz and her parents moved to Prague in 1938. She left everything behind her, realizing Hitler’s forces would soon take over.
But in 1939, Hitler came to Prague and once again her family was on the move.
Cernyak-Spatz and her mother were taken to the Theresienstadt ghetto, where her mother was killed.
“About one-third to one-half of each transport stayed in Theresienstadt. The rest went east,” Cernyak-Spatz said. “What east meant at that time was five extermination camps. Thousands went east without a trace.”
Then Cernyak-Spatz was taken on a passenger car to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
The iconic gate entrance to German concentration camps reading “Arbet Macht Frei,” meaning work sets you free, was absent from the entrance to Birkenau, a concentration and extermination camp.
“Over the gate to Birkenau, there was no such thing as labor will liberate you, because no one was supposed to exit Birkenau,” Cernyak-Spatz said.
Cernyak-Spatz describes her first impression of the camp in terms of smell.
“It was like you got a filthy rag in the face,” she said. “It was nauseating. You couldn’t define it. Who, in their right mind, a European, would know how to define the smell of thousands of bodies burning?”
When they arrived at Birkenau, the women were told to take off all their clothes, shaved head-to-toe and allowed a quick, ice-cold shower. They received uniforms belonging to dead Russian soldiers, shoes if they were lucky and then tattoos.
Her identification number, 34042, is still visible on her arm, with a small triangle labeling her as a Jew.
“If you wanted to survive in Birkenau, you had to make up your mind to survive,” Cernyak-Spatz said. “Dying was the easiest thing to do.”
They learned not to drink the water, which ran in pipes through latrines and was full of bacteria, among other tricks to stay alive.
The Jewish prisoners, Cernyak-Spatz said, were a valuable work force. Most of them were bilingual, literate and skilled in some profession. Cernyak-Spatz credits her survival to landing an inside administrative job.
At the end of the war, she and other Auschwitz-Birkenau prisoners were deported to Ravensbruck concentration camp, then returned as bargaining chips to the Allies on April 28, 1945. They were liberated on the road.
One audience member, Ivan Minarik, discovered his parents were Holocaust survivors after they passed away. He came to see Cernyak-Spatz in pursuit to understand his parents’ experience, never having been able to ask them about it.
“When it has a personal component, you realize the incredible travesty,” Minarik said. “It’s a question of finding out what actually happened.”
Davidson Associate History Professor Thomas Pegelow Kaplan, who brought Cernyak-Spatz to Davidson, said that part of his mission is to bring not only scholars, but also survivors with distinct perspectives to share their stories.
Cernyak-Spatz’ memoir, “Protective Custody: Prisoner 34024,” is available on Amazon.com.