Holocaust survivor recounts horror
Rebecca Yomtov Hauser was just 22-years old when Nazi soldiers pounded on the door of her family’s home in the small town of Ioannina, Greece.
It was March 25, 1944, the Saturday before Passover. The Hauser family was Jewish, and the soldiers had come to round up the approximately 2,000 Jews in Ioannina and transport them to Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration/extermination camp. Only about 100 would ever return.
World War II was raging, and the Nazis were bent on carrying out their “Final Solution” — the annihilation of European Jewry. The destruction, known to history as the Holocaust, would take the lives of millions of Jews and others.
Now 92, Hauser has only recently been speaking out about the horror she survived almost 70 years ago — and the memories that have stayed with her since. Her daughter, Bonnie Hauser, and Sharon Halperin, co-founder of the Chapel Hill-Durham Holocaust Speakers Bureau, convinced her that she and other Holocaust survivors needed to tell their story to all who would listen. They are now few in number, and the world needed to hear from them. Hauser was convinced.
“My story is one of 6 million that haven’t been heard,” she said.
The Hausers and Halperin were at the Dennis A. Wicker Civic Center at Central Carolina Community College’s Lee County Campus April 29 to tell her story, to provide a voice for all those whose voices were silenced in Nazi extermination camps.
Holocaust Remembrance Day was April 28. According to the Holocaust Speakers Bureau website, it is a day that has been set aside for remembering the victims of the Holocaust and for reminding Americans what can happen to civilized people when bigotry, hatred, and indifference go unchecked.
On that spring day in 1944, Hauser’s family suspected nothing of their fate.
“My father assumed that we were being taken somewhere to be factory workers,” Hauser recalled. “We had no idea what was going to happen.”
After a long train ride in cramped, windowless freight cars, they arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau, in Nazi-occupied Poland. All were given the option of walking to the barracks or riding on trucks. Those who rode on trucks, including Hauser’s father and mother, were never seen again.
It was only later that Hauser learned that all those who rode on the trucks had been murdered in mass gas chambers and their bodies burned in one of the camp’s crematoriums. The very fact that they had wanted to ride rather than walk marked them, in the minds of the Nazis, as unfit for the hard labor they would do at the camp. They were expendable.
Six million of Europe’s 10 million Jews perished in the Holocaust, as well as about five million non-Jews, including the mentally disabled, Roma, Serbs, Poles, communists, resistance fighters, homosexuals and others deemed enemies, inferior, or unfit.
“We were sure we were all going to die,” Hauser said of those at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Bianka Rhodes Stumpf, CCCC history instructor, arranged for the Hausers and Halperin to speak at the college.
“Their coming allowed my students and other college and community participants to experience living history,” Stumpf said. “In my history classes, I try to distill such comprehensive topics like the Holocaust in ways that underscore the experiences of individuals — their sacrifices, their strength, their tragedies, and their triumphs. Mrs. Hauser’s story did just that — and did it better than any of us could ever do.”
Stumpf said that Hauser’s bearing witness to her experiences gave the audience an opportunity to see this particularly dark stain on history through the ideas of one person and not through a more distant textbook or course analysis.
“Genocide becomes more gripping and grim in this way and is a reality before you and not an abstraction from long ago and in a distant place,” Stumpf said.
Starvation, disease and hard labor formed the life of those in Auschwitz-Birkenau. To be too sick or injured to work was a certain death sentence. The tattooed identification number Hauser still has on her arm is a constant reminder that the Nazis considered them less than human.
After a year, she was moved to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, which was liberated by British forces in May 1945. She was able to return home to Ioannina, but there was little there for her. Her parents and three brothers had died in the Holocaust.
In 1947, relatives in the United States sponsored her to immigrate to America on a student visa, one of the few ways that Jewish and other refugees could come to the U.S. That same year, she met and married Manny Hauser, and the couple had three children. Hauser now resides in Carrboro. The darkness of the Holocaust was something she didn’t want to talk about for many years but now shares with audiences, especially young people.
“I hope it will never happen again,” she said. “Some people know about the Holocaust and don’t care. Some want to finish the job. That’s very frightening to me. I hope civilization gets smarter and avoids that. I hope it is the last time Jews have to suffer for being Jews.”
Following a standing ovation, many in the audience lined up to greet and thank her. They took photos with her using their mobile phones, creating a lasting connection with someone who is passing on the torch of remembrance and warning to the rising generation.
“I loved hearing her story,” said Rachel Morris, of Sanford, who is earning an associate degree at the college. “I think it is really important to hear the firsthand account. People need to be educated of the possibility of something else happening, especially with the recent [killing of people at the Jewish Center] in Kansas.”
In addition to Hauser’s presentation, the Holocaust Speakers Bureau displayed “Dr Seuss Goes to War,” a collection of political cartoons created during World War II by Theodor Seuss Geisel, the famed children’s author. Geisel’s cartoons denounce Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini and are highly critical of those Americans who were opposed to entering World War II.
For more information about the Chapel Hill-Durham Holocaust Speakers Bureau, visit www.holocaustspeakersbureau.org. For more information about Central Carolina Community College, visit www.cccc.edu.