‘We must never forget what hatred leads to:’ Holocaust survivor Irene Zisblatt shares her story

She couldn’t talk about her experience for 50 years

We are the last generation to meet survivors like Irene Zisblatt first-hand. We have an obligation to keep her story alive so that future generations understand the severity of the Holocaust and why it should never happen again. It’s not just a story, it’s a reminder that in times of darkness, we will stay strong and we will survive, against all odds. As we keep sharing these stories, we are giving survivors a small piece of justice that Hitler did not win. Jewish or not, we are all witnesses to this atrocity.

Tuesday evening, Penn State had the privilege of hearing Holocaust survivor Irene Zisblatt speak about what it was like to have lived through the worst genocide in history. Every row inside Eisenhower Auditorium was packed and every person in that room was forever changed by her story.

“I survived the most awful places on Earth,” said Zisblatt, referring to the concentration camps.

Born as a Hungarian Jew, Zisblatt was 12 years old when she became one of the millions Hitler targeted in his grand plan called the Final Solution, to eliminate the entire Jewish population. After being forced to leave her home, belongings and everything she’s ever known, she was moved to concentration camps, where she was surrounded by barking dogs, shootings and people crying in different languages. Her life now existed in a factory of death and unbelievable hardship.

“The ghettos were a place of punishment, where everyone was treated like a criminal,” said Zisblatt.

From 1939-1944, Jews were stripped of all rights and entitlements. In fact, they were dehumanized in every way possible including shaved heads, tattooed numbers and little to no food or water. Many were even scared of crying because the punishment would mean death.

One day, Zisblatt was put in a boxed car for four days, crammed in with 100 other people, with barely a crack of light. The group was told they were going home, but little did they realize they were on their way to the worst concentration camp during the Holocaust: Auschwitz. Zisblatt was picked to be a part of Dr. Josef Mengele’s experiments, where she was given a brown liquid that messed with her reproductive organs. This was just one of the many torture techniques put in place at the concentration camps.

The Jews lived in constant fear of being taken away from their parents. When Zisblatt’s family got there, they were forced to separate. And that was the last time she saw her mom or younger brother again. Zisblatt was the only survivor of her family.

One day, Zisblatt was sent to a gas chamber with 1,500 other women. To her surprise, there wasn’t enough room for all of them. She was standing by the entrance door when the gas command was yelled so she got kicked outside, spared from the awful death. As she stood outside, she wondered how long it would be until a Nazi found her and punished her. What happened instead changed her life forever.

A guard covered her with his coat, as she had been stripped naked, and helped her get to a train station nearby that was going to a labor camp. She later found out she was at the only concentration camp near a train. If it weren’t for those circumstances, who knows if she would have survived.

When Zisblatt got to the labor camp, she was overjoyed to be reunited with her friend, who she thought had died. Out of 5,000 people sent on a death march, they were among the 200 left. The friend gave her the motivation and will power to keep going every day. When Zisblatt wanted to give up, her friend wouldn’t let her. She would make jokes saying, “We can’t die until we eat good food.”

Zisblatt’s friend did end up dying in her sleep from a disease but not without living up to her promise: eating the food they’ve been dreaming about, scrambled eggs and a loaf of bread. The girls were rescued by American soldiers, given beds to sleep in and real food to eat. The war was finally over and it was a surreal feeling after all the pain and cruelty they had been through.

“They helped us become human again,” said Zisblatt about the U.S. soldiers.

Zisblatt moved to America in 1947. It took her 50 years to speak out about what she endured in the Holocaust. Not only because of how scarring and inhumane the actions that took place were, but also in fear that no one would believe her. As a survivor, she is still coping with what happened to her, to her family and to her good friend. It will always be a part of her. And now it’s a part of us.

“I must learn from my yesterday’s so future generations can learn from it,” said Zisblatt. “I must live for those children.”

Six million people died in the Holocaust. One and a half million were children.

Penn State