Alice Ginsberg, 91, tells the horrifying details of living through Auschwitz, Langenbielau, and the death march.
Squashed into a railcar – deemed “killer cars” – with dozens of other people, 13-year-old Alice is yet to know she will not return to her home in Czechoslovakia until after the war. With no knowledge of the length of the journey, nor the destination, young Alice rations her food; she holds back the insurmountable temptation to eat her favorite coffee cake that her mother baked. All around Alice’s family, people in the railcar start fainting, some succumbing to death. Finally, after three or four days rotating between sitting and standing, the train comes to a screeching halt. Surrounded by tall Nazi soldiers, dogs barking, and the depths and darkness of the woods, Alice and her family stood at the entrance to the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp.
“We saw the fire, we saw the smoke and the smell of burning bodies,” Ms. Ginsberg says. “My father said, ‘We have to say the prayer before you die.’ It’s called the Sh’ma.”
With antisemitism on the rise, Ms. Ginsberg and other Holocaust survivors share their stories to educate the next generation about the horrors of the Holocaust. Antisemitism has been displayed recently in the brutal assault of a Jewish man in New York in late May 2021, the 2018 fatal attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, and the escalating attacks on American Jews. As stated by ADL, fighting hate for good, “More than half (59 percent) of American Jews polled said they feel less safe in the U.S. today than they were a decade ago.” It’s painful for Ms. Ginsberg to share her story, but she knows it is crucial in combating antisemitism. Ms. Ginsberg repeats the famous aphorism, “For evil to flourish, it takes a good man to do nothing.”
“You’re never going to see your family again. See the fire, see the smoke? You’ll never see them again,” said a woman who supervised those imprisoned by the Nazis. Alice, who had just arrived at Auschwitz, trembled in fear. Ms. Ginsberg adds, “and I refused to believe it because hope was always there.” Even when she was torn from her mother’s arms and ripped away from her father’s comfort, she had hope. She would not only need that hope in Auschwitz, but also for the death march, which she would soon endure.
Throughout her time in Auschwitz, Alice survived with a ration of green, watery soup and a fistful of stale bread. In the stealth and shadows of the night, she and her bed-mates risked their lives to secretly scrounge through the kitchen’s garbage, finding potato peels to sustain their starving, malnourished bodies. “Starvation can lead you to a lot of things,” Ms. Ginsberg adds. For those imprisoned, head counts twice a day, a morning ration of food, and hours of perilous forced labor occupied all hours of daylight. When the day was over, she piled back into her barren bunk, lying squeezed in next to six others. “It’s not easy to relive it,” she says.
In single-file lines, Alice and fellow people also imprisoned were forced to march across the flat, bleak farmland of Eastern Europe in 1945 so that the Nazis could hide the evidence of their crimes from the approaching Allied liberating forces.
“We were captives,” Ms. Ginsberg says. The starving stomachs, delirious bodies, and exhausted limbs of those imprisoned trudged through Poland’s countryside at dusk, dawn and every hour in-between. It took one foot in front of the other for several torturous days. She feared any infraction that the Nazis perceived as a small inconvenience would render her dead. Any wrong movement, or the act of lagging behind – sudden death by bullet. A common means of transferring those imprisoned was the death march, which Alice excruciatingly endured from Langenbielau – in present-day Poland, to Parschnitz – a concentration camp near modern-day Trutnow, Czech Republic.
“There was no point in running away,” Ms. Ginsberg states, “because they would just shoot you. Unless you couldn’t bear it anymore and just wanted to die.”
Fear was everywhere: in the interactions with guards, in the possibility of succumbing to the elements, in the thought that instead of trickling, cold water, one day it was going to be gas, in the days where the only thought was acquiring food. But, for Alice, throughout 1944 and 1945, hope was everywhere, too. When asked how she managed to never give up, Ms. Ginsberg says, “You keep telling yourself, I’ll survive it, I’ll survive it. I did not give up. I had a lot of perseverance, but a lot of people didn’t.”
After countless days and dozens of miles of the death march, they reached Parschnitz concentration camp; a few weeks after they arrived, the camp was liberated by the Soviet Army and 14-year-old Alice would no longer need the hope that she would survive. Now, she clung to the hope her family had survived.
While speaking of her past, Ms. Ginsberg is emotional. Having to remember and relive the horrific loss and tragedy of the Holocaust is painful. However, she remains hopeful — like she was so many years ago in Auschwitz — that she is using her story to fight against antisemitism, violence, hate, and war. She feels it is her duty to teach these lessons to young generations. When asked if she thinks something like the Holocaust will happen again, she declares,
“Oh God, I hope not, I hope not. You have to make sure this never happens again; you have to learn about the history. Listen to my story.”
- Thank you to SoNYT’s writing program, the Museum of Jewish Heritage, and specifically, Alice Ginsberg.