By LINCOLN DAVIDSON
To Holocaust survivor Susan Cernyak-Spatz, the German extermination of Jews during World War II differs from other genocides down through history. “The Holocaust is unique in just one way,” she told a crowd at Davidson College Monday night. “All other genocides were based on religion, politics, land; the Holocaust is unique in that it was about killing for killing’s sake.”
Cernyak-Spatz was at Davidson to talk about her experiences at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. Her lecture was so well-attended that organizers were forced to change venues at the last minute, delaying the start.
Cernyak-Spatz, who is Professor Emerita of German Literature at UNC Charlotte, described the horrors she and others had to endure during the Holocaust and on the importance of remembering the human cost of the genocide.
After observing Hitler’s rise to power while living in Berlin in the early 1930s, Cernyak-Spatz and her family fled to Prague in 1938. While her father managed to escape to Belgium through Poland on the day before the German invasion of Poland, Cernyak-Spatz and her mother were not so lucky. In the years that followed, Cernyak-Spatz was taken by the Nazis to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where she managed to secure a job in the camp’s administrative offices, ensuring her survival.
“It was an unwritten rule that if you could find someone you had a connection to who worked on the inside, that person had to get you a job,” Professor Cernyak-Spatz said. “Even if you were a latrine cleaner or cleaned the streets, you were on the inside and didn’t have to go through the selections when you went out [of the camp] to work and when you came back in every day.”
“In the paradigm of the Holocaust, ‘selection’ had only one meaning: life or death.”
The lecture, which was co-sponsored by the College Chaplaincy, the History Department, Hillel and the Public Lectures Committee, was originally scheduled to be held in the 100-seat Hance Auditorium on the top floor of the Chambers Building. After more than 200 people showed up for the lecture, organizers were forced to move to the Lilly Gallery, on the ground floor. That delayed the start from 7 to 7:40pm.
Davidson College history professor Thomas Pegelow Kaplan said organizers had not anticipated such a turnout. On a previous visit to Davidson College, Cernyak-Spatz drew a much smaller crowd.
Throughout her lecture, Cernyak-Spatz described the horrors she experienced in vivid detail. “The first thing that chased you out of a [train car arriving at Auschwitz-Birkenau] was a smell – it was a stink. An almost sweet stink, and you couldn’t quite identify what it was, because who in the 20th century could identify the smell of human corpses burning, about 2,000 at a time?”
Before being sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau, Cernyak-Spatz spent several years living in the Theresienstadt ghetto, which the Nazis promoted as an example for the rest of the world of a “happy,” self-administered Jewish community. The world’s failure to see through this Nazi propaganda was an act of willful ignorance, she said.
“The world believed it … the free world wasn’t stupid, they just didn’t give a hoot. ‘They were just Jews.’”
Cernyak-Spatz concluded Monday’s talk by expounding on how informed individuals made decisions that resulted in the deaths of more than 6 million Jews, and urged that future generations, and students in particular, never forget the Holocaust.
“At the Wannsee Conference, where the ‘Final Solution’ was finalized by the SS, they went into details [such as] how to clean a freight train in which people had died … how to make sure only Jewish people were gassed … Remember the Wannsee Conference; 14 men, 11 of whom held PhDs, who were highly educated, highly intelligent men, but they had not one drop of humanity.”
“There’s an old saying: if we forget the past, we must repeat it. We cannot forget.”