Irving Shmookler was in no way prepared for the sights that awaited him at the Mauthausen concentration camp – the walking skeletons, the prisoners with stomachs so shrunken that they could not eat.
Shmookler, a United States Army veteran who liberated the camp during World War II, was a presenter at “Speak Out: Voices of the Holocaust,” which occurred on Wednesday night in the Mayo Concert Hall and was sponsored by Hillel/Jewish Student Union and the Second Generation Holocaust Education Fund.
The event, part of Holocaust Remembrance Week, coincided with the anniversary of Kristallnacht on Thursday, the “night of broken glass” that many consider the unofficial beginning of the Nazi Party’s reign of terror.
Shmookler was joined by Holocaust survivors Ruth Lubitz and Sol Lurie.
“Tonight’s program is important because there are Holocaust deniers across colleges and in the United States that deny the Holocaust ever happened,” moderator Marianne Meyer said before introducing Lubitz.
Lubitz was born into a Jewish, middle-class family in Germany. Her idyllic childhood came to a crashing halt at age seven when her father was beaten to death by Nazis outside her home. “It was a fearful time – certainly we did not have a normal childhood,” Lubitz said.
Little by little, her life began to change as more and more restrictions were placed on Jews. They could not receive a high school education, own property or even attend a movie. Her mother tried desperately to get her and her brother out of Germany and into the United States, “but what child wanted to leave their remaining parent?”
Her brother was sent to Berlin to hide from Nazis who were rounding up men and boys to send to work camps. Lubitz eventually joined him as the situation in her hometown worsened. Finally, in the dead of night in April 1939, the two escaped to Britain on the Kindertransport, a relief effort that helped rescue and transport nearly 10,000 Jewish children out of Nazi-occupied countries into various parts of the United Kingdom.
Her mother was not so lucky and died in the Auschwitz concentration camp. Despite the atrocities she witnessed, Lubitz insisted she is no hero: “I had it really good,” she said. “I don’t even consider myself a survivor; I didn’t suffer as much as others.”
Lurie, the next speaker, spoke of the miracles and coincidences that made up his Holocaust experience. Speaking in a thick accent that he joked, “I never had before coming to America,” the Lithuanian native explained his amazing survival through six concentration camps.
His family was forced to leave their town for a ghetto that housed 40,000 Jews, with each family residing in only one room. One day, when the Nazis killed over 10,000 Jews in a mass execution, Lurie and a few of his cousins were sent to hide in a nearby stable. “We children were always hiding,” he said.
The Nazis discovered them and grew outraged when his cousin’s baby began to cry. One soldier threw the baby in the air and caught it on his bayonet, laughing and waving it wildly through the air. Lurie ran and hid in the hole of an outhouse for an entire day, covered in waste before returning home. His grateful mother “didn’t care how I looked or smelled. She hugged and kissed me and was glad I was alive,” Lurie said.
Lurie’s luck followed him throughout his horrifying ordeal. In 1944 he was moved to Birkenau. Sent to the showers along with other boys, Lurie had no idea that he was entering the gas chamber, which claimed so many lives throughout the war. Incredibly, instead of gas, water spouted out of the shower heads. “It was a miracle,” Lurie said. Mere hours before, the Germans had struck a deal with Americans, guaranteeing that they would stop the killing in Auschwitz if they received 10,000 trucks.
He also escaped certain death after being selected as an experimental subject for the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele, who performed horrific scientific tests on camp prisoners. Lurie was even moved to the experimental barrack, but was removed after he was picked for a work detail and was sent on a death march. “If you fell down they shot you right away,” he said.
After subsisting on only snow during the march, he wound up at Buchenwald and was eventually liberated on his 15th birthday, April 11, 1945. Lurie was one of the lucky ones, with his father and four of his brothers surviving the Holocaust. His mother died two days before the liberation. After being starved for much of his childhood, it took him a year and a half to be able to eat regular food.
He now regards America as his home and is “the proudest American you’ll ever meet.” He told the audience to stand up to bullies in order to prevent something like the Holocaust from ever happening again.
Shmookler concluded the evening, bringing the unique perspective of not a survivor, but an American liberator of the 55th Armored Infantry Battalion of the 11th Armored Division. He was only 24 years old when he stepped into the Mauthausen camp and was in “disbelief at the inhumanity of people to other people.” Shmookler and his unit had heard a little about the camps, but thought they mainly housed prisoners of war.
Prisoners responded to the liberation with joy. “They were very happy. It was the end of a bad, bad dream,” Shmookler said. Still, over 3,000 prisoners died in the weeks after the arrival of the troops from starvation and dysentery.
Back home in America, “the reaction had already started,” he said, but Lubitz spoke of the skepticism she encountered.
“It took a long, long time for people to believe us – it was unbelievable,” she said.
“We don’t enjoy remembering this stuff,” Lubitz said, “but we realize there’s a need.”