By Alyssa Gautieri
Sybil Ehrlich, a 91-year-old Holocaust survivor, shared her experience with college students for the first time on Wednesday, Nov. 16, in the Physics Building as a part of Hillel’s annual Jewish Education Week.
“If someone had told me 79 years ago that I would be here speaking to a group of college students, I would not have believed it,” Ehrlich said.
Ehrlich, who regularly speaks to middle and high school students at the Esther Raab Holocaust Museum and Goodwin Education Center, said she shares her story because “it’s important that the next generation knows what happened.”
Ehrlich, who was born in 1924 in Berlin, moved to Holland at the age of 8 after her father saw the conception of anti-semitism in Germany.
The Germans slowly overtook Europe — by 1940, they had seized France, Belgium, Denmark and Norway. However, Ehrlich and her family never expected the war to spread to Holland.
“Nobody saw it coming,” Ehrlich said. “People thought it is happening to them, but it is not going to happen to us.”
Holland was a beautiful and pleasant home for the Ehrlich family until the Germans invaded in May 1940.
After a happy childhood in Holland, Ehrlich was shocked when she heard an anti-semitic remark for the first time. Ehrlich had never felt ostracized for being Jewish before the war spread to Holland. She felt different — suddenly her dark brown hair now stood out from her blonde-haired peers.
Ehrlich, along with other Germans Jews in Holland, was separated from society. They could no longer go to school, ride public transportation, visit the movies or go to parks.
“All of a sudden, the things that we all took for granted were not possible anymore,” she said. “Our everyday life disappeared.”
What stood out to Ehrlich was being forced to wear the Jewish star on her clothing. The star indicated “I am not like you, I am different,” she said.
The family’s troubles escalated when Ehrlich and her sister were ordered by the Nazis to report to a Jewish work camp. Ehrlich’s father, who served in the German army during WWI, had a mental picture of how bad things could become, and he prepared a hideaway for the family in The Hague, a city in the Netherlands.
As the family traveled to their hideaway, 16-year-old Ehrlich was scared for her life.
A particular moment stood out in her memory: When Ehrlich overheard a wife ask her husband what time he would be home for dinner, she felt envious.
“As young as I was, I remember thinking, ‘This lady is so lucky. She can worry about when to start the potatoes, while (my family and I) are fleeing for our lives,’” Ehrlich said.
When Ehrlich and her family arrived at the hideaway, little did they know, they would remain there for more than three years. She said life in hiding was horrible. She spent her time searching for activities to keep busy. She read “Gone with the Wind,” studied the same chemistry textbooks and unraveled a sweater, only to knit it back together again, countless times.
While in hiding, Ehrlich tried to find a sense of purpose through her studies and her passion for chemistry.
“In retrospect, I do not know how I had the tenacity to study chemistry when I didn’t know whether or not I would be alive the next day,” she said.
By 1944, things became worse for the family as they approached their third year in hiding. The family had dwindling access to food. They ate raw sugar beets, despite the pain swallowing them brought, but the pain was better than not eating at all, according to Ehrlich. Finally, in May 1945, the family got news that World War II was over.
“It was amazing to be able to go outside,” Ehrlich said. “Even today, I love the fresh air. I have a passion to be outside and never be cooped up again.”
While Ehrlich was thankful to be free, she soon discovered that nearly 90 percent of her friends and family were killed in concentration camps during her three long years in hiding. When the pain of living in Holland became too great, Ehrlich and her sister decided to move to the United States in 1947.
In America, Ehrlich was driven to earn an education and find a career while her sister struggled to move on from the trauma.
“My sister and I are very different people,” Ehrlich said. “She hung a heavy stone around her neck. The memories were just so bad for her. Throughout her life, she was hindered by what had happened.”
Following her move to America, Ehrlich got a job working for the U.S. Vitamin Corporation, got married, had two children and several grandchildren.
Today, Ehrlich tries to remain positive. Despite her traumatic experience of World War II, she refuses to focus on the past.
“It is necessary to tell school children my story, but it is not necessary to dwell on it or talk about it all the time,” Ehrlich said. “My experiences have made me tougher than I would have been. I appreciate freedom to the utmost extent, and I acknowledge that growing up in the United States is wonderful.”
Ehrlich reminded students in the crowd how lucky they are to live in the U.S. For people a part of Hillel, they are reminded of their Jewish history and past.
According to the club’s website, Hillel at the College seeks to help the on-campus Jewish community maintain their Jewish identity before, during and after college.
Benjamin Zander, co-president of Hillel and a junior communications and journalism and professional writing double major, said it was important for students at the College to be a part of this event.
“There are only so many opportunities left to hear an eyewitness testimony from a Holocaust survivor,” Zander said.
Many wondered what will be the medium in which future generations will learn about the horrors of the Holocaust.
“The students here tonight had a special experience,” said Christopher Gwin, a volunteer at the Jewish Community Center.“The question is, ‘how will you carry this message forward to someone who will not meet a Holocaust survivor in their lifetime?’”