The event which I attended was a presentation from Holocaust survivor, Susan Cernyak-Spatz. Unfortunately, she was not able to make it to speak due to not feeling well. Instead, a video of her speaking on surviving the Holocaust was played.
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The one problem I had with this event was that it was extremely hard to hear her in the video, which made it difficult to fully comprehend everything she had to say and to take notes on it. I did go back and watch the video on my own and was able to comprehend most of what was said, but it still was hard to understand at times.
The documentary began with her talking about the important people who came to power in 1933. One being Franklin D. Roosevelt and the other Adolf Hitler. She did not talk about Roosevelt much, except that he was a good person in power. She did, however, jump right into Hitler’s coming to power. Some background on herself and family is that she lived in Berlin with her parents and ended up moving to Vienna. Then in Vienna in 1938, they had to leave behind everything like the food in their refrigerator and valuables like China plates. They left only bringing one suitcase to catch a flight from Vienna to Prague. Then from Vienna, they left for Poland, which was the only open border in 1939. However, they did not issue visas anymore to people with Jewish names, which meant her father had to make some illegal arrangements for them to get across the border. They were separated from their father because he had to go first to make sure everything would work. It just so happened that her father ended up making it out of Poland to Belgium on what was one of the last flights out at the time. Susan’s mother and her were deported to Beijing and were put in one of the five barracks there. They were searched and then went into a huge area to sit on straw and later experienced what was called the selection in Auschwitz.
After she was selected, Susan goes to describe her initial view of the camp after the three day ride. Prior to getting there, they did not really know exactly what was at Auschwitz or what it had in store. All they knew was that people go there and never come back. She describes their arrival as having an indescribable smell, but nobody knew what it really was. There were two flames going up with smoke, but nobody made the connection that those were bodies burning. She remembers seeing an ambulance with a big red cross on it. She describes how psychologically, it gave her and others a sense of hope because when one sees an ambulance, they associate it with help and being taken care of.
It was fascinating learning about the true hardships of life in Auschwitz. Susan described the bowl which everyone received as being basically all they had. The bowl was used to drink out of, eat out of, and pee into. This led to her talking about the precalculated dehumanization of people. They came to have no personalities, no utensils, and very little food. What they did have was piles of filth everywhere which led to many diseases. During the time of these hardships which Susan and others were faced with, the Jewish prisoners were in a liminal ground. Dr. Davis describes a liminal ground as a middle space between life and death (C.S. Davis, personal communication, September 27, 2018). While in Auschwitz, prisoners were no longer truly living, but they were also not dead yet. Unfortunately, they were stuck in the middle.
When asked how Susan survived all of this, she said the most important thing was to accept the nightmare as your life. This can definitely apply to any circumstance in today’s world as well. Everything in life is not always great, but by coming to terms with it and giving it your best to fight out that hard time or circumstance, you can combat just about anything, as seen by Susan surviving Auschwitz. I can apply this idea to my own life, because when I am going through a hard time, I remember to accept the negative aspects, and move on the best that I can.
Susan then talked about her friend Lilly who decided to give up because it just was not the life she wanted to live, like many others chose to do. Chapter 5 of Deadzone, Death as a Horrible Other: A Relationship with the Other Side, clarifies that Characters lose their fear of death when they accept its inevitability (Davis & Crane, 2019, p. 24). Many Jewish prisoners did not have the same perseverance as Susan. People like Lilly who had suffered so much, came to terms with death and its inevitability. They would rather accept their fate than live another day in the horrific concentration camp.
Susan also described just how normal death became at Auschwitz. When it was most people’s time to go, many were physically and emotionally ready, almost allowing death to be their best option. This really constructs the idea about life and death by showing that if a person’s quality of life is poor, they are probably more accepting of their life coming to an end. It also goes to show how the battle with one’s conscious and will to survive vary among people. The strong willed people probably had more hopes and dreams outside of that camp, allowing them to push onward, while others, like Lilly, could not see the finish line.
Susan’s story of surviving the Holocaust reminded me of , Night and Fog, a short film based on the Nazi concentration camps. The film was very sad and depicted things like torture, gas chambers, and piles of corpses. Although a film like this may be hard for some to watch, including the gruesome graphics is necessary in order to fully understand what took place. Just like Night and Fog, Susan’s story was definitive, which according to Dr. Crane, equates to undistorted – the truth and only the truth (J. L. Crane, communication studies, October 30, 2018).
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