Holocaust survivor pens a painful and poignant memoir of Auschwitz
By Paul Collins
Auschwitz. It’s a word that still has the power to run a cold chill up and down the spine, to bring a veil of darkness. No other word rekindles the nightmarish implementation of Hitler’s Final Solution in quite the same way. Seventy years after it happened, the unimaginable horror surrounding the systematic extermination of 6 million human beings at the hands of the Nazi regime is still nearly impossible to comprehend, and yet, comprehend it we must. To forget would be to turn a deaf ear and blind eye to those who still cry out to be remembered.
Worcester resident Thea Aschkenase was interred at Auschwitz. Now in her early 90s, she is a singular story of survival. She sits quietly in the dining room of her home looking across the table at me. She’s wearing a cardigan sweater and a warm smile that crinkles the skin around the corners of her soft eyes. She reflects a warmth and kindness that is palpable, and I can’t help but like her immediately. In her soft, German-accented voice, she shares with me her story of surviving the nightmare of Auschwitz. The light coming through the window on this summer afternoon catches her face, and behind the gentle eyes, I can almost feel the hellish and indelible images that still play out in the theater of her mind. They are the timeworn remembrances of an elderly woman who, in her mind’s eye, sees herself, once again, as the innocent and happy young girl from Munich, Germany, that she was a lifetime ago.
She has penned a self-published book, Remembering: A Holocaust Survivor Shares Her Life, that chronicles her experiences in detail, and I ask her to verbalize some of her thoughts to me. This is a woman who lived through the horrors of Auschwitz; she lost her younger brother and her father to the gas chamber; and yet, she has spent her life helping others. For decades, she has extended a helping hand to people in need, a hand of kindness and love. How, I wonder, can this woman be filled with so much good after such bad things – horrendous things – have happened to her?
Aschkenase speaks of the 1930s, when the Third Reich rose to power in Germany and anti-Semitism raged through her country like an uncontained wild fire.
“My early childhood was wonderful,” she says. “We lived in an apartment in Munich, and life was good. We played with other children, and then one day, the other children didn’t want to play with us anymore because we were Jewish.” She is thoughtful as she says, “It was a terrible thing, and it hurt all of us badly. I didn’t understand it. You know, the adults would send us out of the room whenever they spoke about these things. When I was forced to leave my school, my parents said that, ‘It is because you are Jewish,’ but, you know, it didn’t sink in with me.”
Although she remembers Auschwitz clearly, her voice is contained and she is careful not to reveal the gruesome details. She does, however, share one memory with me: Upon arrival at Auschwitz, after a five-day journey in an overcrowded cattle car, she and her family were separated from each other when being processed in by a Nazi SS officer. “We stood in rows in front of him, and he would point to the right, the left, and to the middle. Young women went to the right, young men to the left, and children and old people to the middle. My mother and father were directed to the middle,” she says. Unnoticed by the SS officer, Aschkenase pulled her mother back into her own line before she could walk away with her husband. Pivoting back quickly, she recalls the SS officer saying, “I have put her there,” pointing to the middle line that was heading off to the gas chamber. She remembers the terror of looking directly at the officer and saying “No, you have put her in this group.” He backed off. This quick and brave act saved her mother’s life. Later, Aschkenase would discover that the SS officer was Dr. Joseph Mengle, known as “The Angel of Death.”
Aschkenase tells me of how she was tattooed with an identification number and how, “Every day, the chimneys would belch out red smoke. You know, to this day, I can’t look at a tall chimney. If I drive by a smoking chimney, it is all still there.”
Today, this 2007 graduate of Worcester State University channels her energies into combating childhood hunger and speaking to school children about the Holocaust. “I don’t want people to forget what happened,” she tells me. Her eyes dance with an inner light when she speaks of the children.
She has shared enough startling remembrances with me on this day to fill a vault. I will confess that more than once, her memories nearly brought me to tears. As I’m about to leave, she says, “Many times I feel guilty. I ask myself, ‘Why did I survive when so many died?”’
I ask her what she thinks.
She says, “Maybe I survived so that I could tell my story.”
Paul Collins is a freelance writer from Southborough.