Holocaust survivor shares experiences

Published 12:00 am Sunday, May 9, 2010

Irene Zisblatt had a simple message for everyone who heard her story Friday: Do not forget.

“We must learn the lesson of the Holocaust,” said Zisblatt, the only member of her family to survive a Nazi concentration camp. “Never forget what hatred leads to.”

The author of “The Fifth Diamond,” Zisblatt spoke with high school students from Ironton, Dawson-Bryant and Chesapeake Friday morning and again for the public later that night.

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Zisblatt’s experience with hatred began when she was a child. A Hungarian Jew, she was thrown out of her school at the age of nine.

“From that day on my life changed and so did the world,” she said.

After spending some time in a ghetto, Zisblatt and her family were herded onto a cattle train and told they were going to a vineyard. The cattle train cars were packed with 100 people. For five days they traveled with no room to move around and only a bucket in the center of the car to use as a restroom.

“When the little pail filled, the smell was unbearable,” she said.

Instead of a vineyard, Zisblatt and her family found themselves at Auschwitz-Birkenau, a concentration camp in Poland. There she was separated from her parents and her five siblings. It was the last time she saw them alive.

She was able to keep her mother’s diamonds throughout the ordeal. She wears them around her neck.

While her family presumably died in the gas chambers, Zisblatt miraculously survived, having escaped with the help of one of the gas chamber operators.

While on a death march in 1945, Zisblatt and a friend escaped and were ultimately saved by American soldiers.

After the war, Zisblatt’s uncle in New York took her in. She did not talk about her experiences in the Holocaust for 50 years until her son was working on a history project about World War II.

These days she spends her time speaking about her experiences, part of a promise she made to honor the memory of her family and other victims.

“I don’t want the world to forget what happened to us because I don’t want it to happen again,” she said.

The history club at Ohio University Southern sponsored the event. Club president Sybrina Hodges said it is important for today’s youth to Zisblatt’s story.

“We need to know the truth and that genocide happens,” Hodges said. “They need to be vigilant in making sure that doesn’t happen in the future.”