Seventy-six years to the day after the Nazi death camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland were liberated, seventh-graders at Albuquerque’s Bosque School heard about the horrors of that experience firsthand from a Holocaust survivor, who now lives in Israel.
Gita (Giselle) Cycowicz, 93, spoke to the children during an online Zoom conference on Wednesday, International Holocaust Remembrance Day. An estimated 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust.
The students have been studying the Holocaust since the beginning of the school year. They listened to interviews with survivors recorded by Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation and other sources “and then created art, because art helps us tell stories and it humanizes,” said Bosque teacher and librarian Barbara Lazar.
“These students are now entrusted with the memory, and through their own art have a better understanding of the Holocaust, and how survivors stayed connected and found strength,” Lazar said.
Cycowicz was the youngest of three sisters in the Czechoslovak town of Chust in the Carpathian Mountains. By the time Cycowicz was 12, Chust was occupied by Hungary, which collaborated with the Nazi regime.
“They kicked the Jewish children out of school, and then they took away my father’s license and the license of every Jewish person to do business,” Cycowicz said.
The family had no income but stayed in their home for five years until 1944, when Jewish citizens were sent to a ghetto in a nearby town before being transported in railroad cattle cars to the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex. One of Cycowicz’s older sisters had already been arrested and was not with them.
In the chaos and confusion of exiting the cars, Cycowicz was separated from her parents and sister, just as the guards were making their “selection” about who would be put to death and who would be put to work, she said.
For most of her time in the camp, Cycowicz lived in an unheated women’s barracks, lying on bare wooden planks in a three-tiered bunk, with each bunk shared by several women who had to sleep on their sides.
She wore the same clothing that had been issued to her on arrival and her shoes were worn out. None of the women was given underwear, socks or coats. Dysentery and other diseases were rampant throughout the camp.
The women stood outside for hours each morning and evening for a roll call, and each sustained themselves on one piece of bread daily. Much of the time, Cycowicz said, there was nothing at all to do, though eventually she and other women were put to work in a nearby factory, where they toiled for more than 12 hours a day.
By the time Russian soldiers liberated the camp, Cycowicz said, she and the other women were so exhausted, hungry and depressed that they didn’t even have the energy to shout for joy.
She, her sisters and their mother survived. Her father did not. Eventually, the family made its way to the United States, where Cycowicz married, had three children and earned a doctorate in psychology. Widowed at age 65, she joined her children living in Israel.
Her advice to the Bosque School children was to get an education and let go of anger, “which is poison for you and the other people you deal with,” she said.
None of this was lost on the Bosque students.
“The main thing I took from this is you can’t lose hope,” said Alyssa Bierer. “You just have to keep fighting, no matter how hard it is, and you have to release your anger.”
Allison Erickson said Cycowicz’s story “really makes you think how hard a life can be, and the importance of family and friends.” She also wanted to know “what made the Nazis think it was OK in any way to hurt children, and tear them away from their families and totally traumatize them all for life.”
Alex Starr said he was struck by the senselessness of the Nazis’ treatment, and stressed the need to “treat people with respect, and to love each other.”