By Wendy Widom
CHICAGO (CBS) — On this day 70 years ago, Auschwitz was liberated and my grandma Miriam, a prisoner there, was set free. Unlike other prisoners, who were forced on the Death March, my grandma stayed behind because she was so sick with typhus the SS assumed she would die. Years later, she told me she survived because a woman, a German doctor, risked her life by sneaking my grandma medication.
My grandma did not live a grand, fancy life following the war. She was a seamstress in a dress factory in New York. While I was growing up, she didn’t say much about her first husband or the two little boys who had been ripped from her arms. But I was told by my mom that my grandma would often scream out in the middle of the night, remembering her loved ones, the camps, the hunger, and the gas chambers.
As I got older, my grandma remained reluctant to talk about the Holocaust with me, but there is one story I did manage to coax from her before she died. She told me that towards the end of the war, the SS worked day and night to liquidate the remaining prisoners in Auschwitz. Most knew that once the guards called for a line-up, those who left would go up “through the chimneys,” never to be seen again.
Eventually, the moment came when my grandma’s number was called, and she and the other designated prisoners reluctantly took their places in line. Everyone was skittish and the guards became frustrated. My grandma, who at her tallest was about 4’10’, yelled out, “What’s the problem? One day you’re born, one day you’re gonna die.”
The guards rushed over and beat my grandma to the ground. As they did, the prisoners scattered in all directions. My grandma told me that with all of the chaos that ensued, the SS couldn’t round everyone up again. Soon after, at least for her, came liberation.
I often tell my 8-year-old daughter that if I had one wish, it would be that she could meet my grandmother. I know that’s a bit selfish; I should wish for health or world peace. But I ache to tell my grandma that her life and survival meant something. I long for her to know that her pain and her loss, as well as her indomitable spirit, will never be forgotten.