Holocaust Survivors: We Were There


Edith Eva Eger never suspected her ability to dance as a ballerina was what was going to save her life as a young teen trapped in Auschwitz concentration camp.

She was given table scraps which kept her from starving to death after dancing for German SS Dr. Josef Mengele, the infamous “Angel of Death,” who experimented on camp inmates.

Surviving that heart-wrenching ordeal gave Eger a renewed purpose in life. “It’s my duty to be sure the children know that I’ve been there, that my parents didn’t die in vain,” said the diminutive La Jollan, now a clinical psychologist. “That’s especially true since the Iranian president said the Holocaust didn’t exist.”

Nurse Fanny Liebovits believes it’s a miracle she survived the Holocaust. But she’s living testament that miracles happen. “The most important message is to remember what happened ... then it will never happen again,” said Liebovits, a La Jollan who is a member of the speaker’s bureau with the New Life Club, a holocaust survivors group.

“It’s a new life for us,” pointed out Gussie Zaks, president of the New Life Club, who was 13 years old when the Nazis came for her family. “I was the baby of seven children and my mother said, ‘I’m the only one who’s not going to survive.’ I am here. The rest of them are not.”

Now mostly in their 80’s, the experience of Holocaust survivors, then and now, is especially poignant as they are the living embodiment of Passover, the Jewish holiday commemorating the exodus and freedom of the Israelites from bondage in ancient Egypt. Passover will be celebrated this year starting at sundown on Monday, April 2. Its name derives from the night of the Tenth Plague, when the Angel of Death saw the blood of the Passover lamb on the doorposts of the houses of Israel and “skipped over” them and did not kill their firstborn. The ritualistic meal of the Passover Seder with its symbolic ingredients commemorates this Biblical event.

On Sunday, April 15 starting at 1:30 p.m., the United Jewish Federation of San Diego County is hosting its annual Community Holocaust Commemoration at the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center, 4126 Executive Drive in La Jolla. “The Holocaust and Israel: How are they linked?” is this year’s commemoration theme, marking more than 30 years of collective remembrance. The featured guest speaker will be Gilad Millo of the Consulate General of Israel. The program will include a military color guard, candle lighting and memorial prayer service led by local rabbis and cantors.

On Monday, April 16, San Diego Jewish Academy will host San Diego’s Holocaust survivors at a moving and inspiring Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony to include songs, readings, candle lighting and ceramic butterfly-making (a symbol of hope, faith, Jewish life and religious freedom) with students at the San Diego Jewish Academy campus.

Later, on Friday, June 8, starting at 12:30 p.m., Chabad of La Jolla will formally dedicate a 350-year-old Torah, which too survived the Holocaust, at a special ceremony at Chabad headquarters at 10785 Pomerado Road in Scripps Ranch. “It’s mind boggling this Lithuanian Torah survived Nazi Germany and was smuggled out after the war,” said Rabbi Baruch Ezagui of Chabad. “It is a lesson that light is stronger than darkness, that good outlives bad. It is a very powerful - and humbling - experience to be able to touch, and feel, 350 years of our predecessors who fought for us, died for us.”

According to information compiled by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., there are an estimated 834,000 to 960,000 living Holocaust survivors throughout the world. Of that number, approximately 360,000 to 380,000 are in Israel, and 140,000 to 160,000 reside in the United States. A Holocaust survivor is defined as any Jew who lived in a country at the time when it was under the Nazi regime, under Nazi occupation or under a regime of Nazi collaborators, as well as any Jew who fled due to the Nazi regime or occupation.

Michael Bart, whose parents are both Holocaust survivors, is co-chair of the Holocaust Commemoration Committee at the Jewish Community Center. He noted the April 15 commemoration will be held at the JCC’s memorial garden, which features a sculpture, a fountain and a huge granite wall with plaques and is inscribed with the names of family members of San Diegans who perished during the Holocaust. He promises this year’s event will be inspirational.

“This is the 35th year,” Bart said, “and we come together as a community to honor the victims of the Holocaust. It’s going to be a very moving and emotional service. A military Marine color guard will be signifying how troops helped liberate Europe. There will be a candle lighting by survivors representing various death camps. Young people will be involved with beautiful music and singing.”

There is one truth that stands out above all others concerning the Holocaust. “The Holocaust should never be forgotten,” said Bart. “It should be passed on from generation to generation. This is our way of telling the world, ‘Yes, it happened, and we’re not going to forget.’ ”

New Life Club President Gussie Zaks noted time is rapidly claiming the Holocaust survivors who are left. “Survivors are dying every week,” she said.

Like most survivors, Zaks noted, the lessons of the Holocaust, especially on a personal level, are difficult to tell. “You have to have lived through it like my husband and I,” she said. “We don’t understand. It’s very hard for us to believe we were there. It’s almost like we were watching a movie.”

Survivors have to deal with a lot of guilt. “Every day I ask, ‘Why me?,’ ” said Zaks. “How come I’m alive and not them. I was so lucky. Why did God want me to be here?”

Liebovits admits it’s always very taxing for her to speak about the past. “I do not take it lightly,” she said. “Every time I talk about it, it hurts. I did not speak for many years about it. I didn’t want my children to feel the pain the way I feel it, continue feeling it, until they were grown up.”

Liebovits was born in Latvia in a town that had between 8,000 and 9,000 Jews before the Holocaust. “Only about 80 survived,” she said.

There are two miracles Liebovits refers to when relating her Holocaust story. “One was on the 15th of December in 1941,” she recalled. “The Germans had left only about 800 Jews out of 8,000 and they put us in a ghetto. On the 15th of December, they rounded up everyone left and took us to the prison. They divided up the people to the right and the left. Some they took out to the forest and shot in mass graves.”

A nurse wearing a Red Cross arm band back then, Liebovits was taken aside by a German soldier. “When I got into the office, he said to me, ‘You are too young to die, get out.’ I begged him, pleaded to let my mother and two sisters go with me. I said, ‘I’m not going to go unless you let them go, too, with me.’ He said to the guard, ‘Let her go, and I don’t want to ever see you again.’ It was a miracle he picked me from so many others.”

Liebovits spent time in four different concentration camps in four different places. She ended up as one of the walking dead cast adrift on a barge in the North Sea when the Russians pushed the Germans on the front near the end of the war. That’s when her second miracle occurred. “We were floating on the North Sea for nine days and nights with no food or water,” Liebovits said. “People infected by typhoid fever were dying by the minute. We had to put them in the sea. On the last day before we were liberated, Russian planes hit the boat and we had a big leak. It was going down. There was a ship that was collecting German sailors, and they put planks out and we went over to the other side.”

Clinical psychologist Eger said her Holocaust experience forced her to make personal choices which have changed the outcome of her life. “Do I want to have a lifestyle or a deadstyle?,” she asked herself. “Do I want to live? Do I want to have passion in life? Do you want to have children? I learned in Auschwitz how you can find from within, when nothing comes from without.”

A widow and the mother of three with five grandchildren and one great-grandchild, Eger said the best revenge was persevering and continuing her family line. The whole experience caused her to have an epiphany. “I saw strength that comes out of this,” she said, “rather than being a victim.”

Eger frequently takes time out of her busy schedule to talk to students about her Holocaust experiences. Her presentation is profoundly moving, deeply affecting, in a very personal way. Her speeches typically end with listeners spontaneously embracing her. “I want to be a model to children not to give in to drugs and sex at too early an age,” she concluded.

Being a Holocaust survivor however, also carries for Eger a compelling responsibility.

“I was given a second chance in life,” she said. “I love life and feel life is a gift, because you don’t seem to appreciate what you have until you lose it. I speak about how we can discover the kind of ways that we can commit ourselves to other people, rather than just thinking of me, me, me and I, I, I. In Auschwitz, all we had was each other, then. And all we have is each other, now.”

For more information about the 2007 Community Holocaust Commemoration, call Tina Friedman of the UJF at (858) 571-3444, e-mail or visit