Sunday, June 15, 2008

Auschwitz survivor keeps promise to tell victims' story

A Holocaust survivor, now age 85, has spent her life trying to fulfill a promise she made to fellow Auschwitz victims to tell the world their story.

Sun, Jun. 15, 2008

Facing death in Auschwitz more than 60 years ago, Joyce Wagner and her fellow prisoners made a pact: If any of them survived, they promised to tell the world what the Nazis had done.
Only Wagner lived to tell the story, and it took almost three decades for the Lauderhill woman to muster the courage to tell others about the horrors of the Holocaust.
Wagner has since spoken to thousands of high school students about her experience in a concentration camp. And she has written a memoir, A Promise Kept to Bear Witness.
Sunday afternoon, Wagner will talk about her book and her life before an audience at the Holocaust Documentation and Education Center in Hollywood.
'We knew nobody would survive. We promised, and we prayed, `Please, God, let one survive to tell what happened,' '' she said, eyes closed, as she remembered sitting with several girls outside a barracks in a Nazi death camp.
''I can see their faces, sitting in the mud. There was no grass there. I can still see the people marching by -- mothers, fathers, small children, some from Paris, dressed beautifully, some poor,'' and all on their way to the gas chambers, she said. ``You remember forever.''
The need for written stories like Wagner's is especially pressing now, said Rositta Kenigsberg, executive vice president of the Holocaust Documentation and Education Center. ''We live at a time when you have the Iranian president saying the Holocaust didn't happen,'' Kenigsberg said. "It's very important to tell her story.''

Wagner, a Lauderhill resident, grew up in a small Polish town called Radziejów. After Hitler's army invaded in 1939, her family was imprisoned in a ghetto and eventually separated and sent to death camps. Her parents and eight siblings all died -- some in the camp with her, some in ghettoes, and some in places she doesn't even know. She was barely 18 years old.
After the war, some of her uncles, who had already settled in the United States, helped Wagner get a visa in 1949.
She began her new life in a Chicago suburb. She stayed home to raise three children, while her husband worked in a factory to support the family.
She locked away memories of the Holocaust, keeping silent about her personal past.
She would cover up the identification number the Nazis tattooed on her left arm -- 57779 -- with a bandage whenever she wore a short-sleeved shirt. When her young children asked what the numbers were, she simply said, ``Bad people put it on my arm.''
Her daughter, Gilda Ross, who still lives outside Chicago, remembers being confused about why she didn't have grandparents. Her mother would not give her an explanation.
''She never wanted us to bear the pain that she bore,'' Ross said.
Then one day in the 1970s, Gilda came home crying. Her boyfriend had asked a different girl to the prom. Wagner thought the time had come to explain that high school heartbreaks aren't the worst thing that can happen.
'I thought to myself, `That's not the important thing in life. There are more important things to cry about in this house,' '' Wagner recalled telling her daughter.
She talked about the crowded cattle cars, the crematoriums that burned thousands of murdered people and the countless other horrors she had witnessed as a teenager.
Wagner had broken her decades of silence.
''She spoke and we held hands,'' Gilda Ross said. ``It was the first time that I heard some of the stories.''
But retelling what happened during World War II wouldn't end with Wagner's family.
In 1977, Wagner talked of her past to a group of high school students putting on a play about Anne Frank, the teen who kept a diary about her family hiding from the Nazis during the war.
Through the years, Wagner has kept her promise to those friends in the concentration camp, recounting her story to groups, large and small.
She moved to South Florida in the late 1970s after her late husband was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease.
A few years ago, she decided to put her stories on paper. Her own age was one reason Wagner chose to finally write it all down. ''I'm 85 years old. I'm no baby anymore,'' she said.
The other reason: She wanted people to know the truth about the Nazis after she was gone.
The telling wasn't easy. It took Wagner five years to write everything, sometimes by hand and sometimes with her daughters transcribing.
''I was writing, crying, writing, then crying,'' she said. ``Some days I could write all day, then not at all the next.''

After the book was finished, Wagner wasn't sure if she wanted it published. ``I wanted to get rid of it.
'My daughter said, `Don't you dare,' '' she said, pointing to the handwritten manuscript that sits next to her sofa.
The book was published in June 2007.
Today, Wagner keeps two photos next to each other on the wall in the front hallway of her fourth-floor Lauderhill apartment.
The first is a fading black-and-white picture of her with her vanished family -- brothers, sisters and parents. The other is a color photo of herself, a proud older woman standing with her children and grandchildren.
Last week, Wagner returned to Florida from Chicago, where she was visiting her family. While there, she spoke at four schools, which left her vocal cords raw and inflamed. Her doctor told her to try not to talk very much.
But she has no plans to stop telling her story. ''I have to talk,'' she said. ``I can't stop. We promised each other.'' (Miami Herald)

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