A combination of students, professors and interested members of the public gathered to witness a piece of living history at Geisel Library Wednesday evening.
Set in the library’s intimate Seuss Room before a group of about 35, Holocaust survivor and author of the memoir Kiss Every Step, Doris Martin, shared her first-person account of horror, tragedy and, also, miracles.
The appearance was a part of UC San Diego’s Holocaust Living History Workshop, an educational outreach program designed to preserve the memory of victims and survivors of the Holocaust.
According to Program Coordinator Susanne Hillman, the workshop was conceived by UC San Diego historian Deborah Hertz and is co-founded and sponsored by the library and the Judaic Studies Program. Hillman, who was in attendance at Wednesday night’s event, said, “UCSD is proud to be working with local survivors in its effort to share a living history.”
This sentiment was mirrored in an introduction given by Hertz, who said, “What I love about these workshops is the sense that there are people in our daily lives, people here in San Diego, who have hidden lives, hidden histories that we are now getting to share in an unvarnished way.”
Martin’s immediate account of suffering at the hands of Nazi Germany was, certainly, unvarnished. Traveling from Escondido to share her story, the Holocaust survivor spoke of monstrosities unimaginable by most.
“I will tell you my story. My story is we went through the Holocaust as a family,” she began.
Born in 1926 in Poland as Dora Szpringer, Martin was a young girl of just 13 when Germany invaded her home country. In her still-present Polish accent, she recounted the fear and senseless killing of thousands of Jews right before her eyes.
“When the Nazis first came to my town they started taking people from their homes and putting them in the synagogue. They put the people in and they burned it,” she said.
Martin went on to describe the arduous decisions Jewish families, like hers, had to make as they came to terms with the real possibility of annihilation.
With desperation rampant, and families slowly being picked apart by the Nazis, Martin’s parents made a last-ditch effort to hide her in their kitchen oven. Eventually though, there was no alternative to surrender.
“Nowhere was safe. No country would take us in, so we had no place to go. Our choice was to go to a concentration camp or die,” said Martin.
After landing at Auschwitz for a few gruesome, death-filled days, Martin was sent to the slave-labor camp Ludwigsdorf, where she remained until the end of the war. For three years, Martin was subjected to beatings, grueling work and near-fatal starvation. Although she lived to tell her story, the survivor recalls feeling that each day would be her last.
After Ludwigsdorf was liberated by the Russians, Martin remembers the mixed emotions of elation, fear and confusion all augmented in a cloud of extreme bodily weakness. Describing the physical state of camp prisoners, she said, “We were like living skeletons; just bones and skin.” Since the Holocaust, she admitted to being unable to throw away even a scrap of food.
Miraculously, Martin was reunited with all six of her family members following the war.
“My family is one in a million. I don’t know why I was so lucky,” she said, but added, “What I saw, I will never forget.”
Regrettably, a reunion like Martin’s was not the norm. In fact, some workshop attendees shared stories of genealogies nearly obliterated in a tear-filled question and answer session, during which Martin circled the room speaking to everyone individually.
Stories like Martin’s are what the HLHW strives to continue making available for the public to hear firsthand. “The personal aspect of hearing a survivor’s story outweighs all other sources,” explained Hillman.
The HLHW is also paired with the USC Shoah Foundation Institute Visual History Archive, a collection of 52,000 digital oral histories of Holocaust survivors and witnesses. Originally compiled for founder Steven Spielberg in conjunction with the making of the film Schindler’s List, the archive is available through the library computer system. UC San Diego is one of only three West Coast institutions with access.
The workshop’s face-to-face component continues this spring with two more local speakers scheduled to appear on UC San Diego’s campus.
On May 4, Robert Frimtzis will talk about his family’s escape from the Soviet Union and migration to Tajikstan. Post-war, Frimtzis immigrated to the United States and subsequently worked on the NASA Apollo program.
And wrapping up the 2010/11 speaker series on June 1, Dr. Edith Edgar, a prominent clinical psychologist and motivational speaker out of La Jolla, will discuss her experiences in the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in a talk titled The Spirit Never Dies.
Both of these appearances will also take place at Geisel Library in the Seuss Room from 5-7 p.m.
Martin shared this personal creed: “We can live in peace. Everyone has the right to live out their fate.”
For more information on the HLHW and the Visual History Archive, visit the website.