MOREHEAD CITY — Holocaust survivor Gizella Abramson remembers the day and time the Nazis stormed her hometown in Poland in 1939. She also remembers the next six years of hell she survived to now share her story with young people across the nation.
From surviving the Polish ghetto, to witnessing hundreds of Jews gunned down after digging their own graves, to watching her best friend hanged in a concentration camp, Mrs. Abramson, in her late 70s, recounted her emotional story Friday to nearly 300 students at West Carteret High School.
In a passionate address, Ms. Abramson made it clear why she came to talk with the students.
“You precious ones are the future and you live in a precious country. Learn to love this country and learn your obligations to it,” she said.
“And remember that hatred destroys. I pray you never know how hatred feels. Learn to love each other and make this country blossom and bloom.”
Ms. Abramson, who is a retired schoolteacher from Raleigh, was 11 years old when the Nazis invaded her small town in Poland.
“It was Sept. 1, 1939, when all of a sudden German tanks rolled in. They got in town at 6 a.m. and at 3:30 (p.m.) they banged on our door. It was an SS (German security force) officer with the police. They already knew where every Jew lived. They took everything of value from us.”
Ms. Abramson was eventually separated from her parents and moved in with an uncle, who was a physician, an aunt and two cousins. She never saw her parents and brother again.
That was the beginning of the atrocities the young 11-year-old would experience.
“First they (Nazis) posted papers on the walls of our homes that there was a 5:30 p.m. curfew for Jews. Jews were told to wear white arm bands with a six-pointed star, the Star of David.”
More rules came. Jews had to wear a yellow star patch — one on their chest and one between their shoulder blades. Then another rule — Jews could no longer walk on the sidewalks. They could only walk in the gutters.
“They would say ‘you dirty Jew, how does it feel to walk in the gutters, you dirty swine,’” she said. “They would spit on us and throw stones at us. Suddenly you are no more a child. And suddenly I realized, we are no longer humans to them. We are yellow patches.”
Then one night there was a banging on her uncle’s door.
“Suddenly the SS came in. They took my aunt, uncle, two cousins and I and plastered us against the wall. Everything of value disappeared. They didn’t even speak to us. To them we didn’t exist.”
Then the Nazis announced they were in need of 14,000 young men between 14 and 25 years of age to work. They were told they would be paid.
The men left in the morning thinking they were heading to work. That evening a knock came on her uncle’s door.
“Right after curfew my uncle yelled and called for all doctors to come over,” she said.
Eventually 22 of the young men crawled to her uncle’s office. They had been brutally beaten. Of those seeking help, only two or three lived. The Nazis had butchered the rest.
Then a new invitation was sent out for Jewish mothers to bring their babies to a high school to receive vitamins and food.
“They were promised bread, cheese and vitamins. But my aunt said she was not going to send my cousins, who were 2 and 4,” she said.
When the day came for the mothers to take their children to the school, Ms. Abramson snuck out and went to the school and climbed up in a tree to see what was happening and hopefully get some food.
“I was looking for the tables and food, but there was no tables or food. Instead there were all of these trucks lined up. As the mothers came out with their babies, policemen pulled the babies away from the mothers and put them in trucks,” she said.
“Then they began pushing the mothers into trucks. We never heard from the mothers and children again. I didn’t feel 11½ anymore.”
Shortly after that she and her family, as well as thousands of others, were told they were being moved into a ghetto.
“Jews were told to take only what they could carry,” she said. “My aunt told us to wear three layers of clothing.”
When they arrived the Nazis were already building walls around the dilapidated houses, most of which only had dirt floors and no glass in the windows.
“The Nazis promised us food and water would arrive. But no food or water ever came,” she said.
So the decision was made to make holes in the brick walls so some Jews could crawl out and exchange what few belongings they had for food at a farmer’s market. Ms. Abramson was among those selected.
But with so few belongings, very little food was obtained and starvation began to set in. Her family began to hear rumors that the Nazis were sending families in cattle cars to a place called Auschwitz.
“It was supposed to be some sort of a bad place,” she said.
Her uncle made the decision to send her and her cousins away. She was sent out on her own and her cousins were sent somewhere else.
“My uncle told me not to come back and said to me, ‘I wish you well.’ ”
While making her way through the countryside she heard trucks coming down the road and ran and hid in the bushes. She’ll never forget what she witnessed when she looked out.
“Suddenly I saw the trucks stop and Nazis began yelling an order for the people to get out of the trucks and to dig holes. Suddenly it became quiet and they were told to put their shovels down in one pile and ordered to undress,” she said.
“The women were told to put their clothes in one pile and the men in another. Then they were ordered to go and stand at the edge of the trench,” she continued.
“Machine guns began firing and bodies began falling into the trenches. I heard one soldier say he wanted a beer. Another one said he wanted some music. So while they drank beer and sang, they killed every one of them,” she said.
“Not one of them asked for mercy. I saw one man’s mouth move like he was praying. And one mother kept kissing her baby and quietly tried to comfort her.”
The soldiers covered the bodies, and after they left she tried to pull one body out to see if he was alive. But it was useless.
“I don’t remember what happened the next couple of weeks. I remember feeling like I needed to be with them and it was my fault and I was a coward,” she said. “But when you see a blue sky and sunshine, how you want to live.”
When she came back to her senses she was in a bed and a woman was speaking Polish to her. It turned out the woman worked with the Polish underground and she was given a new name and told she was going to be a granddaughter to a grandmother.
“Three men came and took me to a small town, but when I got there it was not my grandmother,” she said. “I was to help the Polish underground.”
Ms. Abramson, not yet 12, was charged with spying on a German general who stayed at a house where they had placed her. She would periodically report to a man to share information she had learned.
Then she was switched to another location and stole information from the Gestapo. But eventually she was caught, and at the age of 12 was sent to a concentration camp.
“We were all put in cattle trains,” she said. “Many of the people were Christians because by this time there were no more Jews. We were on the train for three days and three nights.”
When they arrived at the camp, Ms. Abramson got out of the train car. She saw other cars that had arrived from another region being unloaded. They contained mothers and children wearing yellow stars.
“I made the decision to go over and stand with the Jews,” she said. “The old ones were immediately taken away. They only wanted the young strong ones.”
Their heads were shaved and they were taken to showers. Then they found clothes to put on. They were each given numbers.
“If you didn’t know your number you were killed,” she said.
She and the others worked filling bullets with powder.
“You had to do it just right. If you didn’t, they killed you,” she said.
She and the others were slowly starved, beaten and many were hanged from gallows, including her best friend.
“They put a noose around her neck. If I would have tried to run to her or touched her everyone in my row would have been killed,” she said. “So I couldn’t go to her and all night the noose got tighter and she died.”
The cruelty continued even after the Germans realized the war was lost. The Germans moved their munitions factory and some slave laborers toward the west to escape capture by the Russians.
Ms. Abramson remained in captivity until being liberated by the American Army in May 1945. Her body was extremely malnourished.
“We looked like corpses. I had to learn to eat and drink again, and how to walk again,” she said.
After a few months, she made her way to New York City to live with an aunt. She eventually located her aunt and two cousins she had stayed with in Poland. Her uncle had died, as had her mother, father and brother.
Ms. Abramson was nursed back to health in a hospital and eventually graduated from Sarah Lawrence College with a bachelor’s degree in education. In 1952 she married, and the couple moved to Raleigh in 1970.
She began sharing her experiences with various groups, and in 1991 devoted her energy to speaking with students and participating in teacher training workshops on the Holocaust across North Carolina.
West Carteret English teacher Lynn Hunsucker decided to invite her to speak to West Carteret students after hearing her speak at a teacher workshop.
“It so touched me, everything she said. So when my students started working on a Holocaust project, I knew I had to have her,” she said.
Sophomore Mya Pope said she was moved by her story.
“I thought she was inspirational,” she said.
Sophomore Haley Barker said her great aunt had been in concentration camps and was especially moved by her story.
“I think it was awesome,” she said. “I will learn what they had to go through. It was very sad and hopefully nothing like that will happen again.”