Holocaust survivor tells story of beating the odds
Woman survived the Holocaust, but almost lost her identity
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Author and Holocaust survivor Irene Skolnick spoke in front of a packed auditorium on the campus of Forsyth Tech last week before signing copies of her recently published book, “In the Shadow of Majdanek.” The lecture was the first of two by Holocaust survivors this month.
Sklonick was born in Poland just prior to the beginning of World War II and Adolf Hitler’s rise to power. Her family was living on the Russian side of a partition drawn through the country that determined which areas were controlled by the Nazis. After Hitler invaded Poland it became difficult for Skolnick’s father to find work and they eventually moved to the southeastern city of Lvov, which was still controlled by the Soviets. She spent a year living with her family in a ghetto from June 1941 until August 1942 when her mother insisted on moving.
Skolnick’s Jewish family decided to assume the identity of Catholics, something her father was reluctant to do but did so after his parents committed suicide. In order to blend in, it helped to be blond-haired, blue-eyed with a perfectly proportioned nose. Her parents fit the description for the most part.
“My blue eyes redeemed my less than perfect nose,” she said. Her father was able to get force papers, and in September 1942 at age five she and her family moved to the German-con trolled city of Lublin.
“My mother trusted an unsavory looking Pole who was inebriated most of the time to take us out, and he said, ‘I have contacts in Lublin,” she said. “I have friends that will help you get settled, blah blah blah.”
In addition to abandoning her Jewish identity, she abandoned her name.
“Here I am, 5 years old and one day my parents tell me your name is no longer what it was,” she said. “This is your name now. Don’t you ever tell anybody what your name was. You are not to tell anybody where you come from, what your parents did before the war, where your father worked.”
Her father got a job manufacturing bullion cubes and they eventually were able to move into a stand-alone house near the factory with the help of a Polish family that had been exiled. There were two rooms and no electricity or indoor plumbing. Skolnick lived there for two years with her parents, brother and aunt and uncle.
“Other relatives would take turns coming to us because we were the only safe haven to have,” she said.
On several occasions, Skolnick’s family’s Jewish identity was almost discovered. She told the story of when her father had to go to Lvov on business.
“One of the difficulties of his job was that he had to travel, and travel to cities where previously he had been a Jew,” she said.
He was late getting home, Skolnick said, and her brother looked out the door only to see a Gestapo truck approaching.
“My brother opens the front door, and he sees a truck with Gestapo stopping and getting out of the truck,” she said. “And he has enough presence of mind to quickly shut to door and sounds the alarm, ‘the Germans are here.”
Her uncle was able to close the attic door and stand on it in the nick of time, while her mother dealt with the officers.
“They asked about the attic, and my mother, cool as a cucumber, says ‘when we moved in this was locked,” she said. “I couldn’t open the door. We didn’t need the space so we didn’t bother. And one of the Germans climbed up the ladder, tried to push it open while my uncle was standing on it. He gave up and they left.”
While Skolnick’s family remained safe in their home, thousands met their death at Majdanek “” a concentration camp less than a mile away. She said everyone knew what was happening in the camp, so much that you could smell the foul odor of humans being burned. Majdanek was liberated in July 1944. Skolnick later lived in France and the United States.
She returned to Poland in 1994 and visited Majdanek, now sanitized. She said even after 50 years, it was uncomfortable for her to speak Polish.
“It labeled me as Jewish,” she said. “I was an American, coming back, speaking Polish. I didn’t like it.”
Guy Blinn, who co-teaches a course on the Holocaust at Forsyth Tech with Jim Fortuna, said they try to bring a speaker every year as a supplement. They typically have 40 to 50 students each semester.
“We try to present issues that will be both relevant to the students as far as a historical study, but also relevant as far as what they might encounter in the future in their lives,” he said. The kinds of moral and ethical decisions that they might make.”
In compiling information for her book, Skolnick said 70 percent came from her father due to the fact that he was one of the few people willing to share their memories.
“Most survivors either would not or could not bring themselves to talk about how they survived the war,” she said. “My father couldn’t stop talking about it to everyone’s annoyance. So much so that at one point he stopped talking and would spend late hours at his typewriter, typing it all down.” !