Written By: Olivia McCaa
In honor of the six million lives lost during the Holocaust, the Brooklyn College community gathered together to commemorate “Yom Hashoah,” or Holocaust Remembrance Day, on Apr. 8. Through the lens and storytelling of Ruth Greuner, a survivor who authored Destined to Live: a True Story of a Child in the Holocaust, participants listened to a short detailing of her and her family’s struggles under Hitler’s regime. The event was hosted virtually by USG, Tanger Hillel, United 4 Israel, and AEPI fraternity.
“The Nazis unapologetically pursued to ethnically cleanse the world by ridding it of Jews and other groups. And more than 80 years later, we will never forget,” said Allegra Timsit, United 4 Israel’s board member, who opened and welcomed Greuner.
As a young girl living in hiding during Poland’s Nazi and Soviet occupation, Greuner felt lonely and isolated. During this time, she saw her whole family be killed in a crematorial. “I can’t say I’m happy because speaking about the horrors I went through are never happy but I feel it is very important for people to know what happens because the witnesses are dying out,” she said.
Greuner initially survived due to her parent’s popular and beloved chocolate shop. The family sold a multitude of different treats, including marshmallow, chocolate, and candied fruit. While they endured many new restrictions under the new occupation, their shop remained open for a short time before they were forced to leave.
“One of our customers was a wonderful Polish lady. She is the first one who initiated mine and my parent’s rescue,” Greuner explained. The Polish customer, known as Mrs. Szczygiel, would be a key factor in Greuner’s survival for the next few months.
Before being in Szczygiel’s care, Greuner lived in the ghetto along with six other people in a single-bedroom, including her parents and four neighbors.
“We slept on cots. We didn’t even have a table. We had to sit with a single oven and window in the room,” Greuner said. “There was no bathroom… the outhouse toilet was in the backyard.”
Greuner’s father was able to find a job outside the ghetto, but in order to leave his home, he needed to carry a pass with him every time that translated from German to ‘useful Jew.’ Greuner described the regime’s treatment of Jews as being like that of animals. “We had no name, no nothing,” she told the audience.
When Greuner’s father was walking to his job, he saw Mrs. Szczygiel, who wanted to save Greuner’s young life. The next day, when he left for work, he decided to take Greuner with him and out of the ghetto.
“He put me under his coat and told me to put my feet on top of his feet, this is how we walked out, and the guard did not see me,” she said. Greuner’s father brought Greuner with him to work, but Szczygiel was nowhere to be found after a long wait. She would not pick Greuner up until the following day.
Greuner’s father was forced to hide her in a room in the factory where he worked. Her father looked at her and said, “He hoped to see me in the morning,” Greuner recalled.
Greuner was eight years old when she left the ghetto to go live in the non-Jewish home of the Szczygiels. As Greuner was separated from her parents, her family would be killed along with the rest of her kindergarten class. Greuner saw many instances where she was almost reported or caught by officers. If she had been caught, both she and her caretakers would be severely punished or executed.
As Greuner spoke, she pointed out that she believed, “God helped me to survive” to bring her story to the next generations. Greuner continuously pointed out that even though these horrors occurred, she never lost her religious faith and still thinks the “world is beautiful.”
“I feel that in order for the world to be good… we should understand and agree that we are all God’s children regardless of skin color, regardless of nationality, regardless of religion,” said Greuner. “God is an artist, so why should we discriminate.”
Shortly after Greuner spoke, the audience was victim to a Zoomboming. Hackers attempted to send anti-Semitic and racist messages through the chat. They also attempted to share and annotate the zoom screen and displayed a pornographic site.
Once the hacking was resolved, the Q&A with Greuner continued with no further problems. After that, participants shared a two-minute moment of silence that is observed across Israel on Holocaust Remembrance Day, accompanied by start-to-finish air raid sirens. Unfortunately, a hacker attempted to annotate the screen during the moment.
In honor of the six million lives lost, Timsit announced the lighting of six candles with Greuner lighting the first one. The next few candles were lit by other leading members of the Brooklyn College Jewish community, including Sampson Miller, Sarali Cohen, Hudi Harman, Lea Brander, and MJ Romero.
At the end of the event, student Andy Ebbin recited a prayer dedicated to those killed decades ago. As audience members began to depart, the event displayed a short video of Holocaust survivors with a song that embodied the night’s theme of “we will never forget.”