On Thursday, Nov. 5, students gathered for a rare opportunity to hear someone who survived through one of the most horrific episodes in modern history.
“If there is anyone who embodies a sense of hope, it’s Ann Rosenheck,” said Hal Fulmer, dean of first year studies. Rosenheck, a Holocaust survivor, shared her story with the visitors at a public lecture.
Though her experience was ugly, one could sense her great sense of optimism and how grateful she was to be able to share her story with others.
“I come from the Carpathian Mountains,” Rosenheck said. She said her early life in Rachov, Czechoslovakia, was normal.
Her father was a businessman. Her grandparents were bakers for the military. Her parents encouraged her to believe that her studies were important.
As a little girl, Rosenheck said she found great pleasure when she was immersed in a book.
Rosenheck said she remembers the day the Nazis came to her family’s home. She was just 13 years old.
Rosenheck recalled a memory from that day. She said she and her family were told they had 10 minutes to pack, so she hurried to find her favorite book, “Gone With the Wind.”
It was a favorite of hers and her friends. They had been passing it around and sharing it among each other.
“I managed to get it back the day we left,” Rosenheck said.
The coincidence of her book’s return mirrors her improbable journey through several trials of the Holocaust.
Rosenheck, her mother, and her father were taken to a Hungarian holding camp. Rosenheck’s sister, Helen, was not going to be taken away, but she volunteered to join.
Rosenheck remembers her father scolding Helen, asking why she would come.
“Papa, whatever happens to you, happens to me too,” Helen said.
Rosenheck described the holding camp as a big cemetery.
“Nothing to cover yourself with, nothing,” she said. “(We) simply had to hold onto each other.”
The Rosenheck family was boarded on a crowded cattle car with no water or food, unaware of their destination. They rode on the car for four days.
“If it was raining, we were able to stick our finger out and get water,” she said, referring to the cattle car window.
When the family arrived, the men were separated from the women.
“We stepped out, and now we lined up,” Rosenheck said.
Rosenheck remembers her father and uncle being set in a separate line. She saw that they were going to the crematorium. She knew, but did not tell her mother.
Rosenheck’s mother was sent to the crematorium shortly after. She was able to die without the pain of knowing her husband was gone.
That night, Rosenheck overheard people saying her parents had been sent to the crematorium to die.
It felt unreal to her, impossible. The morning after, Rosenheck “believed it.”
On her first day in Auschwitz, Rosenheck’s family was gone and she suffered alone. She said she longed for the comfort of a family again.
“Whenever I saw a mom and children, I’d want to be next (to them),” she said.
Later, Rosenheck’s luck favored her one more time. She was not sent to the crematorium, but rather to work.
It was because she said she was 17 years old, rather than 13. Her parents had encouraged her to lie about her age for protection.
“I would’ve never made it,” she said.
At the camp, they took the Jews’ clothes and shaved their head. Rosenheck said no one wanted to do so, but it only took a second to follow orders because they were so scared.
The Jews were given long, gray dresses to wear. Rosenheck’s dress was so long, she tripped on herself.
“I was little,” she said. “I’m not a giant today, so imagine at 13.”
She was working for an SS woman, taking care of the woman’s room. Food was delivered to the room, but never for Rosenheck, only the SS woman.
“The hunger was tremendous,” she said.
Rosenheck remembers hunting for a morsel of a crumb. One day, the woman told Rosenheck to just take her cake.
Rosenheck, still starving, went to find others and gave them the cake. She said she did not have one bite of it.
There were people who helped Rosenheck along the way, without whom she would not be able to tell her story.
“I can’t explain to you because at that time, to see an American for liberation, (was) unreal and unbelievable,” she said. “It is unreal to me that I lived through that.”
After the war, Rosenheck married her childhood sweetheart, Ike, and moved to the United States to build a new a life.
Rosenheck has written a book about her experiences, but wants it to be released after she dies.
“I liked how she is releasing the book she wrote after her death,” said Jessica Nelson, a freshman multimedia journalism major from Gatlinburg, Tennessee. “She doesn’t want to pull the negativity back out but she wants the story to be told. It was a beautiful thing to see.”
Rosenheck’s lecture seemed to radiate with hope. Audience members said they were appreciative and grateful to be alive, hearing Rosenheck tell her story.
“It’s one of my favorite periods of history to study, so to be able to hear her first-hand experience made history books come alive,” said Ashleigh Bredigkeit, a sophomore communication major from Kimberly. “I’m just so happy I could be there to hear her speak.”