Riva Hirsch, one of the remaining witnesses to the Holocaust, recounted the horrors she endured during World War II, including watching her mother be murdered in front of her and riding a train with bodies of children younger than her.
Hirsch spoke to students and faculty Wednesday, Nov. 15, telling her story of survival.
Hirsch was 7 years old in 1941 when a nearby factory worker knocked on her door and told her father something bad was happening. Not long after, a family friend, Joshua, knocked on the door with the same news.
Soon, her father was ushering them out of the house with small packages of supplies, leaving almost everything behind.
Being Jewish, Hirsch’s family had a mezuzah hanging on their door.
A mezuzah is a small parchment scroll upon which the Hebrew words of the Shema are handwritten by a scribe. Mezuzah scrolls are rolled up and affixed to the doorposts of Jewish homes, designating the home as Jewish and reminding those who live there of their connection to God and their heritage, according to Chabad.org.
“We opened the door,” she said. “My dad turns around and says, ‘I want you to kiss the mezuzah because I don’t think we are ever going to come back to our house.’ We kissed the mezuzah, and we left.”
With German planes already circling above them, searching for refugees, her parents led them to the forest. After walking for many hours with no destination, her mother suggested seeking refuge at Joshua’s mill.
After giving all her diamonds and jewelry to Joshua, her mother persuaded him to let them stay in the mill.
He put them in the darkness inside the mill. With no concept of time, all they could do was sit in the darkness and listen to the bombs outside.
Not long after, however, Joshua came back, frightened by the SS officers patrolling the area. He told them they had to go, saying the officers would kill him and his family if he were found to be harboring Jews.
With nowhere else to go, the family returned to the forest with little left of their supplies and torn clothes and shoes. They decided to seek shelter at her grandparents’ house.
They never made it.
Upon emerging from the woods, Hirsch’s family was captured by the Germans.
“I was holding on to my mother’s skirt, my brother to the other side,” she said. “My father took my other brother.
“They ripped us apart. My mother wouldn’t let us go. They turned around, and they beat her up to death. They took me, and they pushed me away.”
Hirsch was then given a yellow star to label her as a Jew and forced to wait for a train to come — a cattle train loaded with captives crying for relatives and bodies.
“The train was awful!” she said. “Can you imagine to step in the train on dead bodies?”
The train took them to a camp, where they were thrown off the train before it had even stopped moving and then told they would be shot if they moved without being told to.
At the camp, they were made to await a voyage on makeshift ferries, which Hirsch later found were used to drown other captives, including several members of her family.
Hirsch was never taken on such a voyage.
She described being in the camp. She was forced to march to the main part of the camp, but she could not walk because her feet were so injured and bleeding. She was given a bowl and told she would be given soup.
“My dear friends, it was not even water,” she said. “When I came to get it, it was nothing there.
“So, I crawled back, and I didn’t care.”
She crawled back and lay down next to the bodies, bodies ravaged by dogs and wild animals.
“One day, a miracle happened,” she said. “Some man came by and turned me over.
“He picked me up, and he throwed me on his shoulders and he started running.”
After a long distance, he put her into a wagon, covered her with hay and told her to lie perfectly still when the wagon was stopped by the Germans.
After a long journey, the wagon took her to a convent, where nuns put her in a 6-by-6-foot bunker.
She did not leave the bunker for two years, even to relieve herself.
The nuns came “once in a blue moon” to bring her food and water, but they could not come often because of the planes overhead.
In 1945, a nun came and pulled her by the legs from the bunker and told her: “Now you have to leave. You are free.”
Hirsch crawled from the convent, still unable to walk, and lay on the side of the road.
“Again, a miracle happened,” she said.
A couple came along, sick and injured themselves, and carried her on their backs to a Red Cross camp, where she was cared for and where her father found her. He also found her brothers, who soon passed away.
“My dear friends, that’s me,” she said. “You’ve seen somebody which is alive, not a book, not a newspaper.
“It’s the truth because goes around a lot of denial that it never happened. It did happen. The future is in your hands, my dear students. It could happen again. We have to make sure that nothing like that should never ever happen again.”
Hal Fulmer, associate provost and dean of first-year studies, made the closing remarks.
“I would encourage you, as you go away, not to be unmoved, not to be indifferent,” he said. “It’s real important, when we hear the story, and it challenges us at such an emotional, visceral, important level, that we not go away and not be different.”
“I’ve always taken that situation really seriously,” said Joley Dixon, a senior political science major from Graceville, Florida, who attended the event. “What makes it different for me now is the fact that I’ve actually been in the same room with someone who was there.
“It makes my perspective a little more personal.”