Horrors of the Holocaust recounted
November 1, 2006
Eva Wollenberger grew up in a family of privilege, a Jewish family enjoying prewar Dresden, Germany, her father a businessman and herself learning to play the accordion.
The horrors of the Nazi era were looming, though, and Adolf Hitler’s stranglehold on the country was starting. Wollenberger remembers Kristallnacht, known in English as the Night of Broken Glass, in 1938, when Jewish businesses and homes were attacked, one of the notorious events of the period before the outbreak of World War II.
A Holocaust survivor, Wollenberger, who is 75 years old and lives in Hernando, Fla., recounted her experiences on Monday night to about 60 people, mostly grade-schoolers in Temple Har Shalom’s religious school, at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in the Snyderville Basin.
In 1938, the pivotal year when Hitler challenged the rest of Europe in Austria and Czechoslovakia, expanding into both countries, Wollenberger remembers her father’s car was seized, his business was taken over for 10 cents on the dollar and she would hide while listening to her parents talk about the situation.
"We were still living in a beautiful, big apartment," she remembered.
They were forced out and the conditions worsened. She said her accordion teacher stopped showing up for lessons and she was stopped from going to her school. She was banned from a public school in Dresden.
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In 1942, in the winter, as World War II raged, she was forced out of Dresden. She was 10 years old and was loaded onto a train with no heat and no water.
"All we knew was we were going east," she said.
The train was en route to Latvia, where she was sent to the Riga Ghetto. Some adults lost toes to frostbite on the way, "a trip from hell," she labeled the journey.
There, her mother died of a brain tumor and her father was slain because he had varicose veins. She said her father was quickly grouped with the old and the frail and then shot. She considers both her parents victims of the Holocaust.
The ghetto was surrounded by barbwire and the living conditions, she said, were terrible. Several families shared army barrack-like shelter and the food they ate was left over from Latvian Jews who were forced out or killed before Wollenberger arrived.
Wollenberger spent time in the Stutthof concentration camp, where she was held for about a year over two internments. She suffered ear infections that were not treated and she peeled potatoes in the concentration camp’s kitchen, her job at Stutthof. Head lice and body lice were rampant.
She said she believed that the ashes from cremated bodies that escaped from the camp’s crematorium were snowflakes.
The people in the camp were not told of news of the war and lost track of the days and months.
"You knew what time of year it was by the change of the weather," she said.
The war, though, was turning toward the Allies and the people in the camp suffered. When the Nazis lost a battle, the prisoners in the camp lost privileges and were given less food, she said.
The Germans had to clear the camp as the Nazi defeat approached. The prisoners, Wollenberger said, were forced on what she called death marches. They were loaded onto barges and given canned pork to eat and seawater to drink.
"If you could no longer walk, you were shot," she said.
British soldiers freed Wollenberger and the others in May 1945, the month that Germany surrendered. She was 13 years old, the age when many Jewish children have a bar or bat mitzvah, and unharmed when she was set free.
The Red Cross found that her brother survived by moving to Great Britain, where she moved for two years. In 1947, she moved to the U.S. She had a bat mitzvah at 35 years old. She did not speak about her experiences for 30 years after being released.
Wollenberger has not returned to Germany. In 2001, she planned to visit her homeland to observe a synagogue under construction but the Sept. 11 attacks occurred and she did not travel.
"Thank God," she said about arriving in America.