Friday is the International Holocaust Remembrance Day. International Holocaust Remembrance Day remembers the victims of the Holocaust and “highlights the humanity of the Holocaust victims and survivors, who had their home and sense of belonging ripped from them by the perpetrators of the Holocaust,” per the United Nations.
The Holocaust occurred between 1939 and 1945, when Germany’s Nazi party systematically murdered approximately 6 million Jewish people and at least 5 million other people, according to The National World War II Museum.
Many stories of victims are available on the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website. Here are two stories that victims and survivors of the Holocaust recorded.
Ruth Gold Rontal’s story
Ruth Gold Rontal’s full interview is available from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Rontal was born in Germany on Aug. 16, 1920. Her parents were owners of two store chains and she had two sisters.
When an interviewer asked Rontal if she had experienced any antisemitism when she grew up in Germany, she said, “Sweetheart, I grew up being the only Jew in the whole German school. And I saw Nazism grow up before people knew about it.”
She said that when the Nazi party rose to power in 1933, she remembered seeing SS officers outside of her home before she went to school. By the time Rontal and her sisters arrived back home, her parents had been taken to prison and her parents’ businesses were shut down. Rontal and her sisters were forbidden from attending school. Due to her father earning the military award of the Iron Cross, they were able to return to schools as “guests.”
Her classmates would tell her that when they saw her on the street, they couldn’t say hello to her and she experienced mocking and antisemitism in school. As time went on, her oldest sister got married and moved to Palestine after she trained to become a nurse from a Jewish doctor in Berlin. Her father died in 1937 due to his wounds from the first World War.
Rontal and her family began making arrangements to flee from Germany. For her birthday in 1939, she wanted to say goodbye to some of her friends in Poland, but she was then arrested at the border when her family was allowed to cross. She was taken to the border with another young man who was also imprisoned. She was permitted to walk across the border and had to walk to Krakow in the cold winter in 1940.
When she arrived in Krakow, she found restaurant work, where she said many of the customers were members of the SS and Gestapo. She had been assigned to work in a home where the SS stormed in. She fled from the home and said, “I was the only one who got out of the house alive.” While living in Krakow, Rontal helped get Jewish people released from prison due to her ability to speak German and her restaurant work.
She recounted one experience where she saw a member of the Judenrat — a local Jewish council that represented the local community to the Nazis — give up his life rather than reveal the location of another Jewish person. Rontal managed to evade arrest until 1943, when she was taken to Auschwitz. While in Auschtwitz, Rontal was forced to perform slave labor and watched many people die. Conditions were deplorable.
Even when she had an opportunity to save her own life, she tried instead to save the life of a friend. By late fall 1943, the Russians freed those who were imprisoned. When Rontal was able to go into town, she collapsed and woke up in the hospital — with typhoid. Rontal and her sisters survived the Holocaust.
She married Cantor Moses and has two children. She concluded her interview, “We must share our blessings with each other.”
Ernest Kolben’s story
Ernest Kolben’s full interview is available from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Kolben was born on May 22, 1926, in Vienna, Austria. His father ran a repair shop and his mother stayed at home with Kolben and his brother.
When Kolben went to school growing up, he said that he occasionally heard slurs on the street. Soon, he said that he was thrown out of school. “We lost the store, we lost the apartment, we lost everything,” he said.
He said that overnight, he became an outcast and his community changed. “The day before it was saying we wanted the social democrats, and the day after they all changed. They were turncoats. They all say, ‘Heil, Hitler.’ That’s what I remember on that. The Austrian people, they changed a lot overnight. But there were some good people, too. They helped us when we lost the apartment, they gave us another place to sleep for a while.”
When his father lost his store, Kolben said that he had to start working as a grave digger — and his father joined him. By 1938, his brother was sent to a concentration camp known as Dachau. His father was able to get his brother out by 1939 and his brother was silent when he returned home.
In 1939, Kolben said that he saw mass violence on the streets and remember the Nazis breaking store windows and writing slurs on the sidewalk. He said that the Jewish community had to wash it off. Kolben and his family had difficulties surviving. His mother died of “a heart problem” and his family went to the ghetto Theresienstadt in 1942.
After staying there for two years, Kolben was sent to Auschwitz. “My father went to the right, I went to the left. And I said, ‘This is my father. I want to go with him.’ This man, he had a whip and he whipped me with my bag and I was running to the left,” he said. “So from that date on, that was the end of my father. I never saw my father again.”
Soon, Nazis asked for volunteers to go to Buchenwald, so Kolben said that he would. He said that at Auschwitz, he noticed that people were being starved, so that’s why he volunteered. Kolben was sent from Auschwitz to Dauchau — specifically to Kaufering, which is a concentration camp within Dauchau. He said that he watched many people be murdered, including for stealing food.
“I saw people between the fence. They got caught stealing potatoes, they put potatoes in their mouth. You stayed between the two wires for many, many hours,” he said. “When they didn’t want to live anymore, they just touch the wire and they fell over. When anything you steal, they put you between the wires.”
His camp was liberated. Kolben married and had two children. He concluded by saying that the interview was the first time he had talked about it, he hated what happened and he was glad to be alive.
How to learn more about the stories of Holocaust victims and survivors
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has several resources, including a database of the victims and an online collection of oral histories that are available in different languages. Listening to these stories is one way to start to learn more.
How to stand up to antisemitism
Good-willed people can help create a pluralistic democracy devoid of prejudice by standing up to discrimination.
Get to know Jewish people
Yair Rosenberg advised on Twitter that people learn about Jewish people today to dispel the stereotypes they may hear. He added that it’s important to learn about the history of the Holocaust, but “the problem arises when it becomes the entirety of the education.”
Whenever something antisemitic happens in the culture, there's a well-meaning call to "study the Holocaust" or follow, say, the Auschwitz Museum on Twitter. But people need most to learn about learn how Jews live, not how they died. Who they are—not what antisemites say they are.— Yair Rosenberg (@Yair_Rosenberg) December 2, 2022
If you are in a religious group or church, consider hosting an interfaith meal with a local synagogue to break bread and fellowship together.
Learn about Jewish history in its entirety and read the perspectives of Jewish writers. Follow Jewish writers on social media and read their work.
Become educated about the Holocaust
Not many Americans are educated about the Holocaust.
Katrina Lantos Swett, daughter of Holocaust survivor Tom Lantos, said that there is a lack of education around the Holocaust in America. “A full 63% of respondents ages 18-39 did not know that six million Jews were murdered during the Holocaust and 48% could not name a single one of the more than 40,000 extermination camps and ghettos in Europe.” This was a 2020 50-state survey of millennials and Gen Z with 1,000 nationwide interviews.
Become educated by reading books like “Night” by Elie Wiesel, “The Diary of a Young Girl” by Anne Frank, “Number the Stars” by Lois Lowry, “Maus” by Arthur Spiegelman and other books to learn what happened.
Consider visiting The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, located in Washington, D.C. The museum’s website also has several available resources, like the survivors’ database and articles on how to confront antisemitism.
There are also other ways to combat antisemitism.
- Avoid stereotyping Jewish people. Prejudicial attitudes usually portray a group monolithically in a harmful manner. Avoid stereotyping Jewish people and recognize the diversity and humanity of Jewish people.
- When you hear an antisemitic remark, have a conversation to correct the remark and explain why it’s wrong.
- Educate yourself on the resurgence of antisemitism and read research about what policies may reduce it. Change of policy and change of culture can contribute to a reduction in antisemitism.