Survivor Irene Zisblatt shares story of Holocaust

Tami S. Zimmerman 03/08/10More articles
When Hungarian-born Irene Zisblatt was 9 years old, life as she knew it forever changed.

It was 1939, and she was thrown out of school because she was a Jew.

“My non-Jewish friends ignored me,” she said. “My education and freedom were taken away from me and my hopes were destroyed by Nazi hatred.”

In the years to come, she would experience far more pain, endure cruel and grueling encounters, and miraculously, find hope in the midst of despair.

Irene Zisblatt, 79, is a Holocaust survivor. Fifty years after her liberation in 1947, she finally broke her silence. Since then, she has spoken to six million people worldwide, mostly students, in an effort to educate future generations of the power of hate and the price of inaction.

On March 3, Zisblatt shared her story with approximately 70 students at The Winnick Hillel Center for Jewish Life at Syracuse University.

“The Holocaust is not just a part of history but it lingers in the present,” said Zisblatt, adding genocide can happen any time, any place. “Think about Rwanda and Bosnia and our own country on Sept. 11, 2001. We must absolutely be aware of hatred and learn the lessons of the Holocaust to bring awareness of this unfairness to humanity and [to] never forget what hatred leads to.”

Zisblatt, her siblings and parents were among thousands of Jews forced to leave their homeland in 1944 to enter what can only be described as a living hell. Her family journeyed for five days to occupied Poland in a dark, dank overcrowded cattle train, and were separated almost immediately upon arrival in Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration and Extermination Camp.

“'Don't cry, I will come for you later' – that was the last time I heard my mother's voice,” Zisblatt said.

Zisblatt continued to share intimate details about her life during Hitler's regime. She was selected by German SS officer and physician Dr. Josef Mengele for his torturous experiments, including surgeries without anesthetics.

“The pain was so unbearable I saw joy in his eyes watching me suffer,” she said. “That kind of hatred existed in the 20th century in Nazi Germany.”

She found a friend named Sabka, and together, through faith, one another's strength and will to live, survived the most difficult times including a Death March where they were forced to walk miles in the snow with little to wear and even less to eat. It was then, through Sabka's 19-year-old wisdom, that the two managed to escape and were eventually found by American soldiers. They fed them scrambled eggs, crackers and chunks of chocolate which Zisblatt never before tasted, she said. She described her liberators as 200 beautiful, gorgeous men.

“You never saw such a sight,” Zisblatt said.

The next morning, however, when Zisblatt awoke, her friend did not. She died of typhus in her sleep.

In 1947, Zisblatt moved to America to live with her father's brother and his family. She eventually married and had two children. She was widowed after 13 years of marriage, which she said was yet another holocaust she survived.

“In 1994, when 'Schindler's List' came out, that's when I knew it was my duty to bear witness,” Zisblatt said. “I forced myself to go back to the death camps with 5,000 teenagers from 49 countries on the March of the Living.”

Last year, Zisblatt published her first book called, “The Fifth Diamond,” which shares in detail one of the darkest eras in history. It can be purchased at local bookstores or on Web sites such as

Speaking to a crowd that Zisblatt considers the last generation to meet survivors firsthand, she emphasized her message once again.

“If we stand up against prejudice, racism and promote tolerance, it will change lives and behaviors,” she said. “We must work together to protect the future of human existence for generations to come and it has to start with you.”

CATEGORY: General Society
TAGS: irene, zisblatt, holocaust, survivor, the, fifth, diamond, syracuse, university
EDITION: Eagle Bulletin

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