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Holocaust Survivors Tell Their Stories

Getty Images / Eddie Gerald

75 years later, we bid these miraculous lives godspeed.

This International Holocaust Memorial Day, January 27, 2020, marks 75 years since those held prisoner in the Auschwitz concentration camp were liberated. The survivors of the Holocaust, who emerged from a nightmare and managed to put together the pieces of a new life, have grown to old age in the 21st century. Those with the most vivid memories, who were adults during World War II, are mostly gone, and those few who are left are in the last years of their lives. Many, as they leave this life, take one last chance to tell their stories — via their obituaries.

In addition to the notable Holocaust survivors who have died in the past year — Branko LustigEva KorGeorge Brady — many “regular folks” told their extraordinary stories in their recent obituaries. Read on to discover these stories and remember the remarkable lives of the people who lived them.

She Stayed So Her Sister Could Leave 

Goldie Finkelstein recently died at 90, leaving behind generations of loved ones. Her harrowing story began with a sacrifice: 

When Goldie was 13, in March 1943, she and her older sister were grabbed off the street by the Nazis to be sent to a forced labor camp. Her father was able to bribe the authorities to release his daughters, but when they got to the gate to be freed, a senior Nazi SS officer said to her father, "Two sisters? Only one may go, you must choose!" With her father unable to choose, Goldie volunteered to stay and for her sister to go home.

Goldie was sent alone to a slave labor camp called Graben, where she and other young women were forced to manufacture textiles for the Nazi military. Goldie survived a death march in the winter of 1945 from Graben to the concentration camp Bergen-Belsen, where she was liberated on April 15, 1945. She learned after liberation that her entire family had been deported to Auschwitz in August, 1943, where they were gassed and burned within hours of arrival. Goldie was left alone at 15 years old, the sole survivor of her immediate and extended family. 

Goldie built a new life in America:  

After liberation, she met her future husband Sol, also a concentration camp survivor, in a Displaced Persons camp in Stuttgart, Germany. They were married 66 years, until Sol's death in June, 2013. They came to the United States as refugees in 1948 and after a brief time in New York City, moved to Vineland, where they rebuilt their lives as chicken farmers and egg processors. They had three children, and Goldie was totally devoted to rebuilding Jewish life and to her family. 

A Life in Hiding 

Edgar Talmus died at 89 at home in Stockton, California. He was kept alive during the Holocaust by kind clergy — and by his own wits: 

Ed was born in Warsaw, Poland where he survived the Holocaust despite facing horrific adversity as a Jewish child. At the age of nine, with the Warsaw ghetto under Nazi control, his mother was forced to drop him off at a Salesian orphanage. Ed lived there as a hidden child separated from his parents for three years. When Ed was twelve, the Nazis discovered that the orphanage clergy was working with the resistance. While Nazis were rounding up the children and arresting the priests Ed escaped, hiding in a church until he was able to contact his parents and reunite with them. 

Ed remained intellectually curious and engaged all his life: 

He was fascinated - albeit at times frustrated - with the domestic and global state of affairs, and read both the American and Polish press on a daily basis. His (strong) opinions on a vast range of topics from politics to sports to the stock market were sought and respected by everyone who knew and loved him. 

Horrors and a Miracle 

Paula Neyman died at 93 in New York. She lost much in the Holocaust, even though she was able to keep two dear loved ones with her: 

Life changed dramatically for Paula when the Nazis invaded her town in 1941 and executed all the young Jewish boys in the town square. Shortly after, her family was transported to the Vilna Ghetto, and her stepfather was arrested. She never saw him again. When Paula, her mother, and her aunt Rachel were transported to a labor camp via railroad car, her 5-year old sister Linka was concealed in a large knapsack. The child was eventually discovered hiding in the barracks by the Germans and ripped from Paula's arms. She later died in Auschwitz.

The full horrors of Paula's experiences are captured in her 1995 Shoah Foundation interview which can be viewed on YouTube. By some miracle, she, her mother, and aunt were able to remain together through five concentration camps (Lauenburg, Stutthof, Riga-Kaiserwald, Riga-Strasdenhof, and Bruss-Sophienwalde) and two death marches. The three arrived in New York City in 1947. 

Paula realized a lifelong dream ten years later: 

Despite having missed much of her education because of the war, Paula still dreamed of becoming a doctor. While working as an x-ray technician, she went to City College and Hunter College in Manhattan and graduated as one of only three women from NYU College of Medicine, Class of 1957. 

A Daring Escape

Stefi Altman died in her adopted home of Houston at 91. Her obituary paints a picture of a happy life turned upside down by horror, and the strength that got her through it:

Born Szyfra Fiszbaum to Syma and Yitzchak Fiszbaum in Lublin, Poland on May 15, 1926, Stefi was the third of four children. Living within the bustling heart of Polish culture and politics, the Fiszbaum's large and joyful family enjoyed a bounteous life full of happy memories. It was not until the 1939 German invasion of Poland that this contented family's world was changed forever.

Because of their Jewish faith, the Fiszbaums were ordered from their home. Older brothers, Velvel and Moshe, were seized and placed in the nearby Majdanek concentration camp, where they were viciously abused and later murdered. Meanwhile, the remaining family walked 18 miles to Moszenki, Poland, seeking refuge in a barn. Stefi was separated from her family and, with the help of a teacher and Catholic priest, was given a false identity and sent to the Jastkov labor camp. When the Nazis discovered Stefi was Jewish, she was beaten and taken to jail; and the priest, her only friend, was hanged for his humanitarian efforts. She later learned that 35 members of her family were killed, along with approximately 2,000 other Jews in the small town of Belzyce.

For nearly five years Stefi was imprisoned in several concentration camps, including Treblinka, Majdanek, and Dorohucza. At each location, she witnessed horrifically haunting images of human suffering and endured starvation, beatings and atrocious living conditions. In Dorohucza, Stefi was briefly reunited with her one, remaining relative - little sister, Kayla. Though careful not to show affection and thereby garner the attention of her heartless captors, Stefi was cheered by the presence of her sweet sister. However, in an act so sadistic, she shortly thereafter witnessed the brutal murder of her beloved sibling.

Daringly, Stefi eventually escaped from Dorohucza by hiding amongst a group of travelling civilians and then dashing into the Polish wilderness. Had she stayed behind, she doubtless would have been one of the 20,000 Dorohucza inmates murdered in one of the deadliest single massacres of the Holocaust. Instead, she wandered from town to town, hiding from Nazi soldiers and informants. Eventually, a kind-hearted farmer placed Stefi with another Jewish family hiding in a makeshift cave within his barn in the small, rural village of Plowszowice. There she remained, barely surviving, until Soviet liberators freed the area in 1944.

Many years later, Stefi had to revisit those years in a quest for justice:

Stefi also bravely testified against former Dorohucza Nazi soldier, Andrew Kuras, in his U.S. Citizenship Revocation hearing. Her unwavering voice joined the many others which bear witness to the brutal violence of the Holocaust and honor the enduring memory of loved ones inhumanely silenced by Nazi soldiers.

"I hope the world will remember what I cannot forget," Stefi once expressed. "The victim's names were not recorded. They were not given graves or headstones by which to remember them… I always carry the shadows of my family left behind. They will be in my heart forever."

A Light in the Darkness

Sylvia Indyg built a flourishing hotel and restaurant business in cities including Atlantic City, New Jersey before her death at 91. But she never forgot the family she lost to the Treblinka concentration camp:

Sylvia was born in Grojec, Poland, and at very young age, worked with her father, Hershel Bekier and mother, Cyna Bekier in their bakery and bar businesses in the Grojec City Square. When she was 13 years of age, the Nazi Army invaded Poland and occupied her home town along with the rest of Poland.

At the age of 16, she was sent along with her parents and younger brother David to the Warsaw Ghetto with the rest of her town's 6,000 member Jewish population for eventual extermination. At its height, the Warsaw Ghetto imprisoned approximately 400,000 Jews confined into a 1.3 square mile area, all of whom were awaiting transport to the Treblinka death camp. The Warsaw Ghetto was a fortress from which almost no prisoners ever escaped. There she became reacquainted with her future husband, Morris Indyg whom she had met earlier when her aunt married Morris' older brother.

At the Ghetto train station (the Warsaw Ghetto "Umschlagplatz"), while awaiting transport to certain death, Sylvia recognized a German officer whose home she had been ordered by the Nazis to clean days before and told Morris that she knew the German. Morris quickly befriended the Officer and together, both Sylvia and Morris avoided the boxcar transport, but were unable to additionally secure the release of her father, mother and younger brother from the train. Sylvia was separated from her family that day; the rest of her family was taken by train to Treblinka. She never saw or heard from any of them ever again.

When the Warsaw Ghetto had been liquidated down to 40,000 Jews, the same German Officer helped both Sylvia and Morris escape the Ghetto. Sylvia and Morris then fled south to the farm of the Polish Catholic Gujik family who at the risk of their own lives and the lives of their children, hid them (along with Morris' brother Meyer Indyg, sister Pauline Muller and brother-in-law Alexander Muller) in the loft of their barn and sustained the five people in hiding with food and shelter for over 26 months until the liberation of Poland by the Russian Army.

Later, Sylvia ensured that the loved ones she lost would never be forgotten:

Recognizing that most of Kansas City's Holocaust survivors had never had a funeral for their lost loved ones, Sylvia helped Morris organize the New American's Club of the Jewish Community Center of Kansas City, MO, and in 1963 helped build the "Memorial to the Six Million Martyrs," one of the first monuments in America ever dedicated to the lost Jewish populations of Europe. The Monument was dedicated by President Harry S. Truman.

Sylvia lit the first of six eternal lamps on the Monument with each lamp representing the loss of a million Jewish men, women and children. Her parents and brother's names are inscribed on the Monument which remains at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Kansas City to the present day.

A Family Torn Apart

Leon Madowitz died at 97 after a life spent helping others as a family practice doctor in New York. His obituary details what he had to endure to get to that point:

From an early age Leon had longed to be a doctor, but anti-Semitism was rampant and even with exemplary grades, he was initially denied admission to medical school. He began to pursue a career in accounting.

On September 1, 1939 his hometown of Wielun, a city without military or industrial targets, was bombed by the Nazi Luftwaffe, igniting World War II. With uncles he traveled to Lodz, but escaped April 30, 1940, a day before Jews were detained in a ghetto. He returned to Wielun where Jews were being assigned to clear rubble and were gradually being shipped out to labor camps.

He escaped Wielun in May 1942 with his cousin Jehoshua Eibeshitz, both disguised as farmers with pitchfork in hand. Leon's fluency in German alerted him to dangers from soldiers who had overrun Poland. They arrived in Czestochowa, Poland where they were eventually arrested with several thousand Jews and transferred to a labor camp to work in a munitions factory. Leon's father was arrested at the border of Poland and Czechoslovakia and never seen again. His mother and brother Moshe, age 11, were arrested in Wielun and sent to Treblinka concentration camp. He never saw them again.

To the end of his life, Leon was able to describe vividly the liberation of his camp in 1945: waking up to the deep silence of his camp deserted overnight by German soldiers and the relief of seeing Russian soldiers enter. Leon and his cousin returned to Wielun where Leon retrieved his matura, that he had the foresight to slip into a bottle, hermetically sealed with wax, and bury in the basement of his family home, now taken over by strangers. This would be his ticket to medical school.

Never forgetting the family he lost, Leon later gave back to his community in their honor:

Leon was very philanthropic. He was the driving force behind the establishment and construction of the Brentwood Jewish Center, donating the funds for the Ark and East Wall of the temple. He also donated a part of the extended Cardiac Care Unit at Southside Hospital in Bay Shore, NY. All these donations were made in memory of his and Doris's parents Jacob and Regina Madowicz and Isaac and Helen Rotenberg.

Slave Labor

Inge Schlesinger died at 95, having built a life as a bookkeeper in New York who wintered in Florida. Her obituary recalls how she was forced to use her talents to help her captors:

After graduating high school, she apprenticed at the Photostudio Binder-Berlin. Denied official working papers for being Jewish, Inge was paid in secret. She stayed at the studio until being drafted to work at the Zeiss Ikon Filmwerk. For 10.5 hours a day, with Sundays off, she developed 35 mm film in a darkroom.

On May 17, 1943, Inge and her parents were among the last Jews in Berlin to be deported to Birkenau (Auschwitz). They were immediately separated from Hans, who they never saw again.
Inge and her mother were tattooed and their heads shaved before being assigned to an overflowing barracks. After only a few days, the SS called for a photographer. Inge was selected and separated from her mother who was killed in the camp.

As a photographer, Inge worked with accomplished women scientists - chemists, botanists, and agricultural engineers - to establish a source of rubber. The material was critical to the German war effort and Auschwitz provided the perfect soil and slave labor.

On January 18, 1945, the SS marched surviving prisoners away from the advancing Russian Army. In April, outside of Leipzig, they were abandoned by the SS and discovered by Belgian POWs who gave them food and blankets.

Starving, cold, and in fear of capture, Inge found her way to the American headquarters in Grimma, Germany and asked for two things – a job and a place to sleep that was not in a camp.

Inge had a few important last words to share in her obituary:

Just as she was among the last Jews to leave Berlin, Inge is one of the last Holocaust survivors to leave this world. It is essential to remember and share her story. It is just as important to remember that the war and Birkenau defined only a handful of her 95 years.