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Ursula Pawel

1926 - 2015 Obituary Condolences
Ursula Pawel Obituary
Ursula Pawel

AGE: 89 • Maplewood

Ursula Pawel, age 89, of Bedminster and formerly of Maplewood, NJ, who survived three years in Holocaust concentration camps, and dedicated her life to fostering the ideals of tolerance and humanity, died on May 30 after a short illness. Born in Germany in 1926 to a Christian mother and a Jewish father, Ursula had an uneventful, happy childhood. However, with the ascension of the Nazi regime Ursula and her family soon felt the full weight of the anti-Semitism sweeping the country. Forced out of her school at the age of seven, she found that her former playmates were no longer her friends. As the Nazi noose tightened her father was compelled to sell his business and the family was subjected to harsher and harsher living conditions, culminating in deportation to the "model" concentration camp of Theresienstadt in 1942. Only her mother was left behind.

In 1944 Ursula, her father and younger brother were transported via cattle car to the extermination camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Immediately separated, she never saw her father or brother again. Paraded with hundreds of other Jewish women through a gauntlet of snarling German shepherds and screaming SS guards, she found herself facing the infamous SS officer responsible for "selection". As each prisoner approached, fate would be decided by whether he pointed to the right (barracks) or to the left (gas chambers). When Ursula approached, he pointed to the right. As she later wrote in her memoirs, on the first evening at Auschwitz "….we saw flames about 600 feet into the blood-red sky, the chimneys were spewing their burning cinders…..we would stare at the sky, unable to comprehend that the burning sky reflected the burnt particles of our people and we were the potential fodder for this inferno".

She endured Auschwitz for three months and was then chosen for slave labor at another camp. On arrival there, she and five of her closest comrades were rejected for work and placed in a train bound back to Auschwitz and the gas chambers. Knowing that certain death awaited, they vowed suicide, not caring if their conversations were overheard. In one of the inexplicable vagaries of war, fate intervened, as the two German soldiers guarding them were not SS but regular infantry. Showing compassion and respect, and visibly upset and ashamed about the actions of their countrymen, the two soldiers managed to divert these women from Auschwitz, and instead arranged to send them to a smaller labor camp, possibly at great risk to themselves.

Ursula was liberated in 1945 and made her way back to her mother's village. Determined to leave Germany, she and her mother emigrated to the United States in 1947. Both enthusiastically embraced their new country; proud to call themselves Americans, and grateful for the freedoms their new homeland bestowed upon them. Denied any higher education in Germany, Ursula and her mother did odd jobs in New York and then in Boston, before Ursula met Dr. Alice Ettinger, who at that time was the chief radiologist at Pratt Diagnostic Hospital. Impressed with Ursula's work ethic and intelligence, Dr. Ettinger managed to place Ursula into a radiology technician training program, despite her lack of the usual prerequisites. Ursula married Hans Pawel in 1948. A refugee from Nazi Germany who had lost his own family in the Holocaust, Hans became a professor of mechanical engineering. The two were happily married for 49 years. Although there was little time or money for much vacation at first, they managed to travel extensively together, to the American west, Europe, Asia, and the Caribbean, with one of their favorite spots being the island of Virgin Gorda, BVI. Lovers of opera and classical music, they were regular visitors to Lincoln Center.

Hans died in 1999. That same year, Ursula published her memoirs "My Child is Back!" in the Library of Holocaust Testimonies. She became a much sought after lecturer and touched thousands of children and adults in middle schools, high schools, colleges, churches, synagogues, community centers, and libraries. Speaking without notes or visual aids, she was able to transfix her audiences within minutes, regardless of their age or background. In particular teenagers, many skeptical that anything this small elderly lady could say would be of even remote interest, soon became lost in rapt attention as Ursula related her own teenage experiences. She felt it was her calling not just to relay the horrors of the Holocaust, but to also teach the evils and consequences of racism and intolerance, and to summon her young audiences to have the courage to fight bigotry in any of its forms. She challenged them to face adversity with spirit, to remember the past, and most importantly showed them the power of hope, showing by her own example that life can emerge with meaning and enjoyment even after the most terrible of trevails. In recognition of this, in 2007 she received a Certificate of Leadership in Holocaust and Genocide Studies from Raritan Valley Community College.

As she became older, Ursula cut back on her traveling. One of her last overseas trips was to France and to the Normandy beaches, where she paid homage to the many servicemen who fought and died for her freedom. Ursula leaves behind two loving sons, David and Bruce, their wives Mayumi and Barbara, and granddaughter Laura. In lieu of a funeral, a celebration of Ursula's life will be held in the fall. Contributions in her memory may be made to United States Holocaust Memorial Museum or to the Saint Barnabas Burn Foundation.

Published in Courier News on June 3, 2015
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