On Sunday, as the world remembered the millions of Jews and others murdered in the Holocaust, past and present students at UNC Charlotte spent “Yom Hashoah” saluting a survivor of the Nazi death camps.
Susan Cernyak-Spatz, cane in hand, took the seat of honor as many in the standing-room-only crowd came forward to thank the longtime Charlottean for dedicating her life to making sure people know about – and never forget – that horrific chapter in history.
A former UNC Charlotte professor who returns to campus every year to tell her story and urge students to fight racism and anti-Semitism, Cernyak-Spatz was lauded by a parade of students in their teens and 20s. They described her lectures as “life-changing,” “heart-wrenching” and “hopeful.”
Now 91, Cernyak-Spatz was roughly the same age of many of these students when Hitler’s rise to power in the 1930s traumatized the life of her family in Austria.
Born in Vienna in 1922, she and her mother fled to Prague after the “Anschluss,” Germany’s takeover of Austria in 1938.
“My dreams ended pretty soon after that,” Cernyak-Spatz said in an interview Sunday.
Suddenly refugees, she and her mother were soon deported to the Jewish ghetto in Theresienstadt. And then, in her early 20s, Cernyak-Spatz was held at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the German’s concentration camp in Poland where the lives of more than 1 million people, mostly Jews, ended in gas chambers.
She and the other inmates were each given one bowl – for eating, for drinking and for disposing of their human waste, Cernyak-Spatz remembered Sunday. “We were put on the level of animals.”
Her mother died in the Sobibór camp. It also was in occupied Poland – a country, Cernyak-Spatz said, that the German turned into a “slaughterhouse.”
At Auschwitz-Birkenau, she said, “You had to decide early whether to live or die. … To live, you had to learn and find a way to survive.”
Sunday’s event at UNC Charlotte began with one student’s offer to photograph a portrait of Cernyak-Spatz after hearing her lecture in UNC Charlotte’s “The Holocaust Through German Literature and Film” class.
“I like to show how important even a single life is,” said Matthew Brien, 22. “Her one life – she has done so much.”
Brien’s offer to shoot that photo inspired his teacher, Anabel Aliaga-Buchenau, a German-born professor who took over the Holocaust course when Cernyak-Spatz stopped teaching it in 2005.
Why not take lots of photographs, each pairing this Holocaust survivor with one student?
On Sunday, Brien’s 40-plus black-and-white photographs were featured prominently on a wall that everybody admired as they passed.
“You are my witnesses,” read a large inscription next to the photographs of students hugging, kissing and posing with Cernyak-Spatz.
By bringing a Holocaust survivor to her class, one whose own youth was taken from her, Aliaga-Buchenau said, “One of my goals is to make it clear to (students) that this is not a history book thing. This is real. Susan had the same dreams as they did. She wanted a boyfriend, too. And that was all robbed from her.”
Imogene Hill-Preffer, one of the students who spoke, teared up as she read her reaction to her photo shoot with Cernyak-Spatz and the Holocaust survivor’s plea to her to, “Never forget.”
Meg Gardner, another student, gave Cernyak-Spatz a painting she had done that featured real barbed-wire encircling a drawing of the infamous entrance to the Auschwitz death camp.
Some students played haunting music. And some even mentioned the number – 34042 – the Nazis tattooed on her arm, and her memoir, “Protective Custody: Prisoner 34042.”
When it was her turn to speak, Cernyak-Spatz, who began teaching at UNC Charlotte in 1972, thanked Aliaga-Buchenau for continuing the Holocaust course. And she urged the students to be defiant in the face of “whatever rabid and crazy demagoguery that’s all around us.”
Mostly, Cernyak-Spatz appeared at peace Sunday in the knowledge that she has succeeded in her efforts to get people, especially young people, to keep her memories of the Holocaust alive.
But, she added, “I will keep trying to reach one more person. Because I won’t be around much longer.”