WCR PHOTO | RAMON GONZALEZ
Holocaust survivor Eva Olsson urged students at Edmonton's St. Francis Xavier High School never to stand idly by in the face of evil.
Eva Olsson was barely out of her teens when she and her family were rounded up from their Hungarian village in 1944 and shipped to the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz. Of her extended family of 89 people, only she and her sister Fradel survived.
The 86-year-old gave a powerful account of her experiences as a teenaged Hasidic Jew caught up in the Nazi hate machine to students at St. Francis Xavier High School May 25.
Students listened in silence, hanging on her every word.
Using slides, Olsson recounted how she was callously separated from her parents and little nieces and spoke of the root cellars in which she was forced to sleep along with other Jews, of their lack of food and water and of their need to drink their own urine, of the humiliation and of the horror.
Her presentation was an impassioned plea to put hate aside. “I was bullied by the Nazi bullies at age 19 because I had a different religion,” she said.
“My grandson in Grade 10 was also bullied in his (Ontario) high school. The fact that he was called a stupid Jew in the hallway didn’t bother him. What bothered him was that the teacher was standing in the hallway beside the bully and said nothing and did nothing.”
Bystanders allowed the Nazi death machine to grow and expand. “Look at what happened in Europe. In 1928 there were 300 Nazi bullies. By 1933 there were 300,000.”
Olsson said there were good people in every one of the European countries that the Nazis occupied. “But there was something missing from those countries and that was compassion. Had there been compassion in those nations, I wouldn’t be standing here,” she said.
“In Bulgaria and in Denmark they wouldn’t allow the trains to leave. They prevented the Jewish people from being transported to the death camps. Why? They weren’t going to be bystanders. Bystanders are as guilty as the perpetrators.”
Olsson said genocide will not end unless people take a stand. “The (Second World) war ended but genocide didn’t. And it won’t. As long as there is hate out there among people, there will be genocide.”
Hate is a disease and a sickness, she said. “I babysat my three grandchildren and I did not allow them to use the word ‘hate’. I’ve seen what hate can do.”
When the Nazi regime occupied Poland in 1939, Olsson, then a teen, prayed that the war would be over soon. It lasted six years.
“In those six years, six million Jewish people were murdered; five million others that were not Jews were also murdered, including Catholic priests were hanged in Poland because they were hiding Jewish people,” Olsson told her audience.
“One and a half million children under the age of 14 were also murdered and five of those children were my nieces. The youngest was two months old and the oldest was three-and-a-half-years of age. And I have made a commitment to speak for those children and all other children whose voices were silenced by hate.”
The Olssons lived in the Hungarian town of Szatmar, now part of Romania, when the Nazis came for them in 1944.
They were forced onto boxcars, which contained one pail of drinking water and one pail for a toilet for 110 people. They were told they were being taken to Germany to work in a brick factory.
That train ride was the final trip for most. It ended four days later at Auschwitz.
As the Jews got off the trains, Dr. Josef Mengele, the Angel of Death, directed most prisoners to the left. They went directly to the gas chambers.
Those directed to the right were mostly young people healthy enough to work in the labour camps. Olsson and her sister were told to go to the right.
“By the time I turned my head to the left, I couldn’t see my mom, and the moment I couldn’t see my mom, how I wished I could have put my arms around her and tell her how much I loved her, but it was too late.”
As a slave worker, Olsson lived in a barracks, sleeping in a small cubicle with eight others, listening at night as black trucks moved around the camp collecting 2,000 prisoners per night for the gas chambers. As the days passed, she became aware of the routines of death — the gas chambers, the screaming and the silences that came 20 minutes later, and the smell of burned flesh.
“I didn’t blame God for what happened. God didn’t build Auschwitz. Man did. We cannot blame God for the choices people make; man chose to murder, to commit genocide.”
Olsson’s father was sent to Buchenwald, where he died of starvation in December 1944.
“People die of old age, people die of sicknesses and people die of accidents. What I have not yet been able to deal with, 11 million people died and the cause of their death was hate,” Olsson said.
Chosen a second time along with 2,000 other young people, Eva and her sister were taken first to Dusseldorf to unload ships and later to Essen to work at the Krupp factory.
After the camp was burned to the ground in an Allied bombing raid, the workers were housed in a root cellar with a dirt floor for the remainder of the winter. Then, as the Russian forces began to close in, they were moved to Bergen-Belsen.
About 104,000 died at Bergen-Belsen. “There were no bunks or chairs at the camp. All the prisoners had to lie on the floor, which was covered with diarrhea and lice. Dysentery was epidemic. They had no food, no water and they were sick.”
As the Allied advance came closer, Eva fell ill with typhoid. Six days before the camp was liberated, the SS shut off the water completely and took away all food rations to speed up the deaths.
How did Olsson survive? “I kept hope alive, and I was responsible for my sister,” she said. “She was three years younger, so I couldn’t die. If I were to die then the Nazis would have won.”
On the morning of April 15, 1945, the British and Canadians liberated Bergen-Belsen. They found Olsson lying on the floor among the dead and marked her forehead with a red cross. In spite of massive efforts, 13,944 inmates died after the camp was liberated.
“I cannot change the past, nobody can, but the future lies in your hands,” Olsson told the students. “You need to ask yourselves what example you will leave behind for the generations that follow you.
“I cannot make those choices for you. However, I can ask you to not be a bystander, but to be one of those who make a difference in someone else’s life.”