Alice Ginsburg and the legacy of the Holocaust: Lessons for today’s youth

By Megha Khemka, Copy Editor

Alice Ginsburg, now 91, wants today’s young people to gain insights into the urgency of fighting hate from her experiences during the Holocaust. Photo used with permission from the Museum of Jewish Heritage.

In response to the increase in anti-Semitic attacks across the country, the following is a reminder to us all of the importance of remembrance and of respect. 

When Alice Ginsburg was packed into a train car in May of 1944, she had little idea where she was headed, or for how long. Her family’s provisions were meager and the amount of time they would have to sustain them unclear. As such, her fear of using up their supplies triumphed even over her love for the chocolate kokosh cake her mother had prepared. Yet for however long and whatever reason they would be away, Ginsburg assumed that once their purpose had been served – her father predicted they would be doing labor for the Nazi regime – she and her family would return home.

The sight that greeted her when the train’s doors opened three or four days later, however, suggested a very different reality. Clearly visible even in the middle of the night were the gleaming boots and vicious dogs of the Schutzstaffel, or SS, the Nazi Party’s elite guard and leaders of the “Final Solution” (a Nazi euphemism for Jewish annihilation). Behind them rose flames and smoke from nearby crematoriums. Ginsburg’s family had arrived at Auschwitz.

“When my father saw what was waiting for us, he thought we were all going to be killed,” said Ginsburg. “So he started to say a prayer. A prayer that you say before you die.”

Students at Payton College Prep come from schools all over the city and have vastly differing levels of knowledge about the events of World War II. Although Illinois was the first state to mandate a Holocaust education in 1990, the time devoted to the subject varies greatly from place to place, and curricula are often incomplete or even factually misleading. Also significant for a school where nearly 4 in 5 students have taken an AP course is the fact that students taking advanced placement classes are shown to receive markedly less Holocaust instruction than those in the non-AP courses. 

In this spirit, and in honor of International Holocaust Rememberance Day, below is the story of Alice Ginsburg, 91, who shared her memories of life before, during, and after World War II.

Blessing Over the Children

Ginsburg grew up in an Orthodox Jewish household, and described her childhood as a simple one. Resentment or fear of the Jewish community in 1930s Czechoslovakia, she said, “wasn’t out in the open.” Owning a radio was forbidden by the government, and what little news of outside events she and her siblings had access to came from her father’s visits to the synagogue. Rather, what preoccupied her thoughts were relatively everyday affairs: looking forward to gathering with family on the Sabbath, jump-roping with her mostly Jewish friends, and even once or twice smuggling hides under her coat to clients of her father’s black market tanning business.

Then, in 1939, trouble arrived in the form of Hungarian troops. All eligible men were sent to work building railroads and digging trenches for their invaders, and World War II claimed its first casualties from her family as many of Ginsburg’s uncles and cousins died amid months of hard labor and mistreatment. “He sent us postcards, saying ‘hope keeps us going,’” remembered Ginsburg of her father.

It was a philosophy she would find herself living by in the months to come. “The Hungarians did the preliminary work for the Nazis; they made these men work for the war effort,” she recalled. When the German army did arrive, in 1944, her father “came home, only to be mobilized into a ghetto.”

The ensuing relocation to a new part of town, the weeks of crowded living and limited food, the days-long train ride that followed – at none of these points, said Ginsburg, did her teenage self know what was happening to her community, or why. The only way she could measure the events around her was by the seismic changes happening in her own life.

Kaddish: The Mourner’s Prayer

On arriving at Auschwitz-Birkenau, those who had survived the journey were told to separate by sex, leaving Ginsburg with her mother, 9 year-old sister, aunt, and grandmothers. Together, they walked on until they encountered a group of Polish Jews, who were forced to make the first selection of prisoners to be sent to their deaths. Supervising them was Josef Mengele, an SS physician who would later become notorious for the medical experiments he conducted on the Auschwitz population. But to Alice Ginsburg at that time, he was only the man who was trying to tear her away from her mother.

“I ran back, and I told him I want to stay with my mother,” she said. “He insisted that I go, and I ran away again. I even told him I’m only 13.” It made no difference. In fact, she later learned that it was policy for all those under 14 to be automatically sent to their deaths. “Maybe he didn’t understand me, because I spoke to him in Yiddish versus German. He just didn’t want to deal with me.”

Instead, a nearby prisoner was told to handle her, and took her away from the last family she had with her in the camp. Through tears, Ginsburg recalled: “We said our goodbyes. We hugged and kissed. And I never saw her again, or my sister. It was a painful episode I will never forget.”

After that night, Ginsburg was initiated – head shaved, “disinfected,” and dressed in a striped uniform – and her days at Auschwitz passed in uniform misery. Every day, prisoners were woken early and received their rations: every day, a piece of bread and a bit of green soup containing an ingredient designed to stop menstrual cycles. In some women, the liquid induced vomiting or diarrhea and they refused it; Ginsburg, determined to survive, ate it all. “The only thing we could think about was food,” she said. 

The desperation drove some in the camp to attempt stealing others’ rations, so she slept, on her unpadded and uncovered bunk, with her bread under her head. “Starvation,” she said when recalling this, “can make you do a lot of things.”

Tefilat Haderech – The Prayer of the Way

Through it all, however, Ginsburg persevered. After avoiding selection in months of twice-daily countings that determined which prisoners would be sent to the killing camp that day, she was transferred to Langenbielau. Life at the internment center was similar to Auschwitz but distinguished by the work prisoners did at a munitions factory five miles away and the extra daily piece of bread they received, which would supposedly help them walk the ten miles each day and concentrate on the job. 

And even when forced on a three-day Death March, on which many of those around her died from exhaustion or were shot for failing to maintain their speed, Ginsburg forced herself forward. “I never felt like giving up. I just pushed myself,” said Ginsburg of those two years. “I kept on hoping to survive, because if you’re hopeless, then you can’t survive. You need hope to keep on going.”

In the end, it paid off. One day shortly after the Death March, Ginsburg woke up to find her camp completely abandoned, the Nazi officials having left in the face of oncoming Russian Liberators. In the weeks that followed, Ginsburg made her way back to her hometown. With the help of some uncles there and various postwar agencies, she was reunited with her father and brother in Budapest.

At every town and home, great suffering was evident in the aftermath of the war; Ginsburg found it particularly difficult to talk about her aunt, who was separated in a concentration camp from her eight children. Yet she was determined to look forward rather than back. Boarding a ship to America, where her some of her fathers’ relatives had settled, she began building a new life for herself. 

Yizkor: Remembrance

In the US, Alice Ginsburg, between working to support her family and attending night school to learn English, earned both high school and college degrees. She now has 3 children, 8 grandchildren, and a dozen great-grandchildren, all of whom she says she keeps in close contact with. Eager to put her past behind her, she initially told her children only what they asked about her life and did not give anyone the full account of what she experienced until approached by a historian in 1983. 

After that, however, Ginsburg said she was motivated to speak at her grandchildrens’ high schools, to make sure future generations remember the “unbelievable atrocities” that she and so many others lived through. Though telling her story doesn’t get any easier with time, she says she views the recording and sharing of her story as even more significant in the wake of rebounding anti-Semitism across Europe and the US. 

The average age of Holocaust survivors today is 83.9, meaning that Payton students belong to one of the last generations able to learn firsthand from the experiences of men and women who lived through the atrocities of Nazi Germany. At a time when anti-Semitism and lack of historical awareness is growing – including among high schools – it’s increasingly vital that we, the voters, thinkers, and storytellers of the future, each embrace and pass on the lessons that survivors want us to hear. 

This reality is what led Ginsburg to accept a request to share her experiences and answer questions from the author and other teenagers, as she wants to ensure that this generation doesn’t forget the crucial legacy of the events she lived through.

“Hatred doesn’t discriminate,” she emphasized. “Hatred against Jews is hatred against humanity.” Accordingly, she hopes her story will impress upon every student and future leader that “For evil to flourish takes good men to do nothing,” and that it is the responsibility of every individual to fight against divisiveness. 

“Love,” she ended simply, “is better than hate.”

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