Laura Kirschenbaum Shares her Grandmother's Holocaust Experience with History Students

Laura Kirschenbaum Shares her Grandmother's Holocaust Experience with History Students

This week, Upper School math teacher Laura Kirschenbaum visited Jackie Sutton’s Humanities 10 History classes to share the emotional story of her grandmother’s experience in Nazi concentration camps from 1942 to 1945.

In addition to speaking with the students, Ms. Kirschenbaum shared videos of her grandmother that were recorded by the USC Shoah Foundation, which is dedicated to documenting the personal stories of survivors and witnesses of the Holocaust.

Ms. Kirschenbaum’s grandmother, Ethel Kirschenbaum, was born in Krasnik, Poland in 1932 – just one year before Hitler came to power. When she was just 7 years old, Germany invaded Poland. No longer allowed to attend school, Ethel, her younger sister Raizale, her mother, Ruchala (Rachel), and her father Shiala (Sam), were forced to live in a small section of their town with little access to food. 

In 1942, Ethel, her sister and her mother were separated from her father and sent to a prison while he was sent to Budzyn, a nearby concentration camp. While both Ethel and her mother were able to escape the prison, her 7 year old sister was not. Raizale, along with other members of Ethel’s extended family, were taken from the prison to a local cemetery where they were killed by German soldiers.

Ethel, her mother and two of her remaining cousins spent that winter moving from barn to barn, unbeknownst to the farmers, in hiding. At night, Rachel would go out and beg for food. During the day, they couldn’t move or make any noise for fear of being found out. After finding out where they were hiding, Sam escaped Budzyn, where he was working as a baker, to find his family. He convinced them to come back to the camp with him for fear they would die from starvation or hypothermia if they remained in hiding, or killed if they were ever found. At least at the camp, with his position in the bakery, he thought they would have a better chance of survival. 

At Budzyn, Rachel worked as a seamstress for the head of the camp and his wife, while her father continued to work in the bakery. Ethel worked in the kitchen peeling potatoes. She was 11 years old. When a new transport came to Budzyn, the head of the camp, in an effort to make room, began a selection, separating out children and the elderly to be killed. Her mother, seeing Ethel’s potential fate, begged the head of the camp to spare her daughter, reminding him that she did so much for him and his wife. He refused. Rachel then offered herself in place of her daughter, and she was shot while still holding onto Ethel’s hand, giving her life for that of her daughter.

Moving from camp to camp, Ethel ended up separated again from her father and at Auschwitz with her two cousins and a woman from her town, Sarah. Sarah made a promise to Sam before they left on a transport to take care of Ethel and protect her with her life.

At Auschwitz, Ethel was spared again when she stood in front of Dr. Mengele (an S.S. doctor known as the “Angel of Death”), who selected prisoners to go to the gas chamber upon arrival. She was part of the group selected to live, and worked primarily in the kitchen at Auschwitz. She was there for 4 months before choosing to go to another camp, Stuthoff, in northern Poland. Sarah begged Ethel to stay, but Ethel refused saying that Stuthoff couldn’t be worse than the “pure hell,” that was Auschwitz. Had she listened to Sarah, she would have been liberated 8 months earlier. 

In May 1945, Russians descended on Stuthoff, and the Germans evacuated themselves and some of the prisoners to one of three boats on a nearby body of water. After 10 days of drinking only seawater and no access to food, the British bombed the boats and parachuted down. They were surprised to see civilians among the wreckage and worked quickly to save as many as they could. Ethel spent 3 weeks in recovery at a nearby hospital.

More than 100 members of Ethel’s family died in the Holocaust; only Ethel and her father Sam survived. After being nursed back to health, Ethel was reunited with her father after spotting a photograph of him at a displaced persons camp in Germany. She was able to get a letter to him through a Jewish soldier who spotted Sam getting off a train after going back one more time to check the displaced persons camp for her. They were together until the day he died. After the war, Sam married Sarah, the woman who took care of Ethel in the camps when he couldn’t, and they moved to America. They had a child, Ethel’s half-brother, Martin, in 1947. She got married to Leo Kirschenbaum in 1951 and had two children, including Ms. Kirschenbaum’s father Ira. 

Ms. Kirschenbaum said that her grandmother constantly asked herself how she was able to survive. “She thinks that her mother was watching over her because she couldn’t have died for nothing,” she said. 

Ms. Kirschenbaum concluded her presentation by sharing pictures of her grandmother’s legacy in the form of her children and grandchildren, asking the 10th Graders to help spread the message so that this never happens again. “Now that you’ve heard my grandmother’s story, I would ask you to tell one person about this and share her story so we never forget what happened,” she said. Ethel passed away in 2012 at 80 years old. 


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