Bozenna Urbanowicz Gilbride is a Catholic who grew up in Poland. Inge Auerbacher is a Jew from Germany.
These two 77-year-old women — so different in background, yet so similar in experience — have been close friends for the past 20 years, after discovering they both endured imprisonment during the Holocaust.
The book they cowrote in 2010 to tell their stories has now been made into a film. Both are called Children of Terror.
The half-hour documentary was debuted before a packed auditorium on Feb. 9 at Rider University in Lawrenceville. In addition to the two women, also present were the filmmakers, Dr. Shawn Kildea, an assistant professor of communications and journalism at Rider, and Gina Grosso, who graduated from the university in 2011.
The film retraces the steps that took Auerbacher from her childhood home in the city of Kippenheim to Theresienstadt, the concentration camp in what is now the Czech Republic.
Growing up in a parallel universe, Gilbride went from childhood on a farm in the Polish village of Leonowka to two Nazi slave labor camps. Her parents were caught hiding Jews in their barn.
“My father hid Jews and I didn’t even know,” said Gilbride in a discussion after the film. “My mother would send me to the shed with bread and soup. But she would say, ‘Bozenna, if anybody stops you, turn around and come back.’
“I had no clue who these people were,” she said. “The door would open and only hands stuck out to take the food. I never saw who the people were. Men, women, children — I don’t know.”
Auerbacher said her family “lived good lives with Christians before the war, but there were always a little bit of undertones.”
Such “undertones” became far more pronounced on Nov. 9-10 of 1938, when the Nazis launched the anti-Jewish pogrom that came to be known as Kristallnacht.
Auerbacher recalled the kindness of a Christian stranger she encountered before she was shipped off to Theresienstadt in 1941. “Other people were not allowed to talk to Jewish people but a woman came up to me with a little bag of rolls and put it next to my seat,” she said. “I never knew the name of this woman but I shall always remember that nameless woman who wanted to do something special for that little Jewish child.”
Auerbacher described Theresienstadt as “a holding area, like you hold cows, before the animals are slaughtered.” Though presented by the Nazis as a “model” settlement, Theresienstadt was in fact a concentration camp whose prisoners were held in appalling conditions, usually before being shipped to Auschwitz. But the appalling conditions and harsh treatment in the camp led to the deaths of over 33,000 inmates.
Auerbacher remembered that before Red Cross inspectors came to visit, the camp was sanitized. Children were fed sardine sandwiches and signs were displayed that pointed to nonexistent playgrounds
“But as soon as the Red Cross was out of sight, almost everybody was shipped to Auschwitz,” she said. She is among the handful of children — from an estimated total of 15,000 — who survived the camp.
Along with her parents, who also managed to stay alive, Auerbacher immigrated to the United States in 1946.
Like Auerbacher, Gilbride and her family survived their incarceration. They spent the war years at the Freiberg and Chemnitz labor camps, then moved to the United States.
Gilbride, her husband, and their four children live in Southampton, Long Island.
Auerbacher, a chemist and writer, lives alone in a polyglot area of Queens, side-by-side with Muslim, Christian, and Hindu neighbors. “Survival has made me more tolerant,” she said.
The two women met for the first time in the early 1990s at a Holocaust remembrance program in a Long Island high school. They frequently make joint appearances and have traveled to Poland together several times.
The program at Rider was introduced by university president Dr. Mordechai Rozanski, following a performance of “Who Am I,” a song whose lyrics were written by Auerbacher, music by Madeline Stone. Amy Donato sang, accompanied by pianist Henco Espag. A discussion of the program was led by Dr. Harvey Kornberg, professor of political science and director of Rider’s Julius and Dorothy Koppelman Holocaust/Genocide Resource Center, and Father Joseph Jakub, chaplain of the university’s Catholic Campus Ministry.
Asked by NJ Jewish News after the presentation whether Poland remains an anti-Semitic nation, Gilbride said, “So is America. Poland has changed. It is not the Poland you think you know.”
Auerbacher said, “We wanted to keep this a story about two little girls who suffered. I was only four weeks in Poland and people were nice to me. I didn’t experience anti-Semitism, but I didn’t go there to look for it. But you still have it in Germany and you have it here, too.”