Shoa survivors share tales of liberation
Eyewitnesses recall the moments their nightmares ended
Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News
Liberation came in different ways and on different dates to survivors. Olga Menczer found herself at the end of a death march with no Nazi guards in sight. Gina Lanceter emerged from hiding. Carl Dubovy awoke one morning in Theresienstadt to shouts of “The Nazis are gone!” Freedom came to Peter Engler in the smoke of DDT.
In honor of Yom HaShoa, Holocaust Remembrance Day, observed on April 16, these four survivors shared their journeys to liberation at an April 13 luncheon organized by the Holocaust Council of Greater MetroWest.
The discussion followed an annual Yom HaShoa Commemoration at the Aidekman Jewish Community Campus in Whippany.
Gina Lanceter was almost 15 on March 31, 1944, and had been hiding with a young man and a woman for six weeks in what she described as a “hole, like a grave.” Nazis lived in the apartment above. On that morning, she recalled, “we heard rumbling and running and whatever. We looked out of our hole and saw Germans running away and Russians approaching. I can’t describe the feeling. It was just glorious. We thought we would never come out from that hole.”
When they emerged, the Russian soldiers “thought we were spies. I can tell you we were in no position to be spies,” she said. The crowd of about 50 chuckled.
Carl Dobovy was liberated from Theresienstadt on May 8, 1945, with his mother and sister. “One day,” he said, “we woke up, and they just said, ‘The Nazis are gone, we are free.’” He added, “Everyone was speechless. We couldn’t believe we were free and could go somewhere. We had been told they would get us together and kill us at the last minute, but they ran out of time. The Russians came too fast.”
He is one of the lucky few whose entire immediate family survived intact.
Olga Menczer was liberated at the end of a death march that started at Zwodau, a concentration camp in Czechoslovakia. “During the day, we marched by the side of the highway. At night, we slept in the field. It was very cold. We were hugging each other to be warm. We had nothing to eat. We had nothing — nothing — to drink. The SS was watching us. People were dying because they were very weak. Each morning, there were less and less people. People just stayed there, with open eyes, dead. Anyone not able to march who stayed behind was shot,” she said.
“We were so very hungry; as we walked we would find dirty potato peels and we picked them up and we were happy to eat them. Sometimes we ate grass because we were just needing something to chew. The group was getting very, very small,” she said.
One day, late in the afternoon, they were marched up a hill.
“The soldiers told us to sit down. It was raining. I remember. We fell asleep,” she said. “We woke up. There were no soldiers beside us. We look around and no soldiers. We saw a small village from the top of the hill. Slowly, slowly we made our way down to a little house with a little garden. We picked whatever we saw. Then a man came out and we were very scared because we didn’t know where we are. He said, ‘Don’t be scared. You’re in Czechoslovakia. The war is over here.’”
Peter Engler’s family immigrated to Shanghai after Kristallnacht. When Japan began its occupation, the Jews were moved into a ghetto.
“We were 18,000 European Jews crammed into a one-square-mile area,” he recalled. After the atom bomb was dropped, he said, “We heard something big had happened, but we didn’t know what it was. We were no longer being bombed and we knew the end [of the war] was near.”
One morning in August 1945, “bombers flew over very low. We were anticipating Americans, but we weren’t sure. The first thing that came out was smoke. That worried us. It was DDT. They tried to delouse us. The planes flew over again and dropped K-rations, cartons of food, in colorful pink parachutes. We got a box of Spam — I still love that stuff — and chewing gum, dried powdered milk, and coffee.”
He remembered “chewing the gum for weeks; we’d put it behind our ears at night and then in the morning we’d start chewing it again.” His parents, however, “were interested in the coffee.”