Seventy years after the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp, where she endured its horrors and brutality, 87-year-old Catalina Rosner holds in her heart painful memories of a young girl who suffered extreme terror and loss.
Rosner, who for years kept her personal history deep within her to spare those she loved knowledge of the pain she endured, now finds pride in educating young and old alike about the atrocities committed by the Nazis.
A resident of the Wilentz Senior Residence on the Wilf Campus for Senior Living in Somerset for seven years, Rosner previously lived in Miami; her children live in Atlanta and Hillsborough. At Wilentz, she is an active participant in many programs, including exercise classes, book club meetings, and discussion groups.
Born in 1927 in Romania, as a teen, Rosner was interned in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany and Auschwitz in Poland, whose liberation in 1945 is marked this week.
After she was freed by British armed forces, Rosner first went to Cuba, where she lived for 14 years, and then came to the United States at the age of 37 in 1961.
“I was the only survivor in my family,” she said. “I knew that nobody else was left because my mother went to the gas chamber and my two sisters were also dead. My grandfather had passed away about 10 months before I was taken to the concentration camp in Auschwitz.”
Rosner was 17 when she was first sent to a concentration camps at the start of 1944. When she thinks back on the experience, she said, “it was something that I was too young to realize or because I didn’t think any human person could realize what was happening.”
“It was very fast. I was in Auschwitz for a few months and then I was sent into forced labor where I worked in a factory that made parts for the rockets. I told myself that at least I had my two sisters,” said Rosner, who was the youngest of the three.
“In February 1945, we were evacuated to Bergen-Belsen because the allies were too close. There, it was very bad because we were locked in barracks and given very little to eat. My one sister was too weak and sick. We were sleeping on floors without wood, just the earth, and I remember I put my sister on top of me for her to stay warm and so she could sleep because she was just skin and bones.”
“In the morning, I woke up and she was dead,” Rosner said. The bodies of the dead could not be buried, but were added to “mountains of other bodies between two barracks.”
Rosner’s other sister, who was very ill with tuberculosis, was taken to a hospital and died two weeks later.
After liberation, Rosner came into contact with one of her father’s brothers, who had survived the Holocaust. He took Rosner and others with him to Cuba, where they were able to start their lives over.
Soon, she was part of a warm and embracing family (her father’s brothers and relatives) she had only known about from letters and photographs sent to her mother before the war.
“I had given up believing that a family like that even existed,” said Rosner.
For approximately 50 years, she kept her experiences hidden from her children.
“I never told a story, never talked about it. I lived with it, but that was it,” she said. “My kids knew only that I was a concentration camp survivor.”
But when she was contacted by Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation – which he established after making Schindler’s List in 1994 – Rosner agreed to have them chronicle her recounting of her experiences. She later received several “thank-you” letters from students who saw and were touched by her testimony.
Although Rosner was always keenly aware of how her experiences might affect her children, she knew she would have eventually told them. But, she said, “they lost their father so young and I didn’t want to make their lives any more miserable.” When Rosner’s husband, Jose, died at 40, their children were 12 and eight years old. “I had to give them time to grow up and learn a little of the history and then it might be easier for them to accept,” she said.
The importance of testifying about the Holocaust is compounded for her by her understanding that “all history can be distorted; there will always be people who don’t believe it happened.”
“If we don’t learn anything from history, then we will repeat it.”
But she draws the line at collective blame. “This is my story and it ends with me,” she said. “Everyone has some reason to hate somebody, but I do not feel any hatred toward the Germans. After I was liberated, I spent months in Germany looking for my father and lived among them and talked to them. You cannot throw people into one group. That kind of thinking is still going on.”