Thea Aschkenase of Worcester writes Holocaust memoir
By Laura Porter
It wasn’t until 2001 that Thea Aschkenase began to talk about her experiences as a survivor of the Holocaust, decades after she and her mother had been liberated from a Nazi labor camp by the Russian army.
Now, however, after 15 years of speaking to “people in churches, in synagogues, in social clubs, in detention centers and in schools,” she has completed a memoir, Rememberings: A Holocaust Survivor Shares Her Life. Published by Worcester State University, it appeared in 2015 and was celebrated with a book signing at Worcester State last spring. All proceeds go to support the Intergenerational Urban Institute at WSU.
“It’s very important to me that the people know what happened,” she says. “There are so few survivors left. Lately I feel that I must talk for them.”
Thea’s story, like that of so many other survivors, includes a childhood spent under the Nazi thumb, incarceration at Auschwitz, and the crushing knowledge that virtually all of her extended family, including her beloved father, Samuel Obarzanek (Sami), and adored younger brother, Emanuel (Mano), had been murdered.
In her case, it also meant living and hiding in Italy for several years before deportation, an instinctive decision under the nose of Josef Mengele that saved her mother’s life, and their entry to Palestine aboard the ship that would later be fictionalized in Leon Uris’ Exodus.
In Palestine, she met her husband, Ephraim (Henry), who had left his native Poland and then Germany right before the onset of the war. He, too, was one of the few survivors in his family. They had a daughter, Lea, and crafted a new life, a process that was repeated when the family moved to Brooklyn in 1954 so that Thea’s mother, Adele Obarzanek (Ada), could be near her sister.
When Henry got a job with Nypro in Clinton in 1957, the family, including her mother, moved a final time, this time to the West Side of Worcester. Their son, Steven, was born there, and she still lives there today. (Her mother died in 1974 and Henry died in 2008.)
In 1994, after raising her children, years of commitment to the community and a job in the Physical Therapy Department at UMass Medical Center, Thea went back to school. She took classes at Worcester State University (then College), which offered free tuition for senior citizens. From her first day, she found a mentor in Professor Maureen Powers in the Urban Studies Department, who encouraged her inside the classroom and out.
Urban Studies was the ideal program for her, allowing her to engage in community service in conjunction with her studies. As a result, by 2007, when Thea received the college degree that Hitler’s reign had made impossible for her, she was also deeply enmeshed in the work of the Intergenerational Urban Institute at WSU.
Over the years, she has been involved with a range of IUI programs, from helping young mothers earn their GED and tutoring older immigrants in English to her primary interest, alleviating hunger in Worcester. Indeed, Thea’s senior research project on the Universal Breakfast Program led directly to its adoption at South High.
Hunger remains a critical issue for her and a central commitment of the IUI. She was part of the IUI program, “Ending Hunger Together,” originally funded by Governor Deval Patrick’s Commonwealth Corps. The current program, the “Hunger Outreach Team,” or HOT, includes helping hungry people to learn about and use SNAP benefits.
In 2014, she received the Community Service Award from the Worcester State Board of Trustees for her commitment to food justice and the fight against hunger in the city.
“From my days in the camps, I certainly know how much hunger hurts, how it obliterates most thoughts,” she writes in Remembering.
Although she had spoken informally about her history with her classmates and professors as well as the middle and high school students she had met over the years, it was a return to Italy in 1999 that changed everything.
In 1939, when Thea was 15 ½, her mother, father and younger brother, Mano, were forced to leave Nazi Germany because of her father’s Polish citizenship. They found their options limited. They had applied for visas to the U.S. in 1936 but had not yet been admitted under the small quota. In Australia, where her father could have continued his work as a tailor, immigration was restricted by the British mandate. A possibility of going to Shanghai also ended.
“The world had failed us,” she writes.
“They could have saved so many of us, but all countries had closed their borders.”
“Finally, Italy opened their border,” she says in an interview. “They said you can come, no questions asked. Italy was a wonderful country. They didn’t question, they didn’t check anything. I tell you, it was a fascist country, but there was no anti-Semitism at all. They treated us like favorite guests, my father, mother brother, and I.”
The family spent several years in Italy, living in Milan as well as a small town in Calabria, until they were sent to Ferramonti, the Italians’ version of a concentration camp, and then on to Villanova d’Asti in the Piemonte.
It was in Villanova, where they had hoped to wait out the war, that they were warned by their landlady to go into hiding in the fall of 1943. Heading into the mountains, they lived in a barn in the village of Zimone for six months under the protection of the village priest.
In the spring of 1944, they were arrested after a boy whom Thea’s parents had taken in led Italian soldiers directly to the family’s hiding place. Once imprisoned and identified as Jews, they came under German jurisdiction and were soon deported to Auschwitz.
Fifty-five years later, Thea’s daughter, Lea, and her son-in-law, Tom, asked if she would like to accompany them to Italy for Lea’s birthday. Henry was not well enough to come, but Thea agreed, and in the course of the trip, they visited both Villanova and Zimone.
In Zimone, a cup of coffee and a meal of bread and cheese led to an astonishing encounter. In the cafe, she was recognized by an elderly man, Mario Givone, who with his brother, Enzio, had been her brother’s friend when they had lived there.
When she returned to Worcester, Thea’s classmates insisted that the story of the emotional reunion had to be told. The essay she wrote about it appeared in the “Our Turn” column of Newsweek on October 23, 2000.
Among the many people who contacted her after its publication, asking her to speak about her experiences, was Margie Potash, then a teacher at Shrewsbury High School and the creator of a virtual Holocaust curriculum for high school students.
At Potash’s invitation, Thea spoke to a youth group at Temple Emanuel about her memories of Kristallnacht, the Night of the Broken Glass, which occurred on Nov. 9, 1938. The planned destruction decimated synagogues and Jewish businesses all over Germany. At 2 a.m. that night, Thea’s terrified grandmother had appeared at their door to tell them that their Reichenbach Synagogue was aflame.
She credits Margie Potash with giving her the support to speak publicly. Since then Thea has spoken hundreds of times, to high school and college students as well as to community groups and, repeatedly, at Yom Hashoah observances.
She has been filmed and recorded by the Shoah Foundation (on file at Yad Vashem) as well as the Worcester Women’s Oral History Project.
In her memoir, Thea describes her childhood in Munich, where the strictures of Nazi rule tightly controlled Jewish life, as well as the farewell to their large extended family when they traveled to Italy. None survived.
Her years in Italy, idyllic and safe, came to a sudden end in a cattle car to Auschwitz. Their relative isolation in Italy meant that the family knew nothing of what lay ahead, nor that those miserable days were their last together.
During the selection process, the notorious Dr. Mengele briefly turned his head and Thea pulled her mother out of the line to the gas chambers. In so doing, she saved her life – she still has no idea what made her do it. But she devastated her father, who had to go on alone, without his beloved wife.
A dropped cigarette as a gift was her last goodbye to her brother, who would be killed after an injury made him unable to work and so useless to the Nazis.
Her story continues, through liberation and an arduous journey to post-war Italy, to Palestine and beyond.
Throughout, she continues to think about survivor’s guilt: “But I always say, why me? Why not my brother? Why not the beautiful babies who got killed? But we never know why,” she says quietly.
For copies of Rememberings: A Holocaust Survivor Shares Her Life, by Thea Aschkenase, please call (508) 929-8000 or visit the website of the Intergenerational Urban Institute, Worcester State University: www.worcester.edu/iui.