Features

Tribute to Sonia Schreiber Weitz

... a courageous and meaningful life

by Dorothy O'Connor



Sonia's daughter Sandra Weitz, Dorothy O'Connor and Mary Kiley


Last summer, through a mutual acquaintance, I met a woman named Mary Kiley. Mary
breezed into my apartment on the appointed day, a bundle of concentrated
intellect and energy. She lives in Melrose and teaches Faith and the Hebrew
Scriptures at St. John’s Prep in Danvers.

Mary is a Legacy Partner of the Holocaust Center of Boston North, Inc. This means
that she helps to preserve the stories of those who survived the Holocaust. Mary
was partnered with Sonia Schreiber Weitz, who survived the Krakow Ghetto and five
concentration camps. There were 84 members in Sonia’s extended family. Only she
and her sister Blanca survived the Holocaust years. Finally, at age nineteen,
Sonia was able to come to the United States. She settled in Peabody,
Massachusetts, where she lived from 1948 until her death on June 23, 2010.


This article is a tribute to that remarkable woman. During the more than fifty
years she lived here, she was a community leader who taught about the Holocaust,
directed the Holocaust Center, Boston North, and served as a presidential
appointee to the board of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in our nation’s
capital.

Sonia was born in 1928 in Krakow, Poland to loving, educated Jewish parents. The
family consisted of the father Janek, the mother Adela, their daughter Blanca,
and Sonia, eight years younger than Blanca. During the Nazi invasion and
throughout the terrible consequences that followed, Blanca played a major role in
Sonia‘s life, keeping her alive in many situations through sheer grit and
courage.

The first eleven years of Sonia’s life were relatively peaceful. That ended on
September 1, 1939 when Germany invaded Poland. The Polish people were victimized
by the Nazis, but the Polish Jews were victims of both the Poles and the Nazis.
There was no place to which Jews could flee to live in freedom. The United States
had a strict, small quota. Palestine, the ancient homeland of the Jewish people,
had been closed to Jews under British rule.

The Krakow Ghetto, 1941 - 1943 From 1941 to 1943 Sonia’s family,
which now included Blanca’s husband Norbert, was compelled by the Nazis to live
in the Krakow Ghetto. The Ghetto was created in 1941 by sealing off a part of the
city. It was crowded, filthy and disease-ridden, often with three or four
families living in one room. During those years Sonia kept a diary which included
poems she wrote. Although the diary did not survive the war, years later Sonia
was able to recreate it, including many of the poems. While living in the Ghetto,
Sonia studied in an “underground” school taught by some dedicated and brave
Jewish teachers. Also, Sonia was an apprentice in another setting where she
learned to be a seamstress, a skill that later stood her in good stead.

Years later, after she had lived in the United States for some decades, Sonia
wrote a book about her experiences. Its title, "I Promised I Would Tell", is a
remembrance from her mother, who urged Sonia to “tell the world”. Some
heartrending sentences on page 23 of the book describe her last moments with her
mother. Sonia was fifteen. “I cuddled up next to her. I held on to her with all
my strength ... I was afraid that this might be our last embrace ... We waited
... Suddenly there were heavy footsteps and we heard the dreaded pounding on the
door.” Her mother was forcibly removed from their dwelling and eventually sent to
Belzec, another death camp, where she was killed.

Plaszow, March 1943 - December 1944
The Nazis, knowing that the Soviet Army was on the march, were fleeing westward.
Sonia, Blanca, their father and Norbert, Blanca’s husband. were taken to Plaszow,
a slave labor camp near Krakow. Since the prisoners were not allowed to take any
possessions with them, Sonia recorded in her mind the poems she had written and
the brutalities she had witnessed. One of Sonia’s few sweet memories of her
months at Plaszow was that she managed to dance with her father there, shortly
before he was taken away to be killed. Later she painted a picture of the
occasion.

To quote from Sonia’s book, “The fragments of memory which I wrote down in 1946
end here with our expulsion from Plaszow in December, 1944. Although we did not
know it at the time, the worst was yet to come.”

Auschwitz and Beyond  - January 1945 Auschwitz was the largest Nazi
concentration and extermination camp, about 37 miles west of Krakow. Plaszow,
where Sonia and her family were, was very close to Krakow. The Nazis forced the
prisoners to make a brutal trek over frozen ground to Bergen-Belson. They were
dressed in threadbare clothes and had little or nothing to eat or drink. They
lived on snow, roots and rotten potatoes dug out of the frozen ground. When they
arrived at Auschwitz, SS officers divided the prisoners into two groups: those
fit for work and those not fit.

“Even today,” Sonia wrote in her book in 1993, “the mere mention of Auschwitz --
the name, the word -- conjures up images of darkness, burning, death, and
destruction.”  

Because Germany was losing the war, the Germans started evacuating the camp.
About 58,000 prisoners were driven away from Auschwitz. “My sister and I were
among the walking dead who were evacuated and forced on the now legendary death
march.”    

Bergen-Belson and Venusberg, February - April 1945 Bergen-Belson
was worse than Auschwitz. Typhus was rampant. The Jews from Bergen-Belson were
sent in crowded cattle cars to Venusberg, from which they were then transported
in congested, unheated cattle cars to Mauthausen in Austria.

Mauthausen May 1945 The prisoners’ arrival at Mauthausen was a
nightmare. Most of them were near death from typhus and starvation. Nevertheless,
they were required to climb a steep hill to get to the camp, which was filled to
overflowing. The newly-arrived prisoners suffering from typhus vomited
frequently. They also had uncontrollable diarrhea.

And then one day Blanca “came yelling to tell [me] that the Kapos, guards and SS
had disappeared.” It was May 4, 1945. The next day, May 5, American army tanks
entered Mauthausen. “The American soldiers were speechless with horror when they
saw us,” Sonia wrote. For instance, Sonia was nearly 17 years old but she weighed
a mere 60 pounds. Sonia continues in her book, “Although allied leaders and high-
ranking military officials had known about the death camps ... these young
soldiers entered this unimaginable world and were forever transformed by the
atrocities that had been committed there.”

Displaced Persons Camps 1945 - 1948 Norbert and several other
survivors created Camp Hart in an abandoned farm house near Linz, Austria. It was
one of many camps for displaced persons, “someone who has been uprooted from his
or her home ... someone with no place to go.” In 1945 the Holocaust survivors
“were people without a country, state or nation ... without citizenship.” In the
displaced persons camps they worked on securing proper documentation among other
things.

Norbert tracked Blanca down. “The reunion was truly a miracle. American soldiers
wept as they watched this tender moment.” At Camp Hart Norbert, Blanca and a
friend nursed Sonia back to health. A kind American soldier gave them a radio.
During her convalescence Sonia was able to listen to music for the first time in
six years.

The former prisoners grew healthier while they worked on building a new future.
Ironically, the unpleasant truth is that “the Nazis found it much easier to enter
the United States than did the survivors.” (p. 76)    

Sonia and other displaced persons began to have more normal coming-of-age
experiences which had been denied them because of the war. During this time Sonia
attended a concert, went to a New Year’s Eve party, rode in a motorcycle and was
involved in a small accident.      

Sonia and her childhood friend Rena were reunited during this period. The
friendship deepened and continued while they both moved to the United States in
1948. It lasted until Sonia’s death in June of 2010.

After moving to the United States, Sonia met and married Dr. Mark Weitz. They had
a son and twin daughters. Later, Sonia became active in Holocaust education and
Jewish-Christian relations. She taught many people about the horrors of the
Holocaust while she was on the staff at Salem State College in Salem,
Massachusetts.       

In some ways Sonia led a terrible life and yet she was able to overcome the
negatives, partly through her sensitive poems. Thirty-two of her poems are
included in the book "I Promised I Would Tell". In fairness to the reader,
several poems should be appended here. However, since space is limited, we
reprint only the poem Sonia wrote after dancing with her father at Plaszow.

Victory                    
I danced with you that one time only,
How sad you were, how tired, lonely . . .
You knew that they would “take” you soon . . .
So when your bunk-mate played a tune
You whispered: “little one, let us dance,
We may not have another chance.”

To grasp this moment . . . sense the mood;
Your arms around me felt so good . . .
The ugly barracks disappeared
There was no hunger . . . and no fear.
Oh what a sight, just you and I,
My lovely father (once big and strong)
And me, a child . . . condemned to die.

I thought: how long
    before the song
        must end

There are no tools
    to measure love
        and only fools

Would fail
    to scale
        your victory
    

. . . I never saw my father again.

Lest we forget!


Photo by SilverStringer Tom Dillon

July 6, 2012


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