By Ben Tinsley
DALLAS — Rosa Blum and Bernhard Storch recounted their nightmarish World War II experiences in great detail before a packed Southern Methodist University audience last week.
Blum, 86, of Dallas, is an Auschwitz survivor. Storch, 93, of New York, was imprisoned in a Soviet labor camp before becoming a death camp liberator in the Polish army.
These April 23 presentations in SMU’s Elizabeth Perkins Prothro Great Hall comprised the “Reflections from Survivors & Liberators of Nazi Death Camps” event — held in recognition of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of concentration camps at the end of World War II.
The evening was sponsored by the Dallas Holocaust Museum Center for Education and Tolerance and SMU’s Embrey Human Rights Program.
After Storch and Blum discussed their respective histories at length, there was no disputing the respect and wonder they had earned from their audience. It led to a standing ovation, numerous handshakes, many, many hugs — and even autograph requests.
Earlier in the evening, Mary Pat Higgins, CEO and president of the Dallas Holocaust Museum/Center for Education and Tolerance, effectively commenced the proceedings by introducing Embrey Human Rights Director Rick Halperin.
Halperin told the audience they were being afforded the rare opportunity to learn about the Holocaust firsthand from the very last generation of people to have experienced it.
Halperin went so far as to urge audience members to offer hugs to Storch and Blum after they had shared their memories of the Holocaust.
Answering a question from the audience, Blum explained how she refused to return to the place where she had faced Holocaust horrors — even at the expense of property and belongings she might have claimed on behalf of her wealthy family.
“I never went back,” she said. “I could never face that emptiness. … There is nothing, nobody there for me or my family. I know many people who went there and came back hurt. I never wanted to see that blankness. That would be the wrong thing for me. … So I never went back and I never claimed anything. I wanted to live my life the way I wanted to live it.”
Moving to the United States
After discovering his entire family had been killed by the Nazis, Storch and his wife, Ruth — herself a Holocaust survivor — emigrated to the U.S. in 1947. In response to an audience question, Storch acknowledged that for years he was reluctant to discuss the trauma of what he had survived.
“It was very painful, and I didn’t speak about it,” Storch said. “Now is the time to talk, but it was very tough for me after the war. There was a time when I was living in Washington, I couldn’t sleep at night. My wife — to this day she doesn’t talk about it.”
Storch is the author of the 2012 book, World War II Warriors: My Own Recollections of World War II.
During her narrative, Blum explained how she was deported from her native Romania to Auschwitz in Poland when she was 15. Very little information was ever shared with Blum and her family by anyone in authority about where they were going or why.
Prior to Auschwitz, Blum and family members had been kept inside a barbed wire area on a mountaintop for six months.
One day, the guards told her and her family they were leaving. They were ordered to leave their possessions but to take two pots and pans apiece.
They were thrust into a cattle train. They learned that the pots and pans were to be used as toilets during the trip.
Likewise, the traveling conditions during the trip were horrific. Two men died. A very young woman gave birth to triplets.
Then the cattle train arrived at Auschwitz.
And perhaps Blum’s most traumatic moment up to that point was when she saw the mother and three newborn babies shoved onto a cart full of corpses and carted away.
“Something happened to me,” Blum told the audience at SMU. “I became bizarre. I almost lost myself.”
She remembers she started screaming “Evil!”
Blum said she was never the same after that.
Shortly afterward, Blum met the infamous Josef Mengele — known far and wide as the “Angel of Death.” Mengele was the one who decided who would be sent to the gas chambers and performed ghastly human experiments on Jewish prisoners. It was Mengele who commanded that Blum would live and her mother would die.
Blum’s strong emotional reaction to that decision led to Mengele brutally beating her as punishment.
She then was forced to work as an assistant in the same hospital where Mengele conducted his cruel human medical experiments.
Bernhard Storch, meanwhile, started out as a prisoner and ended up becoming a liberator.
Growing up in a Jewish family in Silesia, near Poland’s border with Germany, he — like many other Polish Jews — jumped from town to town, trying to avoid capture at the hands of the Nazis who were approaching in 1939.
After escaping fierce German Air Force bombardments, Storch settled in a western Polish city. But to his dismay, Poland was soon occupied by the USSR.
One night in May 1940, the Russian secret police seized him from his room, took him to a transport railroad car and sent him to a labor camp in Siberia.
But Storch’s fortunes shifted. On June 22, 1941, war broke out between Germany and Russia, and a treaty between the United States, Great Britain and the Soviet Union mandated that all Polish citizens, including Storch, had to be released from the Russian slave labor camps.
Cross for bravery
Some time after that, Storch resolved to join the Polish Army. He did so and soon was awarded a cross for bravery during a battle with the German army Oct. 12, 1943.
By the time Storch watched the Majdanek concentration camp liberated in July 1944, he had been commissioned a Polish Army officer.
After the presentations and follow-up question and answer session concluded, Rick Halperin urged audience members to think long and hard on what they had heard.
“The moral duty of all of us is to give credence to the phrase, ‘Never Again,’” Halperin said. “It’s not supposed to be a hollow phrase where others around the world suffer from the same hatred and prejudice. We all want the world without — ‘Never Again’ — pain in it.”
Halperin said it is the moral duty of all who heard the two speak to fulfill the legacy of those who were liberated, those who survived and those who — tragically — couldn’t be there to speak for themselves.
“That is our job, to bring about a better world,” he said. “That is the task ahead of us.”
Halperin then handed Storch and Blum plaques commemorating their appearance at the event and urged the audience to give them another round of applause.
“Let the hugging begin!” Halperin said with a smile.