Whenever I try talking to my grandma about her past, it is very hard for her. She gets very emotional because talking about it brings back horrifying memories. It is also hard for me to hear, but I am glad that I heard it from her first hand. I am writing this on her ninetieth birthday, a special day for her not just because it’s her birthday, but because of how she got to this happy life she lives today.
On May 27, 1923, Jadia Szyjewicz was born to Abraham and Sarah Szyjewicz in Sosnowiec, Poland. She was the youngest of five children – two girls and three boys. They were a Jewish family, like many in Poland. As a child, my grandma liked to do lots of things all kids enjoy.
In 1943, when my grandma was nineteen, she was taken from her job at a factory in a Jewish ghetto, an area of the city that segregated Jews and that the Nazis controlled. She was sent to a concentration camp called Gleiwitz; she never saw her former home or her parents again. First she was kept at Gleiwitz, a subcamp of Auschwitz, then she was taken to Ravensbruck.
In these concentration camps my grandma had to fight for her life. They were prisons with barbed wire where anyone trying to escape would be killed on the spot. They had ovens that were not for cooking but to burn bodies. Worst of all, these camps had gas chambers for killing Jews.
Many died of starvation. My grandma was made to stand for many hours doing hard labor. Because she was young and able to work, the Nazis did not kill her. Despite the horrors she experienced, she was extremely lucky to survive; six million Jews and another five million non-Jews were murdered by the Nazis.
Just before the war ended in 1945, the Nazis abandoned Ravensbruck and my grandma escaped. She then learned that her parents and two of her brothers had died in concentration camps. Her only surviving sibling was a sister with whom she was reunited before the war ended.
She made her way to a displaced persons camp in Heidenheim, Germany, run by the French. A U.S. army captain in charge of one of the American camps sent a concentration camp survivor to invite my grandma’s camp to join them. That survivor was my grandpa. He met my grandma on the bus that brought her to the American camp. They were married on November 27, 1945.
On May 3, 1946, my grandparents and my grandma’s sister left Germany for the U.S. They arrived in New York on a ship named the S.S. Perch, which was the second to leave Europe with concentration camp survivors. They were met at Ellis Island by my grandfather’s cousins, who took them to their home in New Rochelle, New York, where they lived for a year. My grandparents then moved with my grandma’s sister to an apartment in the Bronx. During the day my grandma worked in a dress factory in Manhattan. At night she went to school to learn English.
After living in the Bronx, Grandma and Grandpa moved to Queens, and then to Brookline, Massachusetts, in 1991. In 1994, my grandpa died of cancer. My grandparents had been married for 48 years.
My grandma’s experiences in the Holocaust ultimately shaped who I am today. Her decisions in life made my existence possible. Now that my grandma is 90, I feel that I am responsible for teaching others the horrors of what she experienced so that it will never be forgotten and no such thing shall ever exist on the earth again.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.