Daniel Zaas / Lantern photographer
Even in the hardest of times, Holocaust survivor Irene Zisblatt found hope.
Fifty years after being sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp and losing her entire family to the gas chambers, Zisblatt, who is now in her 80s, has shared her story with more than six million people, including students at Ohio State.
“I didn’t talk about any of my experience until 1994,” said Zisblatt. “In 1994 I broke my silence at The March of the Living after “Schindler’s List” came out. Then I realized it was my duty to bear with it, and that’s when I started to talk.”
As a blonde, petite woman standing barely 5 feet tall, Zisblatt loves to travel and spend time with her two children and five grandchildren in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. She travels all over the world, speaking to students and sharing her Holocaust survival story.
Zisblatt shared her story Tuesday with OSU students at Hillel, the Ohio State Jewish Student Union.
Born in 1930, Zisblatt grew up on a farm that her grandfather owned in the Carpathian Mountains in Hungary. She lived in a small town with about 263 families, one-third of which were Jewish. She attended a four-room schoolhouse until the age of 9, or about third grade, before the Nazis threw Jewish children out of public school.
“After that, we could not go to any public school but we continued going to our Hebrew school, which was only once a week,” Zisblatt said. “But that didn’t last long either, because when they (German Nazis) found out we were still going to school they stopped that too.”
Shortly after Zisblatt was expelled from school, the German Nazis put restrictions on all Jews and took their transportation and valuables. Zisblatt said she remembers being a devastated 9-year-old while watching the Nazis take her only form of transportation, her bicycle.
“They also made us wear the Jewish star,” Zisblatt said. “And I remember how devastated my mother was when they gave that order. She said to my father, ‘First they make our Jewish Star into a badge of shame, and now they want to take our valuables and rob us of our feeling of being worthy enough to own something of value?'”
Being the oldest of six children, 13-year-old Zisblatt and her family were taken into the ghetto. They were told everyone would be relocated to work in a vineyard, but instead they were taken to Poland and sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp.
“(When we got there) I remember my mother saying, ‘I’m not going to let them take my valuables! I’m just not going to let them!'” Zisblatt said. “So then she gave me her diamonds.”
Her mother sewed the four diamonds, all smaller than an aspirin, to the inside hem of Zisblatt’s dress. She was advised to only sell them if she was hungry, but Zisblatt knew there was no way she would have been able to sell them for bread.
Zisblatt said it would have been safer to throw them away, because her life was constantly in jeopardy. She was constantly worried someone would sell her out to the Nazi guard for a piece of bread.
So she started to swallow them, but only when she felt her life was in danger.
“I didn’t swallow them everyday,” Zisblatt said. “But I swallowed them whenever I saw danger. And I don’t know, sometimes it would be today or tomorrow, but then I didn’t have to swallow them for a couple of weeks. It just depended on what was happening in the camp.”
The diamonds continued to give her strength and a reason to live. It started an internal daily challenge for Zisblatt, who was just trying to survive and keep her family diamonds.
“The strength and the sacrifice that they carried were so strong,” Zisblatt said. “It was much stronger than the Nazi hatred, so I couldn’t throw them away. I often thought, ‘I can’t die today, I have to save the diamonds.’ Or, ‘I can’t die today, what if I need to buy bread tomorrow?'”
Zisblatt was also chosen to be a guinea pig for experiments by Mendele, and as a scared 13-year-old girl she had no idea where she was going to be taken.
“My first experiment was he was trying to change the color of my eyes,” Zisblatt said. “He injected us with chemicals. There were five of us, and he put us in a dungeon. And I don’t know how many days we were down there in the dark, and that’s where I met my supporting friend Sabka.”
Out of the five Jews experimented on, Zisblatt and Sabka were the only two to come out alive. The others became blind and were taken to the gas chambers, Zisblatt said. Barely escaping the gas chambers, because of an overcrowded room, Zisblatt was forced out of the building and hid under a roof scared and naked, she said. That was when she was saved.
“I knew that the next group that was going to come in was going to find me, and they were going to put me back in there (the gas chamber),” Zisblatt said. “But for that moment I had hope, and then a miracle happened.”
Zisblatt was rescued by a young Sonderkommando boy, a worker in the crematorium, who gave her his jacket and helped her escape onto a train.
“Before he put me on a train … I said, ‘Where are you from and what is your name?’ and he replied, ‘It doesn’t matter, I only have more three days to live. So if you make it, live a little for me too.’ And I’ve been living for him ever since. That’s when I realized how much I wanted to stay alive, for him,” Zisblatt said.
Somehow, Zisblatt’s uncle in New York found her name on a list of children to be sent to an orphanage, and wrote a letter asking if she would like to go and live with a new family in a new country. Zisblatt said she screamed so loud when she found out.
It took many years for Zisblatt to make her way to the United States because she had to be processed and cleared of disease, she said. At the age of 16, she moved onto a farm with her aunt in New Jersey and attended a night school to learn English.
In the U.S., Zisblatt attended Rutgers University, worked for the Radio Corporation of America, married the love of her life and published a book, “The Fifth Diamond.”
Zisblatt now travels three to four times a week year-round to different schools all over the world, she said. According to a historian Zisblatt spoke with, she has talked to more than six million people, one representing every soul taken from the Holocaust.
Sierra Holley, a second-year in human nutrition, attended the speech after hearing of Zisblatt when her Yiddish class watched “The Last Days.” She said it was Zisblatt’s loving attitude that impressed her the most.
“She really comes across as such a sweet lady who expresses so much love even though she went through all of the hate,” Holley said.
Holley said many in attendance were moved by the speech.
“It was quite an experience to see the row of boys in front of us, because I’m pretty sure they cried at a few points in her story,” Holley said.
Some students, such as Leo Katsman, a second-year in actuarial science, had seen Zisblatt speak before and were so impressed with her story that they came back to hear her again.
“She tells a very good story,” said Katsman. “It’s very important for everyone to hear, whether they’re Jewish or not, because we really are the last generation to hear Holocaust survivors talk.”
Zisblatt said it is the reactions from students like Holley and Katsman that are the most rewarding.
“The best reaction is from the future generation,” she said. “They show how much they are learning and embracing from the story I tell.”