Kristen Zarlengo wanted her 7-year-old son Joey to hear a first-hand account of the Holocaust. On Wednesday afternoon, they joined more than 500 people in Centennial Hall to hear Mariam Greenstein describe how she survived six years of Nazi ghettos and death camps.
"I had a college professor who was a Holocaust survivor," Zarlengo said as she waited with Joey to meet Greenstein after the talk. "But how many chances will he get?"
Greenstein, 81, was the first speaker in the 2001 Pillars of American Freedom series. This is the 10th year the Glacier Valley Rotary Club has sponsored the series, which features four speakers a year.
"I thought the story was good. And scary," said Joey. "I liked it the most when she got free."
Greenstein has lived in Portland, Ore., since 1946. She grew up in western Poland in the 1930s and was 9 when Nazi Germany invaded Poland in 1939.
Over the next two years she saw family members stripped of their civil rights. Their business, home and possessions were taken. She described in her strong Polish accent how in 1941 her father and all the other Jewish men of her town were rounded up and loaded onto trucks by soldiers.
"I was 11, and that was the last time I ever saw my father," she said.
Shortly afterward, she and her mother were jammed into a cattle car and shipped to a ghetto. Over the next four years she was transferred five times to four different concentration camps.
"I never saw an egg, a drop of milk, or a chicken," she said. "I never saw a piece of fruit in all that time."
Greenstein vividly described the last time she saw her mother, two weeks before her mother was gassed in a death camp.
She said there were also moments of kindness. A German woman working at one camp secretly fed her and the other kitchen workers hot soup and once snuck them to her house for showers.
"She could've been killed for that," Greenstein said. "There are good people in the world."
She contracted tuberculosis, typhoid and dysentery, and was beaten and starved. One day in 1945 her captors mysteriously disappeared, leaving a camp full of dying prisoners. Soon afterward the British Army rolled into camp.
She said that six weeks later, shortly after she turned 16, she weighed herself on a scale.
"I weighed 55 pounds," she said. "I looked 10 or 11."
Greenstein tracked down her aunt and uncle in Portland after the war and immigrated in 1946. She said that like many Holocaust survivors, she did not want to speak about her experiences and just wanted to get on with her life. But 10 years ago something changed that.
"Someone painted swastikas on the walls of Cleveland High School (in Portland) where my daughters had gone to school. I was angry," she said.
After telling her story, Greenstein answered questions, focusing on students. One student asked how she felt about the inaction of people who watched the Holocaust passively. She said if people had stood up to the persecution to start with, it would not have happened.
"I love this country more than life itself, but America did not do such a good job either," she said. "We were not the world's selected people. We were Gypsies, Jews and gays."
She said she believes in prevention, not looking back.
"Hatred is caused by ignorance," she said.
Riley Woodford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Juneau Empire ©2014. All Rights Reserved.