Holocaust survivors share their story
Shmuel Rothbard was just a child when World War II started.
The Holocaust survivor shared his story with about 70 students at Onehunga High School on June 16 as part of a three-week national tour of schools, universities and community groups.
He and his wife Fredja, 81, were invited here by the NZ Friends of Israel Association and the Jewish Federation of New Zealand.
They are giving their talks as part of the federation’s Holocaust Outreach Programme for Education 2015.
Shmuel, 82, remembers the day the war was announced because it was September 1 – his sixth birthday.
It would have been his first day of school and he was looking forward to making new friends.
Soon after, his family were thrown out of their apartment in the Polish town of Krakow and his father’s textiles store was confiscated.
The family of six was eventually sent to the Krakow Ghetto with other Jewish people in the town.
They were squeezed into a two-bedroom apartment with two other families. Soon old, young and sick people started to be taken away from the ghetto.
‘‘We were told they were transported to the east for new settlement. Later we knew they were transported to extermination camps, mostly to Auschwitz,’’ he says.
His sister Genia was arrested for her involvement in a Jewish underground organisation.
She was put on a train headed for Auschwitz, but she jumped off and survived.
In 1943 the ghetto was closed and Shmuel’s family was rounded up.
His mother knew he would be killed so she bribed a Ukrainian policeman to look the other way while he escaped. His mother, father and sister Hela were sent to a concentration camp.
Shmuel sought refuge with his parents’ Polish friend Henryk Pstrusinski, who his sister Genia was also staying with.
Pstrusinski hid the two siblings in his workshop which had been boarded up by the Germans.
‘‘He understood the safest place to keep Jewish people is in German property. We spent close to a year in this workshop.’’
Pstrusinski then moved them to another apartment. To pass the time, Genia taught Shmuel to read.
‘‘She wrote on the page the alphabet.
‘‘For one-and-a-half years I read everything I was able to find and our Polish friend would bring us more books.’’
Eventually his other sister Hela escaped the camp and joined them in the apartment.
They were reunited with their mother at the end of the war, but his father and brother hadn’t survived.
‘‘When we met my mother it really was something special. When I left her I was a small boy.
‘‘When I came back I was 12 and taller than my mother.’’
A year later Shmuel left Europe for Israel on an illegal ship. He was captured and taken to Cyprus and then to a detention camp in Israel where he met Fredja.
The couple has lived in the Haifa District ever since and have three children.
Onehunga High School year 12 student Erika Soffe says hearing the first-hand account really hit home.
‘‘We’ve read letters and things in class but it’s a lot different when you hear from someone who’s actually experienced it.
‘‘It makes it a lot more real so you’re able to empathise.
‘‘The overall story of how the family met up was amazing. You wouldn’t imagine that would actually happen.’’
Jewish couple Shmuel and Fredja Rothbard are in New Zealand telling their war stories.