Even though Holocaust survivor Susan Cernyak-Spatz had spoken at Davidson College four times in the past five years, 400 or so people streamed in to hear the 91-year-old Sept. 23.
The numbers were so unexpected, the lecture had to be moved to a larger venue.
Perhaps the crowd agreed with Davidson history professor Thomas Pegelow Kaplan when he said, “Many Holocaust survivors are already deceased. In a few years, there will be no one left, so we should speak with survivors while we still can.”
Cernyak-Spatz spoke matter-of-factly about the gruesome specifics she experienced at Auschwitz-Birkenau. She told of “the sweet nauseating smell of burning flesh,” the head-to-toe shaving, and the red metal bowl she was given to eat from during the day and to use as a toilet at night.
After telling her brutal survival story as prisoner #34042, Cernyak-Spatz concluded by saying: “There is only one thing I want to tell all of you, especially students, who sooner or later will have professions. If, in the exercising of your job, you would have to kill one human being, just remember what I told you about the Wannsee Conference that determined the Final Solution (the Nazi’s plan to annihilate Jews). In that conference, 14 higher-ranking SS men determined the life of millions. And among these 14 higher-ranking men were 11 that had PhDs, having education, having intelligence, without one drop of humanity.
“There is an old saying,” she added, “‘If we forget the past, we’re condemned to repeat it.’ People like me will be gone. It is up to you and the next generation.”
The very next day, an unlikely person remembered the past. Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, acknowledged and condemned the Holocaust, even though his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, denied its existence.
After a Musllim leader and several hundred future leaders paused to remember the genocide of 6 million Jews, perhaps prisoner #34042 felt some hope for the future generations.