Holocaust survivor tells tale of sadness, hope
Published: Thursday, October 21, 2010
Updated: Thursday, October 21, 2010 07:10
A crowd of several hundred gathered in Cabot Auditorium Tuesday night to hear an extraordinary story of endurance during the Holocaust.
Eliezer Ayalon, who survived five concentration camps during the Holocaust and was the sole survivor of a family of six, recounted his experiences at an event run by Tufts Hillel. His visit was sponsored by a donation from Trustee Emeritus William Cummings (A '58) and his wife Joyce.
Ayalon was born in 1928 in Radom, a town in central Poland, where he lived with his parents, sister and two brothers. German soldiers entered Radom on Sept. 8, 1939.
"That is exactly when my life changed dramatically," Ayalon said. "To live in a ghetto means to live in a prison."
Ayalon said the ghetto's inhabitants were unable to earn money or buy food. "I remember days when my family could not afford to buy more than a half loaf of bread each day," he said. At age 13, he obtained a job at the German military base outside the ghetto, becoming the sole money earner in his family in the process.
German soldiers began emptying Polish ghettos in the summer of 1942, sending inhabitants to concentration camps. Ayalon's family was sent to the Treblinka concentration camp.
His mother convinced him to use his work permit to avoid the euphemistically named "resettlement," which, at the time, exempted him from deportation.
Ayalon said he resisted, wanting to stay with his family.
"I begged my family," he said. "I cried, ‘Let me stay. I want to stay with you.' My mother insisted I should go."
Ayalon was eventually forced to go to a concentration camp 80 miles away.
"I refused to die. I did everything possible to survive," he said.
In the different camps in which he resided between 1942 and 1945, Ayalon barely ate, worked from dawn until dusk and shared a bunk bed with six people. He showed a sign to the audience with the number 84991, his designation at the third camp.
Ayalon said he walked for two days straight from the fourth to the fifth camp, Ebensee, where he remained until American forces liberated it in May 1945.
"I remember the last week. I was in a state of protracted starvation," he said. "I could count my ribs. I was a walking skeleton like the others."
When Gen. George Patton's army liberated Ayalon's camp, Ayalon was 17 years old and weighed 55 pounds.
"To me, they were not American soldiers. To me, they were angels who came down from heaven to save our lives," he said.
Ayalon moved to Palestine in Nov. 1945, where he met and married his wife, to whom he is still married. He has two children, five grandchildren and three great−grandchildren.
"I think that I accomplished everything I wanted," he said. "My life is a continual defeat for the Nazis."
Ayalon urged the audience to prevent genocide from ever happening again.
"Speak out against racism, against baseless hatred," he said. "We have to speak and to make sure that the Holocaust will never happen again."
"If you do that, you will contribute a lot to this world," he said.
Rabbi Jeffrey Summit, the executive director of Tufts Hillel, told the audience beforehand that he hoped to make students more responsive to injustice in the world.
"We want to sandpaper our students' sensitivity so that they'll be among the first to recognize and respond to injustice in society," Summit said.
Hillel President Rachel Finn called the event a success.
"I think it went incredibly well. I thought there was excellent turnout," Finn, a senior, said. "I think the crowd listening really understood the magnitude of what he was speaking about."
"He was an incredible speaker," sophomore Miriam Ross−Hirsch, a co−chair of freshman programming at Hillel, said. "I thought it was a really moving story."
A short clip of the documentary "Genocide" and an introduction by junior Hillary Sieber preceded Ayalon's remarks.
The Cummings, who recently presented Tufts with a $1 million challenge grant to form a new program through Tufts Hillel for Holocaust and genocide education, were touched when hearing Ayalon speak in Israel; Ayalon was partly responsible for their decision to give.
Summit stressed the importance of education in propagating moral values across the world.
"Many people here, at some point, will be called on to make moral decisions where our actions will count, and where we can have a profound impact on others' lives," he said. "We believe that education can and should move us to action, and that engaged citizens can and will raise a moral voice and rise to moral actions in our lives."
Ross−Hirsch said she hoped that the lessons from the Holocaust would help prepare students to fight to prevent future genocides.
"I think one of the positive things that can come out of the Holocaust, of these survivors," Ross−Hirsch said, "is the motivation to really make sure that other holocausts and other genocides really don't happen again."