Holding on to the Past
Genia Lypeska was good at math and geography. The teachers loved her handwriting so much she was often asked to come to the chalkboard to write.
She was 12 years old when the Nazi army invaded her hometown of Sosniavitz, Poland - a border town near Germany. The year was 1939, and her father was already forced to quit his textile business where he and his wife worked together to help support their seven children.
"We had a happy good life," said Lypeska, who's last name has since changed to Spitzer.
The town consisted of both Catholics and Jews. When the Jews were forced to leave public school, Catholic students had no problem pushing them out the door and slamming them against walls as the priests watched, Spitzer said last night as she retold her story as a Holocaust survivor.
She was living a lifestyle full of anti-Semitism.
"I can remember tearing apart a yellow sheet my mother had and cutting Star of David's we would sew onto our clothing front and back... so people would know we were Jewish when we were coming or going," she said.
She saw her shul - Yiddish for Temple - burn to the ground. All of the good memories of the times spent on holidays were gone.
"I can only remember the fire... while we all stood and watched."
For Spitzer and the other Jews in her town, the situation worsened with every passing day. Eventually her father was sent away and she was forced to live with her grandparents. Her father returned after six weeks, only to be sent away to the a concentration camp.
Washing clothes in boiling water at a forced labor camp, Spitzer stood one day with many other women from her town as the Nazis asked them to divide up - the healthy and the weak.
"I knew it was going to happen, I knew I was being sent away that day," said Spitzer, a local Tucsonan.
She was right. While walking toward the cattle cars, she noticed a heard of men running toward them. She noticed one of the men was her own father.
"He was dodging bullets. The last time I saw my father was when he was running from Nazis."
The young girl who was so good at geography would then be boarded on a cattle train headed to the work camp Gabersdorf, near Auschwitz. Since she arrived prior to the creation of the notorious death camp, she and hundreds of others were placed at a labor camp.
Over the next four years, many of the prisoners sent to the camp eventually died.
"It looked like a factory," she said.
That day was the first time she had eaten in four days.
"We were given a red bowl to fill with soup," she said.
They were then sent to work making thread. She and the other prisoners would work 12-hour shifts in a factory making thread and yarn, living on horsemeat and potatoes, wearing rags and only a flat board with straps for shoes during the freezing winters.
"I saw so many women die....I envied them when I would see them go... I would ask why I am still here? Why am I still living?"
On Liberation Day - May 8, 1945 - Checkoslavakian soldiers arrived to free the women. They ran around the outside of the barbed wire, yelling, "You're free, you're free!" Spitzer said.
But, with the electrical fence still in tact, the women had no way out.
The next day the soldiers came back and a general who spoke Yiddish talked to the women in a language they could understand.
Spitzer recalls the general saying, "Sisters stand back!" as they opened fire on the fence to disable the electricity, allowing the women to leave after four years of captivity.
They passed out food, which caused many women to die since their stomachs had shrunk. The survivors were taken to a Red Cross facility to recuperate.
Spitzer eventually learned that only her and her younger sister had survived the Holocaust.
Spitzer told her story as part of the Holocaust remembrance series sponsored by the Hillel foundation. The series hosts at least one speaker per month.
The theme of the series, which is in its eighth year, is "To Not Let the Past Slip Through our Fingers."
"It is so important," said Brad Schenker, chairman of the UA committee that brings Holocaust survivors to campus. "Since so many survivors are perishing due to old age, their stories will be lost forever."
The organization also hosts a 25-hour vigil in February where students recite the names of 25,000 who perished during the Holocaust. Funding comes from many sources, including ASUA and individual grants.
The committee consists of 15 students who gather to discuss how to aid the awareness of Holocaust remembrance, which is open to students of all faiths.
The format of the speech attracted Bethany Weinstein, who works for community outreach at Hillel.
"It was a different format," said Weinstein, referring to the panel-like discussion that was taped for Steven Speilberg's Shoah foundation. "It was the story of her life, not just in the camps. She talked about her family life, and everyone can relate to that."
Spitzer lives in Tucson with her husband. The two have three children and three grandchildren.