Auschwitz Survivor Shares Story for Holocaust Remembrance Day

The annual Holocaust Remembrance Day service during University Chapel on Thursday included testimony from a Holocaust survivor.

Yom Ha’Shoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day, was commemorated by the gathering of students, faculty and community members in Samuelson Chapel on Thursday, April 12 during chapel hour.

There was barely an empty pew on the lower level of the chapel because students, faculty and community members had all come to hear Michael Mark’s story of survival. Clara Knopfler, a 91-year-old Holocaust survivor who lives in University Village, a retirement community across from campus, also came to the service, but did not speak.

“Shalom. Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day throughout the world. We gather to remember the memory of 6 million Jews among 11 million people who were murdered by the Nazis,” said Rabbi Belle Michael to open the ceremony.

According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website, the international date for Holocaust Remembrance Day is based on the Hebrew calendar and follows the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, which marks 75 years this year.

Mark, 93 years old, told attendees about his experience as a prisoner at Auschwitz Concentration Camp in Poland during the Holocaust.

When he and his family first got to the camp, there was a “German officer with a big stick standing there… showing left or right with the stick,” Mark said.

He said he later realized that the very young and very old were being separated from the able-body-aged prisoners.

“I lined up there [on the able-bodied side] with my older brother and my father,” Mark said.

He said the first thing he noticed was the smoke coming out of the big building and the smell of burning flesh.

“Someone told us that all those people who were not selected to be a slave were killed, and now they are burning their bodies,” Mark said.

Mark said every day he was fed a piece of bread for breakfast and bowls of soup for lunch and dinner, working all day moving stones. Then came a time when they were fed nothing at all, causing prisoners to collapse and die, including Mark’s father.

“The only hope we had was if we were liberated,” Mark said.

Mark said one day a farmer came to tell them that the Germans had run away and the prisoners were liberated. They walked to town and saw tanks and American soldiers.

“We had no strength to celebrate that we were freed,” Mark said.

Mark said he came to America to be with his  uncle who had immigrated before the Holocaust. Many years later, he was drafted for the Korean War and trained as a medic, but when a captain discovered that he spoke five languages he was reassigned as an interpreter and sent to Germany.

“I was there a couple years before as a slave; now I came back as an American soldier,” Mark said.

The attendees applauded Mark twice, once when he ended his testimony and again as he was being helped off the podium to his seat.

“That is the most I have ever heard in 10 minutes,” said Cantor Kenny Ellis of Mark’s detailed testimony. A cantor is a person who sings and lead prayer in a synagogue.

Michael has been involved at Cal Lutheran for seven years, five of which she has been the Cal Lutheran campus rabbi. Michael said Campus Ministry commemorates Holocaust Remembrance Day every year during chapel and started before she came.

Ellis said that he has had a relationship with the university for 20 years and Holocaust Remembrance Day has been commemorated on campus since before he came along, but that it has changed over the years since Michael joined as rabbi.

“Pastor Melissa and Pastor Scott, they were in charge of it and did a wonderful job,” Michael said of Holocaust Remembrance Day before she came.

Ellis chanted the Hebrew prayer “Ani Ma’amin” meaning “I believe,” which he said was chanted by Holocaust victims as they were ushered into gas chambers. While he sang and invited the audience to join him, five Hillel club members lit six candles on a table in the front of the chapel.

“After the Holocaust, the world vowed ‘Never again!’ and yet, genocide and ethnic cleansing are still happening around the world,” Michael said.

Mark said he wanted to speak because he believes this tragedy should never be forgotten or repeated.

“Maybe with more remembering, we will wake up,” Michael said.

According to an article in The Times of Israel, Israel stood still for Holocaust Remembrance Day. At 10 a.m. Israelis stopped what they were doing to honor the lives lost, while sirens blared all over the country. Photos published with the article showed traffic completely stopped in the streets with drivers and passengers standing outside their cars.

Michael read, “May their memory endure, inspiring truth and loyalty in our lives. May their souls thus be bound up in the bond of life. May they rest in peace. Amen,” from the prayer “El Male Rachamin,” meaning “Compassionate God.”

Rissa Gross