The Girl in the Auschwitz Photo, Torchbearer of a Legacy

Irene Fogel Weiss recalls her terrifying arrival at the death camp, and explains why she’s returning there this week, to mark the 70th anniversary of its liberation.

Irene Fogel Weiss, 84, will never forget the moment the cattle car door slid open and she was thrust out onto a ramp.

“Things happened with great speed and lots of shouting,” says Weiss, who arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau on a transport in the spring of 1944. “The men were instantly separated from the women, my mother and my two little brothers were pushed to one side. I had on a big coat and a kerchief because my head had been shaved in the ghetto. I was holding my 12-year-old sister Edith’s hand. She had braids and maybe they thought I was her mother.”

In a flash, an SS officer pried the two apart, designating one to the left, the other to the right, and before Weiss could catch her breath, she lost her sister in a rapidly moving swell of people.

Yad Vashem Archives

“I stood there frozen, searching for my sister, absolutely horrified that she was alone in that crowd, hoping she would catch up to our mother,” recalls Weiss, who is today a grandmother of four.

Within half an hour, Edith, brothers Gershon and Reuven, and their mother, Lenke Mermelstein Fogel, would all be killed – but not before the Nazis had documented the hordes being unloaded. Unbeknownst to Weiss, her arrival was photographed by the Nazis and that picture surfaced 25 years later in a book called “The Auschwitz Album,” published by Yad Vashem.

“My daughter brought it home to me, and every single page was exactly as I had remembered it,” says Weiss, a native of Botragy, Czechoslovakia - now known as Batrad, Ukraine, which was taken by Hungary in 1939 - in a phone interview from her home in Fairfax, Virginia.

“Then I found myself, standing there, paralyzed, looking for my sister. I figured they might have captured other members of my family. A few pages later, I found a picture of my mother with my two brothers in a wooded area, waiting for their turn into the gas chambers. My sister was not with them. And my heart sank.”

However painful, seeing the album was a validation of sorts. Throughout her eight months in Auschwitz, Weiss often felt she had to detach herself from the present to get by. The horror was all too vivid; the pain, too much to bear. She would fantasize it wasn’t real in order to survive.

“Finding that picture really confirmed to her that it happened,” says her daughter Lesley Weiss, 60, deputy director of the National Coalition Supporting Eurasian Jewry, and chairwoman of the U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad.

Weiss will be accompanying her mother to Auschwitz-Birkenau on Tuesday, International Holocaust Remembrance Day, as part of a presidential delegation, to mark the 70th anniversary of its liberation. “My mother is very calm and articulate,” she explains, “and doesn’t want to be seen as a victim. But she wants people to understand what happened there.”

This won’t be the pair’s first time back to the death camp. In 1984, Lesley was working for the Anti-Defamation League and took part in a young leadership trip there, convincing her mother to join her. “She was very stoic,” Lesley says.

But it proved difficult for Weiss. “It was a good trip for me,” she recalls. “I was one of the only survivors. The group didn’t have the same emotions as me.”

Then last summer, figuring it might be their last chance, the mother and daughter returned with children and grandchildren in tow, filming Weiss retrace her steps from that fateful ramp to the barrack she slept in, crammed six to a bed, to the area of the camp called “Canada,” where she worked.

“She climbed right up into a watch tower and was just in the zone,” Lesley says of the visit. “Once she started talking, we couldn’t stop her. She wanted to share everything. It’s her way of dealing with it, teaching future generations, explaining what happened, not leaving a lot of room for the other stuff. When I asked her how she was able to revisit this with such composure, she said: ‘I haven’t kept it together this long to fall apart now.’”

Though the commemorative event this week should prove even more emotionally trying, Weiss wouldn’t miss it. “When the president asks you to represent him, you don’t say no. I am honored,” she says. “But also, it’s important for me to go. My entire family’s cemetery is there. I have nowhere else to say Kaddish for them.”

Or, as Lesley puts it: “This is all I’ve got. I never knew my grandparents and uncles and aunts. Had this happened to me, I would want my descendants to do the same for me. Going back is the least I can do.”

That may be true, but being the torchbearer of such a legacy isn’t a cakewalk either.

Little and big traumas

“There were little traumas that felt like big traumas,” the elderly Weiss recalls of her arrival at Auschwitz-Birkenau. “They marched us to a processing center where we were stripped naked, shaved, not only on our heads, but also if we had pubic hair, by men. They made Jewish prisoners do it because we were not human to them and they wouldn’t lower themselves to such a task.

“They wanted to humiliate us all and annihilate us. There was no morality. You can’t compare it to anything you know. After a while your mind adjusts, you tell yourself, it’s not important, you begin to accept it; you do what you have to do.”

Weiss recalls that she was pushed through the line, skipping a station before being told to shower and then trying to find her older sister Serena in the melee of faceless shaved heads.

“I couldn’t tell anyone apart. Every time the door opened, I kept yelling ‘Serena! Serena!’ until a woman took pity on me and waited with me until she appeared,” says Weiss. “We met people who had come before us and asked them where our parents and siblings were. They pointed to the chimneys. But we didn’t believe them. We couldn’t.”

But it didn’t take long to begin to accept the truth.

“I stopped crying very soon,” says Weiss, who found her aunts Piri (Pearl) and Rozia and clung to them as if to life. “I was in a daze. I didn’t think I was on this earth. How could I be?”

And that’s another reason why Weiss is attending the Auschwitz event: She feels a need to confirm that the place really existed – not just for future generations, but also for herself.

“I appreciate that the world hasn’t forgotten,” says Weiss, who is among 100 survivors invited to pay tribute, thanks to funding from the World Jewish Congress. “But for me to personally show up and be able to tell my story before all these world leaders, that sort of validation is immeasurable.”

Weiss, who was made to work nearby crematorium IV, sorting through the mountains of belongings the Nazis had seized from their innocent victims, was in a sort of denial during her days at Auschwitz.

“Even though we passed by the gas chambers every day on our way to work and saw our Jewish men pull the bodies, yanking the gold from their teeth, unable to keep up with mountain of corpses piling up, and we heard the screaming and saw the constant fire burning – we didn’t want to believe what was happening,” she says now.

“There must be a mechanism that the body uses to shut down. I plugged my ears, so I couldn’t hear the screaming. I kept telling myself I was going home soon, that this was a world someplace else, that this wasn’t me.”

But as the Russian forces gained ground and the Nazis realized they were losing the war, they became even more determined to finish the killing, and Weiss could no longer blot out the horrors she was observing first hand.

“Even the crematoria couldn’t keep up with the pace of the slaughter, so the Nazis would burn bodies in outdoor pits,” she explains. “After a while, we didn’t need to be told anything. We could never diminish the piles of eyeglasses, baby carriages, books, musical instruments, clothes, shoes and belongings that were rising to the roof. Every day, the pile was bigger than the day before. You couldn’t put a number on the lives lost.”

On January 17, 1945, Weiss and her sisters and aunt were forced out of the compound on a death march to Ravensbruck, and then onward into Germany to Neustad-Glewe, near Hamburg, where the forced labor camp became so infested with lice, a typhus epidemic broke out.

“We took my aunt Piri to the infirmary because she became feverish and delirious,” says Weiss. “But it was a big mistake. Everyday a truck came and took the sick to a killing camp. She never returned. Then my sister became too sick to get off the floor and they picked her out for the next truckload. I lay on the floor with her and told them I didn’t want to be left alone. I was resigned to die. They said, ‘You can go, too’.”

But the next day, the truck never appeared. The Russians arrived instead. As Weiss recalls, instead of bearing food and medical supplies, they abandoned the camp almost immediately, leaving the diseased inmates to die. It took a few more months for Weiss, Edith and Roszia to land on their feet and reunite with a long-lost uncle who helped them get to the United States. There Weiss went on to attend American University in Washington, D.C. and to meet her future husband, an American soldier whose parents fled the pogroms of Russia decades earlier. She worked as a public school teacher for 13 years.

‘A sense of heritage’

“When my children were four and five, they began to ask why they only had one set of grandparents,” Weiss says. “I told them there had been a war and evil people wanted to kill all Jews, and that they killed my parents. I tried to keep it age appropriate, but I never hid it from them. And when we would get together with my family, we would recall how things had been at our home, before the war, so they grew up with a sense of my heritage and great pride in being Jewish.

“When I first had my son — and it was such a healing process for me, being only 20, without a mother, and still grieving her loss — I made a conscious decision to always dress him beautifully, keep him clean and attractive, so everybody would look at him and smile and give him constant positive feedback, only good vibes, so he would never know what it was like to be treated as a subhuman as I had been.”

Whereas much has been written about how survivors transmit the trauma of their past to their children, Weiss deliberately kept the atrocities she suffered in her past to a minimum and focused instead on a more empowering message.

“All of us deserve respect,” she says. “I was also very mindful of not raising kids who were troubled by anti-Semitism, but who were recognizable as Jews, and understood our allegiance to Israel and to the Jewish people. ”

For her part, Lesley recalls Passover seders in which family members would draw parallels between the story of Exodus and their own route to freedom after the Holocaust. By connecting their family tragedy to biblical history and imparting them with a source of strength, she was moved to pursue a career in Jewish and human rights advocacy (she has a master's degree in social work and in modern Jewish history).

Early in her career at the ADL, Lesley recalls seeing swastikas on tombstones and immediately feeling her heart starting to pound.

“Then I thought of my mother, who was defenseless in a system in which Jews had no rights, and thought, I’m in control here, working for the ADL with police, and able to harness democratic institutions to protect us,” Lesley explains. “And I try to apply those principles abroad, too.”

As chairwoman of the U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad, she works with foreign governments to protect Jewish heritage sites in countries like Poland, bringing her mother’s legacy full circle.

“I think of the Holocaust-related issues everyday,” says Lesley. “It’s literally my job. I’ve made my mom’s story my business.”

As part of her job, she travels to Jewish institutions around the world and has seen her mother’s Auschwitz photo in the unlikeliest of places: in a book compiled in a remote part of Ukraine, in a Jewish museum in Cape Town, and blown up from floor to ceiling at Washington, D.C.’s U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum where her mother volunteers as a docent and leads tours.

“Everyone from cardinals to Viktor Yushchenko, former president of Ukraine, to [the late Washington Mayor] Marion Barry has seen my mom’s photo,” says Lesley. “It’s the first thing you see when you step out of the cattle car [in the museum exhibition]. And when she tells [her groups that] it’s her, they become very engaged. It’s suddenly real.”

As for Weiss, seeing that image of a young teenager, terror-stricken and alone, lost in a vanishing crowd, is always a surreal experience.

“I can’t put it into words,” she says. “I’m still in denial. I can’t accept it or reject. I kept that image in my head for so many years, seeing it on the page was a way of documenting what I went through, and also my sister, my mother, my brothers, all those who are not accounted for, because there are no records that exist for them, and because their lives were real and they mattered.”