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My thoughts turned to Nina Katz as I recently watched a television program about the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz near the end of World War II in Europe.

Surviving the Holocaust

The Polish-born Katz was freed from a Nazi concentration camp 70 years next May. She died last February at age 89.

Katz, who lived in Memphis, spent 40 years traveling the country, sharing her harrowing story as a Holocaust survivor. She accepted no money for her presentations.

Twenty years ago, she spoke at West Kentucky Community and Technical College, then Paducah Community College, where I was on the faculty for 24 years.

After the war, she married Morris Katz, her childhood sweetheart, who also survived the Holocaust. They migrated to Israel, then to America, settled in Memphis, became U.S. citizens and reared a family.

When Morris and Nina and Morris reached Memphis, they were appalled at Jim Crow segregation and race discrimination against African Americans in the city and elsewhere in the South.

“Memphis was not a nice place to arrive for someone like me,” she said in her speech. “I remembered I boarded a bus; I paid my token. There was no seat in the front; I went to sit in the back. The bus driver in a crude English, and I know it was a crude English because English is my fifth language, and you pay attention to language, he told me, using a derogatory term for ‘black’…said you cannot sit there with so-and-so’s.

“I wasn’t going to sit in the front. I was determined to keep my seat in the back, but the black people begged me, ‘lady, don’t you start any trouble,’ and they looked frightened like we did in the concentration camps, and I knew what I needed to do with my life.”

She got off the bus and “decided that I must commit myself to pursue justice for all people. I must awaken America and tell about what happened in Europe during the Nazi regime. It started out with prejudice, which led to discrimination, and discrimination led to total destruction.”

Katz was not a prisoner at Auschwitz, the infamous Nazi concentration camp complex at Oświęcim, Poland. Soviet troops liberated Auschwitz on January 27, 1945.

Surviving the Holocaust

The rest of Katz’s family was at Auschwitz. They all died.

Auschwitz has come to symbolize the Holocaust, the murder of approximately six million Jews by German dictator Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime and its collaborators, including some Poles.

Red Army soldiers arrived at Auschwitz too late to save Katz’s parents, her little sister, and her grandfather, a rabbi.

More than 1.1 million prisoners -- 90 percent of them Jews -- died in Auschwitz’s three major camps or its multiple sub-camps. The Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau camps have been a memorial and museum since 1947.

Katz said the Nazis separated her from her family because she was tall – 5'7" -- and strong, and looked like a hard worker to them. The Nazis broke her body. They could not break her faith in God and in humanity.

I retold her story in my European history classes at the college until I retired in 2013. I wove her story into online history classes I am teaching in retirement.

Katz said she was 12 in 1939 when the Germans attacked Poland and started World War II. She lived with her family in Sosnowiec, about 24 miles from Oświęcim.

The Nazis opened Auschwitz I as a concentration camp for Polish political prisoners in 1940. Later, they built the other camps, including Auschwitz II-Birkenau, an extermination camp for Jews from throughout Europe.

At the time of the Nazi invasion, the Katzes were among 3.3 million Jews in predominantly Catholic Poland. Poland containd Europe’s largest Jewish population.

Many non-Jewish Poles risked their lives to hide Jews or to help them escape the Nazis.

Yet anti-Semitism was strong in Poland. Many non-Jewish Poles, too, were indifferent to the plight of the Jews, or they helped the Nazis round up Jews.

Katz said she grew up amidst rampant anti-Semitism at school and everywhere else in her hometown. “Schools were parochial. The priest used to come to teach religion, Catholicism. There was a Greek Orthodox child, a Lutheran child, I was the Jewish child. As the priest came in, we would leave. It separated us from the rest of the children. It was harder on me because I was not a Christian.”

Katz added, “I listened to insults each and every day. I used to come home distressed. I used to say ‘I’m not going back, they hate me. I hate them, too.’ And my grandfather would say, ‘Hate is non-existent in a Jewish vocabulary. Remember, love thy neighbor. Pity them, my child, pity them, we are the chosen people, and they are jealous.”

She also said her “grandfather the rabbi, a wise old man, used to remind me each day that I am my brother’s keeper, and he used to tell me that we had a big universal God, the God of all mankind, and ‘love thy neighbor’ does not mean because I’m Jewish to love only Jewish people, ‘love thy neighbor’ means to embrace all humanity.”

The Germans arrived in Sosnowiec on the cool morning of September 4, 1939, Katz recalled. She said the Jews “ran and hid in our homes. We barred the doors. We looked out from behind lace curtains; we saw the Nazis raise the flag at city hall.

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“And the next thing we knew, they were breaking down our doors. They had no trouble identifying a Jewish home. Our Polish countrymen, the non-Jews, rejoiced in the tragedy of the Jew and pointed out our homes.”

While the rest of her loved ones were taken to Auschwitz, Katz wound up at a slave labor camp and a concentration camp, both in Czechoslovakia, the latter at Oberaltstadt -- Hořejší Staré Město in the Czech Republic today -- where she was forced to work in a linen factory.

Katz did not say how her family perished at Auschwitz. They may have been murdered in the gas chambers at Auschwitz II-Birkenau. Or they may have succumbed to starvation, disease, beatings or overwork. Many prisoners, too, were shot or hanged, or they died in the sadistic “medical experiments” the Nazis carried out on captives.

Death also was ever-present at the slave labor camps. Out of Oberaltstadt’s 3,000 prisoners, only 800 survived the war, Katz said. The Nazis took 60 Jewish females from Sosnowiec, Katz said. She was the only survivor.

A handful of family photos helped give Katz the will to live. She grabbed the mementoes when the Germans took her and her family away.

Surviving the Holocaust

Katz hid the photos. Had the camp guards found them, they would have killed her, she said. Katz said the photos reminded her of a loving home, though not of loving neighbors.

On May 7, 1945, her terror finally ended. She and the other prisoners awoke to find the Nazi SS guards, several of them women, had disappeared.

British tanks stopped briefly in their pursuit of the retreating Germans. Their crews assured the women that the war was over for them. Soviet tanks also paused.

“They came in and officially announced, ‘freedom is here.’ You can go back to your homeland. You can go anyplace you wish to go,” she recalled.

Nina Katz was barely alive. Her weight had shrunk to 57 pounds. She said she “looked like a skeleton covered with parchment.”

After the Soviet armor rumbled off to fight the Germans, the SS women guards returned -- but as disarmed prisoners of anti-Nazi Czech partisans. The partisans lined the guards against a wall.

“Here," the partisans invited the newly freed prisoners, "kill yourself a Nazi. They tortured you so,” Katz said. “They deserve to die, and as weak as we were, we all wanted to kill a Nazi.”

Among the captives was a guard named Zelma. Katz said Zelma “used to pound me on my neck.” She broke Katz’ collar bone, an injury that still caused her pain 50 years later.

“She used to say, ‘Your head will roll,’ you are going to crawl like an insect. You will not hold your hold up your head high. But I would pick myself up and hold up my head. What else did I have but a little pride?”

Katz decided to kill Zelma. She walked to within a few feet of her tormentor, but stopped. “I remembered the teachings of my father and my grandfather: ‘Thou shall not kill.’ And I never had any regrets that I didn’t kill a Nazi. My hands are clean.”

Katz, near death, wound up in a Czech monastery hospital that had received food and medical supplies from the American Red Cross. She doesn’t know how she got there; but on the way she fainted beside a road and was tossed onto a pile of corpses.

She remembered the nuns peering down at her as she lay motionless on her hospital bed. “They wore this huge white headdress. I was sure I died and went to Heaven. I hadn’t seen a kind face in six years, and they looked so kind, so caring.”

Katz could understand the Czech language; she said the nuns feared she would die.

Ten days after she arrived, Katz sat up and announced she was hungry.

“And the nuns danced in the aisles they were so happy. They said, ‘Praise the Lord, she came back from the dead.’ And they went and brought me a bowl of cream of wheat which tasted like glue. I ate it, I was hungry.

“And then they gave me a pair of crutches. They said ‘Walk out to freedom.’”

A free woman, she spent the rest of her life championing freedom for others.

Katz concluded by quoting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated in Katz’s adopted hometown in 1968: “We must live together as brothers or we will perish together like fools.”

Berry Craig

I had the honor of introducing Nina Katz when she spoke on campus to students in the morning and to the public that night. Her 1995 speech to students at WKCTC is embedded here.

Berry Craig