This January 27, it will be 77 years since the liberation of Auschwitz, yet for Holocaust survivors, the memory of the war is as vivid and clear as if it were yesterday. Even at their advanced ages, they seem able to recall in sharp detail experiences you would think they would try endlessly to forget. In recognition of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, we share the stories of five Westchester-based survivors whose lives were forever changed by one of history’s darkest chapters. Those you will meet in this article have a common thread that weaves through their stories and their lives. It is one of incredible resilience, as it turns their shared tragedy into remarkable triumph.
Her journey starts in Paris, where Arlette Baker lived a typical “bourgeois” life, in a fourth-floor apartment with loving parents and an attentive maid. All that changed on December 30, 1942, when Baker was just 4 years old. Despite her tender age, she can clearly remember the knock on the front door when police forced their way into the apartment, gave her parents just minutes to pack a suitcase and ushered them away. Her life was spared because her father bribed the men, and she was sent with their maid to live with her grandparents in the northeast end of Paris. Interestingly, one of those grandparents was a second wife and a Catholic. Baker’s parents, Fernand and Renee Levy, were sent to the Drancy concentration camp, near Paris. At first, Baker’s grandparents received postcards weekly from her parents. The final postcard was written on February 13, 1943, in which her parents wrote: “Raise Arlette the best you can; we trust you. Arlette, we love you. Be good all your life. Goodbye, we love you all.” Baker would later learn that shortly after sending that postcard, her parents were transferred to Auschwitz, where they were immediately gassed.
One would think having this as the basis of your childhood would cause you to be angry or negative, but that it just not Baker’s way. She writes in her memoir, Undaunted, that she views her life as “a daily gift.” With her lyrical French accent still present, she explains that “you have two paths. You can pity yourself and be angry, hating everything. You can be sterile and negative. I chose the other path, to be positive.” Baker’s philosophy is to look at the good in life — your health, your family, your situation — and understand that these are the important things you need to be grateful for. She further explains, “I survived for a reason. Everything good I did and I am still doing was and is in memory and in honor of my parents.” And she did just that, as a teacher of classical Latin and French for 21 years in Chappaqua. Additionally, she speaks to students about the Holocaust, is a translator of books related to the Shoah (Hebrew for “catastrophe”) and was the motivating force who spearheaded the installation of a Holocaust memorial at Shaaray Tefila, her synagogue in Bedford Corners. To commemorate the Holocaust, Baker flies to Paris every two years, when the names of her parents come up. She reads the names of the victims of the Holocaust during a 24-hour observance, including those of her parents.
Baker’s positive attitude is shared by Larchmont resident Esther Geizhals. Her soft voice and warm eyes belie her age as she recalls her story which began in Lodz, Poland. Geizhals was only 9 when the Nazis invaded her quiet town. Her family was quickly confined as the Lodz Ghetto was officially formed. They would spend the next four years there before being transferred to Auschwitz. Geizhals described their trip as being transported like animals in cattle cars, with no light, food, or water for two long days and nights. Met by Nazi soldiers and German shepherds, the men and women of Geizhals’ family were quickly separated. Josef Mengele, the “Angel of Death,” was there to make what was known as “the selection” — deciding who would live and who would die. Her mother kindly took the hand of a neighbor’s child with the hope of saving her. Her mother had dark hair and the child was blond. When Mengele questioned if this was really her child, he sent them to the left, while Geizhals was ushered to the right. As she attempted to run after her mother, an inmate of the camp implored her “don’t run; don’t move from this line.” That was the last time she saw her mother.
Geizhals was moved to several camps until she was led on a death march in the early spring of 1945. She describes herself as a “skeleton in rags.” She and several others boldly escaped the line and hid in a barn. When it was clear the Nazis had left the town, she emerged from the barn. The villagers showed them kindness and offered them refuge, so they remained in the village until liberated first by the Russians and then by the Americans.
When asked how she feels about commemorations such as International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Geizhals, with a raised voice and tears in her eyes, says, “We lost six million Jews and many more people — 1.5 million children. We must never forget this.” Most importantly, she implores the students she meets to “eliminate hate from your vocabulary.”
Knowing all too well of the horrors Geizhals encountered at Auschwitz with Josef Mengele is Peter Somogyi. His family was transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau in the summer of 1944. Prior to that time, Somogyi lived with his observant Jewish family in Pecs, Hungary. He was taught to speak German at a young age by his nanny, brother, and older sister. In March 1944, his father was deported to the infamous Dachau concentration camp, while Somogyi and the remaining members of his family were sent to the ghetto. In July of that same year, his family was rounded up with 80 other people and loaded onto cattle cars bound for Auschwitz-Birkenau. That’s when Somogyi would first encounter Mengele. Somogyi and his twin brother, Thomas (Tamas), passed the selection process solely because they could serve as living subjects of Mengele’s horrific medical experiments. Mengele had a particular interest in twins and performed some of his most atrocious experiments on that group. The sadistic experiments included using one brother as the control subject, with the other receiving unknown substances. Their blood was taken regularly, their hearts and eyes examined, and they were constantly measured. Somogyi says, with a lilt in his voice, “Mengele actually saved me, because otherwise my brother and I would have been put to death.” That was, unfortunately, the fate met by his mother and sister.
Somogyi remembers January 27 especially clearly. He recalls it was late afternoon and that soldiers were rushing past him as he uttered the word “finally.” Once liberated, he and his brother walked for three days to reach Krakow and continued on until they reached their home in Hungary. In 1956, he moved to England and then Canada, where he met his wife, Anna, a fellow survivor who survived the war in hiding with false papers. On the 75th anniversary of liberation, Somogyi returned to Auschwitz with his grandson, and the memories came flooding back. When their guide was not sure which way to turn, Somogyi directed him to Mengele’s office. Both Somogyi and his wife speak of the importance of commemorations such as the one marked on January 27. They urge the next generation to “never forget and keep telling their story.” They recall that they made a special impact at a Catholic school in Yonkers, where they spoke shortly before the pandemic. After their visit, the priest called to tell them their visit was all the students were talking about and that they made quite an impression.
It is that same impact on students that has driven Armonk resident Betty Knoop. She has spent much of her adult life sharing her story and lessons with students in Westchester. Knoop grew up in Amsterdam, in the Netherlands, quite close to where Anne Frank lived. In January 1943, her family was taken to Westerbork, a transit camp in the Netherlands. In February of the following year, they were transferred to Bergen-Belsen, the same camp where Anne Frank and 50,000 other souls perished. As hard as it might be to conceive, Knoop’s father actually bribed the Nazi soldiers to take them to Bergen-Belsen, which her father thought was solely a work camp and a safe place for them to stay during the war. As Knoop describes, he paid in diamonds: “It could have been 10 or 10,000,” she says, but she truly doesn’t know. Knoop and her mother shared a barracks with 150 other women initially, but as the war coming to an end, thousands of inmates were transferred to Bergen-Belsen, and the living conditions became dire, with 1,000 people occupying the same space.
Her father and brother remained together in the men’s camp enduring similar hardships of starvation, unhealthy living conditions, and constant fear. It was April 1945 when Knoop and her family were liberated. At age 14, she stood at 5’7” but weighed a mere 54 pounds. You would never know it by looking at her today, with a face that glows and a laugh that’s infectious. As impossible as it is to fathom, Knoop’s mother survived the internment but died just three days later. When she returned home to Amsterdam, Knoop, still mourning her mother, learned that both of her grandmothers were sent to Auschwitz, where neither survived.
Knoop’s message over the past 45 years to students throughout the county has been that “racism is evil. It’s always evil, and it degrades and debases men.” She feels commemorations are so vital in circulating that message and ensuring we remember that “the whole world stood by and allowed the Holocaust to happen.” Her greatest hope is that “you learn you do not discriminate. You don’t have to like everybody, but never hate or disrespect.”
Echoing Knoop’s words is Hartsdale resident Hanne Holsten, whose sense of humor is as sharp as her memory. In her talks to Westchester students, she implores them to turn from hate. She knows the effects all too well. As a child in Germany, Holsten recalls Kristallnacht (“Night of Broken Glass”) with intense clarity. She, her mother, and siblings knew of the event in advance and hid in the attic as Nazis carrying bayonets invaded their home. Her apartment was destroyed, as was the store they owned in Nuremberg. Her father had already been taken to a camp in Poland but had the uncanny ability and foresight to plan for his family. Using valuables their mother smuggled to their father in a reworked tool case, he managed to secure passage for them from Germany. Holsten remembers walking for hours in a dark forest, not sure if the smugglers would betray them or take them safely to a transport. At one point, they hid in a hay wagon with a false bottom. She can still hear the sounds of the pitchforks wielded by the Nazi guards as they stabbed the wagon hunting for Jews. At another crossroads, Holsten and her family were confronted by Nazi soldiers on the bridge who would lead them to Belgium and, ultimately, to safety. Holsten wonders if it was a miracle or God’s will that they were allowed to pass. Still interned in Poland, her father was able to arrange for them to go to London, where he was confident they could wait out the balance of the war. At the height of the blitzkrieg, they found themselves in London and then Wales, where they remained for 18 months until they were reunited with her father. In 1940, they got their visas to travel to America, first settling in Brooklyn, then Washington Heights, and, for the past 60 years, in Westchester.
Her message to adolescents is to convey that evil can only succeed if good people don’t speak up. She urges young adults to “learn history, not just memorize it.” She goes on to say, “It is important to learn and question how did it happen and why did it happen.” Holsten is a believer in the commemorations that take place and is very proud to say that she was an attendee at the very first observance held at the United Nations, on January 27, 2006.
All the survivors in this article are active members at the Holocaust and Human Rights Education Center in White Plains (hhrecny.org). The HHREC sponsors a robust speaker’s bureau where survivors go directly into the classroom and share their stories. The survivors featured in this piece are all proud members of this speaker’s bureau and have devoted their lives to educating Westchester’s youth and being the voices for those who were forever silenced. Their goal is to spark discussion and conversation so that students will feel equipped and comfortable to speak up and act against all forms of bigotry and prejudice.
Last year, despite the pandemic, the center marked International Holocaust Remembrance Day by screening the film Under Siege Again? Holocaust Distortion and the Rise of Hate Crimes Against Jews. Millie Jasper, the Center’s executive director, shared that their plans for commemorating Holocaust Remembrance Day this coming January are underway, and they hope to again partner with area centers, as they have in the past.
Additionally, the HHREC was instrumental in establishing the Garden of Remembrance on Martine Avenue in White Plains. Sculptor Rita Rappaport created the imposing Gates of Remembrance to memorialize the death of millions at the hands of the Nazis. The garden was established not just as a memorial but as a site where Westchester residents can gather, reflect, study, and honor the victims of the Holocaust.
On January 27, 1945, Soviet soldiers from the 32nd Rifle Division entered what was once the quiet Polish town of Oświęcim. They were there to push the Wehrmacht (the unified armed forces of Nazi Germany) out of the region. They marched through gates emblazoned with the German words arbeit macht frei (“work sets you free”) and liberated 7,000 infirmed and famished inmates of the death camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau. More than 1.1 million people perished in that camp, making Auschwitz an eternal and haunting symbol of the Holocaust.
In 2005, to mark the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the United Nations passed resolution 60/7, naming January 27 as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. On that day, the United Nations asks the world’s population to honor the six million murdered Jews and all victims of the Holocaust, reject any denials of the event, and pledge to condemn all hate crimes wherever they occur. (Read the full transcript here: un.org/en/conferences/liberation-nazi-camps.)