Born in 1931, Rosalie Simon, the youngest of six children, was 11 when she was kicked out of school in Czechoslovakia after the Nazis invaded. That was just the beginning. Soon people would get beaten just for being Jewish.
“It was a terrible shock to me,” she said. “They took my aunt, uncle and their children, including a 2-year-old, down to a place where they would be shot and thrown in the river. They got away and tried to hide in our house, but after two weeks they left out of fear. We never saw them again.”
One day police came and told Rosalie and her remaining family that they were leaving. They took all their valuables.
“One of the policemen was a former teacher of mine who had always been nice to me,” Simon said. “He said if we didn’t give our valuables to them, they would all just be taken from us anyway.”
They were taken by train to a ghetto that was so full they were left in a cemetery. She never remembers being given any food, but her mother had packed some when they left, and they were able to cook outside.
“But we were always hungry,” she said. “I remember roaming through the streets, volunteering to teach young children songs and to read to keep them busy. Looking back now, I am happy I could give them some joy. Later they were gassed at Auschwitz.”
After three months they were put into cattle cars on a train. Just 12 years old, Simon was separated from her family and terrified. After three days the train stopped, they were herded out and she found her family. But people were being separated, some to the right, others to the left. They were at Auschwitz.
“My mother and I were sent to the left,” she said. “My mother was in a daze. She said, ‘Who knew they had crematoriums.’ I didn’t really understand, but for some reason I let go of my mother’s hand and ran to the right with my brother and father. Maybe an angel was telling me, but it saved me. Later my brother William was sent to the gas chamber all by himself.”
After reuniting with her sisters, they had their heads shaved and were doused with disinfectant.
“We were all naked in front of the SS,” she said. “The word dignity meant nothing. They had whips and guns. We did what they told us.”
They would take people to showers and tell them they might get water or they might get gas from the showerheads.
“We don’t know if it was true, but every shower we would look up relieved to see water,” she said.
They were crammed into barracks, 10 to 12 people to a bed with a kettle outside to use for a bathroom at night. They had to empty it when it was full, and one time it spilled all over Simon, and she was not allowed to wash. They would stay outside all day with no water, lips blistering from the sun.
“We just laid on the ground until they let us back in,” she said. At night they would see the flames from the crematorium, though not everyone knew what they were. Eventually they were told that’s where they had burned their mothers and fathers, and they would eventually be there, too.
One day women were chosen to work in Germany. They had to walk naked past the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele. Simon was removed from the line, knew that meant death, and started crying hysterically. But then a mother volunteered to go to the gas chamber with her daughter, and when they let her in the gate, Simon was able to sneak out and run back to her sisters, who helped keep her hidden.
“I was so weak, so exhausted, I would have died right there without my sisters,” she said.
They were taken to another camp that still had little food, but at least no crematoriums. They worked in an ammunition factory.
“It was heaven compared to Auschwitz,” Simon said. “I remember seeing trucks delivering milk and thinking ‘There still is a normal world out there where people get milk delivered to their houses.’”
After several months they were moved again, to Dachau, where the dead piled up daily from illness and malnutrition. They were put on a train once more when they heard shots. It was Americans.
“We were liberated,” she said. “The soldiers told us there were ditches up ahead ready for us. We all would have been shot. There was unbelievable joy, but also sadness — what would we go home to?”
After being fed and recovering their strength they decided to return home. Survivors could travel without tickets.
“People knew who we were,” Simon said. They found their father in Prague. He had been put to work in a coal mine and contracted tuberculosis. Simon and two sisters returned home while two stayed with their father. But their town was deserted, families killed or gone, and when the Russians arrived, coming into the house while she was taking a bath, they decided to return to Prague.
“There was nothing but sad memories,” she said. Her uncle was in America, so they applied to immigrate, living first in New York, then Baltimore. She met Sidney Simon in high school, they married and had a son. Sidney worked long hours to start a scrap-metal business, and they moved to Pleasantville, where the family had a chicken farm. They still live at the shore.
Simon has begun a book about her life. She has spoken to groups and admits it is hard to sleep afterward. But she keeps a copy of a letter from a student who wrote that her German grandmother had told her that Hitler was a great man, and that the Holocaust didn’t happen. It wasn’t until she took a Holocaust course that she learned the truth. She thanked Simon and apologized for her grandmother’s ignorance.
“Some still deny the Holocaust,” Simon said. “That’s why it is so important to speak up. There are less and less survivors.”
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