ABSECON - Six million.
By the end of this year, Irene Weisberg Zisblatt will have shared her story of surviving the Holocaust with about as many people as Jewish lives were claimed during World War II by the most extensive act of genocide in modern history.
"I am a childhood survivor of a man's hatred. I have survived the worst places on Earth (where) human life had no value," she said Monday morning to seventh- and eighth-graders at the Emma C. Attales School.
Zisblatt talked with them about her experiences as part of their annual six-week unit on the topic after visiting Holy Spirit High School earlier in the day. The schools invited Zisblatt at the suggestions of Absecon resident Amy Hogan, a childhood friend of Zisblatt's daughter Robin.
After an hourlong presentation and brief question-and-answer session at the Attales school, about 25 students swarmed the podium nearly hiding the 78-year-old's petite 5 foot 1 inch frame and glittering teardrop necklace.
Zisblatt was one of five survivors whose testimonies before the Shoah Visual History Foundation were used to create "The Last Days," an Academy Award-winning documentary produced in 1998 by Steven Spielberg.
Born Chana Seigelstein, Zisblatt was living in her hometown of Poleno, a small mountain resort in Hungary, when Hitler's Germany started attacking other European countries in 1938. She was 13 years old when Nazi soldiers deported more than 437,000 Hungarian Jews in what historian Randolph Braham described in the film as the most rapid and barbaric phase of Hitler's extermination campaign, committed urgently as it became apparent Germany was losing the war. Cattle trains carried her family to Auschwitz-Birkenau, a concentration camp in Poland, in 1943, according to "The Fifth Diamond," her autobiography.
Zisblatt is booked twice a day between two and five times a week all over the U.S. and Europe. She figures she has spoken to about 400,000 people each year since 1994, when "Schindler's List" inspired her to break her long-held silence about her experiences. Her book was published in 2008. Co-author Gail Ann Webb chose the title because Zisblatt's mother gave her four jewels for financial and emotional security - the fifth diamond, Webb said, was Zisblatt, whose indestructibility carried her through atrocities that included beatings, starvation and malnutrition and the execution of her parents, grandmother and siblings at Auschwitz.
She also survived painful experiments that successfully removed the tattooed number borne by her and other prisoners but failed to make her infertile and change her hazel eyes to blue at the hands of the notorious Nazi Dr. Josef Mengele, as well as a months-long "death march", which the Nazis initiated from each concentration camp during the winter before the camps were liberated.
For Zisblatt, whose passport to the U.S. named her Irene, sharing her story is her therapy and her revenge. She said the same is true of her family - a daughter, a son and five grandchildren - and the teardrop necklace she wears, made of her mother's diamonds and commissioned 30 years after the war ended.
"Since then, crimes against humanity haven't stopped," she wrote in her book. "People must remember the systematic annihilation of human beings. We endured terrible terrors while the rest of the world stood silent. We must tell what happen yesterday because we must never forget the yesterdays of tomorrow. The experience of my childhood may seem inhuman, but it only happened a generation ago."
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