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My grandmother, Tess Wise, an only child, grew up in Szydlowiec, a small town in Poland. Her parents, among other Jews, formed part of the prosperous local leather industry and did well for themselves. Many jobs were also provided to the local Poles.
The Nazis came when Tess was a teenager. The whole family was sent to a concentration camp in Radom, a city not far off Szydlowiec. Along with all the other Jews in the area, she and her parents were now forced laborers—making munitions; coerced into manufacturing the same weapons that allowed the German persecutors to conquer and expand, to force more Jews and others into camps.
Even back then they all knew about the “Final Solution”—the Nazi goal of exterminating all Jews.
Food was scarce in the camp, and conditions harsh. Soon her mother, my great-grandmother, fell ill and died.
Imagine what it is like to have a simple, pleasant life; to feel safe and look ahead to a bright future, and then to have all that torn a way in a moment, to be sent to a munitions factory, where people who hated you simply because of your ethnicity forced you to work while feeding you next to nothing. Then imagine watching your own mother wither and die, and being powerless to help her.
There were also local Poles working in the factory. One of them was Maria, a Christian friend of my grandmother’s; the two had been in the same school. But while the Poles got to work in offices, wear their own clothes and go home in the evening, the Jews were forced to do physically demanding work, had striped outfits and went nowhere.
My great-grandfather was tormented by the thought that his only daughter would perish as well—already he had lost his wife. But he knew that Maria and Tess met in the bathroom occasionally, and thus, what was probably the best, simplest (and without a doubt gutsiest) plan came to him.
Tess’s family had stored some of their belongings with Maria’s family before being expelled from their own home. One day, Maria brought some of my grandmother's clothes with her to the factory camp. They met in the bathroom, where Tess removed the tattered striped uniform, changed into her own nice clothes, and walked out of the heavily guarded camp with Maria by her side as if she were just another Polish worker.
Imagine what it must have been like to do that: gathering the courage; keeping a cool expression while your heart beat madly; walking past the uniformed and armed Nazis with the brutal knowledge that each and every one of them is capable of finding you out and gunning you down without a moment’s hesitation. But she managed. Heart thumping, she was out of that prison. Maria wasted no time and took her straight to the train station.
“I’ve arranged for you to stay with some family of mine in a different part of Poland,” she said to Tess, and the two parted ways.
My grandmother bid her time there, with that family, feigning non-Jewishness, working as a secretary in a lumberyard, until the Soviets came and drove the Nazis away.
Then it was time to find out who had survived. She had had so many relatives—countless uncles and aunts and cousins. But the Nazis, after learning of the Soviets’ imminent arrival, had made haste to dispose of the remaining Jews. Her father, my great-grandfather, had died on the way to Auschwitz, she learned. He had been too frail to survive the trip. Was he aware that his daughter had survived?
Tess, now orphaned, was supposed to be with him. Hence, she not only survived the Holocaust, but Auschwitz. Everyone else? Slaughtered.
Only a couple of uncles and aunts had survived. And out of 37 fellow Jewish kids she had gone to school with in Szydlowiec, only two had been spared. Tess was one of them.
After the war ended, one of the surviving uncles, with whom my grandmother had managed to get in touch, sent Tess the necessary money, and she boarded a ship to the U.S. She settled in Orlando, Florida, where she met my grandfather, an American Jew who had participated in the war.
Throughout the years, Tess kept in touch with Maria, without whom she would not have survived. But the experience never left Tess. She was obsessed with the Holocaust, with the evil she had seen. With time, a conviction grew in her heart that the best way to prevent its reoccurrence was by means of education.
She founded, and eventually, with the help of others, had the Florida Legislature pass the Holocaust Education Bill (SB 660), Before that, it wasn’t. Tess was even involved in training the teachers who would then teach students about the Holocaust.
Many years later, she visited her old childhood home in Szydlowiec. A Polish family was living there. Tess dared not knock, but recognized the drapes on the windows—crocheted by her mother all those decades ago, when no one could have even imagined such atrocities would take place one day.
Here’s a photo of her:
Tess is in her early nineties now, and still devours books on the Holocaust, trying to understand how such a genocide could have taken place; thinking about how to prevent it from happening again; hoping it will never happen again.
Will it? That’s up to all of us.
Do you know anyone who survived Auschwitz? What was their experience? originally appeared on Quora - the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world. You can follow Quora on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+. More questions:
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