Itka’s Story: Menschlichkeit in a Time of Horror


May 4th of this year marks the annual Holocaust Remembrance Day, also known as Yom Hashoah. In light of this, Upper Dublin High School held its own day of remembrance, last Wednesday, for students to learn about the Holocaust and hear the story of a Holocaust survivor. The Holocaust commemoration is part of a larger state mandated program that teaches students about the horrific occurrences of genocide in world history. Tomorrow, during enhancement periods, UDHS students will learn more about this topic through two different, informative workshops.

Last Wednesday, my history class was fortunate enough to hear the story of Itka Zygmuntowicz. A survivor of Auschwitz concentration camp, Itka’s story was both memorable and inspiring. Going into the meeting, I had read countless Holocaust books, seen a number of Holocaust documentaries, and was also fortunate enough to have met several Holocaust survivors. Although many of these survivors have experienced a similar series of events, Itka differed from the others in that she recalled her experiences through a more philosophical lens.

Born in Ciechanow, Poland, Itka was raised in a religious household, speaking yiddish at home with her mother, father, and two younger siblings. Toward the beginning of her story, she explained how her mother and father emphasized the importance of menschlichkeit (humaneness) in a person, and how this quality “is the highest form of religion, education, and achievement”. Itka would not understand the true meaning of menschlichkeit until she was 12 years old, when a group of children closed around her, and viciously attacked Itka for being Jewish. Itka recalled feeling emotionally distraught over the harsh anti-semitic words, crying to her mother after arriving home from the incident. Her mother would explain that since Itka had not done the attacking, she had no reason to be upset. Throughout the rest of her childhood, and into adulthood, Itka would remember her mother’s words, contrasting the virtue of menschlichkeit against the brutality and inhumaneness of the Nazis.

In 1941, after Nazi occupation of her hometown for the previous two years, Itka and her family were taken to a ghetto where they moved into an apartment with seven other families. The Zygmuntowicz family later move elsewhere within the ghetto, but after some time, the Nazis would come again, forcing them into trains headed to Auschwitz.

Soon after reaching Auschwitz on November 22, 1942, Itka’s family was separated at the command of German SS officer Josef Mengele. Itka was sent with her mother and siblings to one line, and her father was sent with the men to another line. The line containing Itka, her mother, and two younger siblings, was further divided into one line with children and one line with women.

This was the point of the story at which Itka’s voice began to slow. Fighting back tears, Itka recalled her mother’s final words, “You are a big girl. I have to go with the little children. But remember, no matter what will happen, don’t become hateful and bitter. Don’t let them destroy you.” Because the line with the children would soon be sent to the gas chambers, Itka’s mother made the decision to comfort her two youngest in their final moments.

I was extremely moved by Itka’s words; Itka has been telling this same story for the past 46 years, yet she still weeps over the loss of her family. I cannot even imagine the amount of pain Itka went through during her three years in Auschwitz. Not just the physical pain of starvation, malnutrition, and disease, but the severe emotional pain of tragedy.

Toward the end of her story, Itka explained that she is “the luckiest unlucky woman”, as she has experienced the terrible loss of her family, but she was also able to make it through the war. After liberation, Itka would be sent to Sweden, and since immigrating to the United States, she has told her story to countless audiences. In addition to telling her story, Itka has published two books of poetry, The Power of Words and Deeds and You Only Have What You Give Away, which are both available on Amazon.

I recommend to anyone that was not fortunate enough to hear Itka’s story to search her name, Itka Zygmuntowicz, on YouTube or Google, for more information.

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