‘How could you ever forgive him?’

Lesley Weiss (left) and her mother, Irene Fogel Weiss, stand by the stone monument that marks the site of the concentration camp where Irene Fogel Weiss was imprisoned for five months during World War II. Photo by Lesley Weiss
Lesley Weiss (left) and her mother, Irene Fogel Weiss, stand by the stone monument that marks the site of the concentration camp where Irene Fogel Weiss was imprisoned for five months during World War II. Photo by Lesley Weiss

Irene Fogel Weiss was 13 when she stepped off a train that had taken her family from a ghetto in Hungry to the Auschwitz death camp. As she stood on the platform and endured the selection process that determined who would live and who would die, someone took her photograph.

That photograph, found among Auschwitz archival documents, helped pin down when Weiss arrived at the concentration camp. As a result, she was called as a witness this week in the trial of former SS Sgt. Oskar Groening, who is charged with being an accessory to 300,000 murders.

The prison guard has admitted to being on the train platform and working at Auschwitz. However, he admits only to sharing moral guilt, according to press reports.

Last week, more than 70 years after that photograph was taken, Weiss found herself seated in a courtroom in Germany, prepared to testify, although she doesn’t remember Groening. Her recollection of about a dozen guards meeting the train and demanding everyone leave their possessions on the platform is all the court asked her to speak about, she said.


The Fairfax resident was eager to testify against Groening. Accompanied by her daughter, Lesley Weiss, deputy director of the National Coalition Supporting Eurasian Jewry, she traveled to Germany and sat through a day of testimony by fellow survivors. However, the 93-year-old Groening was deemed too sick to appear in court May 7, so she did not get the opportunity.“It was upsetting to me, because I was ready to give my testimony” and prepared “to steel myself and say it without crying.”

The trial resumed on Tuesday, and Weiss’ testimony will most likely be read in court by the chief judge. There is a small chance that she will be asked to return to testify in person.

“The judge’s reading will not be as effective,” she said. “People should hear it from a person who lived it.”

Some people have asked Weiss if preparing her testimony brought back the painful memories from her youth. Weiss tells them she has never forgotten. How can anyone forget being “yanked out of your home and within a month, everyone is dead and nobody tells you why? … I remember, when I am home, every day and every night. It’s never over. What they did to us can never be erased.”

She does not forgive Groening: “I will never forgive him and all the apparatus that was set up to kill our people. How could you ever forgive him.”

She was sent to Auschwitz – along with 425,000 other Jews deported from Hungary during a two-month period beginning in May 1944 – with her parents, an older brother and three younger siblings. By the end of the war, only she and one younger sister, Serena, were alive.

Following their liberation, the two sisters and a maternal aunt went to what is now Czechoslovakia.  Through the sponsorship of relatives and financial aid from Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), the three women immigrated to New York in 1947.

Weiss went on to marry and become the mother of three, the grandmother of four. She spent many years as a teacher of English as a second language, mostly at Kilmer Middle School in Fairfax County, which was called Kilmer Intermediate School at the time.

Weiss spent eight months at Auschwitz, and then struggled through a death march to another camp, Neustadt-Glewe, where she was imprisoned for five months.

During last week’s trip, Weiss and her daughter drove to Neustadt-Glewe, near Hamburg. “They call this camp now ‘the forgotten camp’” because people only know about the larger camps where most of the Jews were killed, she said.

The camp has been leveled. “The camp was totally gone. It was a field. There is a memorial on it,” she said. Weiss and her sister’s names are listed in a small museum in the town.

She spent the day with the town mayor, eating lunch and visiting the camp. “They tried hard in this town to keep the memory alive,” she said.

What astonished Weiss the most was how close the camp had been to the town of Neustadt-Glewe.

The houses, visible from the field, existed during her imprisonment, she learned last week.

She discoverd “a lovely town with normal people living there, with well-kept homes and lovely gardens,” she said. But when she was in the camp, “I felt so isolated” and didn’t know anyone else was nearby, she said.

And yet: “They could see through the fence what was going on.”

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  1. Dear Madam,
    Your strength is to be admired, for you have a heart! I have tears in my heart and also in my eyes.
    I was 13 years old when my parents visited the Dachau concentration camp long after the war in 1978.
    Despite this horror, today humanity tends to forget, this is very serious because history must never repeat itself. I thank you for everything and I ask forgiveness on behalf of the ignorant!
    With love and respect.
    KONKOLY Attila


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