To hear a Holocaust survivor’s first-hand account is a powerful, moving and not infrequent occurrence in the Washington area.
But for the many of the international fellows at Atlas Corps, a group dedicated to building a network of nonprofit leaders around the world, listening to Auschwitz survivor Irene Weiss on Aug. 16 was a revelation.
“We are taught about World War II in school and now, seeing her and listening to her — I don’t know, it just blew my mind,” said Argentina native Santiago Del Giudice, 28, who had never heard from a survivor before Aug. 16, when he heard Weiss, who lives in Fairfax.
Atlas Corps brings young nonprofit professionals from other countries to learn from the nonprofit infrastructure in the United States. Del Giudice is serving his fellowship at the American Red Cross.
The event came together mostly because of one of the Atlas fellows, Demna Devdariani, 28, of the country of Georgia, who is serving at the National Coalition Supporting Eurasian Jewry under Weiss’ daughter, Lesley. When Atlas program and development manager Samantha Moore, who is Jewish, came to check in with Devdariani, the three of them got to talking about Weiss’ experience. Devdariani mentioned he had never been exposed to a story like that in his native country and figured that would be true for a number of the fellows. So, they organized the talk at the Atlas headquarters near the Shaw-Howard University Metro station.
“We felt that this was very inspirational, so we decided to bring this session to you to share her journey,” Devdariani told the audience of about 25 fellows.
Weiss and her family — her mother, father, an older brother and sister and three younger siblings — were caught up in the 1944 evacuation of Hungarian Jews. She was 13 years old when the family was shipped to Auschwitz, where Irene was separated from her mother and her three younger siblings. In a life-or-death decision made in “just seconds,” Irene and her older sister would work while her mother and siblings would head, unknowingly, to their deaths.
After eight months at Auschwitz and five months at Neustadt-Glewe, where prisoners were sent on a death march as the Soviet army closed in, only Weiss, her sister and an aunt from her mother’s side had survived.
“Even though to some it may seem like a very long time ago, I’m still alive,” she said. “It’s still fresh, and I would like it to be remembered. It was a dark time in Jewish history.”
Weiss showed several photographs taken by Nazi soldiers at Auschwitz the day Weiss and her family arrived at the death camp. In one photo, 13-year-old Irene is seen just after being separated from her family. Another shows a group, including her mother and younger siblings waiting unknowingly to head into the gas chambers.
One fellow asked Weiss about her reaction to the rise in anti-Semitism, especially in light of the recent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, where supporters chanted “Jews will not replace us.”
“For somebody like me, it’s like nothing changed,” Weiss said, adding that the propaganda works on people and that she had recognized President Donald Trump as a charismatic demagogue. “There is something in us that stops thinking, stops analyzing.”
Elton Johnson, 26, of Jamaica, said Weiss’ story was important as ever to hear in light of what took place in Charlottesville. Johnson works with a nonprofit organization in Washington that works with the city tackling issues of racial justice during his fellowship and this was his first time hearing a survivor’s first-hand account.
“You watch movies of it and try to learn about the experiences, but it doesn’t become real until you have a person to put that story to,” he said.
The experience of listening to a survivor was unlike seeing material at a museum or reading about the Holocaust in a textbook. Weiss was his “emotional connection” to the realities of the Holocaust, he said.
Sushmita Lama, 33, from Nepal who is working with Internews, echoed the sentiments of her fellow Atlas young professionals.
“It shocked me,” said Lama, who was also hearing a first-hand account for the first time. “I kind of knew the heartbreaking stories, but to hear her story directly from her, it helped me understand it more. I will not forget this story, what she has said.”
I grew up next door to Irene Weiss. I loved her then. I still love here. She has always been an inspiration to me.