"Anyone can go to the Holocaust museum [in Washington DC] but not everyone gets this experience." ~A. Speitel (student, 17)
You can easily download and print Itka's biography here (pdf)
Itka Zygmuntowicz is a survivor of the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp. Since 1970, she has shared her experiences at universities, schools, and religious organizations as a member of the speakers bureau of the Jewish Community Relations Council. Itka is a member of the Memorial Committee for the Six Million Jewish Martyrs and the Association of Jewish Holocaust Survivors. She has shared her story in documentaries: ”Eye On – The Lessons of the Holocaust: From Pain Comes Knowledge” (1978), and “From Out of the Ashes” (1981) filmed in Israel. Itka’s stories appeared in Four Generations of Jewish Women’s Spirituality (Beacon Press). She was filmed by Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation in her hometown of Ciechanow, Poland during the March of the Living in 1996. Itka is a former fashion designer and resides in Philadelphia.
Itka bears witness so the Holocaust will never be forgotten or repeated. She writes both prose and poetry, but often expresses herself in rhyme, where she can best convey her deepest messages and feelings. Her poetry gives voice to the pain and longings as well as the joy that are so powerful within her. Itka’s new book of poetry, You Only Have What You Give Away, was published in June 2008 and is available at amazon.com. Her poems touch on her horrifying experiences, but also convey an uplifting message of love, hope, and tolerance.
From a Silver Planet article by Susan Hindman, published December 1, 2008.
“I’ve had so many tragedies and so many miracles in my life,” says Itka Zygmuntowicz. “I’m the luckiest unlucky woman.”
Though she has not let the tragedies destroy her spirit, they easily could have. Itka is a Holocaust survivor of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, forced with her family into an overcrowded ghetto when she was only 15 and herded into a concentration camp at 16, emerging completely alone at 19. To comprehend where she’s been is simply impossible; that she can talk about it, remarkable. And it’s not easy—she breaks into tears several times, then just as quickly composes herself and continues on with her story. A tragic memory gives way to a side story of hope and humor. Her words, which roll out in a beautiful Polish accent, are riveting.
It took the memories of love, the grounding from the wise sayings of her mother and grandmother, and sheer determination to get her through it all.
“I still see the Sabbath candles”
Itka’s story begins in the small town of Ciechanow, Poland, about 56 miles north of Warsaw. She was born April 15, 1926, to an actress mother and a father who switched from dairy work to photography and picture framing. She was the oldest of three children, and her beloved maternal grandmother—someone who was “always looking for a mitzvah (good deed) to do”—lived with the family. A religious family, they spoke Yiddish at home, Polish everywhere else.
She had her first anti-Semitic encounter at age 12, walking home from school. “I noticed a group of boys and girls looking at me very angry,” she said. They closed in around her, shouting insults. “I was crying terribly,” she said. “I didn’t know those kids, they didn’t know me. How come they hate me so much?” They let her go, and once she got home, her mother consoled her—and then asked how she responded to them. When Itka told her that she had said nothing, her mother approved. "Your menschlichkeit" (humaneness) was of utmost importance because it does not depend on how others treat you but on how you treat others, she was told. “Menschlichkeit is the highest form of religion, education, and achievement,” so the bigger punishment would have been if she had talked back to them.
Her mother’s words became a creed by which she lived, even though she would later learn that “menschlichkeit doesn’t shield me from attack or going through pain.” And she embraced a saying she learned from her grandmother: “You only have what you give away”—which would come to have more meaning for her in later years.
“My world is growing smaller and smaller”
In 1939, the Germans arrived in Ciechanow. “They posted orders every day,” she said. “They started to make laws. As soon as Warsaw was taken, we could no longer travel from place to place. Little by little, they took away everything from us. . . . Every day, it got worse than the next day.”
Then, in 1941, "the Nazis came into our home with dogs and rifles and forced us out of our house. They took us to a ghetto (in Nowe-Miasto).” There her family was put into an apartment that already held seven other families. This arrangement didn’t last long. “My mother said, ‘Let’s get out of here.’ I thought she had lost her mind. But she very much had her mind. We moved into a storage room that used to be for grain. . . . She said, ‘At least here, there won’t be any bickering and it will be peaceful.’” That’s where they stayed until the Germans came again and forced them onto trains that took them to Auschwitz. “We had no idea where we were going,” she said sadly.
They arrived at the concentration camp on November 22, 1942. Waiting for them was Josef Mengele, the German SS officer in charge of deciding which person would be sent to forced labor and which would go to the gas chamber. They were directed to two lines, men on one side (where her father was sent), women on the other. Then, she said, “They started to make selections.” Young children were taken away, and when her mother saw that her younger son and daughter were among them, she turned to Itka and said, “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.’” She never saw her family again.
For the next three years, she endured hunger, long hours of labor, and unspeakable experiences at Auschwitz. The only bright spot was meeting Bina, a girl who would become a lifelong friend. Itka held memories of her family close to her heart and devised ways to get through the inhumanity. She realized that if she became like her captors, she would not make it. Menschlichkeit would be her guide.
In January 1945, the prisoners were forced to walk from Auschwitz to the Ravensbrück concentration camp farther behind Nazi lines. For six days, in what became known as the “Death March,” they walked through the snow without stopping. They would eventually be moved again, this time to the Malchow, Germany, concentration camp, in an attempt to avoid the Allies, who were closing in. Finally, on April 26, 1945, the Swedish Red Cross liberated her and some others from the camp.
“I know how it feels to be homeless and all alone”
She was brought to a hospital in Lund, Sweden, where she spent time recovering. Her only possessions were a striped dress and a pair of wooden shoes. From there, she and others were quarantined in a displaced persons camp. “They wouldn’t let us out in case we carried illnesses,” she said. The survivors were kept behind a fence, and the locals would come by and peer through the fence, as if they were “in a zoo.”
Once she was able, she went to work in a hospital kitchen in Sweden. “My boss hated me with a passion,” she said. “I wasn’t surprised. I figured half the world hated me, half the world didn’t care about me. I didn’t care.” She just needed the money. But one day, when they demanded she work on her day off, her principles took over. She had lost her freedom once; it was too precious to her to lose again. “Freedom means having choices,” she said. Without freedom, “you don’t have a life.”
She walked out and took a train to the biggest city she could find, Borås, Sweden. “I had nothing, knew no one, had no money,” she said. She walked the streets, with no idea where to go, cried for a long time, and prayed—when out of nowhere, a girl she had known from Auschwitz saw her and took her in.
Itka eventually found work. She met and married another survivor of Auschwitz, also the only survivor in his family, after knowing each other just 18 days. “Every person who knew me then said you are crazy . . . but I felt for me this was right. . . . I am a very simple woman, but I am guided by my inner voice,” she said. Her decision was a good one.
“I found here freedom”
In 1953, the couple came to the United States through a relocation program for displaced Jewish persons. They arrived with their two sons (one just four years old, the other only nine months). Philadelphia became their new home, and Itka has lived there ever since—and from 1970, in the same house.
In America, she had two more sons and devoted herself to raising them until the youngest of the four was in school all day. She began to do volunteer work, first at a local hospital, then with senior citizens, then with Jewish prisoners. She began speaking to groups about her Holocaust experiences in the 1970s, which she continues to do today. She now has six grandchildren.
Up until the 1980s, she thought all her relatives had died. Then she received a letter from a woman living in Falls Church, Virginia. The woman turned out to be her cousin, whose family had come to America when she was four. “I went from not having a single relative to all of a sudden having over a hundred relatives. They welcomed me so much.” And they had pictures of Itka’s family, something she never had after the Holocaust. The family now gets together each year for Thanksgiving.
As happens with time, Itka’s losses continued. Her son Michael died in a car accident when he was 26. After 52 years of marriage, her husband died in a separate car accident. Her very close friend Bina died last year.
“I could cry for the rest of my life for all the tragedies, and I could thank God for all the blessings in my life,” she said tearfully.
The grief eases and then gives way to a lighter story. “I love company, and I’ll tell you something funny. A few years ago, I was on a train, and next to me was a woman, and we started a conversation. She asked me if I had any hobbies. I said, ‘I’m a collector.’ She said, ‘Oh, what do you collect?’ I said, “I collect nice people.’ It started as a joke, but you should see the collection of people I’m in contact with. I never have time to be lonely. . . . I like everything about my life.”
“Every human word and deed gets inscribed in the eternity of time”
And she loves to write. She has been writing poetry since she was a child. In Poland, she said, she had hoped to get a good education and become a writer. Her mother had belonged to a literary club and “instilled a love of writing by always reading.” While Itka hopes to someday write a book about her experiences—as well as another book featuring the 101 sayings she has come up with—her first published book of poetry was just released.
The 35 poems in Itka’s You Only Have What You Give Away range from cries of disbelief and sorrow to finding her way to understanding and gratitude. They’re a “testimony to my experiences and what I’ve learned.” The lessons of menschlichkeit, of not being bitter, of only having what you give away. If you only have love inside, she explains, that’s what you give away to others; if you only have evil, as the Nazis did, then that’s what you give away.
“I know I’m human like everyone else. I make mistakes, but I know I cannot get away with anything and I don’t try,” she says. The poems “I Know You” and “A Nazi Murderer in Snow White Gloves” were based on Mengele and other Nazis. “Intelligence has nothing to do with character,” she said. “It has to do with respect for life. . . . To shame somebody is the greatest sin. Those are the values I grew up with and that were tested in Auschwitz.”
She wrote “Clipped Wings” as a teenager in Auschwitz but, lacking pencil and paper, committed it to memory. . . . I look at the sky with a heavy sigh, But my wings have been clipped and I can not fly. . . . The number tattooed on her arm was an object of curiosity to her young son many years ago and became the poem “Who Wrote on Your Arm?”
And “Do Not Forget Us” begs for the obvious: that people not forget the Holocaust.
Do not forget us!
The voices are pleading
Voices of our beloved families, relatives and friends
So savagely transformed to numbers and to ashes
By the bloody Nazi hands. . . .
“I don’t ask, Why did all this happen?” says Itka, 82. “I say, How come I was privileged to survive when six million perished?” She pauses and the tears return. “How can I not be grateful?”