For three years, Inge Auerbacher knew only hunger and filth in the Terezin concentration camp in Czechoslovakia.
She was 7 when she arrived at the camp with her parents in 1942, but she was one of a small fraction of children who left. Many died of disease and malnutrition.
“Bedbugs, rates, mice, those were our companions,” she said.
She and her parents survived the Holocaust, but many of their family members and her best friend did not. Auerbacher went on to become a chemist, a touring lecturer on the Holocaust and to write bestselling books.
Auerbacher will tell her story during a talk 2 p.m. Saturday at the John F. Welsh Auditorium at Natrona County High School during Casper College’s “Through the Eyes of Many: Experiences in the Holocaust” three-day seminar.
She strives to make sure the Holocaust isn’t forgotten, she said. Those who remember are nearly gone. At 83, she’s one of the youngest survivors.
“It’s important because, first of all, you have so many deniers who want to rewrite history,” she said.
“And as long as we are alive we are going to straighten them out, believe me. And that’s why I go, for them to see somebody,” she said. “It doesn’t come from books, it doesn’t come from movies. Books are OK, but people say, ‘Well, they exaggerate and movies are Hollywood.’ But to really be next to somebody who can ask questions, that’s really important to run against the tide.”
She discovered a post about the conference at Casper College on a Facebook group about the Holocaust. She then contacted an organizer to see if it was too late to become a speaker at the event. She offered to lower her speaking fee.
“I’m very happy when smaller communities have an interest in this topic at a time when there are so many deniers around,” she said.
Auerbacher was almost 4 on Nov. 10, 1938, when her father and grandfather were taken from their home in Kippenheim, Germany, during Kristallnacht, the “Night of Broken Glass.” That night, a wave of violence directed toward Jews in Germany, Austria and occupied Czechoslovakia.
“We were standing in the living room, glass all over the floor, and one hoodlum looks through the broken window and said, “Oh, the chandelier is still hanging,’” she said.
He threw a large rock through a window of their home where her family had lived for generations. Her mother pulled her away. The family hid in the backyard shed.
Her father was arrested, even though he was a decorated World War I veteran, and taken to the concentration camp at Dachau along with her grandfather, she said. Both were released a few weeks later. She and her parents moved to her grandparents’ home in Jebenhausen, Germany, where her grandfather died shortly afterward. They had many friends in the village, including some who clandestinely gave the family food when rations were meager, she said. All the children played with her, even if their parents told them not to play with the Jewish girl.
She had to ride a train by herself for about an hour every day to a special school for Jewish children. Her father told her to sit in a way where the yellow star wouldn’t show, she said.
Wherever Auerbacher goes today, she still tells the story of a woman — a stranger — who one day placed a paper bag of rolls next to her on the train and walked away without a word.
In August 1942, the family was taken to the Terezin concentration camp in Czechoslovakia, she said.
Gas chambers were planned for the camp, but were never finished before the war ended, Auerbacher said. But many of the approximately 140,000 people imprisoned there died, and very few of the 15,000 children survived, she said.
The Soviet army liberated the camp in 1945. The retreating Germans threw grenades, and one zipped just past her. They hid in a dark cellar, and one thing she took with her was a prayer book her father found in the garbage that previously belonged to a former Jewish soldier.
“I never prayed so hard in my life as that day,” she said. “I never lost my faith in God.”
She and her parents had survived, but they knew they’d never see many of their family members again.
“It was muted joy,” she said.
Her grandmother and others had been killed in Latvia, now buried in mass graves. Auerbacher and her parents had boarded the trains headed there, but got out the last minute by luck, she said.
She was 11 when the family moved to the U.S. in 1946. After the war, she became very ill with tuberculosis, which she’d contracted in the camp.
“That was my second Holocaust,” she said. “Believe me, it wasn’t over when it was over and, thank God, I became well again.”
Her recovery was thanks to a new drug, streptomycin. She hadn’t been able to finish first grade and was too unwell to resume school until she was 15. Still, she finished high school in three years and went on to study chemistry in college. She worked as a chemist for 38 years alongside “prominent scientists in research and clinical work,” according to her website.
She’s also written best-selling and award-winning books, including “I am a Star: Child of the Holocaust”, “Beyond the Yellow Star to America” and “Finding Dr. Schatz: The Discovery of Streptomycin and A Life it Saved,” according to her website.
Auerbacher has given lectures about the Holocaust for thousands in the U.S., Canada and Germany, and has been recognized with three prestigious awards for her work toward human rights and tolerance, according to her website. She’s also written numerous published poems, articles and songs.
“My hope, my wish and prayer is for every child to grow up in peace without hunger and prejudice,” Auerbacher said.