Auschwitz Survivor Brings Crowd to Tears at Manhattan Holocaust Remembrance Event
On May 4, 1944, the Nazis rounded up many of the Jews in Hungary. Most did not live to tell their story. Stefania Hecht did, and on May 4, 2016, she spoke at the largest Yom Hashoah program for young professionals in New York, which took place at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park.
The 88-year-old, who spent five months in Auschwitz, brought many in the crowd of 350 to tears, describing a harrowing journey that involved Adolf Eichmann, Josef Mengele, the destruction of her family, and her determination to create a new one.
Before the Holocaust, Hecht’s parents became ill. Her mother died when she was five, and her father died when she was ten. Her country of Romania was then annexed by Hungary. When she was 16, after being in two ghettos, she got off the train at Auschwitz with her aunt, her brother, and her sister. She heard the Nazis yell and wondered why the Jews there had shaved heads. She did not get to say goodbye to her relatives, as she was pushed away and couldn’t even look back to see them. She was in Barrack No. 20 and was among 900 women who had to sleep on the floor. For food, they would get a piece of bread, some water with tiny pieces of potato in it, and grass.
“Many, they ran into the barbed wire,” Hecht said. “They committed suicide.” She found a cousin alive and pregnant, who amazingly hid this from the Nazis during roll call. “She stood in line with heavier people,” Hecht recalled.
Hecht saw the baby but then both were never heard from again.
Hecht told the crowd that she survived due to Hashem, and in an interview after the event, she spoke of her mental toughness.
“I guess I was hardened by losing my parents when I was little,” she said. “And I knew that I had to get married, [and] have children and grandchildren.”
Hecht has three children, six grandchildren, and more than 20 great-grandchildren — and many of them were on hand to see her speak. “Everybody calls her mama,” said grandson Dan Glassman, 38 of Staten Island.
She described her husband as a “very nice boy,” and they were married after only one month of dating — when she was 21. They stayed in Romania, and then moved to America in 1964.
The event was run by Young Friends of The Museum of Jewish Heritage and the Manhattan Jewish Experience (MJE). Hecht spoke in conversation with Miriam Leichtling, former director of programming at MJE and a board member of the Young Friends of The Museum of Jewish Heritage. Leichtling explained that Eichmann saw Nazi deportations as a game, and wanted to beat the record of 275,000 Jews that were deported from the Warsaw Ghetto. In 56 days, he did it, deporting 437,402 Hungarian Jews, who mostly went to Auschwitz — a feat was accomplished largely due to the zealous cooperation by Hungarian forces. Hecht said that Mengele selected her to work in a labor camp, and she was there when the war ended.
Rabbi Mark Wildes, founder of MJE, said that he was impressed by the power of her continued faith. “With her parents dying when she was so young, and with all of the atrocities she saw, the fact that she invoked Hashem blew me away,” he said.
Svia Ben-Sion, 27, of Washington Heights, said that after serving in the Israeli Army and visiting Auschwitz, she had a special appreciation for the event. “It’s inspiring to see someone like her,” she said. “She is a primary source and we have to tell what we’ve heard to make sure that when we say ‘Never Again,’ we really mean it.’”
Leichtling asked Hecht what advice she would give to the audience members. “You should think ahead,” Hecht said. “Life is very cruel, and try to be happy…” She also said people shouldn’t be alone, and should start families.
Hecht arrived in New York at 1:30 a.m. as she returned from spending Passover with family in Israel. But she did not appear to be tired, staying past 10:30 p.m. to speak with people after almost everyone else had left.