Very few young adults can imagine having to barter their keepsakes for two pieces of bread. But for Holocaust survivor Anneliese Winterberg Nossbaum, at the age of 16 in 1944, that was a reality. She was a prisoner in concentration camps during World War II. Today, she shares her story through the Holocaust Awareness Museum and Education Center in Philadelphia with students and adults.
Keith Valley Middle School seventh grade students heard her story of being malnourished, weak, and yet driven to survive Feb. 27. They listened with amazement as Mrs. Winterberg Nossbaum described the horrific conditions of each camp she was forced to move into. They watched as she flashed pictures of her parents, both killed in relation to the Holocaust, and her life before and after. They were forced to imagine traveling in cramped, open cattle carts and working as slave labor as Mrs. Winterberg Nossbaum recounted her early life experiences.
“Part of the seventh grade curriculum is the In Search of Heroes unit, during which we focus on the people who overcame incredible obstacles to survive, help others, or defy Hitler during the Holocaust and World War II. Students find this unit very interesting because often it is the first time many have learned about these events,” teacher Sarah Beltz said. “I felt that the best way to make a lasting impact on my students would be to invite a Holocaust survivor here. I want my students to have the opportunity to see a survivor or veteran speak in person since, unfortunately, each year there are fewer survivors and World War II veterans to share these stories.”
Mrs. Winterberg Nossbaum’s story begins in 1935 when her family’s citizenship in Germany was revoked because they were Jewish. From that point, her family was banned from using public facilities, including swimming pools and schools. Then in 1938, Mrs. Winterberg Nossbaum witnessed just the beginning of the hatred Nazis showed towards Jewish residents when her synagogue was burned to the ground in the Kristallnacht—or better known as the Night of Broken Glass.
“Everything changed that day,” Mrs. Winterberg Nossbaum said. “It will always be the beginning of the Holocaust for me. It was the true initiation for the world to see what was happening.”
Unfortunately, Mrs. Winterberg Nossbaum’s story only gets worse from there. From July 1941 to her and her mother’s liberation on May 5, 1945, she was shuffled from group homes, concentration camps and factories, often in unimaginably inhuman conditions. In December 1945, Mrs. Winterberg Nossbaum lost her mother to tuberculosis, which she contracted while imprisoned. She later found out that her father had died at a separate concentration camp.
“I was one of the lucky ones,” Mrs. Winterberg Nossbaum said. “I’m here today to tell my story. Someone needs to tell it, to share what men are capable of.”
During her presentation, Mrs. Winterberg Nossbaum shared with the students her closest encounter with death while imprisoned at a concentration camp. Days before Americans liberated Auschwitz, where she had been sent seven month before, she and her mother stood in line outside the gas chambers. They didn’t know what they were in line for at the time. However, she later learned that the camp had run out of the chemical used in the chambers that day and could not get more due to Americans occupying the closest town. So the people in line were sent back to their barrack.
“I was saved from the gas chambers because they ran out of Cyclone B (the chemical used),” Mrs. Winterberg Nossbaum said. “A few cans made the difference between me being in that chamber and standing before you today.”
Mrs. Winterberg Nossbaum describes the presentations she shows to students about the war and Holocaust as “perpetual remembrance” for those who did not survive.
“If there’s one thing I learned during that time, it’s that you have to learn to understand other people. It makes you more kind and you are able to get along with others better,” Mrs. Winterberg Nossbaum said. “And that if you see that there’s something evil, you have to stand up against it.”