On a day when her children struggled to understand what she had withstood, Gisela Adamski — among a dwindling number of witnesses to a time nearly incomprehensible in its evil — recalled the time she was caught stuffing spinach into her pants in a Nazi ghetto, and laughed.
Adamski, 90, was among several Holocaust survivors who gathered at Emanuel Synagogue in West Hartford Sunday to remember the millions of people killed by the Nazi regime during World War II. U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal spoke to the synagogue’s congregation one day after International Holocaust Remembrance Day, honoring those in the audience who survived, and the millions who did not. The event, organized by Connecticut Voices of Hope, a non-profit founded by descendants of Holocaust survivors, commemorated the 73rd anniversary of the Soviet army’s liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp on Jan. 27, 1945.
Blumenthal also recognized Benjamin Cooper, a West Hartford resident and former combat medic who helped liberate the Dachau death camp as part of the U.S. Army’s 45th Infantry Division. Cooper, 96, was inducted last month into the Connecticut Veterans Hall of Fame.
Seeing people like Adamski and Cooper in the flesh is “a reminder of how close that era is to us,” Blumenthal said, “and how we need to remember it after they are gone, and educate our children so that they remember it after we are gone.”
Adamski, who attended the remembrance ceremony with her daughter, hails from Oppeln — formerly in eastern Germany and now part of Poland, which before the Holocaust was home to about 500 Jews.
Adamski was 10 when Kristallnacht — the Night of Broken Glass — ushered in a new era of violent persecution for German Jews. Adamski and her Jewish classmates were barred from going to German schools, permitted to attend only one class led by a Jewish teacher.
By 1943, Adamski was barred from going to school altogether. The SS had by that time begun removing Jewish families from Oppeln and sending them to ghettos, but Adamski’s family was left alone until 1943. Her father had fought in the German army during World War I, and “for that reason,” she said, “we weren’t as taken as early as the others. We were the last to leave.”
But on April 20, 1943 — Hitler’s 54th birthday — Adamski, her mother and her father were taken to Theresienstadt, a ghetto in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia. Her father was beaten as they got off the train. Her 44 year-old mother suffered a stroke, seeing her husband attacked with fists and German shepherds.
In Theresienstadt, a 15-year-old Adamski grew spinach and tomatoes — “the most sour tomatoes you’d ever eat” — in an enormous garden for German soldiers. It was there she was caught trying to smuggle pilfered spinach in the elastic of her work pants; at a checkpoint, the spinach fell out of a pant leg, right in front of a Czech guard. “I was terrified,” she said. “But the Czechs, they were not so bad as the Germans.”
But after 17 months in Theresienstadt, where Adamski and her family lived with 47,000 Jews in a compound that had been built for 7,000 Czechs, Adamski’s father was taken to Auschwitz. She and her mother were sent three weeks later.
“Auschwitz, just arriving there, was the worst part,” she recalled. “The yelling, screaming, ripping children from their mothers.”
An inspector deemed Adamski fit to work. Her mother was sent to her death.
“My mother was told to go left, I was told to go right — I never saw her again,” she said. Adamski was put to work digging trenches in Polish forests to slow down the encroaching Soviet army, and was liberated by that same army in 1945. After the war, she learned her father had been killed in Dachau on Christmas Eve, 1944.
Blumenthal, whose father fled Nazi Germany when he was 17 for the United States, warned that a climate of bigotry similar to the one that delivered Nazi genocide is now swirling in the underbelly of the United States.
“This day has such powerful, special meeting, because we’ve seen those forces of hatred and bigotry condoned and encouraged, at the highest level,” Blumenthal said. “The remarks made by such elected officials that offer license and legitimacy to intolerance and prejudice — which is the dark side of America — are very, very concerning.”
Blumenthal referenced the Charlottesville demonstrations in August, where neo-Nazi groups chanted “Jews will not replace us” and brandished swastikas. One counterprotestor was killed when a white supremacist plowed his car into a crowd. After the rally, Republican President Donald Trump seemingly attributed the violence to both white supremacists and counterprotestors, saying there were “very fine people on both sides.” His comments drew condemnation from Democrats and members of his own party.
Blumenthal’s father managed to borrow $10,000 when he arrived in the United States in 1935, which he used to spirit his parents and siblings out of Germany. Blumenthal said it is difficult for him to listen to Trump’s promises to restrict immigration, and in particular a family reunification program Trump has dubbed “chain migration,” without thinking of his 17-year-old father.
“Ten thousand dollars today, that doesn’t sound like much money. But he was a refugee — a penniless refugee,” Blumenthal said. “I often think now about the Trump immigration policies that exclude people who have no resources, who don’t speak English, who have no connection to this country — my father would have been one of the ones turned away.”