Riva Hirsch, a witness to the Holocaust, shared her story of being captured by Nazis and watching them murder her mother in front of her at a young age.
Troy University partnered with the Alabama Humanities Foundation to organize the public lecture, which was held on Wednesday, Nov. 15.
Hirsch contributes her survival to a number of miracles throughout the war.
She was a 7-year-old girl when World War II broke out in 1941.
After being warned of bad things to come by two different neighbors, Hirsch’s parents decided to take Hirsch and her two brothers and head for the woods to hide. Once darkness fell, her parents convinced one of the neighbors to allow them to hide in his mill, which only lasted until the Nazis came to the area and they had to return to the forest.
While on their way to the home of her mother’s parents, the family was captured.
“They surrounded us,” Hirsch said. “I was holding on to my mother’s skirt, my brother to the other side. My father took my other brother.
“They ripped us apart. My mother wouldn’t let us go. They turned around, and they beat her up to death. They took me, and they pushed me away.”
Hirsch, along with her father and two brothers, were forced into a cattle train that was already packed with other Jews and the bodies of those who did not live through the ride.
“Can you imagine, for a 7-year-old to see?” Hirsch said. “They opened the doors and threw out the bodies, smaller children than seven, alive or dead.
When it was my turn, they grabbed me by my brains and they were full of lice, and they threw me into the train.”
Although she was not branded with a number like many Holocaust victims, Hirsch said she has scars from the wires in the train.
“The train was awful,” she said. “Can you imagine, to stand on littler children than me – a 7-year-old to stand in the train on dead bodies?”
Once they arrived at the camp, they awaited transport on makeshift ferries, which Hirsch said she later found out were used to drown the captives.
Hirsch said the morning she was supposed to get on the ferry, her number was never called – she called it a miracle.
After realizing that there was no food, Hirsch said she gave up all hope of survival. She said, after laying down next to the dead bodies, another miracle happened.
“I was laying there more dead than alive,” she said.
A man who spoke German came and picked her up from the ground and ran with her to a wagon, where he put her in the back and told her not to make any noise if the Germans stopped the wagon. When the wagon was stopped, Hirsch said a third miracle occurred as the Germans did not check the back, where she was hidden.
Hirsch was dropped off at a convent where the nuns hid her in a 6-by-6-foot bunker. She remained in the bunker from 1943 to 1945, with the nuns bringing her food and water “once in a blue moon.”
When the war ended, the nuns instructed her to leave the convent. She couldn’t walk so she had to crawl out of the convent and lay on the side of the road until a couple who had also been in captivity found her.
The couple carried her to a shelter, where she was reunited with her father. Although her father found both of her brothers, they passed away shortly after.
“You’ve seen somebody which is alive, not a book, not a newspaper, not a tape,” Hirsch said. “It’s the truth because goes around a lot of denial that it never happened.
“The future is in your hands, my dear students. It could happen again. We have to make sure that nothing like that should never ever happen again.”
Students who attended the lecture said Hirsch’s experiences opened their eyes.
“(The Holocaust) was something really horrible that happened,” Carley Broyles, a sophomore criminal justice major from Heflin, said. “It changed so many people’s lives, and there are some people who live in denial, but we have to realize that that is our history. We have to learn from that.”
Samuel Collier, a junior history major from Mobile, said the lecture gave him a new perspective on events he has studied in history courses.
“My favorite part of the presentation was (Hirsch) going back into her history and talking about, as a child, being a victim of the Holocaust,” Collier said. “What amazes me is how strong she is standing there.
This is emotionally deep, but she has the strength to share her story and willingly do it in front of a live audience.”