By Bill O’Connell
When Nazi Germany invaded Poland in September of 1939, setting off World War II, there were approximately nine million Jewish people living in the European countries Germany would come to occupy during the war. When the forces of Adolph Hitler finally surrendered, six million Jewish men, women and children had been brutally and systematically murdered in what is often described as the darkest period of human history. Literally, two of every three Jews that fell under the ruthless Third Reich were exterminated in an attempted genocide, officially labeled by the Nazis as “The Final Solution to the Jewish Question” mostly in the 15,000 concentration “death” camps spread across German-controlled territory.
Paula Marks-Bolton, a teen-aged Jewish girl from Poland, was one of the fortunate few to survive. Today, at 92 years of age, she continues on a mission that brought her to the Swanton Middle School where she spoke to the students to deliver her message that what happened to her, her family and her fellow Jews must never be allowed to happen again.
“Most of our survivors are dying out. We are old and we have to reach the young people, to tell them our story so they will know to stand up and not let this happen again,” said Paula. She has been speaking to groups of people at schools, churches, temples and civic groups all around the country for the past 28 years, including six times in the Toledo area, and estimates she has told her horrific story to well over one million people.
Paula was 13 when the Nazis invaded Poland. Not long after, she and her family were taken into custody. Only her oldest brother managed to get away, escaping to Russia prior to the invasion. She was soon separated from her parents and then later her other two brothers, never again to see them alive.
Paula was sent to live in the Polish ghetto of Lodz where she witnessed fellow Jews forced to work in Nazi factories, given little to eat or drink and dying of starvation and infectious diseases. They also perished from brutal beatings and random executions. Paula witnessed the public hanging of six teenaged boys who had refused the wear the yellow Star of David on their clothing to identify their religion. “People were being killed for no reason. Wherever you went you saw so many bodies stacked up,” she said.
Paula, along with many others were sent to Auschwitz in Poland, one of the most notorious concentration and extermination camps, where she found herself at the mercy of the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele who performed deadly human experiments on prisoners. Mengele deemed her physically fit to work in the camp while he sent thousands of others to die in gas chambers. All those who died were sent to the crematorium. “You could smell the flesh of the people. You could hear the screams before they went in,” she sadly recalled. From Auschwitz, Paula was sent to Ravensbruck, a German concentration camp exclusively for women.
There she saw and suffered such atrocities that left her unable to speak of the horror. “It’s etched in my soul what I witnessed in Ravensbruck”, she said. “It is unspeakable what human beings can do to each other.”
Paula spent time in two more camps before they were all closed or liberated at the end of the war. In all, she survived approximately five years of shear terror and hell and lost more than 60 family members to the Holocaust. Today, all her efforts and energy go into delivering her message and imploring the young people to make sure her words are carried on to help prevent a repeat of the horrendous events she experienced first-hand.
“In the history of mankind there has never been a mandate to kill all the Jews in the world. They almost succeeded,” she told the young Swanton students who sat quietly and attentively, hanging on her every word. Paula spoke in a soft grandmotherly tone, in stark contrast to her words and her story, but was able to fully deliver her message to her audience.
“I chose to speak because of the ones who cannot. I promised if I survived, I would do something to make a better world,” she said. They (holocaust victims) cannot speak for themselves. The ashes of the crematoriums are crying out to the ones that are still alive. ‘Please prevent this from ever happening again.’ It is so important for the young people to know.”
Paula also told the students, “You are the future. You are the ones who will make sure this never happens again to another human being.” She continued, “We are all God’s children, we are all related. We must care about each other. We must speak up wherever there is injustice to make a better world.”
Bill can be reached at email@example.com