By Dayna Gillespie, for the Mitzpeh, @Mitzpeh
Dr. Mark Strauss, Holocaust survivor and world-renowned artist, spoke to more than 60 students at Maryland Hillel on Oct. 15.
He described his story as a “miracle” and recounted his life struggles under Nazi rule in his native Poland.
“We are so excited and so honored to have Dr. Strauss here with us tonight,” said Lindsay Goldman, Jewish experience associate at Hillel.
Students introduced Strauss, commending him on his achievements and accolades while admiring his bravery to tell his story.
“My grandfather was 6 years old when his family was forced to flee his home,” said Lauren Lindenbaum, who introduced Strauss to the audience. “It is so important we hear these stories.”
Strauss began his speech by repeating his mother’s words when he encountered Nazi soldiers brutally beating another Jewish man. Strauss described how the experience was ingrained in his mind.
“Mark, Mark don’t go there!” Strauss began. “Mark was eleven. I went to the street.”
What Strauss found was a man being beaten by a group of Nazi soldiers, on the verge of a bloody death.
The Nazi army invaded Strauss’ town in 1941. They went door to door in search of Jewish people to capture and detain in training camps. Strauss recounted the many families who tried to hide in vain. Out of 100,000 residents in his town, Lemberg, 85,000 of them were executed.
“Every family was affected [and] that included mine,” Strauss said. “One year’s time most of the Jews in my town were murdered.”
Mass graves became commonplace in the ghetto. The smell of death was pungent. Strauss witnessed executions and bodies thrown into mass graves, leaving many to die slowly.
“Those mass graves were still moving a day or two after,” Strauss said. “That was the Holocaust.”
Strauss spent the majority of his time in the ghetto with his mother. During times of danger, his father would dig a hole deep enough for a young Strauss and his mother to hide in. They would remain there for hours without food or water.
“How am I alive?” Strauss asked. “Luck, simply luck. 100,000 Jews. You can’t kill all of them at once.”
Strauss cheated death numerous times in the ghetto. A Nazi soldier once stopped beating Strauss and his mother upon seeing a family photograph on the ground.
The soldier paused, and moments after, he discontinued terrorizing them and left. Strauss called the incident “a lucky moment, a miracle, a professional courtesy.”
His time in the ghetto came to an end when a “Polish angel” opened her home to Strauss when he was nearly 14-years-old after sneaking him out of the ghetto.
Strauss hid on the top floor, with a silver pail as a bathroom, and food was scarce. He lived most of his adolescence in the home until the Jewish people were liberated by the Soviets in 1944.
Strauss explained that he does not allow the events that occurred in his life to alter his perception of the human race. His heart remains open to people of all affiliations and races.
“My friends, I want you to know I do not hate anyone,” Strauss said. “It does not matter your religion, your beliefs, the color of your skin. As long as you are respectful, we can work together.”