Judith Evans still remembers holding her mother's hand as she watched her synagogue go up in flames.
Evans shared her story of being a 5-year-old Jewish girl growing up in Nazi Germany during World War II during her talk, “Memoirs of a Holocaust Survivor,” on Tuesday at USC Aiken. Evans spoke to a standing-room-only audience of more than 200 people who sat quietly and listened intently.
“I was born in Germany, and all that I'm telling you happened in Germany,” said Evans of Aiken during an Interfaith Harmony Month program sponsored by Aiken Interfaith Partners and the university. “I remember holding my Mother's hand. I can feel her hand here today. She squeezed my hand and looked down at me and said, 'Don't worry. Nothing will happen to us. We are Germans.' And this is what she believed. I can still smell the smoke and the shouting, 'Dirty Jew. Death to the Jews.'”
Although she was Jewish, Evans said she grew up in a “very assimilated family” and never went to the synagogue.
“What I learned about Judaism I learned from my grandmother, but my mother, she was a German,” Evans said.
Evans said her mother still told her not to worry when, one day after school, she saw her mother and grandmother sewing a yellow Mogen David, or Star of David, on her, her younger brother's and all of her family's clothes. The next day, all the children at her school moved to the other side of the corridor when she they saw her, and her girlfriend turned her head.
Evans' mother later learned being a Jew was not the same as being a German for the Nazis, and the local police took her mother away.
“I took my brother by the hand, and we ran quickly to the police station,” Evans said. “In front of the police station were young women with the Magen David. My mother was sitting on one side. I was running and shouting, 'Mookie, Mookie.' She stretched her hand out. I was trying to touch her hand. I can still feel it and see it today. I couldn't reach her. I never saw her again.”
As an adult, Evans learned the Nazis took her mother to one of the worst concentration camps for women.
“What happened to her? I don't know,” Evans said, “I don't want to know. I don't want to go there because I would go crazy.”
Next, the police took her grandmother.
“They took her to the Jewish cemetery where they built barracks for old Jewish women to let them die there,” Evans said. “They let people come to bring them food. I always had to hide between the bushes to go in because there were always in front of the cemetery those young Nazi boys.
“One day, someone jumped me from the back. I had a brown ceramic pot of thick stone with milk to take to Grandma. They took the pot and broke it on my head. I can feel the drops on my face from the milk, and my feeling in my heart was I will have no milk to bring to Grandma.”
One day when she arrived at the cemetery, her grandmother's bunk was empty.
“They told me she passed away,” Evans said.
After her grandmother was taken, neighbors took Evans and her brother in.
“I want to make the point that there were a lot of good German people. They weren't members of the Nazi party, but they didn't speak up early enough,” Evans said. “Never believe what people tell you about the 'all': 'All' Jews are like this. 'All' white people are like this. 'All' doesn't exist.”
When the order came to take all the Jews out of Evans' town, her neighbors took her and her brother to a Catholic orphanage.
“They took the yellow Magen Davids off our clothes and told us to tell them our father was in the war and our mother passed away and we had no place to stay,” Evans said.
Evans said she still remembers the nun who took her and her brother in.
“I will never forget her face,” she said. “She was so peaceful, and she accepted me. She showed me how to pray. She knew I was Jewish, but she took us in.
“Those nuns, they really believed in God, and whoever believes in God knows that life is precious. Perhaps that belief gave her the courage to do what she did. All those years in the orphanage, I could hear the whisper, 'the Jew,' from workers but never from a nun. No one went to the Gestapo and told them about us.”
At the end of the war when Evans was 12, she told the nuns she “wanted to go back to the Jews.”
“The nuns were not angry. They didn't take me in because they wanted to convert me. They took me in because they believed in God and the message of God,” Evans said.
From then, Evans began a journey to reconnect with her Jewish roots, remembering her grandmother taking her head in her hands and blessing her.
“I can feel her hands until today. She gave me the occupation to be Jewish,” Evans said. “I wanted to be Jewish like my Grandmother. I love to be Jewish. I'm proud.”
Evan's journey eventually led her to Israel and then to Aiken when her late husband took a job with Westinghouse.
Evans said she tells her story of her experience in the Holocaust as a Jewish woman and for the six million Jews who were killed, but she told the audience not to forget the other five million people – Gypsies, homosexuals and especially physically and mentally disabled children – the Nazis murdered during World War II.
Drawing on her experience, Evans said she became a teacher and school principal to teach children “to think for themselves, to be open minded, to be tolerant, to talk to each other and not to listen to propaganda and not to belong so religiously to one party.”
“Have the guts to talk, especially in the beginning before it's too late,” she said. “Talk to each other. Work together. You want to hate someone? Go to the gym.”
As a Holocaust survivor, Evans said she also feels obligated to tell her story for the 6 million Jews and the other 5 million whom the Nazis killed.
“I feel obligated to be a good person and to bring good to the world,” she said. “We owe the dead. We owe not only them but also all the soldiers – the Americans and British - who gave their lives to free us from the Nazi party. We owe them.”