Q&A: Eva Unterman
A Tulsan’s story of survival inspires those she meets.
Eva and her parents on vacation in Zakowice, Poland, circa 1937.
Courtesy Eva Unterman
As one of the last Holocaust survivors in Tulsa, Eva Unterman has spent decades sharing her incredible story. As a child, she was one of 500 Jews taken by Nazis from the Lodz Ghetto in Poland to Auschwitz in August 1944.
On April 16, she will be the keynote speaker during the Tulsa Council for Holocaust Education’s 18th annual Yom HaShoah/Interfaith Holocaust Commemoration.
How did you first come to tell your story? Not until 1978, when a teacher asked me to speak. For many years I and others did not speak about this horrendous past. Who would have believed us then, and our bizarre stories? Nobody would have. And most of us wanted to go on with our lives.
When I speak to kids now, I tell them about when we had to leave home and we could only take that which we could carry. I ask them, “What would you take?”
What we are doing is commemorating and educating for the future as to what we as human beings are capable of doing. I hope that in their daily lives with people from other backgrounds — ethnic, religious, whatever — that they will remember to be kind. That they will remember to use words carefully. I truly believe it all starts with words. Propaganda starts with words.
Why did you decide to become such a strong voice for Holocaust education? I had been so fortunate to survive as a child, that it is truly my obligation to tell about the children who were murdered. I must do that.
In the Holocaust exhibit at the Sherwin Miller Museum of Jewish Art, there are lots of photographs of different places, people and events. There is only one of a child, a little girl. And I always remember her. We don’t know who she was. She didn’t know where she was going. But we know that the transport that she was on from the Warsaw Ghetto went to Treblinka, one of the killing centers. She went straight to the gas. I always keep her in mind. My responsibility is to that child.
You have an incredibly positive attitude after all you’ve endured. Why do you think that is? People often ask me, “What do you think your life would be like had all this not happened?” Well, who knows that sort of thing? You don’t know. But I do know how precious every moment of life is, and it’s meant to be enjoyed. It’s meant to be lived to the best you can. So, while this memory obviously is there all the time, I really don’t dwell on it. Never did.
What do you consider your greatest achievement? My children and grandchildren. Having a legacy, that was my great revenge against Hitler. We went on.
When did you begin the Tulsa Interfaith Holocaust Commemoration? This will be our 18th Interfaith Holocaust Commemoration. I started the interfaith idea because all Jews were victims, but not all victims were Jews. It’s not a Jewish issue, it’s a human issue. I don’t think the interfaith approach is traditional in other communities. People are surprised when I tell them we haven’t always held the service in a synagogue. The first three years, we held it at All Souls Unitarian Church. The only reason we moved is because we outgrew the sanctuary.
The commemoration is April 16. Is there any significance to the date? April is the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, which was the largest stand the Jewish community took against the Nazis. It was especially incredible since these people were imprisoned, working only with homemade bombs and smuggled guns. They managed to keep the Nazis at bay longer than the Polish army had.
The Warsaw Ghetto uprising is a good example of Jewish resistance, which is extremely important for young people to learn, especially young Jewish people. There has been criticism that Jews were led like lambs to the slaughter and didn’t resist. In fact, there were acts of resistance all along. People just didn’t know about them.
Will there be anything specific you’ll address at the commemoration? The title of my speech is “The Last Transport: My Childhood During the Holocaust.” I will share how my family was among the last to be transported out of the Lodz Ghetto before it was liquidated and why that was significant.
We were on a special list to work at a relocated metal factory, due to my father’s connections, and were supposed to have been transported to Germany. We ended up in Auschwitz. Among those on the list, some were killed right away, but the majority went through Auschwitz without “selection.” And there’s a whole incredible story that I’ll be telling about how that happened.
The first time you returned to the concentration camps was in 2011 with your son and two granddaughters. What was that like? When we went to Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic, I didn’t get emotional. It was in Stutthof, this terrible place where I lost my grandmother, that I got a little choked up.
One Saturday night when we were being held there, some guards came into the barracks and said they needed their socks mended. They promised an extra piece of bread for anyone who volunteered to sew. My mother and I could see from across the room that my grandmother was the first to raise her hand. I remember my mother squeezed my hand in a panic because she had no way to get my grandmother’s attention. The guards led the volunteers out and that was the last time I saw my grandmother. To this day, I know she was trying to get that bread for me.
During this time of commemoration, is there anything you hope people will remember about the Holocaust? Among these monsters, there were people that tried to help. I think that’s important for young kids to know. The Holocaust is an example of the worst of humanity, but it’s also an example of the best.
My mother and I were on a death march from Dresden to Theresienstadt near Prague. I later found out it was over 60 miles long. I was in incredible pain because a nail from the wooden clog (I was wearing was) embedded in my foot. But I couldn’t stop because you might be killed by a guard if you stopped. It was at dusk because I remember the light behind the lace curtains in this little German town. Out of nowhere, this man appeared and handed my mother a piece of bread. He risked his life to give her that bread.
So, I tell students I speak to, as they must remember the perpetrators — Eichmann, Goebbels, Himmler, Hitler — they must also remember those heroes who stood up and helped instead of standing by.
“The Last Transport: My Childhood During the Holocaust”
Unterman will sign copies of “Through Eva’s Eyes,” a memoir about her experiences written and illustrated by her granddaughter, Phoebe Unterman. Copies will be available for sale. The program will include an exhibit of artwork created by Tulsa- area students.
The event is sponsored by The Tulsa Council for Holocaust Education, a committee of The Jewish Federation of Tulsa; and Tulsa City-County Library, in cooperation with several local interfaith and community organizations.
April 16 — 2015 Interfaith Holocaust Commemoration
7 p.m., Congregation B’nai Emunah, East 17th Street and South Peoria Avenue. Free and open to the public. Parking is limited. A free shuttle service from Temple Israel, 2004 E. 22nd Place, will go to B’nai.