Survivor STORY

Penina (Peszi, Penny) Weisz Bowman grew up in Cluj, Transylvania (Romania), which was turned over to Hungary when she was a schoolgirl. Penina is a survivor of Auschwitz and Mahrisch-Weisswasser, a subcamp of Gross-Rosen, where she worked as a slave laborer in an electronics factory.

After the war, Penny met her future husband, Harold, an America soldier, in a DP Camp. Penny immigrated to Palestine but was interned at Atlit detention camp near Haifa by the British Mandatory government. Harold was finally able to emigrate to Palestine as well, by enrolling at the Technion University. Penny was eventually released from Atlit, and the two were married and lived in Binyamina, until they decided to move to the United States so that Harold could complete his education.

Life and Survival in Europe

We were going from, you know, camp to camp, displaced persons camps, DP camps they call them, and one of the camps that they had for the DPs was in Salzburg, Austria. And Harold was with the American Army and he was stationed in Salzburg, Austria. And Harold was one of those rare American boys who grew up in Chicago and loved Hebrew. And after he was bar mitzvah he continued learning a little Hebrew. And so he asked in this town, in Salzburg, he heard that there are Jewish refugees, so he wanted to know where, because he wanted to go and practice his Hebrew. So he came to visit us. And we were a group about of 42 boys and girls living in this barrack. And, all ages, 15-22, and we sang Hebrew songs and we studied Hebrew. And we, our aim was to build the kibbutz [a communal farm in Palestine/Israel]. And so Harold came and he was impressed because he liked Hebrew and he wanted to use it. And he asked me to dance. And I was on the top of a bunk bed and I didn't want to come down and dance. You know, this special dance where the boys asked the girls to come and dance and then the girls asks the boys to dance, you know the Hebrew dancing that you dance in the middle. And finally after he asked me for the third time I came down to dance. And then he, we couldn't communicate. I couldn't speak Hebrew, I couldn't speak English. But with us we had refugees who were from Munkacs, from Czechoslovakia, and they studied English in the class in the private schools and they studied Hebrew. So I had this friend Tzili who sat near me and was my interpreter. And Harold would tell Tzili what to tell me and I would tell... So we dated with an interpreter the first, I would say, for a couple of months.

Coping

Well, one of the main things I was concerned about is to be a well-adjusted, happy person, and to learn the language, and to learn the, to live in this country and to... When I first came here I saw so many of my fellow survivors who were really wallowing in pity, and they were, they had so much hate and they had so much sadness. And they were like, I always felt like they were like living victims of the war. I mean, they've survived but their spirit was gone. And I felt like I don't want this to happen to me. And I couldn't really put it into words what I wanted until one day when I was studying. And I was studying English at all, every opportunity. I took the Americanization classes, I took high school correspondence courses, I studied when I was stirring the pudding on the stove my vocabulary. I was studying when I was riding the subway to Chicago to go to work. And then during, one day I came across this word "equilibrium." And then I saw the translation of it, the interpretation of it, how it meant that, to have equal balance of powers and mental balance, forces that act toward each other. And I thought, "Oh, that's what I have to live my life like, an equilibrium." I want to be, I don't want to be sad for the rest of my... I don't want to feel the void and the loss of what happened in the war. I wanted to remember it so that other people, I mean it won't happen again. And to remember the words of Santayana that said, "Those who can't remember the past are condemned to repeat it," but I also, at same time I wanted to live each day to the fullest and be happy, and to, not to hate. To forget, not to forget to a point of what happened, but to forget what happened to me, and not to hate, because hate, I felt was the most powerful force that can change a person. First you start hating little things and it grows. Just like Hitler started hating himself because he couldn't paint the way he wanted to and it builds. So I always felt that you don't hate people, you don't hate the person, you hate the system and you try to make better of that system, to improve it. That's why I've been so active, including politics.

Human Spirit

If I try to think about what happened, I myself cannot believe it, that it happened, you know, that people so educated could play the music and then kill you with one hand and listen to the music... I myself can't believe all the horrors that happened and what we went through. But the human being is so strong and has such unimaginable power that overcomes you that, when the need is there, that gives you extra strength that you can live again, and strength that you never thought you could have. I mean, I didn't think how I could, I can't imagine how I could be without food and water and no clothing and to stand in line and be cold and freezing and still, how I survived it. And I think it's just that the human spirit rises to the moment and this happened many times, and I think this is the only way to explain. Keep hope. The human being is good and things will work out. And I just to…stay a part of it, you know? 'Cause depression doesn't help you.

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Penina Weisz Bowman