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Jewish Heritage: The Oral Histories - Cuba Family Archives

MEMOIRIST:                       ZELMAN SOSNE

                                          MRS. SOSNE

INTERVIEWER:                   JOHN KENT

                                         RUTH EINSTEIN

DATE:                                  JULY 8, 2011

LOCATION:                          ATLANTA, GEORGIA

SPONSORED BY:                Taylor Family Fund

CITATION:                          Zelman Sosne, July 8, 2011, OHC10675, p. xx from the Herbert and Esther Taylor Oral History Collection, Cuba Family Archives for Southern Jewish History at the Breman Museum, Atlanta, Georgia

Transcript (PDF)


Zelman Sosne was born in Wilno (Vilna), Poland on October 8, 1925. Zelman, his older brother, and his sister were raised in an Orthodox home and attended Hebrew school. Shortly after he turned 13 and was bar mitzvahed, World War II began. In September of 1939, the Soviets invaded eastern Poland and occupied Vilna. When the Soviets ceded the city to Lithuania, it was renamed Vilnius and pogroms broke out. The Soviet army soon reentered the city and occupied Lithuania until the summer of 1941, when the German army invaded.

Zelman and his family were sent to the larger of two ghettos the Nazis established. Zelman was aware that the other ghetto was liquidated in 1941 when all of its inhabitants were murdered in the woods at Ponar. His father “adopted” the son of a neighbor who was murdered. He and his family stayed in the ghetto and worked as slave laborers for almost two years. In 1943, the ghetto was liquidated. His mother, aunt, and sister left separately. It is unclear where they were sent or when they died. His father, brother, and the neighbor were still with Zelman when he was sent from Vilna to a camp in Estonia. From Estonia, they were sent to the Stutthof concentration camp sometime probably in the summer or fall of 1944. His father died in 1944 and his brother died in 1945. The neighbor survived and later immigrated to Canada. From Stutthof, Zelman was sent west to camps in Germany and then to Austria. He was at Sachsenhausen in Germany before being transferred to Mauthausen in Austria. From Mauthausen, he was sent to Ebensee. American soldiers liberated Ebansee on May 5, 1945.

After liberation, Zelman spent some time in Munich and Bremen, Germany, where he found his former neighbor. They survived by buying and selling on the black market before settling into a displaced persons (DP) camp established at Bergen-Belsen. Many of the DPs Zelman befriended immigrated to Palestine and were killed in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. At the advice of a cousin living in Israel, Zelman decided to immigrate to the United States instead. In October 1949, he set sail for Boston, Massachusetts aboard the USAT General Hersey. Zelman immediately settled in Atlanta, Georgia. Zelman attended Beth Jacob and was active in the Atlanta Orthodox Jewish community as a kohen (priest). He married in 1964 and had two children. He retired from a meat company. His son is a doctor and has 8 children. His daughter has 9 children. Zelman passed away in 2014.

Scope of Interview:

Zelman shares his impression of Vilna, Poland growing up in an Orthodox Jewish home before the Soviets invaded in 1939. He determines it was difficult to trust the Polish people and then recalls the pogroms that occurred when Lithuania was briefly in control of the city. He remembers the Germans invading in 1941 and creating two ghettos. While he and his family survived for two years as slave laborers in one ghetto, thousands of Jews in the other ghetto were murdered in the woods at Ponar. Zelman was sent to Latvia with his father, brother, and a neighbor when their ghetto was finally liquidated in 1943. He does not know what happened to his aunt, sister, or mother after they left the ghetto.

Over the next two years, Zelman was sent to multiple concentration camps. In 1944, he arrived in Stutthof, where he recalls his father dying and being dumped in the swamp. His brother died in January 1945. From Stutthof, Zelman was sent west to Sachsenhasuen outside of Berlin, Germany. There, he encountered a misplaced self-importance from the German Jews. He describes the brutality he witnessed when he was then sent to Mauthausen in Austria. From Mauthausen, Zelman was transferred to Ebensee. When the Americans liberated Ebensee in May of 1945, Zelman says he was near death.

Upon recovering from starvation, Zelman made his way first to Munich, Germany and then to Bremen, where he found his former neighbor. Zelman survived by buying and selling on the black market. He then moved to a displaced persons camp that had been established at Bergen-Belsen. Zelman recalls the numerous survivors he befriended who immigrated to Palestine and died in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.

Zelman immigrated to the United States in 1949 and settled in Atlanta, Georgia. He discusses being active in Atlanta’s Orthodox Jewish community. He shares his familiarity with the rabbis from all the Orthodox congregations around Atlanta. In 1964, he married and started a family. Zelman reflects on the maintenance of his beliefs and passing on the Orthodox tradition to his two children. He describes his initial reactions to race relations in America and witnessing the civil rights movement. He shares his views about the current political, social, and economic climate in the US and some of his concerns about Israel. Zelman admits he does not like doing interviews or revisiting the past. 

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