More than 100 people packed into the Camas Library Monday night to hear Matthew Erlich, a speaker for the Seattle-based Holocaust Center for Humanity, tell his mother’s incredible tale of perseverance and survival in the face of Nazi death camps.
“My mother died in 2009 of lung cancer,” Erlich told the crowd at the beginning of his presentation. “The doctors said she had six months to live, but she lived six years. By the end of this discussion, that will be no surprise to any of you.”
Indeed, no one could question Felicia Erlich’s will to survive. Born Felicia Lewkowicz on June 21, 1924, Erlich’s mother grew up in Poland with her three brothers and three sisters, parents Rozalia and Zygmund, and Polish-speaking, Christian nanny, Helcha.
The nanny’s details are important, Erlich said Monday night, because it meant his mother, unlike most Jewish children living in Poland in the 1920s and 1930s, grew up speaking Polish and understanding Christian holidays. Felicia also learned to speak German, Ukrainian and French. “Felicia grew up without a Yiddish accent,” Erlich said. “This later proved to save her life.”
Showing his family’s portrait in 1937, Erlich points out his grandmother, Rozalia. Like her daughter, Felicia, Rozalia was not a woman who gave in to fear. When a Nazi soldier bumped into her one day and hissed, “Out of my way, Jew,” Erlich’s grandmother looked him in the eye and responded, “My name is Rozalia.”
“She could have been killed,” Erlich said, testifying to his grandmother’s bravery. “That was a shootable offense.”
Erlich’s mother, Felicia, spent her later teen years in terrifying conditions. By the time she was 17, her family, along with all Jewish families in Nazi-occupied Poland, had been forced out of their homes and into walled, overcrowded ghettos. Erlich’s mother, Felicia, went to the Krakow Ghetto with one of her three brothers. The rest of her family went to Tarnow, about 70 miles away.
“The Nazis were dividing families from the start,” Erlich explained. “They understood that, if they split families, it would make them weaker.”
In his notes, Erlich writes that Tarnow was a town that had been half Jewish. “It was occupied in September of 1939, the synagogues burned (and) many Jews were drafted into forced labor. Almost all Jews (were) killed by end of war,” he writes.
In pre-war photos, Erlich shows his mother’s large family intact with his grandparents and their seven children. In a post-war photo of his family, only Felicia remains.
“My mother, along with her sister, Lola, who had gone to Paris by this point, were the only survivors,” Erlich said.
In the Krakow Ghetto, Erlich’s mother was one of the “lucky” ones who could work outside the ghetto walls. This benefit helped her escape for a short time. She left the ghetto and traveled to Vienna by train. Erlich said this was one of many instances when strangers helped his mother for unknown reasons. On the train to Vienna, as conductors made their way through the seats, checking tickets, Felicia appealed to two young soldiers — Nazi soldiers — asking them to help her avoid the conductors, as she had no ticket.
“Those soldiers hid my mother,” Erlich said. “Why they hid my mother, we’ll never know. It may have been the fact that she spoke Polish. They may have thought she was a young Polish girl.”
In Vienna, Felicia, thanks to her childhood nanny’s teachings, was able to work as a hotel housekeeper and “pass” as a Christian, Erlich said. By this point, Felicia’s brother, Maurice, had been shot and killed, and her boyfriend, Eugene, had escaped forced labor in the Krakow Ghetto and come to Vienna to find Felicia. When the Nazis found and arrested Eugene for smuggling clothes to resistance efforts, they also discovered a photo of Felicia. Fearing for her life, Felicia left her life as a hotel maid and slept in cars until she could reinvent herself again, this time becoming Stephanie Heir and working at the Astoria Hotel in Vienna.
In 1944, the authorities found Felicia at the hotel and arrested her.
She arrived in Auschwitz, the most famous of the Nazi death camps, in August of 1944, and was tattooed with the number A-25049 — those numbers, Erlich pointed out, were being generated by an American company then known as International Business Machines, now more commonly known as IBM.
In a video, an older Felicia talks about her time in Auschwitz. The smell and the horror, she says, cannot be described in pictures or video.
“The stench alone,” Felicia says in the video. “Now, how could you put a stench on a film? With the urine … and people living one on top of another?”
Erlich said his mother remembers the ash falling at Auschwitz, a constant reminder of the horror happening inside the concentration camp — where Nazis split people into either forced labor or into the “showers,” where they would be gassed to death (sometimes to the brink of death) before being burned in a crematorium.
In October of 1944, the Nazis transported Felicia and 3,000 others from Auschwitz to Bergen-Belsen.
“When she arrived, she thought it was a paradise because there were no gas chambers,” Erlich said of his mother’s first thoughts of the Nazi death camp. “But it turned out to be a nightmare. You only survived if you were strong.”
At Bergen-Belsen, prisoners went days without food or water. Erlich said his mother remembered seeing a neighbor woman from her childhood who had been rather plump before the war, but who had turned into a walking skeleton inside the concentration camp.
“People were dying at Bergen-Belsen,” Erlich said. Even without the constant fear of being gassed to death, the prisoners had to contend with severe overcrowding, days without food or water, horrible sanitation conditions and rampant diseases.
“In the first months of 1945, tens of thousands died,” Erlich writes in his presentation notes about Bergen-Belsen. “Anne Frank and her sister, Margot, were among them.”
Felicia suffered greatly at Bergen-Belsen. Once, after being hit in the head by a camp commandant, Felicia was forced to stand outside in the freezing cold for several hours — she had few clothes and no shoes on.
During a winter storm, Nazis forced a starving Felicia to march for two hours and then sleep in her cold and wet clothes.
“She suffered her whole life from the physical trauma she endured,” Erlich stated in his presentation notes. “In January 1945 her teeth started falling out. We now believe that was scurvy from lack of vitamin C.”
After the British liberated Bergen-Belsen on April 15, 1945, Felicia went to a British-run displaced persons (DP) camp in Lingen, Germany. This is where she met her future husband, Arthur Erlich, Matthew Erlich’s father, a fellow survivor.
After the war, Felicia found her sister, Lola, was the only remaining survivor from their family. She reunited with Lola in Paris and eventually moved to Paris, where she lived for three years as a seamstress and dressmaker, before marrying Arthur Erlich on July 3, 1948. The couple moved to Canada, where they had three sons, and then to the United States, where they had their fourth and final child: Matthew.
Although his mother suffered post-traumatic stress from the horrors she had lived through and often had bouts of depression and anxiety, Erlich said Felicia was determined to enjoy the life she had miraculously held onto. She loved helping people and feeding people. Erlich recalled often seeing strangers in his home because “Felicia had given some stranger a ride and then decided that they looked hungry, so she had to take them home and feed them.”
“She wanted to live, to work, to do things,” Erlich said of his mother. “She was full of life.”
The lessons Felicia passed down to her four sons focused on fairness and on being kind to strangers in need, Erlich said.
“For me, Felicia taught a lot of lessons,” he said. “She taught me to fight for fairness. To help people in need and to question authority.”
Today, Erlich spends much of his time traveling to events like Monday night’s talk at the Camas Public Library, to help keep the memories of the Holocaust alive, so that we might “never forget” the horrors the Nazis unleashed on Jewish families and other minority groups, including Gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, blacks and the disabled.
Asked by a member of Monday night’s audience what we should be doing today to prevent another Holocaust, Erlich said people must remember that what happened in Nazi Germany could happen again, even in a democracy.
“This didn’t start with the Holocaust,” Erlich pointed out. Instead, there were years of small aggressions and signs leading up to the mass murder of six million Jews and five million others hated by the Nazis. “We cannot give in to fear of ‘the other.’ We must build bridges and not be so divisive. … And we must support immigrants.”
Erlich pointed out on Monday night that, according to a recent report by the Anti-Defamation League, anti-Semitic incidents in the United States are on the increase. According to the ADL’s report, there were nearly 60 percent more anti-Semitic acts in the U.S. in 2017 than in 2016 — the second-highest number of incidents reported since the group started keeping track in the mid-1970s.
Quoting Holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel, who said: “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented,” Erlich said he encourages people to take a side and to stand up against racism, anti-Semitism and hatred of “others,” including immigrants and refugees.
“When we say ‘there are good people on both sides,’ we are allowing (hateful people) to continue their mission,” Erlich said, referring to Trump’s “some very fine people on both sides” response to the murder of Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old activist who was marching against white supremacy in Charlottesville, Virginia, last year, when a member of a known “White Nationalist” group ran her down with his car.
“You have to choose a side. Do not give in to fear,” Erlich said. “The Holocaust could happen again. Even in a democracy.”
Interested in learning more about the events leading up to the Holocaust and how to prevent another Holocaust from ever happening? The Holocaust Center for Humanity can help. Based in Seattle, the nonprofit has been bringing the lessons of the Holocaust into Washington schools and “inspiring students of all ages to confront bigotry and indifference” since 1989. To learn more, visit www.holocaustcenterseattle.org.
To read Holocaust lectures series, click here.