Portraits of Courage

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“Women of Ravensbruck” exhibit features survivors with Detroit ties.

Survivor Paula Marks-Bolton beside her own story in the exhibit. (Brett Mountain Photography)

Experiences of former prisoners and survivors of Ravensbruck, one of the Nazis’ major concentration camps for women, are highlighted in a special exhibit,Women of Ravensbruck: Portraits of Courage,” at the Holocaust Memorial Center Zekelman Family Campus in Farmington Hills through June 24.

Nineteen of the women included in the exhibition reside in or have ties to the Detroit area. These witnesses are aging, and their number — like those of all Holocaust survivors — is dwindling.

To understand their lives at that time, it is important to know about Ravensbruck, a concentration camp in northern Germany specially constructed for women and children; a smaller camp also was included for men. It opened late in 1938. After the war began, the numbers of prisoners and the countries they came from kept increasing.

The camp conditions were horrific: death by starvation, beatings, torture, hanging and shooting occurred daily. The inmates were forced to work incredibly long days at SS companies located around Ravensbruck. There was a crematory and, in late 1944, a gas chamber was added. Those women physically too weak to work ended up in the gas chamber or as participants of so-called “medical” experiments by SS doctors.

Among those featured in “Women of Ravensbruck” is former Detroiter Eva Wimmer, now 85 and living in Florida. She grew up in Poland. Her father was a shoemaker. With 10 children, life for the family was a struggle. Wimmer and her family were transported to a ghetto and subsequently several concentration camps, including Auschwitz, where her parents perished.

These local women experienced the horrors of Ravensbruck: Paula Marks-Bolton of West Bloomfield, Lola Taubman of Ann Arbor, Agi Rubin of Farmington Hills, Elizabeth Wees of Novi and Irene Zuckerman Snitchler of Southfield. (Brett Mountain Photography)

Wimmer arrived at Ravensbruck in 1945 with her five sisters, who all managed to survive the Holocaust. She spent less than a year at Ravensbruck amidst its horrible conditions before being helped by the Swedish Red Cross. With American financial aid, she was moved by bus to Sweden. She spent nine years in Sweden, receiving medical care and health-restoring nourishment. Her sisters decided to work for food and clothes, while she spent her time in a factory making brushes. She met her husband Philip in Sweden.

In 1954, the couple moved to the United States, spending the first year in Boston before settling with their children in the Detroit area, where her oldest sister was already living.

Now, Wimmer serves as a docent at the Holocaust Memorial Center (HMC) whenever she can.

“I do this because it is important,” she says. “So few of us survived the nightmare of Ravensbruck. Its purpose was torture. I am a witness to this history.”

Ann Arbor resident Lola Taubman, 88, was born in Czechoslovakia. At age 19, she was transported to a ghetto by train. Later on, a freight train took her to Auschwitz, where she spent about a year. The barracks in the camp were not ready, so the women and children walked to Birkenau, a twice-daily journey of about five miles, until the barracks were completed.

Local survivor Agi Rubin explains about life in the barracks at Ravensbruck. (Brett Mountain Photography)

Along with eight other girls, Taubman’s job there was to pick up packages of clothing, shoes and jewelry left behind by those who had been killed, and carry them to the warehouses. Their days were grim: They were awakened at 2 a.m., followed by roll call and a piece of bread. Dressed in drab gray shifts, they worked from 6 a.m.-6 p.m. At noon, they were given thin soup in the camp’s dining hall.

As the war neared its end, many women and children were forced to walk to the German border in the January snow, even though they were unsuitably dressed for the weather and fighting malnutrition and illnesses like dysentery. Taubman and the others boarded a cattle car and were taken to Ravensbruck to work. Fortunately, she was there for only a short time before being moved to Mechelen, a Belgian transit camp, for about six months.

In 1945, Taubman had a job in a munitions factory in Leipzig. Life still was awful, with unfriendly supervisors making the work more miserable. There were nightly bombings: The building eventually was destroyed. This was followed by a death march during which many people died from illness, starvation, beatings and shootings. Taubman ended up in a displaced person (DP) camp near Frankfurt. She worked at the French consulate for a while and also for the Jewish Agency for Palestine.

The last of her family to arrive in the U.S., Taubman landed in New York in 1949. The next few years were spent working in New York; then, in 1951, she moved to the Detroit area. There she found employment as an interior designer. She married and has two daughters, a son and several grandchildren.

“To this day, my siblings and I do not know how our parents were killed,” Taubman says.

Another local woman in “Women of Ravensbruck” is 85-year-old Paula Marks-Bolton of West Bloomfield. Born in Poland, she was barely in her teens when the Nazis invaded. Faced with daily sneak attacks on Jewish homes, nobody knew who’d be targeted next and ordered to leave with only the clothes they were wearing and whatever they could carry.

Patrons view the exhibit at the March 11 opening. (Brett Mountain Photography)

One day, somebody pulled Marks-Bolton out of the crowd on the street to save her. She never saw her parents again. Subsequently, along with about 400 other children, she was marched to a ghetto. Not long afterwards, she was sent to the Lodz Ghetto, the second largest in Poland. Luckily, she was taken in by a kind, young couple.

The Nazis compelled her to work in a straw factory; she also made shoes and worked in a plastic factory. The forced labor was tough. Food rations were distributed only once a week.

After a while, she was transferred to Auschwitz and then sent to Ravensbruck for several weeks. There, beatings with batons occurred regularly, along with other unspeakable horrors. The prisoners were starved and allowed almost no water.

Marks-Bolton and others were forced on a death march. Surviving that, she spent time in a work camp where a kind German foreman made life a little easier with extra food rations. He encouraged her to survive. Her concentration camp travels ended at Bergen-Belsen in Germany, where she had to peel potatoes. At Bergen-Belsen, the beatings continued and always there was the question: “Will we survive?”

One memorable day with the war finally over, soldiers came to liberate the prisoners. Marks-Bolton was moved to a DP camp where she met the man who’d become her first husband. They married in 1946 and, three years later, immigrated to the United States, where she learned dressmaking and design. After 46 years of marriage, her first husband died and she later remarried. She has two daughters, a granddaughter and two great-grandchildren.

Recently at the HMC, when she finished addressing students from a Wyandotte public school and a Detroit charter school, Marks-Bolton offered herself up for hugs from the audience. The numbers of girls and boys who raced up to take a place in that line were inspiring.  Some of these youngsters had tears in their eyes. Although she was fairly soft-spoken, her message had been heard — loud and clear.

“It’s a sheer miracle that some of us survived,” she told them. She left this audience by saying, “Remember, I am a normal person.”

She tries to speak to as many groups as she can, urging them not to let bullying happen and reminding them, “Gauging your success in life isn’t about how much you own, but what have you done to help others?”

By Robyn Gorell, Special to the Jewish News
lynn rose
lynn rose 04.25.2012

Amazing Story. We need to read more of them.