The Holocaust Memorial Center’s featured speaker commemorated the 75th anniversary of the camp’s liberation.
Featured photo by Corrie Colf
Paula Marks-Bolton spent only four days at the Auschwitz concentration camp as a teenager in Nazi-occupied Poland. But that time still echoed heavily in her head on the 75th anniversary of the camp’s liberation.
“After many days and nights of riding in these cramped cattle trains, the Nazis had finally stopped for good,” Marks-Bolton said. “They opened up the doors and announced, ‘We have arrived at Auschwitz.’”
Jan. 27 marked the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and International Holocaust Remembrance Day, and Marks-Bolton, 93, took the occasion to detail her story of survival to a crowd of around 50 people at the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills.
“It is so important that we must continue to teach love and kindness,” the West Bloomfield resident told the attendees. “This is what I have been teaching for almost 30 years. It should never make a difference what nationality, religion or what color skin a person has — we are all brothers and sisters. We are all connected and are all God’s children.”
Among the attendees were a group from Schoolcraft College in Livonia and a group of employees from a new marketing firm in Detroit. Throughout Marks-Bolton’s story, many in the audience were overcome with emotion, with some fighting back tears.
In 1939, when the Nazis invaded her home country of Poland, Marks-Bolton was just thirteen years old. Her family was torn apart by the Nazis: While her middle brother, Schmeral, escaped to Russia, her two younger brothers were taken to the Poznań concentration camp. Marks-Bolton herself was separated from her parents and taken to the Łódź Ghetto, the second-largest ghetto in German-occupied Europe.
From Łódź, Marks-Bolton spent three grueling days traveling by a cattle train car to Auschwitz. As she climbed out of her compartment, she was met by Dr. Josef Mengele himself as he sorted arrivals into lines leading to the left or right.
Marks-Bolton was instructed to go right and headed into the bathrooms, where she was forced to strip naked to be sanitized and shaven. If the prisoners had any belongings, they were mandated to hand them over to the guards.
The only item in her possession was a small, wallet-sized picture of her mother that she refused to give up. The guards questioned her and beat her until she was forced to release the photo.
“Losing that picture of my mother still bothers me to this day,” Marks-Bolton said. “They beat me all over my body, my back and my head. It fell to the floor with my mother’s face up and I saw my mother’s eyes staring back at me, telling me, ‘Paula, walk away, you’re going to be OK.’”
The other group arriving in Auschwitz, the ones told to go to the left, were not as lucky. They were taken to either the crematoriums or used for experimentation by the Nazis.
“At Auschwitz, they experimented on our lives — no matter if they were old, disabled, a baby, or a pregnant woman, they all suffered experimentation at the hands of the Nazis,” Paula said. “The crematoriums there were burning our people day and night. You could even smell the flesh of our people burning.”
After four days at Auschwitz, Marks-Bolton was later was transferred to Ravensbrück, a women’s-only German camp, by another cramped cattle car. After two weeks, she found herself at Mühlhausen — a newer and cleaner facility in Germany where she spent a total of eight months.
Marks-Bolton’s last stop before her liberation was Bergen-Belsen in northern Germany. At seventeen, she was rescued by British soldiers and was taken to mini-clinics to regain her strength.
Once she was back to health, she married Martin Marks, whom she had met on Yom Kippur the year of her liberation. She also reunited with her brother, Schmeral, and would later give birth to two daughters. Marks-Bolton and her family moved to Detroit in 1949, where she met her aunt, Jane Meisner, and uncle, Alan Zeiger.
Marks-Bolton used to speak on her time in the Holocaust three to four times a week but has lately cut back her engagements. The memories are often becoming too much to bear, she said. Yet the great-grandmother persists on sharing her story with younger generations.
“A lot of our people go to their graves and never tell the whole story,” Marks-Bolton said. “But the people who can have an obligation. We must teach others about our stories because although we can’t change what happened to our lives or bring back our loved ones, we must prevent it from happening again to any other human being.”