These are notes taken from the inspiring story of Gita Cycowicz.
90 years old as a working psychologist. Born in Czechoslovakia in a town of 20,000. 8,000 were Jews. She was born in a poor town. The town was Chust. Family was there for many generations. Many people didn’t even have a citizenship passport, including her dad. All the businesses and stores were owned by Jewish people. Father sold mineral waters at his business. 1939 the town of Chust was taken over. A week after Hitler took Poland, he started creating death camps, ghettos, and destroying temples. When she would walk in the streets as a child with her dad, people would call out, “Stinky Jew”, this was normal. One day at school someone passed into her backpack a note that said, “death to the Jews”. She didn’t think about this being an issue. One day she showed up at school when she was 12, the teacher came to her and said no more school for the Jews. She went when she was 40 to Brookland college. She also passed the GED/ high school equivalency test. The year prior she learned English language. Worked her way up to a doctorate.
One day a non-Jew came in to her dad’s shop and said he wanted to stay at the shop and learn how to run a shop. He was told he had to do this. After a few weeks, after learning enough, he took over the shop. Gradually all the Jewish stores were closed. The father wasn’t allowed to sell the mineral water. Eventually the father said he had no more money, when she was 13. To survive, they had a family friend who owned a hotel and they stayed and worked their.
Side story - Every Jewish 18 year old or older had to work in forced labor for the Hungarian army. They had hard work. Dig ditches in cold, frozen Russia. People lost limbs due to the frozen conditions. One boy who was 17 didn’t want to go. So a doctor said he could make an impairment on him in order to allow him not to go to Siberia. He’s cut off some fingers or break his ear drums and make him deaf. He was not sent to the army, but he was sent to Auschwitz later on.
The dad was caught selling bottles of water and caught. He was beaten for 3 days.
1943 Hitler declared Europe free of Jews. (only small groups and pockets of people hiding).
March 1944 - The Germans encouraged the Hungarians to open the gates so the Germans could come in. She knew it was her death sentence as a Hungarian Jew. The Jewish leaders were the liason. They were always updating the Jews of their current status. Her dad shaved his beard for the first time in his 49 year life. The Germans needed 200 strong men, and killed them all. They didn’t need them for anything besides striking fear in the people. Their community was turned into a ghetto. In each 2 bedroom house, they put in 4 - 5 families. One toilet, stove, etc. She was there for 5 weeks. They were boarded onto a wagon. There were two pales, one with water, one to use the bathroom. They bring what is absolutely necessary, no photos, but pots and pans. They assume it’ll be another place to live. 95 people were in half the wagon. Men debate if it is okay to pray in the wagon, because it’s unbecoming of themselves to pray where there is an open toilet. They end up praying. Through the barbed wire window, someone sees a sign, “Auschwitz Burchenaw”. No one knows what it means. There are no fences, only barbed wire fences. The doors open. There are two people in striped uniforms telling them to jump from the train. After getting out they couldn’t get their bags, they were told they’d get it later. They don’t know what’s happening in the front of the train. There are high ranking SS officers who are “doctors” who decide who will die immediately or who will die later. 90% of all transports were headed directly to the death camps. The men including her father were taken away to a coal mine. She was taken to a shower room to undress. Then they tell them to form two lines, they get a dress from a mountain of dresses. Someone came and clipped their hair off. Everyone is laughing because they looked so strange. No one in her group had their menstrual period their entire time, no one knows why. They put her into a camp where 27 big barracks, each with 1200 people. They didn’t do anything until 4pm and they’d take out people each day to be killed. For 5 months, they’d look at the faces of all the girls. This actually happened 2x a day. She is fearful for 5 months with her mother. She gets barely any soup that essentially is from grass and salt. You had to eat the soup with your hand. Mother’s would give up their food to give to their kids. She thought she’d try and get out on a transport. She prayed everyday, “Make this your day God to give us mercy”. 3 SS point out 8 women one day, including her mother and aunt. She worked at a labor camp in incredibly cruel situations. In snow and ice, just in a dress, only eating bread in the morning and night. No toilet paper for a year, some people went three years without it. One day they were hanging out on a day off, an SS asks why is it so cold and asks why didn’t you build a fire. They say they weren’t allowed to. The SS says they can, and it was like paradise. The next day they are told they won’t have food, but will still have to work. The last time they ate was in the previous morning. The reason was because they made a fire, even though the guard said they could. Work days were 12 hours long at least with no food.
She gets moved around to another camp as the Germans move people because the Russians are coming in. One day she hears whistling, which means line up. The loud speaker says no need to line up, just stand up. The SS says, “It’s May 8th, the war is over, and you are free, you can go wherever you want. We are there to only stay and watch over you. Please treat us right” (Again, this is the guard saying this).
She went back to her house. Nobody smiled. She had no one to take care of her, didn’t know where her sister was, her mother, and her father was. For 2 weeks her sister and herself, walked with thousands of other prisoners, full of anxiety, no shoes. People are constantly asking if they knew their mothers or their fathers. Stalin says that her home city is part of Ukraine, which was under Soviet control. He meets a man on a train after walking for 2 weeks. Someone asks who she is. She tells him. She says your mother is at home. She’s reunited at her home. Her once beautiful home has a hole in the roof possibly from a bomb. Every plank of wood is lifted up as the SS was probably looking for treasures. There’s no furniture. The only thing left was her father’s religious books, opened, with feces on them. Her other sister was alive too. Her father was killed at a camp.
She was later asked to share her story in Germany. She could have asked for money to appear. She didn’t, she asked one thing, “how come they didn’t see the human in me? I have two eyes, two ears, I am a human being”. She didn’t get an answer.
Feeling sick on a trip is never good, let alone when you are halfway around the world on an experience of a lifetime. Sad to say, here I was feeling the flu along with two of the other seven people in our group. Uncharacteristically of me, I chose to take it easy on this day. After having a hard time sleeping at the camp due to the flu-like symptoms, (the camp actually was very nice) we got in our SUVs and headed for Wadi Rum. This reminded me of my recent trip to Utah or the Grand Canyon, with the red sand blanketing the land. Peering out through the sand were rough and jagged peaks. Trying to keep my head up and my camera ready was a losing battle. I caught glimpses of the tour guide's excited speech as he told us about how one of my favorite movies was filmed here, Lawrence of Arabia, as well as Star Wars and the new Aladdin. What particularly caught my eye were the numerous camels cruising through the land. Having a true Bedouin style barbecue wasn't enough to pry my weary head from the ground as I was prone to sleeping any moment I could. Finishing through the desert, we went on a drive to cross the border into Israel. Once here, there was a sense of relief as we felt complete safety for whatever reason being here. Not to say Jordan wasn't safe, but the feeling that we were now in the country where we were going to be hosted by Echoes and Reflections was reassuring. When we got on the bus from Elat to Jerusalem, what I thought I muttered in my head, I later realized I said aloud to my peers, "I don't think I'm going to make it". It was a rough ride, but perseverance paid off once we saw the outer walls of Old Jerusalem.
Starting with Egypt, the excitement was palpable as I had hyped this venture so much on my own. I can remember in 2014 thinking back at the Mayan pyramid’s size and thinking they must be a lot smaller than the Egyptian pyramids, but I would never be able to see them. Now I’m flying into Cairo to see this amazing human creation. Being that this was the first stop on the trip, it was one special way to start this journey. I couldn’t believe how enormous the pyramids were. I knew they were big, I heard the stories, read the research, see them on tv and in movies, but I couldn’t fathom them living up to the hype. Boy howdy did they. Marveling at their immense and imposing structure as the towered over Cairo, my mouth was aghast as we walked towards them. In front of the pyramids, humorously our tour guide offered the seven of us an opportunity I had no idea was possible, to go inside the pyramids. He said reluctantly, it will cost $15. The cost was laughable to experience this amazing opportunity. The sun was ever-present, but not overwhelming despite the time of the year. We went in the great pyramid and went through the extremely tight corridors through the one way passage. At the top of the narrow stairs, there was a small room where you could catch your breath amidst the sweltering heat. In it was a security guard and an empty tomb. Once leaving the tomb, we went further down to Panorama Point and saw all three pyramids in their glory together. Next we drove by the Great Sphinx and went by the building where the bodies were mummified. Seeing the Sphinx too, guarding the pyramids was awe-inspiring. I tend to be a kid in a candy store when I see things like this. Leaving the pyramids, we went to a perfume shop where we were offered several scents. Leaving here couldn’t have happened sooner, as we were now headed to Tahir Square where the 2011 revolution was the epicenter to the riots. Here the Egyptian Artifact Museum stood where we walked through the air-conditionedless 100 year old museum that was struggling to house all the mummies and artifacts that continued to be added. Thankfully next year a massive contemporary nearby building will house everything in a more modern and spacious building. The most striking artifacts we saw was the loot that was discovered in King Tutankhamen’s tomb. Disappointingly it was picture free, but the memories I’m sure will be intact for a long, long time. The fine detail on the sarcophagus’s to the glittering gold were phenomenal. The artifacts told a story that couldn’t be believed if it weren’t for Howard Carter’s discovery of these items. One can only imagine what items would have been found in Ramses the Great’s tomb. Cleansing our palette of excitement for our long day, we took a relaxing faluca sailboat ride on the Nile river. This let us catch our breath from all of the excitement we were having. Finishing the night, we traveled back towards the pyramids and ate at a wonderful restaurant that overlooked the pyramids, which were illuminated at night.
I'm beyond excited to say that this summer I'll be spending 10 days in Jerusalem studying the Holocaust, as well as the culture, and history of the region. I never imagined that I'd step foot in one of the most holy locations in the world. I'll be visiting the birthplace/origins of three of the most holy religions in the world, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. In addition, I'll be extending my stay and visiting Cairo, Egypt to see the pyramids and going to Petra, Jordan, to see the monuments there. It will be an unforgettable learning experience this summer.
About Matthew Cottone
Experience the World! This is my creed I bring to my classroom and my life. I'm a World Studies teacher at Van Hoosen Middle School and I have a passion for learning and experiencing the world.