by Lauren Levy
On Thursday evening, the Jewish Law Students Association hosted Holocaust Survivor Irene Weisberg Zisblatt at the UF Levin College of Law. Zisblatt, 86, shared her story with a room of about 70 students and faculty members. She is the author of The Fifth Diamond, an autobiography on her life, and was featured in Steven Spielberg’s award-winning documentary, The Last Days.
Zisblatt described being a nine-year-old girl forced to leave school due to curfews imposed on Jewish people at the onset of the Holocaust. She and her family were sent to live in a ghetto, where they had to build makeshift tents from sheets for shelter. Shortly thereafter, thinking they were being sent to a vineyard to work, they were transported by a train car to Auschwitz. Once there, she was forcefully separated from her family. She later learned that her entire family was killed in Gas Chamber No. 2, and she was now alone. Before being separated, her mother entrusted her with four diamonds, which she could use to buy bread. However, S.S. soldiers had instructed everyone to turn in their valuables. Stripped of her clothing, she did not have anywhere to hide them, so she swallowed the diamonds and recovered them over and over again. Zisblatt also recounted being subjected to human experiments by Dr. Josef Mengele, a German SS officer who was known as the “Angel of Death” for his inhumane and often deadly experiments.
When she was 14 years old, Zisblatt finally managed to escape when another unnamed prisoner was able to help her get on a train going out of the camp. She then came to the Neuengamme concentration camp where she was forced to participate in a “death march” lasting several weeks. She was reduced to eating snow for sustenance and eventually felt like she did not want to go on.
A friend, Sabka, encouraged her to go on, asking what she wanted to eat when they were freed. All Zisblatt wanted was a loaf of bread for herself. The two girls hid in a ditch and managed to escape during the darkness of night. The next day, they were found by American soldiers who gave them clothing, food, and put them in a Red Cross van. By morning, her friend died from typhus. Zisblatt decided she had to live for the both of them. Unbeknownst to Zisblatt, she had an uncle in the United States.
As Zisblatt told her story, several students in the room were visibly moved to tears.
“To look a survivor in the eyes and hear their first-hand account of triumphing over unspeakable torture and pain is a life-changing experience,” 1L McLane Evans said. “Irene Zisblatt is an amazing and inspiring woman.”
Others were just fortunate to have had the opportunity to bear witness. “I will carry this experience with a heavy heart and a determined mind to ensure that I do all that I can to reject human rights violations whenever I may encounter them in the future,” 1L Samantha Jacob said.
“Hearing Mrs. Zisblatt speak was a true honor,” 1L Allison Davis said. “The concept of ‘L’dor va’dor,’ meaning ‘from generation to generation’ is central to Judaism, and Zisblatt exemplifies this by sharing her story. As difficult as it is, bearing witness to the horror of the Holocaust is necessary in order to make sure it never happens again.”
For some students, Zisblatt’s story hit very close to home.
“My maternal great-grandparents narrowly escaped the horrors of the Holocaust and they are part of the reason I am here,” said 1L Yuval Manor. “Their sacrifices and perseverance inspire me to fight for a future with less hatred and no genocide.”