When she was 13 years old, Paula Marks-Bolton watched as Nazis transported young Jewish men away from their families in open trucks. Two of her brothers, Mosche and Shemick, were among them.
“As they were pulling away, I was screaming out their names,” she said. Shemick stood among the huddled boys, waved at her, and yelled, “Paula, Shemick will be back. I will be back.”
She never saw either one again.
Marks-Bolton, 92, relayed that and other grim stories about her experiences as a Polish Jew and survivor of the Holocaust to a captivated audience Tuesday during her presentation, “Speak Up, Stand Up: Lessons From The Holocaust,” at Swanton Middle School. Arranged by Kevin Heintschel, an intervention specialist for the school district, the purpose of the presentation was to remind the students that atrocities perpetrated by Germany during World War II should never be forgotten.
“We are all God’s children, we are all related,” Marks-Bolton told her audience. “We must care about each other. We must speak up wherever there is injustice to make a better world.”
She told the students she was about their age when the Nazis invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939. Fearing their rising political party, her oldest brother had escaped to Russia prior to the invasion.
Marks-Bolton described how the Nazis forced Jews to wear a yellow Star of David on their clothing to identify themselves. She told the students about six teenage boys defied that order, and were publicly hanged by the Gestapo, the Nazi secret police.
“They warned us, ‘If you don’t obey orders, this is what is going to happen to you,’” she recalled.
Jews were eventually forced from their homes with just the clothes on their backs, Marks-Bolton said, adding, “There were people looking on but nobody said nothing.”
She and her parents were taken with other Jews to a school and crowded into classrooms where the furniture had been removed. There her mother saw a neighbor, Hans, who had agreed to cooperate with the Germans and now wore a Gestapo uniform. He refused to acknowledge he knew her and became angry when she asked for help.
But Marks-Bolton was later pulled from the classroom by an unseen person and shoved into another room filled with frightened children. Those children were saved from harm by being separated but never saw their parents again. To this day, Marks-Bolton wonders if the person who removed her was Hans.
Early the next morning, the children were marched to the Lodz ghetto, one of numerous ghettos in Poland where Jews were partitioned from the rest of the population. There they were crowded into dwellings with other Jews and forced into hard labor in Nazi factories.
Meager food rations were doled out once a week. Even as the people scavenged for something to eat “so many people died of starvation and diseases,” Marks-Bolton said. “Wherever you went, you saw so many bodies stacked up.”
People in the ghetto were routinely rounded up and transported by train to German concentration camps. Marks-Bolton said she can still hear the screams as Jews were beaten and herded into cattle cars for the trip. With room inside only to stand, they made the journey over days, with no food or water. A single bucket in each car was used as a toilet.
At age 14, Marks-Bolton was among those taken. “We are on top of each other (in the car). There was no sitting room. What went on inside was unspeakable,” she said. “For the people who have survived the ride was a sheer miracle.”
Her only possession was a small photo of her mother. “I cried my heart out,” Marks-Bolton said. “What I would have given then to see her face again. But I never did.”
The train arrived at Auschwitz, one of the Germany’s most notorious concentration camps. Marks-Bolton said the new arrivals were greeted by prisoners there speaking in numerous languages. “They said, ‘It’s sheer hell here,’” she told the students.
Many boys and men were immediately taken away, never to be seen again. Women were divided into two lines; one marched left, the other right. Those who turned right were taken to bathhouses to shower. The others were led to gas chambers and exterminated.
With Ruta, a friend from the ghetto, Marks-Bolton was led to the right. At the bathhouses she saw piles of human hair, shoes, clothes, and gold jewelry and dental fillings, all taken from victims of the camp’s crematorium. The women were told to strip and add their belongings to the piles.
Shivering among the naked women, Marks-Bolton was approached, beaten, and accused of hiding something in her fist. It was her mother’s photo.
“That’s all I had, and I didn’t want to leave it in Auschwitz,” she said. She showed the soldiers the photo and was again beaten when she asked to keep it. The photo fell to the floor.
“I look down, and I see my mother’s eyes staring back at me,” she said. When she tried to retrieve it, she heard her mother’s voice say, ‘Paula, walk away, you’re going to be okay.’”
During her stay at Auschwitz, Marks-Bolton came face-to-face with Dr. Josef Mengele. Known as “The Angel of Death,” he performed inhumane experiments on the camp’s prisoners, and castrated men so they couldn’t reproduce.
Nazi soldiers would periodically come to the women’s barracks, forcing the women to undress and taking away those they found most attractive, she said. Ruta, Marks-Bolton’s friend, was among them.
Marks-Bolton said the camp’s crematoriums operated day and night, burning the bodies of prisoners who died or were killed. “You could smell the flesh of the people. You could hear the screams before they went in,” she said. “(The guards) were preaching to us, ‘This is your last stop. You will never survive Auschwitz.’”
But she did, and was later transferred to the Ravensbruck concentration camp. Her time there was so gruesome Marks-Bolton refuses to discuss it.
“It’s etched in my soul what I witnessed in Ravensbruck. It is unspeakable what human beings can do to others,” she said.
She also spent time in the Muhlhausen and Bergen-Benson camps. But after five years, when the German army faced defeat, the concentration camps were closed. “I survived, but so many did not,” Marks-Bolton said.
In closing, she told the Swanton students they must prevent the atrocities suffered by Jews during World War II from being repeated.
“You are our future. You are the ones who will make sure that this will never happen again to any human being,” she said.
Reach David J. Coehrs at 419-335-2010.