“WHEN I SPEAK ABOUT IT, I CAN SEE IT. EVERY WORD I SAY, I LIVE IT. YOU CANNOT IMAGINE HOW HARD IT IS TO SPEAK ABOUT IT.”
Published 10:17 a.m. ET Jan. 28, 2020 | Updated 1:58 p.m. ET Jan. 28, 2020
Paula Marks-Bolton stood naked in Auschwitz when she was maybe 15 or 16 years old waiting for a shower. She remembers her dignity had been taken from her long before that, just like Nazis took her mother years earlier.
But she still had this small passport photo of her mother, given to her just before Nazis separated her family. And there she was with her small, malnourished fist holding onto the only belonging and the only reminder of her family she had left when a Nazi noticed that something was in her hand.
“‘Open your fists!’ they are ordering me,” Paula remembers. “I didn’t want to. I knew if I opened my fist they were going to take it away. So I’m holding it tight and I am explaining to the guards, ‘I have a little picture of my mother. Let me through. It will hurt nobody.’
“‘Open your fist!’ They start to beat me all over my face and my body. They held my wrist, and the picture fell on the floor… When I looked down on the floor, the picture fell with the face up, and I was crying bitterly. I tried to retrieve it. My mother said to me, ‘Leave it, you’re going to be OK.’ She wasn’t there to say that, but in my heart she was.”
Indeed, Paula was going to be OK. She tells that story of the last time she saw her mother’s face often. But to tell the story is to re-experience every detail of the incomprehensible things she’s lived through.
“When I speak about it, I can see it,” Paula, who was just 13 when World War II began, said. “Every word I say, I live it. You cannot imagine how hard it is to speak about it. Why I can and others cannot, I don’t know.”
She and Sophie have powerful, heartbreaking stories they tell students who visit the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills on a regular basis.
These stories are of cruelty, survival, kindness and family. They’re also stories that cross paths with Auschwitz, where historians estimate about 1.1 million people were murdered.
“People should be aware of what hate and prejudice can do and how much suffering it can bring,” said Sophie, who was 10 when the war began.
The antisemitism and genocide that define the Holocaust haven’t gone away, but both hope that remembering what happened will eventually teach humanity something.
So, they invite you to remember with them. Let’s start from the beginning, when Paula and Sophie weren’t even old enough to be in high school.
“As I say, can I tell you my story?”
Just like anybody else
Paula’s story begins in Orzokow, Poland, where she had three older brothers and two doting parents. Her family was a loving one, just like anyone else.
But, as she says, that didn’t last long.
“I had loving parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins just like everyone else, but not for long after the Nazis invaded Poland,” Paula said. “Two of my brothers were murdered. My oldest brother had two small children, a little boy of 5½ and a little girl of 2½, but not for long.”
Sophie was also the baby of her family growing up in Lodz, Poland. She had two brothers, a sister and parents. They didn’t have a lot of money, but she says lack of material goods was more than made up by the love in their home.
“I was a happy 10-year-old,” Sophie said.
That childhood innocence ended when the Germans invaded Poland in 1939, turning Sophie’s hometown into the Lodz Ghetto. For many Jews, this was the beginning of the end of their lives.
“If you were Jewish — under the Nazi regime — or your grandfather or grandmother or your great-great-grandmother or great-great-grandfather were Jewish, you had no right to live,” Paula said. “Can you imagine?”
Taken from home, separated from family
Not long after Jewish people were forced to wear yellow Stars of David, Paula remembers her brothers Moishe and Shimik being taken from home.
Whether every few days, hours or weeks, no one knew when Nazis would come and load young men into trucks and take them away.
When Moishe and Shimik ended up on one of those trucks, she found herself running after them.
“I didn’t see Moishe, the trucks were filled with people and he was punched down with other people,” Paula remembers. “The truck was filled. But I saw Shimik. As they were pulling away, he got up as high as he could and he waved to me.”
All these years later, Paula stops at this point in her story to wave the circular wave that Shimik waved to her.
“When I say they didn’t come back, I still get a skip in my heart,” she said.
Not long after, she and her parents were taken to a school. It was actually the one she attended.
“We were starving. We were scavenging for all kinds of horrifying things, peels from potatoes and stuff like that. We were lucky if we could find it. We called them potato pancakes… They tasted wonderful then, but when I think of it, the garbage we ate was unbelievable.”
“‘Alle Juden ruas’: All Jews out,” the Nazis screamed at them. “We came out from our home with just the clothes on our backs. We couldn’t take nothing with us.”
While they walked through the streets, people stood by and watched, another of many moments where people stood by and let the Holocaust happen.
“There were people, unfortunately I must tell you, there were people looking on as we were marching and being beaten,” Paula said. “Nobody said nothing.”
Once inside the schoolhouse, Paula was pushed into a too-full room with her parents.
She then saw one of what would become many examples of cruelty. Their neighbor, a man named Hans, was there in a Gestapo uniform. Paula’s mother asked him for help.
“She begs him, ‘Hans, please take out my little girl.’ He was actually mad at her. He slammed the door in her face and told her he did not know her,” Paula remembers. “But the man in the Gestapo uniform was no other but a good neighbor of ours. I went to school with his children. We did our homework together.”
West Bloomfield’s Paula Marks-Bolton talks about her experiences surviving Auschwitz and two other Nazi concentration camps during WWII.
She was separated from her parents around 4 a.m. the next day. Paula, at 13, had nothing but the clothes she was wearing and a small passport-sized photo of her mother.
“We were orphans already. We never saw our parents again,” she said.
Paula was taken from the schoolhouse to the Lodz Ghetto, where another little Jewish girl, Sophie, already was.
For little Sophie, separation from her family came in the form of death. Weekly food rations were only good for one or two days of eating, so starvation worked its way through the ghetto.
“It was very hard on my mother, seeing her children being hungry,” Sophie said. “So, little by little, whatever food there was she would give it to the children. That’s the hardest part for me telling this story, because a short time after my mother became weak and sick. There was no medicine, no help whatsoever and as an 11-year-old I had to watch my mother die a slow death of starvation.”
A year later, her father met the same fate. Then one of her brothers, Moszek, died from malnutrition as well. Sophie encourages students to imagine being 11 years old and watching three family members die such a slow death.
Life in the ghetto
No matter somebody’s age, people who were able to work did so in Lodz. Even though work meant long hours with no pay and little food, to work was to continue living.
“I was fortunate that I worked, because the elderly, children and babies were taken away,” Sophie said. “We never heard from them again.”
But malnutrition reached everyone.
“We were starving,” Paula said. “We were scavenging for all kinds of horrifying things, peels from potatoes and stuff like that. We were lucky if we could find it. We called them potato pancakes… They tasted wonderful then, but when I think of it, the garbage we ate was unbelievable.”
Sophie remembers the dead, her family included, being taken away in trucks.
“We never knew where they buried them,” she said. “We had to just cry and wave goodbye.”
Until the truck came, though, the dead just lay among the living.
“There were dead everywhere,” Paula said. “So many people were walking around like skeletons. When I was 14 or 15 years old, I was walking around with a cane myself from malnutrition.”
Neither girl was completely alone, though. Paula had met a girl a few years older than her named Ruta, who became her best friend. Sophie’s oldest brother, Israel Sruelek, and her older sister Faiga, were still by her side.
Eventually, they were all put in cattle cars and taken to their first concentration camp.
Carted like cattle
They both say it’s a miracle anyone survived the ride.
“You cannot imagine what went on inside,” Paula said, estimating there were 90 people crammed in every car. “So many people suffocated. We were actually laying among the dead. It’s a sheer miracle, a miracle, that any survived those rides.”
Sophie remembers feeling like she was going to be the next one to die.
“We didn’t know if this was going to be the end, we’re just going to die in this car,” she said. “But, miraculously, I mean I don’t know how (we survived).”
The cars would stop and start again along the way, but the doors never opened.
When the doors finally opened, they all came face-to-face with hell on Earth.
“I see women. Women, they look like from outer space, with prison dresses, most of them barefoot with shaven heads,” Paula remembers. “They screamed out and waved to the new arrivals in different languages. They shout to us, they scream, they want to tell us what is happening.
“In different languages they say, ‘My God, where are you coming from? It’s sheer hell here.'”
People from all over Europe were taken to this massive concentration camp, where crematoriums burned day and night and experiments were performed on elderly, Gypsies, homosexuals, pregnant women, babies and twins. Paula said you could always smell burning flesh in the air.
As they came from the cars, Nazi guards with “vicious” German Shepherd dogs by their sides would order people, “Rechts, links, rechets, links.” Right, left, right, left.
During that separation, Sophie and Faiga held onto their brother Israel Sruelek for the last time.
“This huge Nazi, a frightening-to-look-at soldier, tore our brother away from us,” she said. “Tore, really, because we were holding onto him and so scared.”
Israel Sruelek waved to them as he was led away with the other men. He died later at Bergen-Belsen, but this was the last time they saw him..
From the cars, people were either taken to gas chambers or to have a shower. Paula, Faiga, Ruta and Sophie all had showers, where Paula had to say her own goodbye as she parted with that little picture of her mother. After years of separation, that photo was all she had left of her family. Of course, it was later taken from her.
“She had it in her pocket and when we were marching to that school, being beaten to march faster and faster, she knew that we were going to be divided,” Paula says of her mother. “She took out that little picture from her pocket and stuck it in my pocket. Something to remember her by.
“I always had it in front of my eyes,” Paula said as she stops to wipe a few tears away. “I usually don’t cry, I’m sorry. This is the only thing that I had. I looked at it, and what I would have given then to see her face again. I never did.”
Neither Paula nor Sophie was in Auschwitz very long. Despite the short time, Sophie said she was lucky to escape that place with her life. During a selection of who looked too sick or too young, Sophie was almost sent to die. After quickly moving through the crowd, a Nazi guard looked at her and took pause.
“When it came to me, he yelled out ‘Stop! Stop.’ Needless to say I was petrified,” she said. “I thought I had done something wrong, and he had a rifle. He was in full Nazi uniform. I thought right there and then that he’s going to shoot me. Shaking, unbelievable fright entered me.
“He came up and he asked me how old I was. Well, I was 15 like I said when we arrived at Auschwitz. By some miracle, I said I was 18. After, maybe it took a second or two, to me it felt like my lifetime, he motioned for me, a miracle, to go to the right. I don’t think I looked 18, being malnourished for so many years, but he motioned for me to go to the right. I hugged and cried with my sister. Little did we know if we’re going to live or we’re going to die. But we were together.”
Ladies at Auschwitz had nothing but a dress and a pair of wooden shoes. No socks, no underwear. In their barracks, it was a wonder anyone could sleep, with several prisoners grouped together on a single piece of wood without sheets or pillows.
In the middle of the night, guards would call on the ladies to undress and head outside to be counted. Paula said the prettiest girls were taken away, not to be seen again.
Paula’s best friend, Ruta, was taken on one of those nights. She died at Auschwitz.
Soon enough, Sophie, Faiga and Paula were off to another camp.
Before arriving at Muhlhausen, where historians say anywhere between 122,000 and 320,000 people were murdered, Paula was taken to Ravensbruck, where historians say near 50,000 women were killed. What happened there is too painful for her to talk about.
She said Muhlhausen had its horrors as well, but the story Paula tells of it is one of kindness. She worked in a factory there, and she says her foreman saw a human being rather than a “little Jewish girl.”
“My foreman was the kindest German I had met at the Nazi regime,” she said. “He always stopped at my station and talked to me, and he always made sure guards are far away so he could stop and talk to me. He was a grandfather, and he had a granddaughter named Paula. She was about my age.”
Whenever he could, the man brought her bread, fruit or rags for her feet because she had no socks. Paula never learned his name, but that foreman might be one of the reasons she’s still alive.
Those small conversations reminded Paula that good people existed in a world where so many were cruel.
“I say to the people I speak for, look how one person can make such a difference on your life,” she said. “One person can change your life, even if you don’t know his or her name.”
However, Paula had to leave the foreman behind when she was taken to Bergen-Belsen.
Sophie and Faiga were also taken to Bergen-Belsen, where it’s estimated 50,000 people were murdered. The camp is probably most known as the place where Anne and Margot Frank died.
At Bergen-Belsen, they got one piece of bread every day. At her young age with so little food, Sophie soon came down with what she thinks was strep throat. Getting sick was terrifying, because if a Nazi noticed they might kill her for it.
“At that time, I was ready to give up,” Sophie said. “I told my sister, I said, ‘I can’t take it. God, please take me out of this misery. I am in such pain, such suffering.'”
But Faiga wasn’t about to let that happen.
“My sister leaned over and she said, ‘You’re all I’ve got,'” Sophie remembers. “‘You can’t leave me. You can’t die.'”
Sophie says her sister’s reliance upon her restored her will to survive. But with no medicine, there wasn’t really a way to get better. Another prisoner, who Sophie suspects may have been a nurse before the war, encouraged her to take some unconventional, revolting medicine.
“She said, ‘Look, there’s no water, there’s no salt water. Why don’t you, when you urinate, gargle with your own urine,'” Sophie said. “I did, and somehow I think that saved my life. After two or three days, my throat felt better.”
Paula also remembers finding a little rejuvenation through desperate means at Bergen-Belsen. She said she was lucky enough to be one of 40 girls sent to work in the kitchen, and that meant a lot of scraps were around to eat.
“We were sent into a kitchen to peel potatoes. Heaven, right?” she said. “We have peels, raw peels of potatoes. we have something to eat. We stuffed our raw peels of potatoes into our mouths as fast as we could.”
They all got 25 lashes for eating the scraps. Paula says now it’s hard to imagine what someone will do when they’re starving, but raw potato peels were just as good as anything back then.
Paula stayed at Bergen-Belsen until the day of liberation, but Sophie and Faiga’s story has one more stop.
The sisters worked 12-hour shifts in an ammunition factory at the Salzwedel labor camp, where over 90 people were found dead upon liberation. With the long hours, Sophie found herself unable to stand and collapsed one day before going to the factory. A female Nazi guard had a moment of kindness and told her to go back to bed.
But, another woman came to wake Sophie and bring her back to the harsh reality of her young life.
“She screamed and yelled and pulled me off. ‘You’ve got to go to work,'” Sophie remembers. “She was so angry with me because she had to make a special trip to the factory.
“It was about a mile walk from the barracks to the factory. She had to make that special trip with me, so she started hitting me and beating me every step of the way. I felt blood gushing, my eyes got swollen. It’s miracle number three that I survived.”
The beating was bad enough that the teenager collapsed again and had to be dragged the rest of the way. But once Sophie arrived, Faiga noticed her and hid her, because Sophie wasn’t supposed to be there that day anyway. Tucked under a work bench, Sophie slept the 12-hour shift away after her sister cleaned her up. The nap gave her some life, and she was able to work again after that.
They kept working day in and day out, having no idea when or if the war would end before their lives did.
“We had no knowledge that the war was coming to an end, that the Nazis were losing the war,” Sophie said.
But the sweet moment finally came.
“April 14, 1945, I’ll never forget it, and I’m 90 years old now,” Sophie said, triumph in her voice. “That was the day when we saw tanks and trucks coming toward the camps, toward the door and we called them angels. These were American soldiers.”
Paula remembers her moment, on April 15,1945 at Bergen-Belsen, with the same glee.
“This wonderful moment of liberation: Beautiful young soldiers are jumping off their Jeeps right in front our kitchen and storming in,” she said. “They screamed out with joy, ‘You are free! You are liberated!'”
Soldiers fed and medicated the prisoners, though people still died of illness afterward. Many prisoners went into displaced person (DP) camps until they could get back on their feet, Paula, Sophie and Faiga included.
Paula met her first husband, the late Martin Bolton, at one of those DP camps. Sophie and the couple both found themselves in Detroit in 1949 and are part of the tight-knit survivor community in the metro area today. While in America, Paula learned that one of her brothers, Shmeril, had also survived by fleeing to Russia.
Sophie attended night school at Central High School in Detroit, where she met her husband, the late Bernard Klisman, and Paula was gifted a diploma by a high school in Toledo in 2017. Today, Sophie lives in Walled Lake and Paula lives in West Bloomfield. The biggest thing America gave them both was a chance to move on, which Sophie said was incredibly difficult for Faiga, who died in 2016.
Sophie, attempting to keep a burden off her childrens’ shoulders, didn’t tell them about her past for years.
“We never wanted to talk to our children about what we’d been through,” Sophie said. “We wanted them not to feel sorry, not to feel the pain that we felt. We wanted to raise them to be normal and happy.”
Sophie eventually shared her story with her children and her daughter, Lori Ellis, wrote a book about her mother’s life called “4,456 Miles to Closure.” Sophie also located where some of her family was buried and put up a tombstone for them back in Lodz. She has returned to Auschwitz twice, which she said was important for her to do.
However, the thing that gives Paula and Sophie the most closure is telling students their stories and encouraging them to remember.
“God gave me this gift to speak, to teach others,” Paula said. “That’s why I have to do it. I have a mission which, after the war, I promised the six million who have perished, innocent men, women and children, that I was going to do something if I survived.”
This year brings a series of occasions as different survivors observe the 75th anniversary of their liberation. These survivors, many well over the age of 85, want to make sure their stories aren’t forgotten as their lives come to a natural end.
“I feel an obligation that I have to speak even though it’s painful and it’s emotional,” Sophie said. “I am one of the few lucky ones that survived the Holocaust.”
Paula said the main lesson she offers is one her parents taught her when she was a little girl.
“It should never make any difference what nationality a person is, what religion a person is or what color skin a person has,” she said. “We are all connected. We are all God’s children.”
Both ladies show students and, frankly, anyone who meets them that kindness and bravery can overcome even the worst trauma. Paula and Sophie said kids regularly come up after their lectures to say they’ll never forget them. That’s their reason for reliving the horror of the Holocaust.
“It’s painful but rewarding,” Sophie said. “I feel that I’m doing something good to educate those kids.”
They hope kids won’t forget them and instead create a more understanding world where Holocaust denial, genocide and hate crimes don’t exist.
“We can’t say never again because genocide has happened over and over and over again,” said Sarah Saltzman, director of events marketing for the Holocaust Memorial Center. “It’s again and again and again, but we have to remember what happened, take the lessons and learn from it.”
If humanity starts with remembering, maybe someday change will come.
Contact reporter Shelby Tankersley at email@example.com or 248-305-0448. Follow her on Twitter @shelby_tankk.