Auschwitz survivor Cecilia Einhorn dies at 88

Cecilia Einhorn, who survived Auschwitz and later testified in a war crimes tribunal against the Nazis, died May 28 in San Francisco at the age of 88.

Einhorn was a longtime Bay Area resident, a dedicated synagogue volunteer and a loving wife, mother and grandmother.

Cecilia Einhorn at her wedding.

During World War II, she survived many harrowing situations: being snuck out of a ghetto by Jewish partisans; wearing a crucifix so she could gain entry into a hospital to recieve treatment; making it out from Auschwitz; and then surviving the notorious death march to Bergen-Belsen.

“Her life after [the Holocaust] was home and family,” said Helen Aviv, one of her two daughters. “The most important thing for her was that we would grow up normal.”

Einhorn and her husband of 63 years, Stefan Einhorn, strove to provide just that for their daughters. Helen and her sister, Anna Mathias Shearman, remember a house filled with song and Jewish holiday feasts for scores of guests, all prepared by their mother.

“She said the worse thing that could happen is that one of the guests would ask for another serving and there wouldn’t be anything left,” Helen recalled. “So there was always much more food then necessary.”

Anna remembered with pride how no other kids’ mothers in their Sunset District neighborhood could “throw around Latin phrases, nor did they speak German, Polish, Hebrew, Yiddish, as well as English” as their mother did.

Cecilia Frommer Einhorn — known to all as Cesia — learned those languages growing up the oldest of five children in Bochnia, Poland, where she was born in 1920. Her parents were religious and Zionist, with Hebrew the only permitted language in the home once Shabbat candles were lit.

An excellent student, Einhorn was accepted into the medical school in Krakow, Poland, but World War II intervened. Imprisoned in the Jewish ghetto, she contracted typhoid, but recovered after partisans brought her to a Catholic hospital. There she borrowed a friend’s crucifix to pass as a Catholic in order to be treated.

She was ultimately deported to Auschwitz in October 1943. With death everywhere, an SS officer one day asked Einhorn why she wasn’t crying. “If I cry, would it help?” she replied. Mainly because of luck, her intelligence and gift for languages she was kept alive.

With the war nearing its end, Einhorn was forced on the infamous Auschwitz death march across Poland. Once at Bergen-Belsen, she considered throwing herself onto the lethal electric fence, but at that moment she had a vision of her mother — by then murdered — shaking her finger and saying, “No!”

After the war, she remained at the camp to work for the British and to testify in the Lüneburg Trials (Britain’s equivalent of the Nuremberg Trials). Around that time she was reunited with her brother, Lulek, the only other immediate family member among her father, mother and four siblings to survive.

Later, in Regensberg, Germany, she met Stefan Einhorn, a fellow native of Bochnia. The two married and made plans to relocate to Israel, but ended up in New Orleans. They made their way to San Francisco by train, spending their last $5 on a doctor to tend to their baby daughter, Anna.

Bay Area Jews helped the family settle in. Stefan found work as a housepainter, while Cecilia became a homemaker, excelling at cooking, sewing and entertaining; she was also a fine singer who loved to harmonize with her kids.

She, along with the family, were devoted members of Congregation Ner Tamid in San Francisco. Other Jewish institutions she worked with over the years include ORT and Keren Kayemet.

But family was always central. She delighted in her children and, later, her grandchildren. When daughter Helen moved to Israel, it gave the Einhorns opportunities to visit the Holy Land several times.

With all the joy of life, she never forget where she came from. Daughter Anna recalled how her mother always carried a small photo of herself, taken at Bergen-Belsen on the day of liberation.

As Anna recounted in a eulogy that she addressed to her mother: “You were very thin, wearing your prison garb, carrying the large cup required for eating your pitiful rations in the concentration camp. But you told me you carried this picture to remind you that if you survived that experience, you could survive anything.”

Cecilia Einhorn is survived by her husband, Stefan Einhorn of San Francisco; daughters Anna Mathias Shearman of Los Angeles and Helen Aviv of Israel; brother Lulek Frommer of Israel; and four grandchildren. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to Congregation Ner Tamid in San Francisco.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a J. staff writer. He retired as news editor in 2020. Dan can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.