Survivor recalls loss of faith and childhood in new memoir

The nights are still bad for Eva Libitzky.

At night, she hears the screams. She can still see her father dying of starvation in the Lodz Ghetto, her mother ushered off for extermination upon arrival at Auschwitz.

Out of her entire family, Libitzky alone survived both the ghetto and the death camp. Like many survivors, after starting over in America she at first resisted talking about her experiences, even though they haunted her.

“I never wanted to talk about it,” said the Ft. Lauderdale resident, comfortably ensconced in the Piedmont home of her son, Moses Libitzky. “We didn’t even talk to our American Jewish friends. But it’s in us. We’ll never get rid of it. It’s a pain that is there.”

Over time, she realized the world needed to hear her story. Libitzky, 86,  became a speaker for the Holocaust Documentation & Education Center in Hollywood, Fla., and has given testimony to Holocaust archivists.

Now she has set her story down in print.

Together with historian Fred Rosenbaum, Libitzky has written her autobiography, “Out on a Ledge: Enduring the Lodz Ghetto, Auschwitz and Beyond.” She will discuss the book in an Oct. 14 appearance at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco.

Her autobiography recounts a happy Orthodox girlhood in Poland suddenly undone with the Nazi occupation.

Eva and Martin Libitzky at their wedding in 1946

The Lodz Ghetto was the longest-lasting ghetto of the war, thanks to its slave labor factories. Libitzky always had jobs. She managed to have occasional pleasures, gathering in the evenings to laugh and sing with friends.

But life in the ghetto was brutal. Thousands died. Libitzky barely survived. Her father wasted away in part because he wouldn’t touch the traif horseflesh sausage.

In her book, she leaves nothing out, including her routinely resorting to theft, her secret “marriage” to a first love, and renouncing her faith after witnessing her father’s death. 

“When you see your own father, who you adore, pass away at the age of 52, never will I get it out of mind,” she said. “Such a pious and observant man, who lived for tzedakah, and why such a man should die such a horrible death. No matter how observant I was, I cursed God. I lost my father, I lost my faith, I did not believe in anything.”

Life got worse. In 1944, the Germans liquidated the ghetto, transporting Libitzky and her mother to Auschwitz. Her mother was murdered immediately, and Libitzky would have suffered a similar fate if not for a twist of fate.

“What saved her was the arrival of the Hungarian Jews,” said her son, Moses. “Right after she arrived, came 20,000 people. [The Nazis] had system overload.”

Though starvation nearly claimed her, too, Libitzky survived, fueled in part by a desire for retribution.

“That is what made me go,” she added. “We didn’t know if we’d live to tomorrow. You have to have a purpose that will hold you. You want to live, you want to fight. So I had to live. I had to get even with them.”

Yet after liberation, when Russian soldiers offered her a gun to kill Germans with impunity, Libitzky declined. “I am not an animal,” she said. “[The Germans] were trained to be animals.”

After the war, she met fellow survivor Martin Libitzky in a displaced persons camp. They married, had their son Moses, then moved to America. The couple had two more children, daughters Anne and Ellie.

For Eva, the chaos of war was replaced by a quiet period, when the family lived on a chicken farm in rural Connecticut. Years of hard work and little money followed. Despite the horror of the past, the Libitzkys were a normal American family.

Martin and Eva are comforted by their children Moses (left) and Anne (right) in June 1990 at the grave of Eva’s grandfather Abraham Katz and his son Yankel, on the edge of the Lodz ghetto.

“It was remarkable how adaptable both my parents were, whatever circumstances they were thrown in,” said Moses Libitzky. “You can’t imagine what we kids put them through, all the ideas circulating all the time. I almost talked [my mother] into joining a commune.”

The Libitzkys ultimately exchanged the farm for a profitable dry cleaning business. They later moved to Florida, and eventually became active with Holocaust remembrance and education, including visiting Poland with their adult children.

“I swore I would never step on the ground in Poland because every step is soaked in Jewish blood,” she recalled. “When I sat on the plane, my heart was racing, but I was glad that I went.”

Five years ago, Libitzky began meeting with Rosenbaum to begin the writing process. In the end, the two of them come up with a thoroughly documented autobiography, thanks to Rosenbaum’s corroborating paper trail found in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum archives and the Lodz State Archives.

That paper trail showed her as just another faceless number. But Eva Libitzky lived to triumph over evil and to tell the world her story.

“People told me after reading that book they respect me more,” she said, “but I pay a price for it. Sometimes you go through the healing process. But you still wake up in the middle of the night.”

“Out on a Ledge” by Eva Libitzky (252 pages, Wicker Park Press, $16.95)

Eva Libitzky will speak 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 14, at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, 3200 California St., S.F. The event is free, though advance reservation is required. Info: (415) 292-1233.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.