There is a number on Dora Sorell’s grave: A-7603. Sorell, a Holocaust survivor who died on May 27 at the age of 98 in Berkeley, bore that number since the day it was tattooed on her arm at Auschwitz and had it inscribed at her grave marker before her death. It was a number and a history she shared unflinchingly with the many students she educated through her unflagging dedication to speaking about the Holocaust and her life.
“She felt she was witness to something huge,” said her daughter, Silvia Sorell. “And that she had a responsibility to let people know what happened.”
Sorell grew up Dora Apsan in Transylvania, Romania, in Sighet (the same hometown of Elie Wiesel), a town of around 30,000 that had a sizable population of Jews, where she was an excellent student and had a boyfriend, Tzali.
“They were a couple, but there was no question about marriage or anything like that during the war,” Silvia Sorell said.
When Hitler gave Transylvania to Hungary during World War II, Sorell, along with tens of thousands of others, was taken from Sighet and eventually transported to Auschwitz. She spent almost a year there before she was moved to the Weisswasser concentration camp in Czechoslovakia and freed in May 1945.
In a diary entry from that month, excerpted in Leah Wolfson’s “Jewish Responses to Persecution,” Dora wrote of not knowing who had survived Sighet. Of her boyfriend, she wrote: “Tzali, I don’t know what to say, but if I lose you then I had rather be taken to the gas chamber or run to the electric fence.”
Her parents and two of her seven brothers were killed, and altogether around 40 members of her extended family perished in the Holocaust. But when Sorell returned to her hometown after the war she found that her boyfriend Zoltán “Tzali” Sorell was still alive.
“They met again and then they married,” Silvia said.
Dora studied medicine in Timișoara, Romania, and the couple started a family. But life under the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceaușescu wasn’t easy. Sorell’s brothers abroad would send them care packages — including opera records they could sell — but Dora was never able to visit them. Eventually the Sorells applied to leave Romania, which meant they lost their solid jobs. In 1961 the family departed, first for Brazil and then to New York, where Sorell practiced medicine and taught.
“My parents never talked about or considered themselves as victims,” Silvia said. “They were focused on moving forward.”
In the mid-1990s the Sorells moved to the Bay Area to be closer to their grandchildren. It was the birth of a granddaughter that prompted Dora to start writing vignettes about her past whenever they occurred to her, prompted by a memory or “some music, or some chimneys from a factory,” Silvia said.
In 1998 she self-published “Tell the Children: Letters to Miriam,” dedicated to her granddaughter, in which she described “the panic, the impotence, the confinement” of life in the camps. She became a popular and active speaker with the Holocaust Center of Northern California, speaking at schools and other venues around the Bay Area.
“My mother was extremely well liked and respected by everyone who knew her,” Silvia Sorell said. “She just had something about her.”
In 2004, she received more than $3,000 as compensation for her slave labor at the Weisswasser camp. Sorell turned around and donated it to American Jewish World Service to help Sudanese refugees.
Her husband passed away in 2008, at which point Dora Sorell told J., “If there ever was a love story, it was ours. Our happy marriage of 63 years was a miracle.” It was at that time she decided to have her grave marker made with her name and the number she had worn for more than 50 years, a testament to both her survival and her dedication in telling the story of the Holocaust.
Dora Sorell is survived by daughter Silvia Sorell, son Vali Sorell, eight grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. Her son Iancu Sorell passed away in 2015.