By Gabrielle Sierra
My cousin Felicia Berland Hyatt was a Holocaust survivor who took great care and pride in telling her story. She spent decades giving lectures, speaking in documentaries and appearing on panels. She even wrote a book. But Felicia always said one of her greatest accomplishments was being asked to appear as a guest speaker at various schools in New York, discussing her life and answering students’ questions.
Felicia often said that her story, although painful, sad and terrifying, had to be told in order to prevent history from repeating itself. Just as she refused to have her concentration camp tattoo removed, she refused to let the millions of people who died during World War II disappear.
As a guest speaker in K-12 classrooms, Felicia left her mark on many young children; she recounted a time and place and tragedy many had never even heard of. Some students wrote letters in response to her story. These letters showcase an incredible range of emotion, jumping from curiosity and disbelief to fear and sadness.
After Donald Trump signed his executive order (currently suspended) prohibiting people from seven Muslim-majority countries, including war-torn Syria, from entering the United States, I decided to go through Felicia’s letters and pull out a few that seemed especially relevant. The idea that this administration is capable of denying refugees sanctuary is chilling, and made all the more poignant by the fact that the ban was signed on Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Felicia died in 2015, at the age of 96, but I like to think that she would have enjoyed reading these old notes from students and sharing the hope I felt when reading them; hope that the stories she told these kids, now adults, will help us all as we face the challenges ahead.
Felicia, an only child, was born in 1920 and raised in a town called Chelm in eastern Poland. Her parents ran a successful bakery and sent her to a public gymnasium (school), where she was one of four Jewish students admitted under a strict quota system. It was there that she learned to speak German, in addition to her native Polish and Yiddish, a skill that would save her life more than once.
In 1938, her father sensed that war was on the horizon and traveled to the U.S. to set up a new home for their family, but Poland closed its borders before Felicia and her mother could join him. They, along with other residents of Chelm, were placed in a ghetto, where they remained from 1939-1942. The night before the final liquidation of the ghetto, Felicia and her mother escaped and went into hiding.
In the following months, the women took shelter with two Polish families before being forced to hide in barns and abandoned buildings. Eventually, they decided to separate, a strategy they thought would increase their chances of avoiding capture. It was the last time Felicia would ever see her mother.
Felicia made her way to Krakow and secured false papers. There, she dyed her hair blonde and found work as a housekeeper for a local SS Officer and his family who risked their lives in an effort to help her survive. In 1943, Felicia was discovered and sent to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.
Once in the camp, Felicia survived a series of close calls, including a last minute removal from a group being sent to the gas chamber. Her education and ability to speak German and Polish proved to be of value to the Nazis, who assigned her to be a barracks bookkeeper. In this position, Felicia was able to provide a few reprieves for other prisoners; at one point, moving a group of young sisters into low level positions similar to her own. Over 70 years later, one of these sisters would attend Felicia’s funeral in New York City and tell us that she and her siblings would not have survived without the reassignment Felicia was able to provide.
Auschwitz was a death camp and people were being killed all around Felicia every day with no end in sight. She decided her best hope of survival was to escape. In November, 1944, she found her opportunity. She snuck into a group being sent to a work camp in Stare Mesto, the Czech Republic. She remained there until the camp was liberated in April 1945.
After the liberation, Felicia sought to reunite with her remaining friends and family, only to discover that her mother, as well as countless relatives and friends, had been killed. She decided to travel to New York to reunite with her father, but this proved to be a great deal more difficult than she had imagined.
The United Nations was sending children to reunite with their families in the U.S., but being in her early 20’s, Felicia was too old to qualify. She was told to go to Sweden, where they were helping survivors settle into new lives. She remained there with friends for over a year but still wanted to be near her father. In 1948, she obtained an American transit visa, intended to allow her a brief stopover on the way to Canada. When she arrived in the U.S. she skipped her connecting flight and remained in New York. She eventually moved into an apartment with her father.
Felicia may have reunited with her remaining family, but she still had to find a way to stay in the U.S. She was investigated by the FBI under suspicion of being a Nazi or communist. The agency raided her apartment and tracked her movements. Felicia enrolled in college, but was told by refugee agencies not to have any books on Marxism in her home and was warned not to take any philosophy classes, as those ideas could be viewed as subversive.
Finally, in April, 1954, Felicia was sworn in as a U.S. citizen. Until that point she lived in fear of being send back to Poland or having to flee. Years later, she would tell our family that it was this moment, the moment she was given the protections of U.S. citizenship, that she finally felt safe. Although, her nightmares about the camps, the smells and the sounds, would never cease.
Looking through these letters, it is hard not to be moved by the sympathy, horror and sadness expressed by the children Felicia spoke to. Perhaps some of these students were present during the protests that sprung up after Trump’s executive order, or spoke out with a call to a local official. I know that Felicia would find comfort in knowing that even one student was influenced by the story she told in their classroom, and that her mission to prevent history from repeating itself still resonates today.