Holocaust survivor Anna Ornstein stresses importance of hope in trying political times

Anna Ornstein, a Holocaust survivor who pursued a career in psychiatry, addressed 200 people in a packed ASEAN Auditorium in Cabot Intercultural Center yesterday. Ornstein, who survived Auschwitz and several work camps, detailed her experiences in the book “My Mother’s Eyes,” copies of which were available at the event. Her lecture was the 2018 keynote address of the Cummings / Hillel Program for Holocaust and Genocide Education.

Rabbi Jeffrey Summit, the outgoing Jewish chaplain and Neubauer executive director of Tufts Hillel, gave the opening remarks. Stressing the importance of innovative programming, he spoke about Tufts Hillel’s various educational programs about genocide with the support of Joyce and Bill Cummings, describing the interfaith delegations Hillel has recently sent to the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C., Germany and the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village in Rwanda.

Summit referenced the significance of hearing from a Holocaust survivor at a time when their numbers are increasingly few.

“There will come a time in your lifetime … when people will not be able to meet and hear survivors of the Holocaust tell their story. But you can now, and people in this room will be able to say to your children, God willing, that you heard a survivor from the Holocaust speak,” he said.

He also spoke about the intended goals of Tufts Hillel’s genocide-education programming.

“Some people will tell you that you can never change the world, you can never end genocide, it’s beyond us to fix what’s broken in society. We don’t believe that at Tufts … [or] at Tufts Hillel. We see change is slow, change is incremental, but we believe that education can and should move us to action, and actively engaged citizens can and will raise a moral voice to make real changes in our society and in our world,” he said.

Jennifer Gray, a member of the Cummings / Hillel Program for Holocaust and Genocide Education, then gave a brief introduction for Ornstein, emphasizing the importance of resisting hatred and preventing future atrocities.

“We are at a crucial moment in history, when many are choosing to either forget or deny the events that happened 75 years ago,” Gray, a sophomore, said. “It is our responsibility to make sure that the world never forgets.”

For the first 40 minutes of the event, Ornstein read from papers. The last 20 minutes were reserved for questions from the audience.

She gave an account of her experience at the Auschwitz concentration camp with her mother by her side, describing a chaotic scene with barking dogs and screaming crowds.

“I heard my mother tell my cousin that the heavy, sweet-smelling black smoke could be human flesh burning,” she said. “I believe almost instantly, my mother realized that we were in an extermination camp. She grabbed my hand, and from here on, we did not dare to lose sight of each other.”

Ornstein, her mother and a cousin were selected for labor. Their heads were shaved, their clothes were removed and they were made to wait for their selection in barn-like holding chambers with only grass to eat. She said her father, grandmother and other members of her extended family were taken into the gas chambers.

From Auschwitz, Ornstein and her fellow prisoners were shipped to a labor camp in Poland, where they worked in a stone quarry through the summer of 1944. In the fall, they were taken back to Auschwitz and given tattoos. From there, they were taken to a factory in the Czech Republic and were liberated by the Russian army on Armistice Day, May 8, 1945. Ornstein returned to Budapest, where she finished high school and married Paul Ornstein, whom she had known before the German occupation of Hungary. She studied medicine in Heidelberg, Germany, living in the homes of S.S. officers and Nazis.

Ornstein focused the bulk of her talk on a comparison between the current threats to democracy in the United States and the political environment in 1930s Germany, characterized by a similar apparent corrosion of democracy that led to the Holocaust. She spoke about her experience answering questions related to whether such an atrocity as the Holocaust could happen again in America.

“In the past, I didn’t hesitate with my response. I reminded the children that we are in a multiethnic, multi-religious country, and that we have a document, the Constitution, that [safeguards] the democratic principles on which our country has been established,” she said. “The Constitution does not protect all its citizens equally; however, as a whole, the concept has been moving in the direction of tolerance and acceptance of differences.”

Ornstein described how her attitude had changed after the 2016 elections. Describing her experience growing up in the Third Reich and Communist Hungary after the first World War, she emphasized the importance of not taking American democracy for granted. She stressed that there are far more differences than similarities between these environments and the U.S. in 2018.

One similarity she mentioned is the blaming of a minority group for society’s economic and political ills. At the time Hitler rose to power, blame fell on the Jews, who made up less than one percent of Germany’s population. In this country, she explained, the scapegoats are not Jews, but Muslims and immigrants.

“Once a minority is scapegoated, however, … ever-present racism, anti-Semitism and xenophobia are reactivated,” she said.

In particular, she criticized a trend of xenophobia.

“The manner in which the current anti-immigration trend is fueled by deeply entrenched racist attitudes, I am afraid, is not too different from the … centuries-old anti-Semitism [used] to ensure the passage of anti-Semitic legislation,” she said.

She expressed hope, however, in America’s future, referencing the civil rights movement and affirming her faith in young people.

In a question-and-answer session after her lecture, Ornstein answered questions about her career in psychiatry and scholarship in psychoanalysis, her relationship with Judaism after the Holocaust and how she reckoned with grief.

Sara Schiff, a senior and a member of Tufts Against Genocide, gave concluding remarks and presented Ornstein with a gift of a ballpoint pen.