Sara Moses says she survived Nazi concentration camps by using her vivid imagination and because of the generosity of a female Nazi guard.
Now 73, Moses was a 6-year-old Jewish girl when she was separated from her family and taken from her home in Poland in 1944.
"Out of necessity, I developed a rich, strong, imaginary world that helped me to survive the horrors that were to come," Moses said Friday at the Community School in Sun Valley. "I used what I had. I had my hands. I imagined that the fingers on my hand had faces. I gave each one of them names. My fingers became my family."
Moses is one of few children who survived the horrors of the concentration camps. She now lives in St. Louis, Mo. Her son Jon Moses lives in Hailey. She spoke to Community School middle and high school students at the invitation of eighth-grader Garrett Rawlings, who became acquainted with Moses while working on a "tolerance project" as a seventh-grader.
Moses now speaks throughout the United States about the Holocaust. She said she is willing to revisit the horrors of her childhood because "evil-doers grow bigger and stronger when they are surrounded by people who say nothing."
"The reason I speak, why I go back to those times is so that lessons of the Holocaust, not just the Holocaust, but the lessons of the most horrible genocide in history will not be repeated," she said. "If we don't learn from the past, it will be repeated."
Moses was only a 1-year-old child when Germany invaded and conquered Poland in 1939. She and her family were forced into the Jewish ghetto in her hometown of Piotrkow. Her mother was taken and killed in a gas chamber when Moses was 5. At the age of 6, she and the rest of her family were rounded up by the Germans. She was separated from her father and other male members of her family and taken first to the Ravensbruck concentration camp near Furstenberg, Germany, and later to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Saxony.
She was found barely alive when British troops liberated Bergen-Belsen in April 1945.
An estimated 3,600 women worked as guards in German concentration camps throughout the Third Reich. About 60 of them stood trial for war crimes after the war and 21 were found guilty and executed.
The fate of the Nazi guard who helped Moses is unknown, but Moses said she would not likely have survived without the extra food the woman gave her.
Moses said she met the guard at Ravensbruck. She said the guard "looked her up and down" and finally told her that she looked remarkably like her own daughter. Disease at Ravensbruck was killing most of the children.
"She was bringing me her food when she could," Moses said. "Looking back, I believe that this little food she gave me, gave me the chance to survive, a chance that the other children didn't get. The very first to die were the youngest children."
Moses told stories about witnessing "brutal violence against my people" and about her earliest memories of "living in fear."
"I remember walking in a line of people, carrying a little bundle with Nazi guards watching us on either side with guns."
She described a train ride in a cattle car: "It seems like we were on the floor of that train for days, without food and water. Many people died."
At Bergen-Belsen, Moses said, she remembers "seeing a skeletal person living on the floor across from me chewing on a dry bone—I was envious, I wanted that bone."
Thousands died at Bergen-Belsen, either in the gas chambers or from diseases that ravaged the concentration camp.
"We had to lie on the floor among the dead and dying bodies," she said. "This was the lowest point of my life."
When the British came, "they found thousands and thousands of dead, grotesque bodies. This is where they found me. The very first English word I ever heard was 'a baby, a baby.' I was a skeleton on the floor, unable to move, in critical condition. Only 7, and so small they thought I was a baby.
"One of the soldiers who saved me came to visit me every day in the hospital. He was so awed by this baby that had survived."
In one visit, Moses said, the soldier brought her a doll, drawing markers and some candy.
"This was the best gift I ever had," she said.
Moses was later reunited with her father, who also survived, and in 1949 they immigrated to the United States.
Moses said she suffered from depression and "night terrors" for some time after being rescued, and initially had trouble in school because she would still escape into her imaginary world.
Nonetheless, she said that without her imagination, she doubts she would have survived.
"My thoughts were occupied by my well-developed imaginary world that I had created," she said. "Sometimes I look at my fingers even today, and I see some of those old familiar personalities."
Terry Smith: firstname.lastname@example.org