A night to remember

Holocaust survivor recounts story of horror and hope

Holocaust survivor Yanina Cywinska autographs copies of her book.

Holocaust survivor Yanina Cywinska autographs copies of her book.

Photo By Vic cantu

When she was 10 years old, Yanina Cywinska was a slave at the Nazis’ infamous Auschwitz concentration camp. Her job was to drag dead bodies out of a gas chamber. Her horror was compounded the day she realized the corpse she was pulling out by the legs was that of her mother.

“Please mom, wake up, I know you can do it!” she pleaded. “Wake up and let’s go home!”

A fellow prisoner, Greta, admonished her to keep working lest she meet her mother’s fate.

“You’re whining—there’s nothing she can do!” Greta yelled, which prompted the child to continue her grim duties.

This was but one of the atrocities recounted Thursday, Nov. 15, by Cywinska (pronounced Yuh-ZIN-skuh) during “Avoiding Future Holocausts: A Night to Remember” at the Chico Unified School District’s Center for the Arts on the Pleasant Valley High School campus.

Several hundred attendees watched this powerful and inspiring event featuring Cywinska and dozens of PV students who acted, recited, danced and played music with the aim of remembering the atrocity and preventing future holocausts. Actors dramatized tense holocaust-era moments, such as the recital of a love letter by a Jewish ghetto prisoner who longed for the days before he was forced by his Nazi captors to wear the Star of David as a yellow patch on all clothing.

The production was devised and coordinated by PV English teacher Amy Besnard. “This is an amazing representation of what real teaching and learning can be,” she said before the show.

At various times during the event, pairs of students read passages from the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, created after World War II, which forbids abuses such as genocide, slavery and torture.

Student Katie Van Patten both wrote and acted in some of the scenes, including one dramatizing the Japanese mass rape and genocide in the Chinese city of Nanking during the second Sino-Japanese War.

“It was a very moving, but difficult subject to cover,” Van Patten said afterward.

Cywinska’s 20-minute speech was the most powerful of the performances. She recounted two harrowing escapes from Nazi execution. Her Polish, non-Jewish family was captured by the Nazis for stockpiling weapons and literally going underground, living in sewers as part of the Polish resistance. Cywinska was separated from her family and forced with other prisoners over five days without food or water to dig an enormous ditch that was to serve as their own mass grave.

She recalled that, while lined up along the ditch, she stepped behind a mother and baby to support them as they stumbled. Her maneuver shielded her from the firing squad’s bullets, allowing her to fall unharmed into the grave. She escaped only to be recaptured and sent to Auschwitz with her family. In the gas chamber she held her father’s hand as he died with the others. She passed out but somehow survived the gas—it was carbon monoxide, not the Zyklon B ordinarily used—and was secretly resuscitated by an inmate.

Her spirit, she said, triumphed after the war, when she went on to fulfill her dreams of becoming an actress and ballerina.

Cywinska’s talk elicited several standing ovations. “I’ve been crying for about an hour now,” exclaimed one woman.

Students added to the emotion by occasionally gracing the stage in pairs under a spotlight and recounting genocides elsewhere, such as Rwanda, Cambodia, China, Guatemala and Sudan.

Additionally, a piano solo offered the theme from Steven Spielberg’s movie Schindler’s List. It was followed by a violin and piano duet. The most elaborate performance featured 30 students gracefully acting out, through gesturing and dance, scenes of despair, capture and ultimate triumph.

In the show’s finale, students of PV’s welding class presented Cywinska with a 2-foot-long, gold-metallic Star of David emblazoned with the phrase “Gone but not forgotten.”

The theater lobby showcased World War II artifacts and tables encouraging healing and remembrance. One urged attendees to fill out a short pledge listing how they would prevent future holocausts. Approximately 100 of the forms were pasted on the lobby’s wall; they contained phrases such as “I’ll prevent bullying at my school” or “I’ll educate others about the Holocaust.”

“The show brought tears to our eyes,” said Monica Pinckney, whose children attended PV.

After the performance Cywinska happily talked with attendees and signed copies of her autobiographical book, Sugar Plum Nut.

“I have lots of hope because of this program,” she said. “Please take care of America. It’s the only game in town for keeping justice in the world.”