Holocaust Survivor Brings Literature to Life for Gilbert Stuart Students

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Alice Eichenbaum with a copy of the gold star she was forced to wear as a young girl in Bulgaria.

Alice Eichenbaum remembers the first time she saw the Gestapo.

She was 14 years old and had been herded onto the boarding area of a train station in Bulgaria. She vividly remembers their shiny black boots as her parents warned her to never look at their faces. She was scared and, although they wouldn’t say it, so were her parents.

Alice didn’t know where they were heading, if she would ever see her home again, or worse, if she would be separated from her parents. They did remain together, but were held captive for 1½ years until Bulgaria was liberated by Russian troops in September of 1944.

As frightening as her experience was, it was far less traumatic than her husband’s, who was deported to the  Lodz Ghetto from his home in Poland and then to the Auschwitz concentration camp. At the time of liberation, five years later, he had lost his entire family and weighed only 51 pounds. He was 15 years old.

The stories of Alice and Raymond Eichenbaum gripped an audience of 250 Gilbert Stuart Middle School students as they listened to the experiences of a real-life Holocaust survivor as part of their English unit on Holocaust literature. It was as if history jumped from the pages of their books and stood in front of them in the cavernous school auditorium.

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As students of English teachers Cassandra Johns and Alfred Krapf, they had read Prisoner 3087 by Alan Gratz and the poem “Hope Is A Thing with Feathers” by Emily Dickinson. They then wrote their own poems about hope and survival and worked with City Arts to paint pictures that reflected their readings. As first- and second-generation immigrants, Johns said the students relate to the stories of the Holocaust on many different levels.

“Many of them have left a world of violence and feel ostracized,” said Johns. “They can relate to people who were ostracized, but who survived and made a life for themselves.”

This was Eichenbaum’s second time speaking to Gilbert Stuart students, having visited exactly a year earlier as part of the Holocaust Education Center, founded by her late husband. As she entered the auditorium, escorted by members of the Gilbert Stuart Gentlemen’s Association, she was greeted by a surprise standing ovation.

Born in Vienna, Austria, as the only child in a middle-class family, Eichenbaum lived “a wonderful, peaceful existence,” attending private school, swimming in the Black Sea and unaware of the horrors occurring in Europe. Her family commuted from Austria to Bulgaria, where her father had a photography business.

But, in 1940, things began to change dramatically, as Adolph Hitler moved his German troops though Bulgaria. The Nazi flag flew over her school while teachers wore swastikas. Kids made  comments about Jews and, at 10 years old, “no one would talk to me, no one invited me to birthday parties,” said Eichenbaum.

Her father lost his business and Jews were required to report to the local Nazi office. Then another change came. No Jews were allowed on the streets after 6 p.m. In November of 1942, all Jewish people were required to wear a yellow star that said “Jude” and post them on their homes.

“When I put on a yellow star, I was different all of a sudden. No one looked at me the same,” said Eichenbaum.

It was in May of 1943 when Eichenbaum and her parents were told they had 48 hours to pack their belongings and they found themselves at a train station. They were held captive in a building without plumbing, fresh water or medicine with three other families. Her mother came down with malaria and Eichenbaum went to bed hungry many nights. It was a holding place for the next shipment of Jews.

One night, police came and told them they no longer needed to wear their yellow stars. They had been liberated by Russian troops.

“We had lost everything. We had to make a new life,” she said. “I had missed two years of school and needed to be tutored.” Although Communists had taken over Bulgaria, Eichenbaum returned there with her parents to finish high school.

Meanwhile, in Poland, Raymond was swept into the worst of the Holocaust. As German troops moved in, he was 10 years old and sent with his family on railcars to the Losz Ghetto, where they worked as slave labor. He and his large family remained in the ghetto for four years, where many of them perished.

In 1944, they boarded cattle cars again, this time to the children’s camp at Birkhausen, where he was separated from his sister. There, prisoners were given uniforms, tattooed and were sent to work in coal mines. Those unable to work were sent to the “showers.” His brother contracted pneumonia and died two days before the liberation.

Severely malnourished, he spent three months in a hospital, the only one of his large family to survive. He chose to leave for America alone at age 15, where he lived in orphanages and foster homes. “He realized he had to do something with his life. Otherwise, Hitler had won,” said Alice.

They met in college at Graz University in Austria, married in 1956 and had two sons. They settled in Providence, where Raymond  had lived after the Holocaust. Alice worked as an organic chemist at Providence Metallurgical Company while her husband was a polymer chemist at Carol Cable. Their sons went to the Hebrew Day School and graduated from Classical High School.

Some 70 years after the war ended, Eichenbaum asks herself, “How could a country that produced some of the world’s greatest composers and scientists like Einstein could do such cruel and unreal things?”

Eichenbaum estimates that she speaks to as many as 25 schools each year about the Holocaust. She was interviewed by film director Steven Spielberg, who documented survivors’ stories.

She and her husband felt it was important for people to know the truth about the Holocaust. “It is not fun,” said Eichenbaum, “but very rewarding. Maybe when these kids go to college, they will remember me. They will remember that I survived and they can do it too.”

Students crowded Eichenbaum as she finished her presentation and hugged her. One student, who has missed many days of school, but was inspired by Eichenbaum, told her, “I’m going to do good things now.”

Johns said her students were not aware of the Holocaust. “It was very new to them. They wanted to stay in class and read about it even when class was over. I’ve never seen this level of engagement before. This presentation brings a human face to history.”