‘They wanted to dehumanize us’

Holocaust survivor Bronka Krygier speaks to students about her experiences as a Jewish woman in Poland during World War Two

Holocaust survivor Bronka Krygier spoke on Wednesday evening about her experiences in the Second World War.
Holocaust survivor Bronka Krygier spoke on Wednesday evening about her experiences in the Second World War.
Credit: 
Jackie Alvarez
Queen’s Hillel set up a Holocaust exhibit in the JDUC for the first time in order to attract students’ attention and inform them about the Holocaust as part of Holocaust Education Week.
Queen’s Hillel set up a Holocaust exhibit in the JDUC for the first time in order to attract students’ attention and inform them about the Holocaust as part of Holocaust Education Week.
Photo: 

At the age 20, Bronka Krygier was not studying for final exams or preparing for a career—she was a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto and Nazi invasion of Poland.

Krygier was 14 when the war broke out in 1939, and lived with her family in the Ghetto until escaping to live in the forest.

She shared a few of her many experiences from those six years to a packed auditorium in Strirling Hall on Wednesday night.

The speech headlined the annual Holocaust Education Week, organized by Queen’s Hillel.

Kim Edwards and Jenna Adler, Hillel vice-presidents of education, said they were pleased with the turnout on Wednesday, and credit its success to the walk-through exhibit they constructed in the lower JDUC.

“This is the first year that we built the exhibit in the JDUC. Last year we didn’t get as large a turnout, [but this year] the exhibit helped by getting the attention of people who wouldn’t normally come,” Edwards said. “We take for granted that people know what the Holocaust is.”

Edwards and Adler said the main goals of this week are to publicize the fact that the Holocaust was not only concerned with Jewish people, but included other minority groups such as the black and gay communities. For this reason, many different clubs were involved in the creation of the events of the week, which opened with a speech by EQUIP on genocide awareness.

They also wanted make the week about what the idea behind the ‘Never Again’ slogan really means.

“We can sit and listen [to someone speak], but if we turn our heads we’re letting history repeat itself,” Edwards said.

Krygier’s stories made the experience of the Holocaust personal for the assembled students, making the understanding of its atrocities more accessible to a generation who hasn’t lived through it.

Krygier’s time in the Ghetto was marked by inhuman conditions. Starvation, cold, and death were widespread, and many who tried to escape never returned. The armbands displaying the Star of David--which Jews were required to wear—were meant as symbols of shame to their religion.

“They wanted to dehumanize us…to make us feel like there was no hope in life,” she said.

Survival in the forest for Krygier included many hardships such as having to wash her face with urine, or having to silently hide in the snow from German soldiers for 12 hours. There was an instance in which she assisted a woman in silently giving birth to a child who then had to be strangled so as to not give away their position in hiding.

During this time, Krygier says that she never cried or felt afraid.

“The emotion was only, ‘What can I do to live?’” she said.

Even at 81 years of age, Krygier finds these experiences hard to remember.

“[During that time] I was notallowed to live from day to day, or from hour to hour, but from minute to minute. Death was hanging over my head for six years of my life,” she said.

At the end of the war, of 39 members of her immediate family, she was the only one who survived.

While it was hard to start life again after her liberation came and the war ended, she knew it had to be done.

“We cannot live on our ruins. I had to start life again in memory of my sister and my parents,” she said.

Krigier only began speaking about her experiences four or five years ago after attending an event at the Bathurst Jewish Community Centre in Toronto. “After hearing someone speak, my son said, ‘Why don’t you talk too?’ So I went back to the office and told them I was interested. Every time someone spoke I was there to listen. [At that point] I wasn’t ready,” she said.

Even though she has been speaking for a few years, and remembering for many more, each time she shares her story is hard.

“[When I speak] everything revives. It takes a little bit out of me each time, but if this is going to be helpful I will do it,” she said.

She believes that young people are responsible for making sure it doesn’t happen again.

“It is for your future not to live with prejudice. You have to do it. I can only tell you about my life and what I lost,” she said.

In spite of efforts that have been made to ensure that the Holocaust never happens again, Krygier still doesn’t believe that the world has learned its lessons.

Edwards and Adler feel that this is where the importance of the education week lies.

Edwards said, “[This speech] was the main event. Twenty to thirty years from now [survivors] won’t be around to speak. Our generation is responsible for saying that we did and carrying on their message.”

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