Mobile Press-Register, April 23, 2008
►Agnes Tennenbaum talks to Navy crew in Pascagoula
By Roy H0ffman
PASCAGOULA – Before approximately 250 crew members of the precommissioned U.S. Navy ship Makin Island, Holocaust survivor Agnes Tennenbaum, a Hungarian native living in Mobile, told her bleak story of suffering at the hands of the Nazis during World War II - and her inspiring story of survival.
The occasion was Makin Island’s commemoration of Holocaust Remembrance Day, a date scheduled for May 2 nationwide. Each month the Makin Island’s “diversity council” schedules a program on a different theme, explained Mass Communications Officer 2 Justin Webb - among them, African-American history, women’s history and Asian-Pacific culture.
Tennenbaum told spellbound Navy personnel at Northrop Grumman’s Ingalls shipyard that she wanted to “kiss the ground” when she arrived in America in the late 1940s after her family perished in Hitler’s concentration camps.
Capt. Robert Kopas, Makin Island’s commanding officer, recalled in opening remarks how, as a senior in high school, he had felt the emotional impact of visiting the site of the concentration camp Dachau in Germany.
“We talk about this happening during World War II,” Kopas said, and noted that his command and others might “be called on by our country to keep this from happening again.”
He cited human rights violations in the recent history in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and noted the mass graves found in Iraq from the era of Saddam Hussein.
“Listen closely,” Kopas said, turning over the microphone to Tennenbaum. “Take what she says to heart.”
Tennenbaum, 85, now a popular speaker in Mobile for school groups and religious organizations, admitted she’d never spoken to servicemen and women before.
She recounted her happy childhood growing up Jewish in Hungary, but how circumstances began to change in the 1940s for her family and others in her community. She told of being taken with her family and other Jews to a compound where she heard the village rabbi beaten to death in the middle of the night. She recounted being “squeezed” into the boxcar of a cattle train with other prisoners, and being carted to the death camp Auschwitz.
She told of being stripped, shaved, separated from her mother who was sent to the ovens. Her father had already been taken to the camps – she never saw him again - and she had lost her first husband, too.
“It felt like the end of the world,” she told the standingroom-only crowd.
She read a short essay of hers, “When the Magic Was Gone,” and told of her desire to grab the electric fences that surrounded Auschwitz, thus committing suicide.
But with encouragement from her cousin, also at the camp, she held on to life.
After being taken from Auschwitz to work in a Nazi munitions factory, the Allied bombers began to appear overhead. Soon, the war was over - and her journey, as a survivor, would eventually take her to the United States, and one day to Mobile.
In the audience, Boatswain Mate 1 Mark Powers, from San Antonio, said that Tennenbaum had reminded him not to take being a U.S. citizen for granted - and that, despite his general knowledge of World War Il history, he had never heard the actual account of a Holocaust survivor before.
Lt. Cmdr. Kevin Forbes, the Makin Island’s weapons officer, said that Tennenbaum’s talk “reminded me why I joined. It drives the point home of why we’re here.”