Mobile Press Register, March 1, 2015


Local Auschwitz Survivor Shares Her Story

and Is Honored by Mayor Sandy Stimpson During a Powerful Educational Program


Tamara Ikenberg


When Agnes Tennenbaum entered the showers at Auschwitz concentration camp she didn’t know if she would be cleansed with hot water or choked to death with gas.

“A tremendous fear gripped me. My heart galloped in my chest,” said Tennenbaun, 93, as she read from her short story memoir, “When The Magic Was Gone.” Her thick Hungarian accent, heavy with horrible memories, filled the Ben May Main Library’s Bernheim Hall with gravity, history and honesty.

“Silently, I cursed the Germans,” she continued from a chair onstage. “I imagined the floorboards would open to swallow our dead bodies.”

The Auschwitz survivor, who has lived in Mobile for nearly a decade, captivated a near-capacity crowd of all religions and ages with her story.

A dark time

Tennenbaum, who lost her parents, siblings and aunt in the Holocaust, revisited the darkest passage of her life as part of an event intended to both honor her strength and spirit and commemorate the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

The evening’s program, which also included presentations from Mayor Sandy Stimpson and more community leaders, was sponsored by the Gulf Coast Holocaust Center, the Mobile Christian-Jewish Dialogue and the Mobile Public Library.

A very excited but reverent Mayor Stimpson presented Tennenbaum with an honorary proclamation and also read from the book “How Do you Kill 11 Million People?” by Andy Andrews. Stimpson also brought some historical treasures loaned to him by Andrews.

The Mayor showed the audience an assortment of armbands used at Auschwitz to identify various groups of  prisoners. Most people know Jews were forced to wear a yellow star, but there were other stigmatizing synbols as weil.

For example, homosexuals had a pink triangle, Roma, or “gypsies,” wore a brown triangle, Jehovah’s Witnesses had a purple triangle, and political nonconformists were identified with a red triangle.

At the conclusion of his presentation, Stimpson said to Tennenbaum, “You are absolutely beautiful.”

Putting the tale in context

Tennenbaum’s tale was put in context by a handful of community leaders and historians:

Spring Hill College European history professor and former history department chair Patricia Harrison gave a brief history of Auschwitz.

Rickie Voit, a dedicated community volunteer involved in the Mobile Jewish Film Festival, Mobile Jewish Federation and many other organizations, spoke frankly and powerfully about the significance of Auschwitz for Jews.

“Our pain as Jews never goes away,” she said. She also stressed that Auschwitz should not be viewed as a source of strength and asked the crowd to consider how much better the world would be today if the millions of victims had been allowed to survive, thrive and contribute to society instead of being exterminated for no reason.

Jerry Darring of the Gulf Coast Center for Holocaust and Human Rights Education, focused fiercely on the challenge Auschwitz presents for Christians. He exhorted them to take an active role in acknowledging and discussing the atrocities and said that to ignore it or be indifferent to it is sinful. Darring, who is Catholic, even pointed out problematic passages in the New Testament that still contribute to anti-Semitism. He referenced a line from the Book of John where Jesus refers to Jews as “the children of the devil.”

Auschwitz’s history

Although there were many death and labor camps throughout Europe during World War II, Auschwitz is considered the epitome of the horror of the Holocaust and what can happen when others who think they are somehow safe sit on the sidelines and look away while an innocent, oppressed minority is punished and persecuted.

It is estimated that in its five years of operation, about 1.1 million people, predominantly Jews, were exterminated at Auschwitz through gassing, starvation and other methods. The camp in southern Poland was liberated by Soviet troops on Jan. 27,1945.

At the end of the event, dozens of people lined up for autographs and hugs, and Tennenbaum gladly accommodated them. North Mobile Christian School student Caleb Moncrief was one of the audience members who asked for an autograph. “I don’t know if I’ll ever meet anyone like her again,” he said.