In the 20 years I’ve known her, I’ve never heard my 92-year-old (honourary) Oma speak about the war. She will never bring it up, and skillfully diverts conversation when it happens to come up. She’s a blunt woman, so that usually means she leaves the room. To this day, I have no idea what Oma experienced living in small-town Germany during the war and I completely understand her approach. It’s not something pleasant to relive for the casual historian like me. That’s why it’s so important to have women like KCS Great Aunt Paula Marks-Bolton to share their stories with us.
Paula is a Holocaust survivor and her message is to love. Taken from her family at just 13 years old, Paula survived the Lodz Ghetto, Auschwitz, Ravensbruck, Muhlhausen and Bergen-Belsen concentration camps. She watched two of her three older brothers taken away to Posen concentration camp and was ripped from her mother’s arms before being sent to the Ozarkow Ghetto with hundreds of other children. The difference in Paula is that she recognizes the love. Paula credits her neighbour, Hans, with her survival. During her childhood, he watched Paula grow up and play with his own daughter. During the war years, he was a member of the Gestapo. Despite orders against showing sympathy, she believes he may have intervened to send her to the Ozarkow Ghetto and help her remain alive. He saw Paula’s humanity and for that she loves him.
During her time at Muhlhausen, Paula worked in a munitions factory making bullets for the German army. A grandfatherly foreman helped her survive. He brought her bread and crab apples and covered her with a blanket to keep away the chill. For Paula, her only regret is not learning the man’s name. She reminds us that one person can make an incredible impact on someone’s life. “It’s so easy to be kind to another person,” Paula says. “He recognized my humanity.”
She was just 18 years old when the war ended. Sick with typhoid, she was finally liberated at Bergen-Belsen by the British soldiers who helped her and the other prisoners in any way they could. They provided food and water, gave the sick medication and set up makeshift hospital tents for the seriously ill. Every act was an act of love for a stranger in need.
Under the harshest of circumstances, Paula came out remembering humanity. Her warmth and care for everyone around her remind us that we always have a choice. Despite reliving the worst years of her life, Paula was comforting the students with whom she shared her story by giving hugs and wiping tears. She reminds us that even in the toughest times we can always choose love and compassion.