Irene Selig’s story of surviving the Holocaust is not an easy one for the grandmother of four to tell. But she said it’s crucial that she shares it so young people will learn the importance of speaking out against injustice.
Selig was the featured speaker of this year’s Philip N. Backstrom Jr. Survivor Lecture Series, which was held last Thursday as part of Northeastern University’s annual Holocaust Awareness Week. Her grandson Elijah Botkin, S’15, also spoke at the event, which was titled “Talking with Grandma.”
“My main reason (for sharing my story) is my grandson Elijah and his generation,” explained Selig. “My only hope is that younger people will speak out against injustices…and embrace diversity.”
Born in Krakow, Poland, Selig was 12 when World War II began. The Nazis took her and her father from their home and sent them first to the city’s ghetto. Then they were sent to the Plaszów work camp, and then to Auschwitz, and finally Bergen-Belsen, where the British Army liberated her in 1945. Her mother died before the war.
While many consider Auschwitz—the site of more than 1.1 million deaths from 1940 to 1945—to be the most infamous example of the atrocities the Nazis carried out against European Jews, Selig said Plaszów was her nightmare, in part because of her anxiety about her father’s safety. The last time she saw her father, she said, was when he told her he was going to try to escape to a nearby camp where the prisoners were not treated as harshly, and then would send for her.
“When I lost my father I had two feelings,” said an emotional Selig. “The first was a feeling of regret because I never saw him again. And the second was guilt because of the relief I felt.”
Selig’s grandson Elijah is a mathematics and music major at Northeastern who was named this year’s Gideon Klein Scholar. This award honors the memory of Gideon Klein, a pianist and composer who was imprisoned in concentration camps until his death in 1945.
As part of the award, Botkin composed an original musical piece by translating a poem by a child imprisoned at the Terezin fortified city. Titled The Closed Town: Poetry from Terezin, the piece will be performed at the NU Choral Society Spring Concert on April 18.
“I feel now that I have a responsibility to make sure people continue to learn about the Holocaust and continue to know what happened,” Botkin said. “To learn from it and make sure it never happens again.”
“This program maintains a longstanding and important tradition at Northeastern of steadfast commitment to Holocaust awareness and genocide prevention,” said Lefkovitz, the daughter of Holocaust survivors. “And a commitment to hear testimony of the survivors.”
Holocaust Awareness Week is presented by the College of Social Sciences and the Northeastern Humanities Center in partnership with the Holocaust Awareness Committee.