Second generation speaks
Caitlin Taylor | Collegio Reporter
Joyce Hess is the daughter of a Holocaust survivor and shared her mother’s story at the 14th annual Gene DeGruson Memorial Lecture in the Axe Library Monday, Oct. 10. Hess is also a representative for the second generation of the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education,
Hess began by describing how her mother was a young girl of 12, living in Poland when Germany invaded in 1939.
“They marched into town and ordered all the Jews to wear a yellow star on the front and back of their clothing,” Hess said. “Then they were all kept in their houses, with the little food they had, which lasted about two weeks.”
Hess says that her mother and family were taken to a ghetto where they were often killed if they weren’t forced to perform labor. Many of those killed were either too old or too young to work.
“My mother and 38 others were not picked for labor one day and were able to survive by hiding under a nailed-down piece of wood behind one of the sheds,” Hess said.
Hess’ mother and family were sent to labor camps in June 1943, where their personal items were taken and their heads shaved.
“It was hard for my mother because they had to take turns putting bodies in the oven,” Hess said. “But they were also able to find peace with it since they were able to sing and pray because the guards were too disgusted to come near it.”
Hess says they moved her mother and family to a concentration camp called “Stutthof” when the Russians drew closer to the camp. Her mother became a maid for the commandant. One of her duties was to start the fire, but he would soak the logs in water, and when she couldn’t get them to light he would hit her over the head.
“At one point the camp was going to close and my mother was able to stall the guards by spilling things and being clumsy,” Hess said. “It allowed 28 out of some 40 (prisoners) that tried to escape, survive, including her sister.”
Hess says her little brother was sent from Stutthof to Auschwitz on Sept. 10, 1944, along with the other children where he died in the gas chamber.
“My mother was, at that point, also separated from her mother who would die at Stutthof,” Hess said. “She would then be sent to camp after camp, and once again became maid to the commandant, but he was more cruel and beat her head more. She would even wait for the guards to leave, and lick the scraps from the trash.”
Hess said that the beatings in the head caused her mother to develop a slow growing tumor that paralyzed half her face. After the war, she worked for the United Nations Rehabilitation Association, which helped survivors. She was then sent to the United States and was able to receive her high school diploma. Hess says her mother passed the U.S. citizenship test in 1950 and came to Kansas City in 1951.
“When I was young, we did not discuss the topic of concentration camps,” Hess said. “It wasn’t until I turned 15 that I began to move into her identity that intertwined with mine. My brother had a paper over the Holocaust and my mother sat down and explained it to us. I have an incredible appreciation for her strength and intelligence.”
After that, Hess says her mother came and spoke at her high school and never stopped talking about it until her death.
“Very few would talk about it,” Hess said. “Now it’s the responsibility of the children and grandchildren to keep telling the stories and letting people know what mankind is capable of.”
After her story, Hess presented a book, “From the Heart: Life before and after the Holocaust in Kansas City,” to the Axe library.
Kate Wildeman says she attended the presentation because she is fascinated with the Holocaust.
“I am definitely coming back next year,” said Wildeman, freshman in biology. “I expected a really good story and I got one.”
Jessica Lowery says she did not expect to learn some new things.
“I never knew that when they burned the bodies, they found sanctuary in it,” said Lowery, freshman in Spanish and art education. “I have researched the Holocaust a lot, and the only word I can use to describe how I feel about her story is awe.”
Ellen Wieberg says she came because she is going to Germany next summer and in the summer of 2013 with the Honors College where they will follow the path of an Allied troop from Normandy to Munich.
“I haven’t thought about it,” said Wieberg, freshman in communication. “But it is going to be heartbreaking to see these camps with my own eyes.”