Hundreds of people gathered in College Nine and Ten’s multipurpose room to hear accounts of the Holocaust from two of its survivors — an opportunity future generations will not have. The event, titled “Never Again,” brought in nearly 700 people. Many attendees stood in the back of the auditorium once all of the seats were filled.
Throughout the year, guest speakers Ben Stern and Gitta Ryle take time to speak to schools and to the public. On Jan. 21, UCSC had the chance to listen to their stories.
“If I survived, I said I would make a commitment,” Ben Stern said to the hundreds of students and community members before him. “I want to be able to tell the world, every nationality and every religion what happened to us — our six million brothers. How did the world stand by and do nothing?”
Born in 1921 in Poland to a Jewish family, Stern witnessed the Holocaust’s horrors firsthand, as he was held prisoner in multiple concentration camps, including Auschwitz. His story was filled with loss from the moment his family was transported to the concentration camps.
“When we got to the railroads, [my brother and mother] were pushed to the right and I was pushed to the left. I never saw them again. I never said goodbye,” Stern said. “That was the end of my family.”
Stern’s time across various concentration camps brought terrible accounts of human cruelty, including forced labor, starvation and murder.
“Why was I born to live that long, and go through the pain? How does one survive that period?” Stern said — a question he often wondered during and after his time as a prisoner.
In April 1945 Stern was forced on a death march along with 7,000 other prisoners for 35 days to a camp in Lebenau, and was liberated in May 1945 by American soldiers. He was one of the 156 survivors of the 7,000 prisoners who started the death march.
Following Ben Stern’s speech, Holocaust survivor Gitta Ryle shared her experiences. She has shared her courageous stories since 1969.
Born in Vienna in 1932, Ryle was forced into hiding for seven years to avoid being persecuted by the Germans. At the age of seven, her mother sent her and her sister, age 10, to Paris in order to escape from the Germans who arrived in Austria. Ryle found refuge in various places, including a villa, a chateau and a Catholic convent.
“That I survived is a miracle,” Ryle said. “We were in basements, and Germans would come and throw grenades in the basements knowing people were in there. All I knew was running from one place to another. I forgot my identity. I lost my trust in humanity.”
When the war was over, Ryle and her sister were reunited with their mother, though they later learned their father died in Auschwitz. In 1951, she moved to Los Angeles.
“I learned you have to learn forgiveness,” Ryle said. “I forgive myself for holding onto the negativity [Hitler] produced.”
UCSC student and “Never Again” organizer Alystar Sacks recognized the popularity of the event, citing the Holocaust as one of the most significant historical events of the last century.
“The reason so many people attended is because it’s something we can relate to on a human level and sympathize with,” Sacks said. “[The Holocaust] is an important part of human history. This is really the last chance most of the attendees will ever have to hear a Holocaust survivor speak.”
Sacks wanted to bring Holocaust survivors to speak at UCSC since she visited Poland and Israel, a trip taken with a Holocaust survivor — Ben Stern himself.
“When you see something like that in person you believe it more,” Sacks said. “Even today there are Holocaust deniers or people who say it was exaggerated. That’s something we can combat. When Ben pulled up his sleeve at the event and you could see his [prisoner] number on his arm, there’s no denying that.”
The event influenced many of its attendees, as many approached Sacks after the event to express interest in bringing more survivors to UCSC.
Additionally, video footage of the event will be available in McHenry Library’s archives for people who were unable to attend or for future generations to experience, so the stories will endure.
Though both Stern and Ryle continue to live their lives, as both are married and have families, neither of them have forgotten the horrors they witnessed.
“The idea is to pass my story on to future generations, so we never forget the Holocaust happened,” Ryle said.