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updated: 6/5/2017 10:53 AM

Holocaust survivor, 94: 'Love is always stronger than hate'

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  • Holocaust survivor Joyce Wagner, 94, met with Dennis Nilson and Dominic Faillo, right, seventh-graders from St. John's Lutheran School in Lombard, during her visit to Glenbard South High School.

    Holocaust survivor Joyce Wagner, 94, met with Dennis Nilson and Dominic Faillo, right, seventh-graders from St. John's Lutheran School in Lombard, during her visit to Glenbard South High School.
    Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

  • Joyce Wager, center, standing between her parents, was the family's oldest daughter. While Wagner survived, her parents, grandparents and siblings -- everyone in this cherished family photo from 1938 -- died in the Holocaust.

    Joyce Wager, center, standing between her parents, was the family's oldest daughter. While Wagner survived, her parents, grandparents and siblings -- everyone in this cherished family photo from 1938 -- died in the Holocaust.
    Courtesy of Gilda Ross

  • Holocaust survivor Joyce Wagner, 94, shows the number tattoo -- 57779 -- she received as a young girl in Auschwitz. On the left is Amy Wright, a parent from St. John's Lutheran School in Lombard who came to hear Wagner speak at Glenbard South High School.

    Holocaust survivor Joyce Wagner, 94, shows the number tattoo -- 57779 -- she received as a young girl in Auschwitz. On the left is Amy Wright, a parent from St. John's Lutheran School in Lombard who came to hear Wagner speak at Glenbard South High School.
    Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

 
 

It's a painful, annual ritual when Joyce Wagner steps onto a stage in a high school auditorium and relives her memories from the Auschwitz concentration camp.

No one could blame Wagner if she bottled up her grief and survivor's guilt. In a Polish family of 11, she was the only one to survive the Holocaust.

But at 94 years old, Wagner still speaks with urgency and still confronts the past.

"She's on a mission to help the world remember and do what she can to inspire students to live lives of courage and action and compassion," said her daughter Gilda Ross, a student and community projects coordinator in Glenbard High School District 87, where her mother meets with teenagers nearly every year.

Wagner's relentless mission began 40 years ago when her daughter, then a guidance counselor, invited her to a small theater to speak with students preparing for their production of "The Diary of Anne Frank."

Growing up in Milwaukee, Ross and her two siblings had only heard "bits and pieces" over the years about what happened to her mother and her family. Ross wonders now: How do you describe to your own child the atrocities you suffered in the Holocaust?

But on that stage in 1977, an adult Ross saw how her mother was able to communicate with students and find a resilient voice that continues to leave her audience in tears.

"She's our family superhero," Wagner's son-in-law Paul Ross said. "It's overwhelming what she went through, and it makes me cry every time."

Wagner, however, does not cry. Nearly as soon as she walked into the Glenbard South High School auditorium earlier this month, Wagner rolled up her sleeve and showed students the tattoo she used to hide with a Band-Aid. Branded on her left arm is the number -- 57779 -- that identified her as an Auschwitz prisoner.

On a dark stage at the Glen Ellyn school, Wagner listened quietly as a video showed a meeting with students in 2011. In the recording, she described, in vivid detail, Nazi brutality at Auschwitz.

Sophomore Ania Gniatczyk, whose Polish great-grandfather was killed in a concentration camp, was so moved she and her friend Erin Matos embraced Wagner and thanked her for telling her story.

"She's trying to do it for the greater good of everybody else," Matos said.

Wagner was about their age -- 17 -- when Nazis invaded Poland in September 1939. Wagner and other Jews were forced to toil in working camps until they were crowded into a train "like cattle," bound for the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp.

The SS soldiers separated the men and women when they arrived to the complex surrounded by electric fences. Wagner would never see her brother again.

"I told my youngest sister, Hilda, to pinch her cheeks so that she would look older and healthy when we marched past the SS," Wagner said.

Both shaved completely bald, Wagner and her sister didn't recognize each other.

"We weren't human anymore," Wagner said in the video.

They slept and worked in their prison dress, awakened early each morning by barrack supervisors. Wagner witnessed children, parents and grandparents walking to their death in the gas chambers.

"I saw smoke and fire coming out of the tall chimneys of the crematorium, and the stench of dead bodies was everywhere," Wagner said.

Her sister would develop Typhus fever. Wagner, who was assigned to work in an ammunitions factory, was not allowed to see Hilda in a hospital. But she managed to get inside and searched a big room, calling out her sister's name and hoping to find her alive.

Instead, a woman "who looked like a skeleton" laying next to an empty bed told Wagner in a weak voice that Hilda had died "so peacefully in her sleep." She was 15 years old.

"I could not expect myself to survive, and then it was easier to accept her death," Wagner said.

As Germany began losing the war, the SS ordered thousands of prisoners out of Auschwitz and led them on a "death march" to smaller camps in January 1945.

Wagner's feet were swollen after walking mile after mile in the cold. But when she passed by the SS for another "selection," Wagner inexplicably stopped limping.

"I survived on miracles, luck and a strong will to live," she said.

Russian troops would eventually liberate the camps, and Wagner was freed. She returned to her hometown in Poland and got married. Wagner and her husband remained in a displaced person's camp until her uncles, who had left Europe before World War II, arranged for the couple to join them in Milwaukee.

The great-grandmother now lives in Florida and spends the summer with her daughter's family. The speeches in schools always take an emotional toll. But Wagner knows these students are the last generation to hear directly from a Holocaust survivor.

"Listen to each other," Wagner told them. "Respect each other and have compassion for each other. Love is always stronger than hate."