Claire Heymann told a crowd of about 75 people in Glen Cove Sunday about the day 70 years ago when, surrounded by armed guards and barking dogs, she was freed from Auschwitz.
"We were only eight left from 120 girls," Heymann said of the group she had been imprisoned with before the Russians arrived and freed the camp on Jan. 27, 1945.
The German-born Heymann spoke at the Holocaust Memorial & Tolerance Center of Nassau County in Glen Cove at an event commemorating the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camp in Poland.
The 90-year-old Queens resident was one of eight Holocaust survivors who attended the event, among the last living testaments to the genocide that killed more than 6 million Jews during World War II.
When she was 14, Nazis destroyed Heymann's home in Germany during Kristallnacht, or the "Night of Broken Glass," when Nazi soldiers destroyed Jewish homes, synagogues and businesses in 1938. In 1941 she was arrested and sent by train in a cattle car to the death camp.
"We had no idea what was going on," Heymann said. "We held each other. And the girls said, 'We're not going to survive, I don't think it's a working camp, I think they want to kill us. . . . They gave us Russian uniforms from dead prisoners of war, and they took us in another room and shaved our hair. We were hysterical."
When she was freed, Heymann and her fellow survivors marched through the snow and ice, taking clothing from bodies to keep warm. She took a freight train to her hometown, where she eventually reconnected with her sister, the only other person in her family to survive.
Despite the ordeal, Heymann said she somehow had the "willpower to survive and tell the world." She immigrated to New York in 1947, eventually marrying and becoming a hairdresser.
Heymann said she didn't speak about her experiences during the Holocaust for 30 years because it was too difficult, but during a worldwide survivors trip to Jerusalem, she realized she needed to tell her story to make sure it never happened again.
The Tolerance Center exists and holds events like these to preserve the stories that Heymann and other survivors share, as well as to promote tolerance for all people.
"The Holocaust happened because people didn't speak up," said Steven Markowitz, chairman of the center. "When there were opportunities right at the beginning with Hitler coming to power and passing laws on Jews, where they can live and so forth, nobody spoke up. . . . The world didn't speak up and that gave Hitler all the pretext he needed."
Markowitz said the lessons of the Holocaust are applicable today as all types of prejudice persist. The survivors who work with the center frequently speak at schools around Long Island to share a lesson of tolerance, calling for students to stick up for those being bullied.
The ultimate lesson is, "Don't be a bystander," Markowitz said.