In an unassuming bungalow in Chicago’s Garfield Ridge neighborhood, a woman approaches her 90th birthday. She lives simply but fully, appreciative of 49 years of marriage, two children, her faith. And her country.
She searches for words, occasionally relying on her native language, Polish, to tie together her thoughts while grasping the arm of a visitor. Across from her sits a friend, John Aranza, as she recounts details of her life.
Her story is flowing now. It comes in rapid breaths. It comes through grimaces. Her eyes water once or twice but not when she speaks of leaving her farm in Poland at the age of 14 and being transported to a place called Auschwitz. Not when she mentions the sour soup, the icy barracks, the fenced-off field where putrid smells arose at nighttime.
She doesn’t tear up when she speaks of being separated from her mother, her only family member at the concentration camp, or of walking for two weeks through frozen fields and nearly barefoot to Bergen-Belsen, a camp even more crowded and starved than the one she left. There, toward the end of the war and almost four years older, she huddled with teachers and doctors and professors, all prisoners, and prayed the rosary with beads made of tiny balls of bread.
She doesn’t cry when she mentions her friend who worked in the kitchen, badly beaten with a stick for sneaking a bite of potato.
No, her voice cracks when she mentions the United States, her home, and her frustration at those who will never appreciate the gift of it.
“It’s such a good country,” she says, her face twisting. “If I make it, with no education, no penny, everyone can make it. They kill each other and for what?”
Across Harlem Avenue and a few miles north, a man she does not know is running for Congress. He wants to be her representative in the U.S. House. He managed to emerge as the Republican nominee in the 3rd Congressional District. His name is Arthur Jones. He is a Nazi sympathizer and Holocaust denier who believes the stories of torture and death of more than 6 million Jews during World War II are grossly exaggerated. He is incapable of confronting his own vulgarity in saying so.
She was prisoner No. 27,276. The tattoo on her left forearm near her elbow is a bluish stain that once drew laughter and humiliation at a Chicago department store where employees didn’t understand what it meant. Her mother, her only family member who also was stuffed on a freight train and sent to Auschwitz, bore the tattoo of one number higher, 27,277. They were a pair on that day, before her mother got sick.
The woman is quiet, perhaps stunned, when she learns a man running for Congress denies Nazis committed genocide against millions of Jews and families like hers who happened to own a farm with cows and chickens valuable to the Gestapo. The Nazi occupation of Poland that began in 1939 ripped apart families and took their everything.
As the occupation intensified, her family - parents, two sisters and a baby brother sick with the measles - escaped into the woods in 1942 with other families, some of whom burrowed into the dirt to hide. The soldiers found them anyway.
Her family was separated. She and her mother, both sturdy and tall, were forced into a truck and then a train car, along with a neighbor.
Of Auschwitz, she remembers the feel of the blanket she was given to survive in the unheated barracks. By the early morning wake-up whistle, it was stiff with her breath. She remembers the morning tea that some suspected was poisoned. She remembers the stinky, watery soup made of the skins of “brukiew,” or rutabagas. When she sees the dark yellowish root vegetable at the grocery store even now, she hustles in the other direction.
She remembers the despair. She describes her shoes - wooden bottoms with tops made of rags. She spent two years and five months at Auschwitz working, first separating the items of new prisoners stripped of their clothes, then digging ditches before being forced into the snow for a miserable two-week hike to Bergen-Belsen.
She remembers months later when the Allies liberated it. Soldiers helped her out of a tree where she had climbed to make a celebratory bouquet of leaves and twigs.
It would be years before she reunited with her family. They all survived. Many of them remained in Poland.
Not her. She sailed to the United States in 1951 with a husband she had married in Germany and their 3-year-old daughter. Helped by a Polish organization in Chicago, they settled in a small apartment on the South Side. They had no money, were desperate for work and dealt with no running water and a fireplace to cook their food.
Eventually they each found jobs. They had another child. They lived a simple - grateful - life without vacations, without credit cards, without stuff. They worked opposite shifts at meat factories and bread companies, always working long hours for little pay while raising their children.
Her husband died more than 20 years ago. She is a grandma. This country is her greatest blessing. She shudders at the thought of someone, a candidate for elected office in her district, just down the road, believing that the Holocaust was a hoax. “It happened. I was there,” she says.
But this is not his story. It is hers. She will turn 90 in October. She is Stasia “Stella” Dorna of Chicago. She is a Holocaust survivor.
Kristen McQueary is a member of the Tribune Editorial Board.