Auschwitz survivor brings 'message of hope' to Bergen in era of growing Holocaust denial

Itu Lustig enjoyed an idyllic childhood until the Holocaust shattered her family.

Lustig grew up the oldest of seven children in the small Romanian village of Stramtura, where her father was a respected rabbi. But everything changed in 1940 when Hungarian forces arrived and began a campaign of persecution against local Jews. She was barred from attending public school; Jewish businesses were shut down.

That tenuous existence lasted for four more years, until the Germans arrived and took away the Jews altogether.

They are painful memories, but ones that the 94-year-old Lustig feels obligated to share. The Brooklyn resident will speak in Bergen County this weekend against a backdrop of rising hate incidents around the globe, including a threat in New Jersey last month that led to heightened security at synagogues around the state.

So Lustig, who survived the Auschwitz concentration camp, will share her story in an effort to show a forgetful world what happens when people remain silent in the face of evil. She will speak Sunday at the Woodcliff Lake Hilton in an event sponsored by the Valley Chabad, a Jewish outreach center. The event is open to the public with registration available at Eternalflame.org.

"It's not easy for me, but it's important," she said in an interview. "I speak all over in universities and schools to young people. The reason I'm doing it is because I hope it never happens again. I don't want it to ever be said that it didn't happen. It's true and it happened."

Lustig's world came crashing down in 1944 when German soldiers marched into Stramtura and rounded up its Jewish residents. The reaction of the town shocked her.

"When the Nazis took us out, the residents of the town lined up in front of the church and anyone who had a musical instrument played music and cheered to show us how happy they were to get rid of us," she recalled. "Until then we had no problem with them, and that was when they showed us their true colors."

Itu Lustig, a Romanian Jew, was one of only two survivors from a family taken to the Auschwitz concentration camp. She'll speak about her experience during an appearance in Bergen County.
Itu Lustig, a Romanian Jew, was one of only two survivors from a family taken to the Auschwitz concentration camp. She'll speak about her experience during an appearance in Bergen County.

It is a chilling memory that is all-too easy to imagine in an era when some suddenly seem comfortable sharing ugly feelings about their Jewish neighbors.

Former President Donald Trump has come under fire for hosting a dinner at his South Florida estate with white nationalist and Holocaust denier Nick Fuentes and rapper-entrepreneur Ye, formerly known as Kanye West. Ye has aroused controversy for a string of antisemitic remarks, including a threat to go "Death Con 3" on Jewish people. On Thursday, Ye declared his love for Hitler and Nazis in an interview with conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.

Basketball star Kyrie Irving generated a firestorm in October by tweeting a link to a film condemned for antisemitic tropes, including Holocaust denial. Irving eventually apologized but the film has become an Amazon bestseller since his tweet.

In November, a Middlesex County teen was arrested for making online threats to "attack on the Jews," in a manifesto that prompted an FBI warning to the New Jersey Jewish community.

Stuffed into a cattle car

In Lustig's time, such rhetoric led to genocide.

After the German military arrived, her family was stuffed into a cattle car along with scores of other Jews, she said. They were sent to Auschwitz in Poland, the largest and most notorious Nazi concentration camp, where more than 1.1 million people, most of them Jews, were killed, according to historians.

Then 15, Lustig was forced to learn quickly how to survive amid the camp's starvation and death.

Her mother, grandmother, and five younger siblings disappeared the first day and were sent to the gas chambers used to kill prisoners. Lustig learned after the war that her father also died in the camp.

Lustig and her brother, Zanvil were the sole survivors of their entire family. He died this summer at the age of 92.

After Auschwitz was liberated, Lustig was sent to a refugee camp in Sweden. In 1947, she emigrated to America, where she met her husband, Mayer, who had come from Hungary years earlier.

They married and had three children. Itu taught for a time in a Brooklyn elementary school and later worked with Mayer in his nursing home business.

When her children were grown, she became an active volunteer in a Jewish organization that supports families of the sick or bedridden. Today, she is a great, great grandmother of numerous descendants − she declines to specify how many, but proudly states, "I have a big family."

Since her husband's death about 12 years ago, she has been traveling around the country speaking to audiences about her experiences during the war.

As the number of survivors continues to dwindle, the number of Holocaust deniers has grown, surveys show.

There's a shocking lack of knowledge among young people today about the genocide of European Jews during World War II: A 2020 survey of 1,000 Millennial and Gen Z Americans found 63% did not know that 6 million Jews died in the Holocaust, according to Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, which commissioned the poll.

Rabbi Yosef Orenstein of Valley Chabad in Woodcliff Lake, left, lighting a menorah with Allendale Mayor Ari Bernstein in 2018. Orenstein said Holocaust survivors provide "a message of hope in a world that seems overwhelmed by darkness."
Rabbi Yosef Orenstein of Valley Chabad in Woodcliff Lake, left, lighting a menorah with Allendale Mayor Ari Bernstein in 2018. Orenstein said Holocaust survivors provide "a message of hope in a world that seems overwhelmed by darkness."

Fifteen percent of respondents felt that neo-Nazi views were acceptable, said the conference, which advocates for Holocaust survivors. "The state-by-state analysis yielded a particularly disquieting finding that nearly 20% of Millennials and Gen Z in New York feel the Jews caused the Holocaust," their report added.

Lustig sees it as her mission to spread her tale of resilience to a new generation.

"Her message is one of faith," said her grandsons, Sender Lustig, a rabbi with a Monsey, New York, yeshiva. "She gives a very positive message wherever she goes."

Rabbi Yosef Orenstein, who runs Valley Chabad's Eternal Flame Holocaust Education Program, said it's important to meet survivors like Lustig while they are here to share their stories.

"Many Jewish teens in our community see social media influencers making disparaging remarks about Jews and it makes them uncomfortable," he said.

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"When celebrities make comments doubting historical facts about the Holocaust it's important for the teens to hear first-hand from a woman who went through it," he said. "Itu saw the worst of it and shares a message of hope in a world that seems overwhelmed by darkness. We must make sure our children hear her story so they can pass on her message."

Mark of evil became a symbol of hope

When she arrived at Auschwitz, the Nazis put numbers on Lustig's arm. "It took at least 50 shots to put that number on," she remembered. "It was a very painful procedure. Each number had a lot of pricks. There was no anesthetic."

SS authorities at the camp systematically tattooed inmates so that they could be easily identified. The numbers also were a way to dehumanize the captives. Only prisoners selected for work were issued tattoos: Those sent to the gas chambers were not registered and did not receive the markings, according to historians.

The bluish tattoo on Lustig's arm is a permanent reminder of the horrors she endured. It's also a reminder of her miraculous survival against the odds.

When her children were young and asked her what the number on her arm was, "I told them it was my phone number," because they were too young to hear about such suffering, she said. Later, she began speaking at schools and synagogues and revealed why "A7443" was stamped onto her arm.

One day, she spoke about her Holocaust experience at her grandson's yeshiva. A boy examined her arm, she said, and exclaimed, "Do you know what the numbers add up to?"

After she did the math in her head, she gasped.

"When you add up all of those numbers, it adds up to 18," she said. "In Judaism, 18 has a special significance: It means `chai' or life." Clearly, she felt, her creator had plans for her.

Today, the devoutly religious Lustig enjoys reading Jewish books, baking kugel, and spending time with her growing family.

She is disgusted by the antisemitism she hears about today in the news.

"I came to the United States in 1947. I do not remember living in such a crazy, scary time....At that time, the hatred was hidden. Today, it is more open," she said, referring to recent shootings in synagogues and other Jewish establishments.

Despite the hate that seems to be emerging on a regular basis, "We must always have faith that we will survive," she added.

"We will survive absolutely. The Nazis that did this are all down under. But I am still here."

Deena Yellin covers religion for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to her work covering how the spiritual intersects with our daily lives, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

Email: yellin@northjersey.com

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This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Holocaust survivor Itu Lustig to speak in Woodcliff Lake NJ