Holocaust survivor: I used mantra from Yom Kippur liturgy to stay alive

Giselle (Gita) Cycowicz, still a practising psychologist at age 95, spoke at a Beit Shemesh ceremony on the eve of Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day.

By Batya Jerenberg, World Israel News

Dr. Giselle (Gita) Cycowicz, still a practicing psychologist at age 95, spoke at a Beit Shemesh ceremony on the eve of Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Day Wednesday, telling her story of survival in the face of the most unspeakable odds.

In 1944, when she was 17, her hometown of Khust fell to the Germans during the Nazi invasion of Hungary. Khust is now part of Ukraine, but then it was in Czechoslovakia, which was conquered by Germany’s Hungarian ally at the beginning of World War II.

Cycowicz (nee Friedman) was sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau along with her mother and older sister. There, in C-Camp, 30,000 women did no work but had to attend twice daily “appels,” lining up for the SS guards to count them for four hours at a time – 4 a.m.-8 a.m and 4 p.m.-8 p.m. The Germans would pass through the ranks making their infamous “selections” for death. Every day for five months, she said, the sisters were terrified hat their mother would be taken away from them.

It was during this time that she found something to hold onto that would help her stay alive until the end of the war. A girl in her block was gifted a High Holiday prayerbook by a male prisoner who had been sent to fix something in the camp. Seemingly on Yom Kippur eve, she stood among the packed, three-tier shelves of beds and sang the opening prayer, Kol Nidrei.

“You must understand, there were 1,200 women there, both religious and non-religious,” Cycowicz said. But when she sang, all 1,200 began to cry loudly. It was incredibly moving.”

Cycowicz, who was taught the Hebrew prayers at home, had been especially attached as a young child to the prayer of “Avinu Malkeinu” (Our Father, Our King). She felt that God heard her when she said it, even though she didn’t understand all the words.

“I looked at this prayer and thought to find one verse to learn by heart and say as a mantra to God,” she said. “I picked, ‘May this moment be one of compassion and a time of favor before You.’”

Cycowicz never lost her faith.

“My best friends, who had formal Jewish education and were strongly religious, didn’t believe in God anymore after the Holocaust,” she noted. “But I felt the exact opposite. Because there had been an Auschwitz, because there were things that were completely impossible to understand, I felt that God grasped my hands and protected me. My mother, too, repeated to us constantly that God would help us.”

One day, the SS called for 200 young, strong women to be sent to work elsewhere. The Friedmans and a cousin leapt at the chance, thinking that if they stayed put, the daughters would “die of fear” for their mother’s safety at the roll calls. But the Germans found her in the group and took her away, bringing about their worst nightmare.

The miracle

The sisters had to walk four kilometers to and from an airplane factory where they worked 12-hour shifts. “There were no breaks and no food, just a slice of bread in the morning,” Cycowicz said.

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Her job was to work a lathe machine, which meant standing with both arms up in the air all the time. After a week, she knew she could never survive this kind of labor.

Incredibly, a German officer asked one day if she knew how to draft schematics. Although she had not been trained, her drawing was acceptable and she moved to the engineers’ office over the factory.

“I will never forget how the chief engineer nodded his head” in assent, she said, though he never looked at her – or at the other prisoners in his office.

“For seven months, he never once looked at me,” she said. “I knew that I’d survive if even once he would give me a piece of bread. Sometimes, other Germans would give a girl bread, knowing we were starving.

“One day, he motioned to me over to his desk, head turned to the side, and pointed at a piece of paper. But he didn’t speak, and I was terrified, I didn’t know what he wanted. I guessed that I could take it, and he allowed it. There was a sandwich inside!”

Cycowicz, who worked only the day shift, took the precious food and waited for her sister and cousin to finish their night shift so they could split the sandwich between them.

“It was the most delicious food I ever had in my life,” she said.

After liberation, Cycowicz moved to the United States and her cousin went to pre-state Israel. When they reunited 46 years later, after Cycowicz immigrated to Israel, her cousin told her, “I’ll never forget that you waited for hours to save part of that sandwich for us.”

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As the front drew nearer, the women were evacuated in three trucks to a different camp. They had been working there for three days when suddenly they heard German whistles, which always meant a roll call. They ran to a field to line up. A German then spoke over a loudspeaker.

“Today is May 8, 1945. Today the war is over and you are free. You can do whatever you want, go wherever you want. We [Germans] have asked to stay with you to protect you until the Soviet army comes. We ask you therefore not to do anything to us.”

The sisters walked 800 kilometers with no decent shoes in order to get home, thinking that this would be the only place their family members would go if they survived. They had hopes for their father, who had been a big, strong man. Towards the end of the journey they got on a train, and at a certain stop there was a train on the parallel track that had come from the direction of Khust.

Cycowicz got on it to search for anyone she knew. A man called out to her, and when she went over to him, he said, “Your mother is waiting for you at home!”

She screamed, she said, for she was sure that her mother did not survive, but she was freed five months earlier from Birkenau by the Soviet army. Her father had perished.

Cycowicz has used her professional training and terrifying experience for the good as a therapist for Amcha, an organization that provides psychosocial support to Holocaust survivors dealing with their traumatic pasts.