In 1944, Eva Olsson and her family were given two hours to pack their bags and were told by the Nazis they were being taken to work in a factory in Germany.
"We believed them. They lined us up outside and marched us to the train station seven kilometres away," she recalled.
They were loaded onto cattle cars, about 100 to 150 people per car with one bucket of water and one bucket to be used as a toilet. There was little air, and people began to die, pray and cry.
"I never heard of Auschwitz- Birkenau. The air that hit us was nauseating. Black smoke covered the sky. I said to my mom, This doesn't look like a brick factory.' It wasn't. It was a killing factory."
Over the past 12 years, 87-year-old Olsson has shared the horror of that day and the months that followed with more than one million people and urges each individual who hears her story to strive for something better and stand up against intolerance.
She draws parallels between Nazi bullies on an international scale and individual bullies in school hallways and asks students to practise unconditional acceptance.
The reaction to her presentation at St. Michael Catholic Secondary School yesterday was palpable. The students were silent as she spoke and stood when she was finished. Boys lined up to shake her hand and girls lined up to hug her. Several students asked to have their pictures taken with her.
"For her to go through all that and talk about it, I couldn't do it. I have so much respect for her," said Lila Lavereau, who is in Grade 10.
Olsson was born in Hungary in 1924. She was one of six children born into a poor family. There were 19 people living in two rooms and sleeping on the floor without blankets.
It was paradise compared to the hell she endured as a teenager in infamous camps like Auschwitz-Birkenau and Bergen- Belsen.
"Hitler couldn't have done what he did without the bystander of Eastern Europe," she said.
Six million Jews and five million Slavic people, homosexuals, political activists and others died in the camps. Of the six million Jews, about 1.5 million were children under 14.
Olsson's five nieces -- the oldest was three and the youngest two months -- were gassed with Olsson's mother and sister-in-law the day they stepped out of that cattle car into Auschwitz- Birkenau.
"I am here to speak for them. Their voices were silenced by hate. They cannot speak for themselves," she said.
Olsson herself could have died that day, but another prisoner saved her life. She was holding the hand of one of her nieces when the prisoner whispered to her three times to give the child to "the older woman."
"If I hadn't let go, I wouldn't be standing here. I would have gone where all the mothers, pregnant women, children under 14 and old people went," she said.
Josef Mengele, known as the Angel of Death, ordered her to go to the right; her mother was told to go left. By the time Olsson turned around her mother was gone. She didn't know then she would never see her mother again. "I would have wrapped my arms around my mother and told her how much I loved her and that I was sorry I disobeyed her . . . It's not too late for you . . . do it while you can."
That message wasn't lost on Grade 10 student Regan Devlin. She embraced Olsson after the presentation.
"My parents know I love them but I don't really show it, but once you lose them . . . "
Olsson's father was sent to Buchenwald where he died of starvation seven months later.
Olsson talked about the misery of the camps, but stressed there are good people everywhere. "I knew some prisoners who weren't very happy with God. He didn't send them help. Well, God didn't build Auschwitz. We cannot blame God for the choices we make."
Olsson was at Bergen-Belsen -- the same camp in which Anne and Margot Frank died -- when British and Canadian troops coming from Holland liberated the camp in April 1945.
"I was free from being killed but never free from the memory of it," she said.
Her determination never to give up, to take care of her younger sister and to tell the world about the camps helped her survive.
After liberation she married a young Swede, who happened to be a well-educated Christian. She was a Hasidic Jew who had never been in a classroom -- she has since earned a doctorate. What he showed her while they were together was what unconditional acceptance and love looks like. The couple had a family and moved to Canada in 1951. Her husband was killed by a drunk driver at just 37 years old. "He left me with the gift of unconditional acceptance and love. I want to pass it along to you but only under the condition you'll pass it on."
Olsson is the author of books including an autobiography, Unlocking the Doors: A Woman's Struggle Against Intolerance. For more information go to her web-site at http://www.evaolsson.ca.
Source: http://www.stratfordbeaconherald.com/Ar ... ?e=3325069