I usually only profile women from the past, but with Aranka Siegal I am making an exception.
Aranka Siegal is a writer, a Holocaust survivor, and a woman of passion and perseverance. Her mission for the past seventy years has been to teach about the deadly consequences of prejudice.
The fifth of seven children, Aranka grew up in a small town that at times has belonged to Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and/or the Ukraine. She spent her childhood summers at her grandmother’s home deep in the Carpathian Mountains, where life was full of traditions. The memory of those traditions eventually helped Aranka to survive the horrors of the Holocaust.
In 1939 when Aranka was nine years old she first heard the name, Adolf Hitler. Suddenly life began to change. By the age of twelve she was no longer allowed to attend school in her village because she was a Jew. Next, her father was taken away by the Hungarian soldiers. The family never saw him again. Then when Aranka turned thirteen, the soldiers came back. This time they announced that Aranka’s mother and the four children still living at home were to pack up and leave the house, immediately. Aranka remembers her mother grabbing only a blanket and one or two necessities; leaving behind the small tin container of yeast dough that would have been the starter for their weekly bread.
The family and their Jewish neighbors were herded into packed cattle cars and transported continuously for two long days into Nazi occupied Poland. When the train finally stopped Aranka gazed up at the gates of the concentration camp called Auschwitz. It was at Auschwitz that her concept of home would be destroyed, her family would evaporate, and her compelling story of survival would begin.
As her family entered the camp terrified and confused, a thin emaciated prisoner sidled up to Aranka and whispered, “Tell them you are sixteen.” “But I am thirteen,” she replied. The prisoner hissed, “Say you are sixteen!” The soldiers approached and asked Aranka her age. She replied, “Sixteen, and my sister is seventeen.” Then as Aranka watched, her mother and the younger children were marched off toward one building as Aranka and her older sister were herded to a different location. They never saw their mother and siblings again, who perished that day in the crematorium.
For months Aranka and her sister, now each wearing only a threadbare shift and with heads shaved, worked in Auschwitz. Deprived of all human dignity and witness to unspeakable atrocities, they were provided with only the barest amount of food. Each lost significant weight as their health deteriorated. Late in 1944 the two girls were marched for days, along with other prisoners, from Auschwitz to another concentration camp, Bergen-Belsen. Here they both contracted typhoid, and saw a young Anne Frank die of the disease. Despite all odds, Aranka and her sister managed to cling to life. When the British Army liberated Bergen-Belsen on April 15, 1945, Aranka was too sick to walk out of the camp. She weighed only 58 pounds.
Seeing that the Allies marked some of the survivors with a red cross on the forehead and then transferred those prisoners to stretchers, Aranka’s sister used spit and perhaps blood to draw crosses on their brows as well. The girls were quickly transported to a hospital and after many weeks of medical care were sent on to Sweden for further recuperation. By the time that Aranka and her sister found passage to America, Hitler had ordered the killing of 6 million Jews. Aranka promised herself that she would find a way of honoring not only her own family, but all those who died.
As an adult, she enrolled in New York University, married, and started a family. Then she began to write. Her emotionally packed books, Upon the Head of the Goat, Grace in the Wilderness, and Memories of Babi, all applaud the remarkable resilience of the human spirit. As her books gained in popularity and were translated into multiple languages, Aranka was asked to tell her story to audiences. She agreed, hoping that her message might help create a world where a Holocaust can never reoccur. It is her gift back to mankind, because she survived.
I recently watched Aranka, now 84 years old, standing by herself on stage and telling her story to a packed college auditorium. Diminutive and fashionably dressed, her eyes filled with tears as she recounted the events of her life. When she was finished speaking she simply said, “Thank you for listening. I hope that you young people will now understand the deadly power of prejudice and always fight against it.” She received a standing ovation.
In the words of George Santayana, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” That is why I continue to write about strong women in history, so that each reader of this blog and my website www.lindasittig.com will gain an understanding of how even one person can make a difference.
If you know of a particular woman who deserves to be featured on this blog, please email me: firstname.lastname@example.org. My two criteria are that the woman be deceased and that her exploits are not well known to modern readers.
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~ Every woman deserves to have her story told.