Some Dalton Middle School 8th graders had a special guest speaker to wrap up a unit about the Holocaust and its literature. Gretchen Abernathy’s class had been studying the Holocaust for weeks, and Ms. Abernathy invited Alla Czerkasij to come speak to her class and other 8th graders.
Ms. Czerkasij is a survivor of the Holocaust and the author of Deliverance, a book that Abernathy’s students read.
Ms. Czerkasij was born in Ukraine in 1935 under Stalin’s communist rule.
“It was terrible,” she told the students. She told a tale of how her father was late to work one morning, and knowing that he would be severely punished, he purposefully injured himself so he would have an excuse for being late and missing work.
Ms. Czerkasij said that the Red Army and Nazis would come in and out of her town, and they would both treat Ukrainians like enemies. “German soldiers slept in our beds, and we had to sleep on the floor. German soldiers ate our food, and we had to eat what was left over,” Czerkasij said.
When Ms. Czerkasij was 7, she was put on a train with her parents bound for a labor camp in Leipzig, Germany. She said the Germans were trying to sugarcoat the situation and told them that they “would all have jobs.”
Ms. Czerkasij said some people jumped off the train to avoid going to the camp, but when they did jump, Nazi soldiers would shoot at them. When the train arrived at the camp, Czerkasij said the Nazi soldiers tried to make the camp sound like a resort. “They said, ‘These are brand new barracks, you can smell the new paint, and there are shiny new barbed wire fences.’”
Those in the camp worked from morning until the evening, and they were put on a diet that was starving them all. “The food was awful. It tasted and looked like dishwater. I got very, very skinny. My mother would tell me to sit around and preserve my energy so I wouldn’t be as hungry,” said Mrs. Czerkasij.
When she was 8-years-old, her father and another man in the camp tried to escape the camp to get food to bring back to feed their starving families. They were caught in the act and both men were eventually sent to Buchenwald, an infamous concentration camp near Weimar, Germany.
One night, Mrs. Czerkasij and her mother heard bombs falling near their camp, so they fled to take cover. Others, tired of fighting and still suffering, did not, and died when a bomb fell in the shelter Mrs. Czerkasij and her mother had just left.
“I thought, ‘There must be a reason I’m alive.’ Never give up! Fight!” Mrs. Czerkasij told the students as she told the tale of the bombing. It was around this time that Mrs. Czerkasij learned that her father had perished at Buchenwald. “Respect and love your parents,” she said. “There was a helplessness and hopelessness feeling seeing your parents being abused.”
After the bombing, those in the camp continued their hard labor. It was during this time that some German citizens began sneaking in some food to the prisoners. “Somebody was watching over us,” Mrs. Czerkasij said of getting that food. “God was saying, ‘You are not forgotten. There is still something good in this life!’”
In May of 1945, prisoners heard bullets flying over their heads. Someone in the camps then passed the word, “Americans are coming.” When they emerged from their barracks, Mrs. Czerkasij said the brightness of the sun hurt their eyes, and once the gunfire had ceased, they could hear birds chirping.
“They were in tanks with white stars,” Mrs. Czerkasij said of the American soldiers. “And they were waving at us and smiling at us. There was such pity and compassion in their faces. It was the happiest moment of my life.”
Once they were liberated, the American soldiers cooked them oatmeal. “My husband and I still eat oatmeal every morning. I never tire of it,” Mrs. Czerkasij said.
After she was liberated, Mrs. Czerkasij then moved to Sweden, and then to America in 1960. During this time, she met her husband—he was also in the same labor camp as Mrs. Czerkasij. They have been married for 54 years and have three children and five grandchildren.
Mrs. Czerkasij said she and her husband try to never complain about anything. “I never complain about food!” Mrs. Czerkasij said. “We appreciate everything.” When Mrs. Czerkasij first came to America, she lived in New York, but she moved to the Chattanooga area 20 years ago and now resides in Apison, Tenn.
“I love this country,” said Mrs. Czerkasij, who is now an American citizen. “There’s so much good in this country.” She has been traveling around telling her story for eight years. “It’s my mission,” she said of sharing her tale.
Hope Shultz, a 14-year-old 8th grader, read Mrs. Czerkasij’s book and enjoyed seeing her in person. “It was interesting and inspiring,” said Ms. Shultz of Mrs. Czerkasij’s book. “It’s interesting to meet a person it happened to.” From Deliverance, Ms. Shultz said she learned to: “Stay strong and never give up.”
“Never give up no matter your circumstance,” Mrs. Czerkasij said. “There’s always something good in the world and good people.”
“I have no resentment at all!” she said. “That’s why I’m a happy person. Life is too short and too beautiful to carry resentment. With help from God, I found forgiveness. You can’t forget, but you can forgive.”