“Be Active, Do Something”
Interview Date: on 15 October, 2016 | Written on 18 October, 2018
On the 11th of March 2018, Holocaust survivor Gussie Zaks passed away at Seacrest Village senior center in San Diego, California. She was 92 years old.
I met Gussie Zaks about two years ago while she was staying at Seacrest Village. Having been curious about her, I decided to interview her and listen to her moving story of survival and courage. Gussie, always having been short throughout her life, complimented me repeatedly on my height. She continued to express how “beautiful and tall” my mom and I were. She holds high respects for the youth as she believes that the new generation is the torch bearer for tolerance and carrying on a legacy that the world must never forget.
During the Holocaust
Gussie was born in the small town of Politz, Poland to two loving parents and was the youngest of seven siblings. “I had a wonderful mother, I had wonderful parents,” she told me passionately. Gussie’s father owned a Kosher butcher store, where helping out was a family affair. Mr. Zaks had always preached the message to always to something, and never do nothing; these words have proved, through her actions after the war, to have inspired Gussie daily.
“My mother was always saying, ‘the baby, she’s gonna go first because babies never survive,’ yet here I am.” Gussie was shocked after the war as her mom often expressed this growing up. “It’s hard to believe now that I am alive and nobody else is alive,” she says. A Zaks family tradition on Tuesdays involved attending what Gussie called “sisterhood lunches.” One Tuesday, as the family of 9 sat down for an early dinner, soldiers barged into their home. “They came into the house, they took the house away… my parents were the first ones to go.” She never saw her siblings or parents again. “Out of the 9 people at that dinner–not even one left– I’m the only one left.”
At 13 years old, Gussie’s living hell began. She was transported to several concentration camps across eastern Europe, Treblinka and Bergen-Belsen to name a couple. During the 5 hardest years of her life, Gussie was usually forced to labour in the fields with about 1000 other girls (in brutal conditions and in oftentimes in the freezing cold) cultivating potatoes or tomatoes. “Everyday we did something else, but always a hard job.”
Gussie’s short size often got her in trouble. The other girls in the camp would often lift her up to show the Nazis that she was tall enough, saving her from selection.
She recalled having been at the same concentration camp as Anne Frank, Bergen-Belsen. After I asked her if they had ever met, Gussie said she never saw her and added, “I didn’t care who I see or who I am, just that I survive.”
Gussie was 18 ½ in 1945. Post liberation, she and the girls in her camp who survived sought refuge in Sweden with the help of the red cross and the Swedish government. She was surprised that anyone was open to helping them. I asked her where she stayed in Sweden and she responded,“are you kidding? Who would take us in the way we looked?” Me and the other girls, we could barely walk.” Gussie conveyed more than thankful for her experience in Sweden, that it “was wonderful… the Swedish people have a good heart, they so good to us.” Upon arrival, the former prisoners were housed in a school and were nursed back to health at a hospital. “I had to come back to myself,” she shared.
Having stayed in Sweden for 1 year, the red cross workers in partnership with the Swedish government agreed to take the refugees anywhere they requested. 200 members of Gussie’s family–from cousins to siblings– were murdered at the hands of the Nazis. Fortunately, Gussie was able to stay with her aunt in Belgium until the age of 25.
After the War & Today
At 25, Gussie was able to come to the United States.
“I went right away to a factory to work, a sewing factory.” Gussie said this was the first thing she did upon settling on the lower east side of New York City. Gussie married a Holocaust survivor after reuniting with him after the war. Today, she is so lucky to have “2 wonderful kids and a wonderful daughter-in-law.” Her first marriage resulted in divorce, but her second, also to a survivor, lasted until he died in 2008.
Gussie had been very appreciative for her life in America since her arrival. “America is very nice to people,” she expressed. She lived her life to the fullest, never passing up on any opportunity to share her story in hopes of keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive. “I drive my car any place wherever they call me.” Gussie spoke to middle school students, high school students, and even to inmates at prisons. Through sharing the accounts of her life, she preached never taking life for granted and living life with a meaningful purpose with tolerant outlooks. She told me that indeed, her “story is never finished.”
Gussie encourages the new generation to obtain their education through an epiphany she had later in life. Squeezing my hand with all the soul and passion she could, she said, “this is how I learn now; be active, do something.”