LEWISBURG — Ira Segalewitz recently visited Tri-County North High School to talk about his experiences as a Holocaust survivor. He addressed freshmen and sophomores, who were both riveted by his tales — and respectful of his life story.
Segalewitz was born in Poland in 1936. He lived in a small village that was half Polish — the other half was broken into Christian and Jewish.
That demographic did cause some issues. Segalewitz said, “The two lived together, did business together, but they were never friends.”
He explained, there was “a real separation” in the village.
“Most people knew what was coming, but it was never announced,” Segalewitz added. “Germany never announced that they were going to attack. They did not declare war, they just attacked Poland from all directions.”
Poland was defeated within a couple of weeks.
A few weeks before the war began, Russia signed a non-aggression pact with Germany. As reward for signing that pact, Russia was given part of Poland.
That is how Segalewitz found himself in a Russian work camp years later.
Shortly after World War II started, the area he lived in was occupied by Russia. He added, “No longer were we part of Poland, we were now run by Russian government. The Russian military moved in, everything was controlled by Russia.”
It was around this time that Nazis began setting up concentration camps in Germany. The Jewish people began to escape and ran to Russia. Due to Russia’s history of occupying Poland, people trusted the Russians to be humane.
Segalewitz’s father was drafted into the Russian army.
With Jewish people seeking refuge in Russia, the non-aggression pact did not last long and the Nazis began their attack on Russia. Segalewitz’s father put Segalewitz and his mother on a train to go deep into Russia, away from the Nazis.
Segalewitz never saw his father again.
The train was full of women and children. During their journey, a German airplane passed over and attacked the train.
Segalewitz added, “For some reason the conductor stopped the train. When he stopped the train, people began to jump off and run. My mother and I did the same. We were running and the airplane kept going back and forth, shooting the train. His mission was to stop the train.”
The plane attacked a couple more times and then disappeared. Those who were not hurt, or worse, boarded the train again and headed back on their journey.
Another airplane attacked.
Segalewitz recalled, “As we jumped out of the plane, my mother tripped and fell. I continued to run and, according to my mother, when she looked up she saw me at a distance away. She saw an explosion right over my head. According to her, she got up and started running towards me. She’s running and she’s screaming. She comes to where she saw me and she sees this big hole.
“Laying beside it, she sees me. She crawls on top of me, and she’s shaking me — she’s trying to wake me up. I had a concussion. She’s shaking me and shaking me and screaming and at one point I open my eyes and say, ‘Why are you screaming, Mommy?’
“At that point, she hugs me so hard that at times I can still feel it. You will be surprised, no matter how old you get, you can always feel your mother’s hug.”
The mother and son duo escaped deep into the Ural Mountains of the Bashkir USSR, where they survived the Holocaust in a work camp.
Segalewitz said, “My story is a little bit different. I was never in a concentration camp. I was in different situations, but I was never in a concentration camp.”
The conditions in the work camp were awful, but at no point were the workers forced to be there. They knew if they left, they very well might die. At the work camp they could be with their family (those they escaped with), got paid in (minimal) food, and had somewhere to sleep.
Segalewitz explained the Russians “were not trying to punish us.” They simply did not have the food or money to support the amount of people they housed. They needed the work done and those in the work camp were willing to do it for the pay.
The pay consisted of a monthly sack of potatoes and some flour. They would sometimes get bonuses in the form of bread. They would make root pancakes or leaf pancakes. Segalewitz recalled, “If you think you’ve eaten, you’ve eaten.”
The work was hard and it was cold. They did not have the necessary clothing to work out in the cold, and the clothing they did have, they never changed out of it. So, it wore down and did not protect them from the elements.
Segalewitz’s mother got frostbite and had to have her finger amputated.
Workers in the camp were infested with vermin and mites. They could not bathe, could not clean themselves. Segalewitz was a young boy growing and his mother had to barter with other women to get him clothing that fit.
Segalewitz also faced a lot of anti-semitism in school, where he was bullied for his background.
It was after the war, when Segalewitz and his mother returned to Poland, they learned most of their family was murdered by the Nazis. They found out about what monstrosities the war brought. There were many people displaced, who finally went home only to find there was no home to go to.
Segalewitz could not even find the house he used to live in. It was gone.
The U.S. Army stepped in and set up Displaced Persons (DP) camps meant to transport people to the country of their choosing. However, Segalewitz and his mother did not have documentation, so they could not go to the United States or many other countries. They had to choose somewhere that would accept them without documentation.
They spent five years in a DP camp in Austria. Those who did not have a job or a trade, had to learn one. Segalewitz’s mother learned to be a seamstress. There were organizations set up to help people find missing family members. Utilizing one of those, Segalewitz found out he had living aunts in America. The family was reunited in 1951. Segalewitz recalled it was the “happiest day” of his mother’s life, going from having no family to having sisters again.
When Segalewitz moved to America he knew many languages, but English was not one of them. He learned through interaction with other children and adults. He joined the Army with the intention of going to electronics school, but the Army recognized his aptitude with languages.
However, he pushed for his dream and did attain a degree in electronics. He retired from ITT where he was responsible for communication and education projects throughout the world. His last position was as President of ITT Job Training Services.
Segalewitz and his wife Zelda, and the eldest of their four sons, moved to the Dayton area in 2000 and have become active members of the community.
He is a member of a number of organizations, including director on the board of Temple Beth Or in Dayton, where he is the Chairman of Administration.
He is also a regular speaker at the National Air Force Museum, schools, colleges and organizations where he lectures about the Holocaust, Judaism, Yiddish culture and language.
He ended his presentation at TCN with encouragement for other’s to speak up in the face of injustice and oppression.
He reminded everyone, “Bad things do happen to people. No matter where you are, no matter who you are, no matter how rich or poor you are, bad things happen. You have to persist, you have to be your best. You have to keep on hoping for the best. You cannot give up. Give up, you perish. Secondly, don’t be a bystander. If you see something bad happening, do something about it.
“Too many people just sit back or walk away. ‘Not my problem.’ It’s always your problem. If you’re mankind, it’s your problem.”
Reach Kelsey Kimbler at 937-683-4061 or on Twitter @KKimbler_RH