Institute honors Holocaust survivor and educator, Eva Lassman
For many years after surviving the Holocaust, the genocide of 6 million Jews and 5 million people of other nationalities, religions and viewpoints under Nazi Germany during World War II, Eva Lassman lived an ordinary life. She married, worked with her husband, Walter—Hebrew name Israel Zev—in his dry cleaning business and worked at several women’s apparel stores in Spokane to help their three sons go to college.
Gonzaga University’s Institute for Action Against Hate will recognize Eva for her work in the region, work that reflects the organization’s name.
They will honor her in two ways, by naming a new award after her, the Eva Lassman Take Action Against Hate Award, and by presenting the award to her as the first recipient, because she did not surrender to hate.
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The ultimate way for Holocaust survivors to defy the unimaginable cruelty they experienced under the rule of Adolph Hitler from 1933 to 1945 was to have children and grandchildren. Along with being alive, they can achieve victory by telling their stories and warning people to be alert to hate.
The hatred stirred in the population allowed Hitler’s policies to wipe people he considered “undesirable” off the face of the earth.
Many survived and produced present and future generations. Eva took the next step and became a Holocaust educator.
After attending a Holocaust gathering in Washington, D.C., in 1983, she was inspired by the call of Holocaust survivor, Nobel Peace Prize laureate, professor, activist and author Elie Wiesel for Holocaust survivors to join him in speaking out and becoming community educators on the history and the atrocities they experienced.
Eva, who had not even told her children what happened to her, began more than 25 years of speaking in schools, churches and community groups, even though public speaking was far from her forté.
“I decided to put my experience of pain and misery to work for something more positive, to teach people to live without hate and to live with tolerance and understanding, she said. “We have to start with our children because they are our future, so I spoke in many schools.”
Not only was it hard to find words to describe what she experienced, but retelling the experience was painful and emotional.
Now, at 90, it’s uncomfortable for her to stand and speak because of back problems, so Lee Taylor at Temple Beth Shalom, the Jewish community where she has been active since coming to Spokane in 1949, is compiling a video of her speeches.
“My presentation is not intended to promote hate, but rather to eliminate it,” she began one of the speeches she regularly gave at schools and churches. “Hate comes in different forms, but its basis is ignorance. People are afraid of others they know nothing about, people of different nationalities, different religions and different skin colors. Hate can also occur when people think differently.
“This philosophy was responsible for the darkest period in human history, which took place when Hitler convinced the German people that if they could get rid of all undesirables, their problems would disappear.”
As scapegoats to divert the public from the weak economy and high unemployment, she said that Hitler directed hate at Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, gypsies, homosexuals, other nationalities and citizens who disagreed with his ideology.
As German control spread to neighboring countries, Jews and others in those countries were crowded into ghettoes, jailed and herded into cattle cars to be transported to concentration camps.
Knowing that constant vigilance is needed to overcome racism and anti-Semitism, Eva told of her experiences.
When she finished a presentation, she would often say: “With survival comes an obligation not to let the victims of the Holocaust be forgotten.”
Beyond memorializing, Eva also has taught about the Holocaust because “we must learn from the mistakes made before us and do everything we can to prevent something like this from ever happening again,” she said.
The “mistakes” include the “deaf ear” of other countries to pleas of Jews about what was happening.
“We do not have to be in love with one another, but we have to respect one another,” she would say. “Regardless of religion or skin color, we are all children of one Creator. Children are not born with hate. Hate is something taught. If we instead teach respect and understanding, we might be able to eliminate hate from our lives.”
Eva could have succumbed to hate or could have stayed silent, overcome by emotion about the horrors she witnessed.
She considers hate like an illness, “a cancer that could absorb you and not let you grow.” Instead of being disillusioned and bitter, she started life anew after World War II. She married and had children, three sons “who have contributed to humanity” through careers in law, special education and the airplane industry.
Eva was born into an Orthodox Jewish family in Lodz, Poland. In 1939 when she was 20, she fled to Warsaw to live there with extended family after the Nazi invasion. Family members who stayed in Lodz were incarcerated in the first ghetto established by the Nazis in Poland.
In Warsaw, Eva and hundreds of thousands of other Jews were later enclosed behind a barbed-wire-topped wall surrounding the Warsaw ghetto. She had to wear a white armband with a blue star of David identifying her as Jewish and had to do forced labor. She and others lived on minimal food and water rations, were denied basic health care, and lived in inhumane conditions.
“Hunger and death were our daily companions,” she said. “Dead bodies were picked up on a daily basis, because malnutrition and freezing temperatures made people die in the streets.”
After the failed Warsaw ghetto uprising, Eva and thousands of others were deported to Majdanek, the first of six death camps Germans built in the East.
“We were herded into cattle cars, packed like sardines, and transported to the concentration camp. We were told it was a work camp, but it was a death camp,” she said. “Many died during the week-long trip before reaching the camp because of the lack of food and the unsanitary conditions aboard the train.”
Although 90 percent of those deported to Majdanek were killed in the first 24 hours, Eva, being a young, relatively healthy woman, was selected for work in a nearby munitions factory.
She said there were two ovens at Majdanek to cremate bodies. She remembers the smell of smoke from bodies burning.
After three medical exams over three months, she was selected and transported to a munitions factory in Skarzysko, where she spent nearly two years, before being transferred, as Stalin’s armies approached, to Chestochowa, where she stayed six months until the Allied liberation of the camps in spring of 1945.
Eva attributes her survival to her effort to “be the best prisoner I could be.”
Her duties at Skarzysko were cleaning and guarding the locker rooms of non-Jewish workers, and cleaning German officers’ latrines and offices—including cleaning up the blood-spattered room where someone had been beaten to death one day.
One non-Jewish worker often left her an extra bucket of food rations he did not need. She ate some and shared the rest with people in her barracks.
At Chestochowa, she worked at the machines in the factory, standing most of the day, suffering from digestive discomfort and a distended stomach, but not going to the infirmary, because signing in too often meant death.
Nearly all of Eva’s immediate and extended family lost their lives in the Holocaust.
Before they met, her husband was among 7,000 who started on the death march to Buchenwald. He was one of 700 who survived the freezing temperatures and malnutrition.
“They moved people because they did not want to lose their free slave labor,” she said.
Although her health eventually deteriorated, she survived and recovered from her five-and-a-half years in Nazi ghettoes and camps. She spent four more years in a displaced persons camp in Germany before being sponsored by the Spokane Jewish community for resettlement in Spokane.
Since coming to Spokane, Eva and her husband, whom she met at the displaced persons camp, raised their sons.
“Life wasn’t easy. We couldn’t speak English, and my husband didn’t have a job, but with the help of the Spokane Jewish community, we were able to keep going until he found work,” she said.
“Eva has dedicated most of her adult life to the ‘obligation’ that comes with her survival, giving testimony to the atrocities through which she endured,” said Jerri Shepard of the Institute for Action Against Hate.
“With a gracious and committed spirit, Eva has told her story to thousands of elementary, junior high and high school students throughout the region,” she said.
As Eva’s son, Richard Lassman, has written, “She has certainly had reason to hate but she decided long ago that it wasn’t worth it. . . . In her talks about the Holocaust to young and old alike, she doesn’t emphasize what was done to her. Instead she stresses the need to eliminate hatred from the world.”
Eva is a charter board member of the Institute for Action Against Hate at Gonzaga and has served on the planning committee for Spokane Temple Beth Shalom’s annual Yom HaShoa Holocaust Remembrance Day Ceremony since it began in Spokane.
She has received awards and recognitions for her willingness to shed light on the effects of hatred.
In 2003, she received an honorary doctorate from Gonzaga University and a commendation from Whitworth University for her efforts to raise awareness and fight hate. In 2006, the YWCA awarded Eva the Carl Maxey Racial Justice Award for eliminating racism and empowering women.
Eva said that she has spoken out because, “people who advocate hate are still out there. They did not disappear with the end of the war.”
Jim Waller, member of the institute’s board and affiliated scholar of the Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation, has said, “The exceptionality of Eva’s experience in the Holocaust is only paralleled by the exceptionality of her commitment to use that experience in making the world a better place. Her life and work have encouraged people to lead lives that embody personal conviction and courageously combat evil.”
While she and other Holocaust survivors age, the history is still being told by other area Holocaust educators, such as Julie Scott, a teacher at West Valley School District, and Brad Veile, a teacher in Plummer, Idaho.
The Holocaust Education Resource Center in Seattle offers a speakers bureau, teaching resources, programs and a writing/art contest to promote awareness and prevent hate, Eva said.
The video of her speaking will be a local resource available to schools, churches and organizations.
“As time marches on, and when survivors and liberators will not be here any more, I challenge and entrust you to remember the Holocaust and what tragedy it brought to humanity. We must never, never forget,” Eva said in one speech.
She was hopeful when she read a recent report in a Jewish publication from Seattle about a Jewish town riddled by Hamas bullets and rockets. The people are working to start dialogue and a business that brings together Israeli Jews and their Palestinian Arab neighbors.
“After the Holocaust, some lost their faith completely, not able to understand how a merciful God could let it happen,” she said. “Others’ faith was stronger. I still have the same question.”
She said Rabbi Jack Isakson has reassured her that “it was a miracle that so many survived.”
While Eva said her faith is now stronger, she still asks the question about why it happened.
Copyright © October 2009 - The Fig Tree
Published by The Fig Tree, 1323 S. Perry St., Spokane, WA 99202