“I am the child in the photo chosen for this announcement!” wrote Rosian Zerner to UNESCO, after receiving notification about events organized for International Holocaust Remembrance Day (27 January).
“We got the photo from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and were struck by the contrast between the radiant smile of the little girl and the brutal reality of the Holocaust,” explains Karel Fracapane, the UNESCO official coordinating the International Day events. “When the photo was taken, she had just escaped the horrors of the Kovno ghetto in Lithuania and lived hidden, moving from place to place, separated from her parents. But we didn’t know ‘the girl in the photo’ was alive.”
Rosian Zerner is very much alive and kindly consented to give UNESCO an interview from the Boston area in the United States, where she lives today.
How did you feel when you saw that photo?
“I was amazed to see my own face looking back at me from the announcement. I had donated the photo to the Holocaust Memorial Museum. It was taken on the farm of Lyda Goluboviene, who was my main rescuer. I remember that coat well - I wore it all through World War 2. I never grew out of it as I kept getting thinner!”
Have you still got the optimistic spirit of the girl in the photo?
Yes, I have always tried to keep a positive attitude. I believe in miracles – in fact, I am living proof that miracles do happen. I not only survived the Holocaust but was reunited with my family in Lithuania, a country where about 95 percent of the Jewish population were murdered, including 40 other family members.
The theme of the 2013 International Holocaust Remembrance Day is “The Courage to Care: Rescue during the Holocaust”. How many rescuers did you have?
I had at least seven. Most did it out of conviction, out of respect for human life and because they believed in a better world. Unfortunately there were far too few who would take such a risk.
How did you escape from the Kovno Ghetto and who was your first rescuer?
My first rescuer was Bronja Budreikaite, my father’s secretary, who met me on the other side of the barbed wire fence surrounding the Ghetto. I was six years old. My parents, who were really my first rescuers, pushed me through a hole they had dug under the wire while avoiding the guards, the searchlights and the dogs. My wartime name then became Irena Budreikaite.
What kind of people were your rescuers?
They were ordinary human beings, mostly women, who became extraordinary because of their deeds: a farmer, a seamstress, a journalist, a housewife. Some were Christian Scientists of Russian descent. I even had a German rescuer. My rescuers also saved others: a deaf mute, a Russian widow with children, and other Jews.
Where did your rescuers hide you?
I was hidden in homes, attics, barns and woods. I was hidden in an orphanage where my head was shaven because of lice and the priest protected me when some nuns denounced me. In the villages, some shielded me but others would have gladly killed me had they known I was Jewish. Whenever there was suspicion I had to run away. Had the war lasted longer, I would have run out of places to hide. At times I was ready to stop running, but my will to live was greater.
For you, what is the role of education in Holocaust Remembrance?
Education is a must. The facts and meaning of the Holocaust must be remembered and taught to future generations. I have felt a personal responsibility to speak out, as one of the last generation to witness the Holocaust. I do this not only out of gratitude for the rescuers and to honour the memory of the victims, but because I am concerned about Holocaust revisionism and denial which are happening even at the highest level in some countries today. Perhaps Holocaust education can become an example of how not to repeat history and be a beacon for a better world.
Interview by Jean O’Sullivan
All of Rosian Zerner’s main rescuers are on the Yad Vashem Righteous Among Nations list. Their names are Bronja Budreikaite, Natalija Fugaleviciute, Natalija Yegorova, Lyda Goluboviene, Vitautas Kaunietskas, Helene Holzman and her daughter Margarete