Rose Sherman Williams was just 12 when Germans invaded her hometown of Radom, Poland, uprooting Jewish families from their jobs and homes, imposing rules and restrictions that would permanently alter their way of life. She was only a little older when she was forced to work in labor camps and later moved from concentration camp to concentration camp, barely surviving under the harshest conditions.
It’s been three-quarters of a century since the end of World War II and the liberation of the Nazi death camps, but the Woodridge Elementary students who sat next to Williams on Monday night at a Holocaust remembrance event were visibly moved by her retelling of her experiences in the camps.
“They all sat still and their jaws dropped at all the right times,” Alamo Heights ISD teacher Lisa Barry said. “Tomorrow, I know they’ll be telling the stories back to one another.”
The Monday night event capped off Texas’ first Holocaust Remembrance Week, a new commemorative occasion in public schools stemming from San Antonio State Sen. José Menéndez’s Senate Bill 1828. Gov. Greg Abbott signed the bill into law last year and classroom teachers began crafting lessons to teach students about the Holocaust.
One of the stories Barry’s students might recount was the hardest for Williams to tell. On Aug. 6, 1942, the ghetto where Williams and her family were forced to live was evacuated. As the former residents marched to their next location, Germans began prying children and infants from their mothers’ arms, throwing them aside.
Williams was walking with her grandmother, who, aghast at the families separated, broke away from the marching line to try to retrieve some of the kids. When the Germans noticed the commotion, they shot Williams’ grandmother.
“It took me many, many years to be able to black out that vision from my mind,” she said. “I was unable to do anything about my grandmother lying at my feet, me being pushed to move forward. I was wondering how many people had stepped on the body of my grandmother.”
Williams described that day as the most tragic one in her life. It was the day she was separated from all of her immediate family and sent to labor in an ammunition factory.
From there, she was sent to other concentration camps. In 1943, Williams walked 18 kilometers, or about 11 miles, to reach a train that would take her and many others to Auschwitz. About 90 people were crowded into cars built for 20, she estimated, and given two pails to use in lieu of a bathroom.
After three days, the train arrived at the concentration camp and about a quarter of the people inside the railway car had died. That was only the beginning, she said. Prisoners were given wooden shoes – “small people got big sizes and big people got small sizes” – and stripped of their remaining belongings.
“They pushed us into showers, we were so scared that gas was going to come out, but they showered us with water. We walked out of those showers, naked in the cold,” Williams said.”I got a number, A15049, which I still carry on my arm.”
As Williams pushed her lime green sweater sleeve up her arm to reveal the number, hundreds of students, family members, and teachers watched, rapt.
The Woodridge auditorium was packed, with kids and parents finding seats wherever they could. Some drew their knees close on the wooden bleachers at the back of the room while others folded their feet underneath them on the grey-and-white-speckled linoleum floors. Fifth graders in Barry’s class surrounded Williams on stage, seated cross-legged, craning their necks to see the permanent mark of her time at Auschwitz.
Friends Kayla and Tara, aged 11 and 10, said they wanted to carry on Williams’ final message of not being a bystander. Both girls had learned about the Holocaust in Barry’s class and visited the Holocaust Memorial Museum of San Antonio, but felt a new level of connection to the events during Williams’ talk.
“I’m sad because a lot of people died during the Holocaust just because of what their religion was and what they looked like,” Kayla said. “And I’m glad we heard from [Williams] because she might not be here for very long and we want to be able to tell her story.”