Rose Williams parts her soft, gray curls to show a bare spot on her crown where she was struck with the butt of a rifle. She rolls her dark socks to her ankles and points to the scars left by ulcers from poorly fitted wooden shoes sodden with mud. She speaks of beatings that robbed her of hearing in one ear, and pushes a sleeve up to reveal six black letters and numbers tattooed on her upper arm.
At 90, Williams still bears the scars of the Holocaust and life inside two of the most notorious concentration camps in Hitler’s Germany during World War II – Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen.
The physical marks she willingly, though painfully, shares bear witness to the atrocities of war and the loss of 6 million Jews, including her parents, youngest brother, and many extended family members.
Williams tells the story again and again. She visits San Antonio schools. She volunteers at the Jewish Federation of San Antonio’s Holocaust Memorial Museum housed at the Barshop Jewish Community Center. She volunteers at the Jewish Community Center. She has written a memoir.
Yet telling her story opens wounds that will never heal.
At her kitchen table on the eve of the start of the Jewish celebration Hanukkah, tears flowed as she told of seeing her beloved grandmother shot and left dead in the street. Her body shuddered at the memory of fear and torture, lasting cold, gnawing hunger, and a hopelessness that tested her faith.
Behind glasses, her kind eyes and aging hands plead with the questions that have no answer: “What did I do to deserve such cruelty? What did we do?”
Williams was born Rose Sherman in Poland. She was 12 years old when the Germans invaded her hometown of Radom and soon after stripped the Jewish people of their jobs and homes, herding them into the ghettos. Williams was sent to work for her captors, enduring back-breaking labor and brutality and taking great risks to scavenge food for her family.
Rumors of gas chambers, shooting squads, and concentration camps began to circulate. But, Williams said, “we refused to believe that the German people, with their wonderful scientists, musicians, and philosophers, could do such horrible things.” Even though former neighbors offered to hide the children, the family chose to stay together.
“Aug. 6 was the most tragic day of my life,” she said. It was the day she lost her grandmother, became separated from her family and friends, and was sent to work in an ammunition factory at Zytnia No. 5. She recalls vividly the day some workers were caught stealing alcohol, which they would trade for food, and hanged.
“For two days, we had to stand in the cold and look up at them, or get whipped,” she said.
As the war raged on, Williams was shuttled from that factory to labor camps and then to Pionki concentration camp. There, her heart soared at finding friends only to lose them in a factory explosion.
In her memoir, she writes, “It was at this time that I promised myself that I would never attach myself to anyone too much. I was in a terrible state of mind.” Williams sank into despair, only finding the strength to go on when she realized her bunkmate needed her. “So I tried to pull myself together and to go on taking care of her.”
In 1944, she was loaded into a wagon for the three-day journey to Auschwitz.
It was there that Williams lost all hope. Hungry and defeated, her feet ulcerated from the soggy, camp-issued shoes, she decided to end her life. As Josef Mengele, a member of the team of doctors responsible for selecting victims to be killed in the gas chambers and for performing deadly human experiments on prisoners, sorted the line of prisoners that day, she begged him to choose her for death. He refused – she was still “young and healthy.”
Soon after, her younger sister and a friend arrived at the camp. “It is a big God,” she said, relieved. “I prayed to God to be forgiven [for wanting to die]. I didn’t want to die anymore, I wanted to live to look out for her.”
If hope was restored, misery would linger.
Williams wrote: “Three days after my sister’s arrival, there was a roll call. We now lost our names; numbers were burned into our arms. We were branded like cattle. After this traumatic incident, we were led back to the barracks, and the SS leader of Auschwitz came with some other big shots to sort the ‘beasts.’ … Old ones went at once to the crematorium.”
As the Germans began to feel pressure from the Allied forces, she was sent to Hindenburg, then on a march to Gleiwitz, and eventually to Bergen-Belsen: “The trip was worse than hell. In open wagons, drenched by the falling snow, without food, without water, we rumbled on …
“From time to time, we stopped at small stations. The inhabitants of those small places wanted to give us some water or bread, but the SS guards pushed them back. They tried to throw it into the wagons, and, if they managed to do so, the result was always death for some of the prisoners who fought to catch a crumb.”
Of all the camps Williams had seen, she wrote that Bergen-Belsen was “the limit of dirt and cruelty,” where she saw “mountains of corpses,” where prisoners were “literally eaten by lice and ravaged by dysentery.”
Liberation came with the arrival of British tanks on April 15, 1945. Williams, almost 17 at the time, her sister, and older brother were eventually reunited and traveled to Stuttgart together. In 1950, she and a friend joined her sister in New York, and their brother, who had contracted tuberculosis, relocated to Israel. She has visited him there several times, most recently two years ago when they celebrated a grandson’s bar mitzvah there.
In the U.S., Williams married and moved to San Antonio for her husband’s health reasons. They divorced, and she later remarried. Her husband Jack passed away in 1997. She bore two sons, Peter and A.J. Peter died of leukemia in 1989 at age 40, but not before making Williams promise to share her stories with others. A.J. visits every day after work. She beams when asked about her three grandsons, and is proud that she has mastered five languages despite having only a fifth-grade education.
She attends services at Congregation Agudas Achim every Saturday, and she is attached to people again, including a local otolaryngologist she calls her angel. “That’s how I was since I was a child,” she said. “It’s just my nature.”
While she has forgiven the German people, she won’t pardon the vicious leaders who took her childhood and her family. “How can you forgive [killing] 6 million people?”
In 2011, a docent at the JCC convinced Williams to start sharing her story. With each presentation, she relives the horrors of war and readily shows the tattoo on her arm. “I never felt the shame of it,” Williams said. “It’s a badge of honor. Why should I cover it up? I know some people do that, but I’m not one of them.”
Williams also prays that what happened to her and the others imprisoned in the Nazi camps never happens again.
“Don’t be a bystander,” she tells her audience. “Education is the key to everything. Be strong. Love yourself. There are wonderful counselors, rabbis, and priests you can talk to if you need help. Believe in yourself.
“Never give up.”