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Holocaust survivor shares firsthand accounts during visit to NUWC Division Newport

By NUWC Division Newport Public Affairs | May 17, 2019


Dr. Alice Eichenbaum survived the Nazi takeover of Bulgaria during World War II. Her experiences and those of her late husband, who survived two concentration camps and lost his entire family in the Holocaust, are forever inscribed in her family’s history.

Eichenbaum shared her history with the Naval Undersea Warfare Center (NUWC) Division Newport workforce during “Beyond Religious Boundaries: Learning from the Holocaust.” The event, sponsored by NUWC Newport’s Equal Employment Opportunity, Diversity and Inclusion Office, was held on April 30, one day before national Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Yom Hashoah, also known as Holocaust Remembrance Day, was established by Israel’s Knesset (parliament) as a memorial to the six million Jewish people who were slaughtered by the Nazis between 1933 and 1945. It is observed on the 27th day of the month of Nisan, which, this year was from sundown on May 1 to sunset on May 2. 

Eichenbaum, a member of the Sandra Bornstein Holocaust Education Center Speaker’s Bureau in Providence, Rhode Island, was accompanied by the center’s education coordinator Paula Olivieri. She speaks about her life under the Nazi regime because she believes it is important for all generations to listen to firsthand accounts.

“How could a country like Germany, that has produced some of the best poets, the best music, the best scientists, do something like this?” Eichenbaum asked. “We can’t control humanity, but it’s important that young people know what happened.”

Born in Vienna, Eichenbaum was the only child of business owners. Her family had been living in Sofia, Bulgaria since 1938. In the beginning, life in Sofia was not difficult she said. The Bulgarians, who had lived under Turkish rule for 500 years, understood the pain of persecution, and were tolerant of the 50,000 Jews living in their country.

The Jewish residents were issued German passports with the letter “J” to designate their religion. All of the females were given the name Sarah and all the males the name Israel.

Eichenbaum attended a private German school, and although there were indications of trouble in Europe, life was fairly normal, she said, until Hitler marched into Bulgaria in March 1941.

“Life changed then,” she said.

A swastika was suddenly flying above the schools, teachers wore swastikas, people started looking at her differently, Eichenbaum explained.

Jews with foreign passports were deported on ships, one of which sank under the weight of too many passengers and one of which made it to Palestine. To this day, Eichenbaum does not know why her family was not deported from Sofia.

The Nazis imposed restrictions on Jewish life, including a 6 p.m. curfew, closed Jewish-owned businesses, and then less and less food was available to Jewish families. In November 1942, Eichenbaum said, the Jews were forced to wear the yellow Star of David at all times. Signs were posted preventing Jews from frequenting movies and restaurants. Jewish citizens were forbidden from the main streets and required to walk on side streets and not on the sidewalks. Every Jewish home had to display the yellow Star of David.

In January 1943, the Nazis deported all Jews from France to Bulgaria. Hitler needed 20,000 Jews for “slave labor,” said Eichenbaum. Twelve-thousand Jews were deported from Macedonia and Thrace and 8,000 from Bulgaria proper. Jews were picked up at night and put in tobacco warehouses. Of the 12,000 Jews shipped on cattle cars to Treblinka, a concentration camp in occupied Poland, only 196 survived. From July 1942 to October 1943, it is estimated that between 700,000 and 900,000 Jews were killed in Treblinka’s gas chambers.

The Holocaust came closest to Eichenbaum’s family in May 1943 when they were told to report to the train station in 48 hours to be transported “somewhere.” Her parents warned Eichenbaum not to look at the faces of the Gestapo soldiers, and she recalls looking down and only seeing how shiny their boots were. She was just 14 years old.

But, before the train left the station, Eichenbaum said, a British air raid began, the sirens went off, the train was taken off its track, and the Jews were not transported that day.

Eichenbaum’s family was forced to live with three other Jewish families in one room, with no plumbing or electricity, she said. Her job was to collect two buckets of water from the well every day. She remembers going to bed hungry very often and not having any medicine if anyone was sick. During this time, Eichenbaum developed whooping cough. 

“Life was tough,” she said, “but somehow, we survived.”

In September 1944, the Russians liberated the Jews in Bulgaria. The family went back to Sofia, where houses had been bombed. She had lost two years of schooling, but went back to school and studied mostly math and chemistry to catch up.

Eventually, Eichenbaum went to Vienna, where she studied chemistry. Her parents went to live in Palestine. In spite of the difficult years her family spent in Bulgaria, Eichenbaum loves the country and has visited many times with her two sons, she said.

A different story in Poland

Life for her future husband, Ray Eichenbaum, who lived in Lodz, Poland with his sister and brother and parents, was quite different, she explained.

On Sept. 3, 1939, the German army invaded Poland, and on Sept. 8, they invaded Lodz.  Ray, who was 10 years old when Lodz’s 230,000 Jews were forced to live in a ghetto in April 1940, worked in a tannery making belts for German soldiers. His family often ate only soup made from potato peels.

Lodz Ghetto was “liquidated” in June 1944 and Jews were loaded onto cattle cars and sent to Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps. Alice’s husband, who was age 14, was loaded on a train to Birkenau. He told her that in the cars he read the words of former prisoners: “Try to save yourself; you are going to hell.”

During one of the many prisoner “selections,” in which men, women, children and the elderly were divided into different groups, Ray saw his sister taken away and he never saw her again. With his 18-year-old brother, Ray was able to stay alive and “avoid the showers” where Jews were murdered with cyanide gas.

“He told me he never forgot the screams of people [in the showers] and the smell of burning flesh from the ovens,” she said.

The two brothers were separated when Ray’s older brother’s health failed. At the camp, each day prisoners were selected either for work groups or to be sent to their death.

“His saddest day was when a German commando separated the two brothers, and a train pulled out with his brother aboard,” Alice said.

Ray recalled waving goodbye to his brother for the last time.

Ray was one of thousands of prisoners transported to the hard labor camp, Mauthausen, located in Austria. Those not transported were sent on “death marches,” as the Germans tried to escape from the invading Allies.

Ray was one of the surviving Jews who were liberated by the U.S. Army on April 20, 1945. When liberated, he weighed 51 pounds. He was the only member of his family to survive.

Those liberated from the camps were given the choice of going to America or Palestine. Ray chose the U.S. and was sent to live in an orphanage in Chicago. Adopted by a family from Rhode Island, he later graduated from Hope High School in Providence and was drafted into the Army to serve during the Korean War. Because of his knowledge of languages, he worked in Army intelligence. After his discharge, he chose to study chemistry and went to Vienna, where he and Alice met. After they married, the couple settled in Rhode Island.

“There was always something that reminded us of the war years,” Eichenbaum said about their later years in life.

Once when Ray had to stop and change flat a tire on the highway in the rain he told her: “It reminded me of being in Auschwitz.”

Asked if she can forgive the Germans for their persecution of the Jews, Eichenbaum said that “anger just makes more anger.” However, she has never had the desire to travel to Germany and will not buy German products, except for one thing — chocolate.

Asked if her faith helped her through the terrible times, she said that her husband, who came from a secular family, actually became much more religious through the years.

Eichenbaum finds speaking about the Holocaust very gratifying. The real reward is when she is out in public and someone recognizes her from her talks.

“If you meet 10 survivors, you will hear 10 different stories of survival,” she said.

NUWC Division Newport, part of the Naval Sea System Command, is one of two divisions of the Naval Undersea Warfare Center. NUWC Division Newport’s mission is to provide research, development, test and evaluation, engineering and fleet support for submarines, autonomous underwater systems, undersea offensive and defensive weapons systems, and countermeasures. NUWC’s other division is located in Keyport, Washington.