Holocaust survivor pens books about experiences
By Lou Fancher
A tattoo on the forearm of 94-year-old Holocaust survivor Dora Apsan Sorell is more expressive than words. "A-7603," inscribed in blunt, blue-blank ink, is a mark of identity, loss, suffering, endurance, courage, and a badge of pride oddly mingled with remembered shame.
"This is my number," Sorell told an audience of more than 100 at the Lafayette Library. "There was a time when I traveled in a short sleeve dress and people would say, "Look, look!" it was very uncomfortable. I never told my colleagues my stories. I was careful. But today, I'm showing it on purpose. This is my tombstone."
A native of Sighet, Romania, who in 1944 was deported to Auschwitz after the Nazis occupied Hungary, Sorell lost her parents, two brothers and most of her extended family during Hitler's "Final Solution" when an estimated 6 million Jewish people were killed in an effort to annihilate the race.
When her first granddaughter, Miriam, was born, Sorell wrote more than 100 letters chronicling her journey from Auschwitz to Communist Romania to the United States, where she established herself as a physician and scholar in New York, before settling with her family in California.
"It hit me: How will they know about what happened to me and about the Holocaust? I started to write letters to Miriam. Each letter is a little story, very family oriented. This is the book," she said.
Sorell travels to high schools and community organizations throughout Northern California to share the 50 letters collected in her memoir, "Tell the Children, Letters to Miriam."
Her arrival in Lafayette was a story in itself, told by the event's sponsor, Orinda architect James Wright. Purchasing an 1890 "fixer-upper" house in 2012, Wright aimed to prove to future clients and the general public his specialty: renovating non-green residential properties into sustainable, environmentally responsive homes.
But he found newspapers from the 1930s and '40s embedded in the flooring.
"I read them and became fascinated by the articles about Jewish people," he said.
Eventually, he turned the newspaper into a wallpaper collage. Wright learned about Sorell and invited her to visit.
"Dec. 30, 2014, she was my first guest to see the walls decorated with the articles," he said.
Sorell described her early life in the town of 30,000.
"It had very religious people. We had temples and kept the rules of Jewish life."
Unlike many girls at the time, Sorell attended high school, and even became a tutor before graduating in 1940.
But by then, World War II had started and swiftly, she said, Jews were separated into ghettos, transported to "special places to kill them," and in 1942, sent to camps.
"There were two kinds: working camps attached to factories with Jews working as slaves, and five extermination camps," she said.
In 1944, with yellow star armbands and only a pushcart of their belongings, Sorell and her family were assigned to a two-room house, along with 10 other families. A short time later, they and 3,000 other people were put in cattle train cars with no seats, food, water, or air.
"At every station we were asked, "Are there dead people?" Sure, there were dead people. We threw them on the platform," she recalled.
Responding to audience questions about life at Auschwitz and her thoughts about forgiveness, Sorell remembered a lecture at which she was asked similar questions.
"I said that the new generation of Germans cannot be blamed. They live with their parent's terrible past," she said. "I turned, and there is a teacher and she is crying. She is German. Her grandfather was an SS. She said, 'You relieved me of the guilt.'"
Paraphrasing a philosopher, Sorell concluded, "All that's needed for another Holocaust is for something to happen and for people to not respond. When something happens, we must all respond -- very, very strong,"