University of Minnesota
Center for Holocaust & Genocide Studies


Artworks by Gerson Leiber: Dedicated to Isabella Leitner

  1. Artworks
  2. About Gerson Leiber
  3. Survivors of Auschwitz
  4. About Isabella Leitner
  5. Well, Here I Am

It is undeniable that many more people know about the Holocaust through male survivors such Elie Wiesel, Primo Levi, and Viktor Frankl than through the works of Charlotte Delbo, Ida Fink and Isabella Leitner,  "It is fair," wrote Carol Rittner and John K. Roth in their introduction to Different Voices: Women and the Holocaust," to say that Holocaust memory has been shaped most decisively, and Holocaust scholarship has been influenced most frequently, by men." How many people, off the top of their heads, know the name of a single female survivor?  What does this mean in terms of the conceptions that people form about what the victims of the Holocaust went through? What does it mean in terms of the assumptions we form about what survivors think, feel, mourn, desire.

Artworks by Gerson Leiber "May 31, 1944." Dedicated to Isabella Leitner.

Artwork by Gerson LeiberArtwork by Gerson LeiberArtwork by Gerson LeiberArtwork by Gerson Leiber
Artwork by Gerson LeiberArtwork by Gerson LeiberArtwork by Gerson Leiber
Artwork by Gerson LeiberArtwork by Gerson Leiber

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Survivors of Auschwitz

The First Survivors of Auschwitz Arrived in The U.S. The Day The War Ended.

For many survivors of the Holocaust, May 8,1945 represents the most monumental day of the twentieth century. Since then, the agony of World War II has been a constant companion.

The pain of survivors of Auschwitz, in particular, cannot be measured. I cannot help but reflect on my own destiny tied to VE-Day, May 8, 1945, for fate chose me and my two sisters to become part of history. We were the first live specimens out of Auschwitz to arrive in the United States. We docked on May 8, 1945, the very day the war in Europe ended.

We were born on planet Earth. We were hurled onto planet Auschwitz. And then were hurled back again, with virtually nothing in common with anyone. The incredulity all around us, our unfathomable presence, made people move, ever so slightly, away from our orbit. With no other Auschwitz survivors to seek comfort from, we finally sealed our lips for we felt that everything we tried to communicate was beyond comprehension. Instead of pure joy, May 8, 1945 was the day our devastating loneliness dawned on us. We were saturated with pain, and now we were also alone.

From the distance of a half century I would like to talk about it and try to untangle the complexities of those lone days.

- Isabella Leitner.

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(Well, Here I Am)

Before I answer your questions I'd like to say a few words.

In all these fifty years we have been told that we didn't fight back. Against the most insane odds, perhaps in the entire history of man, my two sisters and I escaped from the "Death March," and though Hitler slaughtered most of our family, in some tragic, yet glorious way we won. Hitler perished and we lived, and today beautiful human beings call us "Mother." My only brother, who after surviving six concentration camps was shot in the leg in his attempt to escape is the father of two.

Our resistance, of course, was entirely spiritual. Made up perhaps only of love for each other. The mystery of it all still defies me.

What also defies me is the fact that it took six years for the world's mightiest forces to defeat the beast. I was unarmed, untrained in the business of killing, didn't even have a shoelace for a weapon, weight about 40 lbs. Yet? I have always been told I "didn't fight back." That accusation, too, falls within the insanity of Hitler's design to annihilate the Jews. Nonetheless, it hurts. It always did.

On V-E Day, May 8, 1945, the very day the war ended, the merchant marine ship, the SS Brand Whitlock, after nearly five weeks at sea sailed into the sunlit harbor of Newport News, VA. Two days later, in Baltimore, MD, the ship discharged its never before seen cargo: the first survivors of Auschwitz. My two sisters and myself. In our battered being we carried the innocent, charred souls of millions of children, women and men. And we thank this America, this best of all countries, for putting its healing arms around our weeping hearts.

January 27, 1995 - 50th Anniversary Liberation of Auschwitz.

I never had the emotional strength to return to Auschwitz, but even though the physical distance and the distance of half a century are real, on this day, I feel as if I am standing on the soiled soil of mankind's shame.

Hopeless, helpless millions are shrieking in my soul. My throat is sore, my eyes are burning as I inhale the thick, charcoal grey smoke obliterating tile blue sky as I inhale the scent of the gassed, burning bodies of my people.

I cannot unglue my feet from the ground of Lager C.

I am in Auschwitz forever.

We are inching our way toward the end of our lives - we, the most tormented remnants of our age, perhaps of all ages.

Help us end our journey with the knowledge that those who have neither a grave, nor even ashes to prove that they were ever in our midst, will live in the consciousness of human beings for all the time they are on this planet, and I plead with you, to make sure that you hand down this sacred legacy to those who come after you.

Let me speak now of Auschwitz, but as I do, please bear in mind that everything I describe I see, I hear, I smell... I am fed, yet I am starved... I am free, yet I feel imprisoned... I am here, yet I am in Auschwitz, standing terror-stricken in front of Mengele.

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About Isabella Leitner

Isabella Leitner - Born Kisvarda, Hungary.

A survivor of Auschwitz, the notorious Nazi death camp, where her mother and youngest sister were murdered immediately on their arrival; May 31,1944.

Transported six months later to Birnbaumel, another concentration camp, where she was compelled to dig anti-tank traps against the advancing Russian army.

Escaped in a blizzard with two sisters during a forced death march to Bergen-Belsen, where a third sister perished.
Liberated by the Russians on January 25, 1945. Arrived in USA on May 8, 1945 (VE Day), the very day the war in Europe ended, making her and her two sisters the first survivors of Auschwitz to set foot on American soil.

Married American-born Irving A. Leitner, a combat veteran of World War 11, on August 18, 1956. Two sons, Peter (graduate of Princeton University) and Richard (graduate of Bennington College.) Considers them "her greatest victory over Hitler".

FRAGMENTS OF ISABELLA: A Memoir of Auschwitz, her first book, was published in 1978 to great critical acclaim. The work was considered for the Pulitzer Prize for that year. It was also awarded a place on the American Library Association's list of best books of the year for young adults.

The book has been translated into Japanese, German, and Italian, and dramatic works based on it have been produced in Ireland, France, Austria, Iceland, Russia, and the United States. In addition, an audio tape was recorded by the author, in her own voice, and a motion picture based on the book was produced by the Abbey Theater in Ireland.

The film, Fragments of Isabella has been screened in Ireland (in support of Amnesty International), Great Britain, Canada, and the United States at various film festivals. It has also been seen at various educational institutions and religious organizations.
Saving the Fragments: From Auschwitz To New York, a second work, and ISABELLA: From Auschwitz To Freedom, a combination of the prior books plus new material, followed the initial memoir.

In 1992,The Big Lie: A True Story was published by Scholastic Inc. fox elementary school children. This book retells Isabella's story in language suitable for young minds and its impact tier has been enormous. Fourteen editions have been printed, and. hundreds of thousands of children throughout Canada and the United States have been exposed to this inspiring tale of love, courage in the face of evil, and survival with faith in the future.

Over the years, Isabella has appeared on many television and radio programs, and has inspired thousands and thousands of people of all ages, races, and creeds at public gatherings in schools, churches, temples, and other forums. Her adult life, through her work, has been dedicated mainly to the betterment of humankind and hope for future generations.

Isabella Leitner passed away in May of 2009.

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