Navy News Service | April 12, 2018 | By Douglas H. Stutz, Naval Hospital Bremerton Public Affairs
BREMERTON, Wash. (NNS) -- For Lt. Joseph Edouard, listening to Matthew Erlich share his mother's harrowing plight of concentration camp survival under the Nazis was more than a somber history lesson.
It was a vivid reminder of a personal family tragedy writ large.
Erlich, as key-note speaker discussed how his mother, Felicia Lewkowicz, endured arrest, internment, and death camp sentencing during the Second World War at Naval Hospital Bremerton's Holocaust Remembrance Observance on April 9, 2018.
The theme for this year's Holocaust Remembrance Day commemorated on April 12, 2018, was 'The Power of Words,' which Erlich, from the Holocaust Center for Humanity, used to explain the horror of the dehumanizing imprisonment and systematic genocide being carried out at that time that trapped his mother and countless others.
"She was born in Krakow, Poland, on June 24, 1924. She remembered playing along the Vistula River as a child," said Erlich, adding that Felicia grew up speaking Polish, along with Yiddish, a linguistic mix primarily of Hebrew and other local dialects from central and Eastern Europe.
A family photo taken in 1938 showing eight members was shortly reduced to just Felicia after Nazi Germany invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939. Krakow became a suffocating ghetto with the Jewish population persecuted, terrorized, and killed.
Edouard's family also experienced anti-Semitism in Budapest, Hungary. Although Hungary was a Nazi Germany ally in the early years of the war, by 1944 those sentiments had shifted. The initial understanding that no Hungarian Jews would be sent to Nazi Germany concentration camps suddenly became moot. Tens of thousands were rounded up and summarily shipped to their death.
The brother of Edouard's grandfather Paul Fejer was sent to a concentration camp never to be seen or heard from again.
Although Fejer wasn't shipped off to a camp, he ended up in a different kind of hell. He was detained and forced into a special Jewish working unit of the Hungarian Army that was tasked to carry out dangerous duties such as detecting landmines and entering fields of fire to retrieve wounded personnel.
"It was mind-boggling what he went through. They were given the most dangerous duties. It was like a death sentence but with a slim chance," related Edouard. "There was one time where he was given the choice of going with a group to the left or another group to the right and he chose the left group. Five minutes later the other group was blown up having stepped on a mine. He was lucky."
Erlich's mother finally took it upon herself to simply leave Krakow. She someone made it to the railway depot and climbed onboard a departing train without proper credentials, ample funds or a traveling permit. Using her moxie, she somehow even convinced a group of Nazi German soldiers to hide her from the train conductor when he was checking all passengers for tickets.
Felicia made it to Vienna, Austria, found a job, and even started dating. Yet it was through her boyfriend that she got arrested. When he was detained, a photograph of her that he had was enough for the local authorities to search for her. When they found her in August 1944, she was sent to Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, less than 40 miles from her hometown of Krakow.
"The stench alone of the camp was bad enough," Erlich shared.
The Auschwitz gas chamber and the crematoria were always in use. Although estimates vary, it's approximated that 100,000 to 250,000 people were exterminated at the camp.
"There was ash from the crematoria falling all the time," recounted Erlich.
In late 1944, allied bombers from airbases in Italy were hitting targets in Germany, Hungary, and Poland. Felicia wanted a string of the bombs to drop on the camp and end it all.
"But because that did not happen, I am here. My daughter is here. Maybe someday she will do something great," Erlich said.
The air campaign over Germany forced the Nazis to relocate many camps. Felicia was crammed - stuffed really, with thousands of others - into a cattle car and transported to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in northern Germany.
"She thought it was pretty good compared to Auschwitz. At least there was no crematoria," said Erlich.
But it wasn't until mid-April, 1945 that British forces liberated the camp, initially built for 6,000 people, which had swelled to 60,000 prisoners.
"Almost all with lousy teeth, scurvy, and typhus," Erlich said.
There were times when Felicia's resolve weakened. Other times, she reached deep down to defiantly show her will to survive. Commandant Josef Kramer once hit her across the head and made her stand outside in the snow for hours without shoes. Others would come by and drop pieces of cloth to put under her feet. She was so angry that she didn't need them.
That anger fueled her motivational fire to survive.
After being liberated by the British, Felicia assisted them in helping other camp survivors at the displaced persons camp at Lingen, Germany due to her ability to speak Polish, German and French, as well as Yiddish. It was there she met a Polish-British service member, Arthur Erlich, also from Krakow.
She ended up in Paris, France, studying to become a seamstress. Arthur and Felicia married and on July 3, 1948, immigrated to Canada before settling in Minnesota, where Matthew was born.
The marriage didn't last. Arthur's notion of a wife was one focused on cooking and cleaning. Felicia's notion was being part of the world and seeing as much of it as she was able. Although she suffered bouts of post-traumatic stress disorder, her backbone proved to be her strongest attribute.
"Arthur was old-school. Felicia's personality outshined anything. She had the spirit and will to live," Erlich said.
After relocating to the Monterey Peninsula, Calif., Felicia worked in providing banquet support from Camel to Pebble Beach to Pacific Grove.
Interspersed throughout Erlich's historical lecture were short video clips of his mother addressing the camera and sharing her thoughts on her arduous journey.
Erlich noted that his mother often used what he refers to as 'holocaust humor' to make light of the deplorable and appalling conditions she was in.
One such example was the time a gentleman mentioned that he was a train enthusiast and commented to Felicia that he had once been a hobo and 'rode the rails for free.' Without missing a beat, Felicia replied back that she too, had 'rode the rails for free.'
Felicia died in 2009 due to the effects of stage 4 lung cancer. She was almost 86 years young at her passing.
"She was not afraid. She had already seen death," stated Erlich.
Edouard's grandfather also survived the war, yet before he was free to return home, he spent an additional year in a Russian prison camp in the frozen vastness of Siberia.
Fejer, like Felicia and many others, were physically and psychologically hardened to survive.
"My grandfather was like a dad to me. Along with my mother, he helped raise me. We had a close bond. He didn't like to talk a lot about his experiences during that time and although he wasn't that religious, he still paid a terrible price," Edouard said.
Historical accounts estimate that approximately six million European Jews - as well as other 'undesirables' such as Gypsies, Slavs, ideological and political opponents - were killed by the then-German Nazi regime from 1933 until 1945.