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Holocaust survivor speaks about experience, indifference to injustice

Brandon Paykamian • Mar 13, 2019 at 6:45 PM

GREENEVILLE — Before World War II, Shelly Weiner and her cousin Raya Kizhnerman were living a normal childhood, playing with their friends and enjoying time with their family.

But that normal childhood disappeared forever when the Nazis arrived in the town of Rivne, Ukraine, then a part of Poland.

After the war broke out in 1939, Weiner, then 4, and Kizhnerman, then 5, were living in the country’s eastern region occupied by the Soviet Union.

Before the Germans invaded in the summer of 1941, there were 25,000 Jewish people living in their area. By the time the Soviets liberated the town in 1944, there were about 100.

On Wednesday, Weiner, who now lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, spoke to students from Greeneville and the surrounding region about her experiences during the Holocaust. Her talk was part of the annual East Tennessee Holocaust Conference, held at First Baptist Church in conjunction Greeneville City Schools and Greene County Schools.

The first thing Weiner recalled was the day the Nazis entered the town.

“How do I remember that day? I was very excited because our mother was packing us up to go on vacation. It was summertime, and then everything stopped, and the adults started whispering in very quiet voices,” she said.

The two cousins learned early on to be very afraid of the Nazis shortly after they ordered all the Jewish men in town to “report for work relocation.”

But Weiner’s family knew this was not where they would be going, so they went into hiding. One day, Nazi officials came looking for them, and they took Kizhnerman’s father.

“One day, when we were out there, we saw four of these men in a jeep in the brownshirt uniforms stopping at our neighbor’s. We ran in and told the adults. All the men ran behind to the hiding place, and the women cleaned up, but my uncle, Raya’s father, remained,” she said. “The next thing I remember is these men burst in, they locked the door and wouldn’t let us leave that room. They proceeded to beat my uncle.

“By that time, I knew I was very afraid of these men.”

Between 1941 and 1942, thousands of Jewish residents were rounded up and shot. Many local residents assisted in the Nazis’ efforts to find and murder Jewish residents, Weiner recalled.

“I did see people get killed on a daily basis on the street and left lying there,” she said.

“I was scared. You realize very quickly that these are bad people that want to hurt you,” she later continued. “We heard people being captured in the woods, we heard them being tortured. It’s amazing how, even at a very young age like 4 or 5, you can pick that up and know that these people want to hurt you.”

With Kizhnerman’s father taken and killed by the Nazis and Weiner’s father drafted into the Soviet army, the two girls had only their mothers. They were eventually able to find refuge with the Palaschuk family, farmers in the neighboring village of Myatin who were appalled by the results of the Nazi occupation.

“I have often wondered how the Palaschuk family had such strength and bravery to do what they did — to hide us, four people — when they knew that the punishment would be death for them and their children,” she said in a video before talking directly to students.

“I am not sure how I would react in the same situation. I don’t think many of us know how we would react.”

After a local resident tipped off the Nazis, the Gestapo came looking for them. They had to hide in the wheat field nearby for three days with nothing to eat or drink. After that close call, they had to hide in the underground bunker the farm used to store wheat. Weiner said the conditions were horrible — there were rats everywhere.

By the time Weiner and her cousin were out of hiding, the two had to learn how to walk again. After such a long time hiding and often hunkering down, the two had sores on their bodies, and Weiner recalled having to shave her head after coming out of hiding to get rid of lice that had been on her for years.

After Weiner told her story, students asked questions about her experiences and reflections on them.

After losing so many from her family through the war and Holocaust, she said she wished they were still alive so she could have grown up later in life with a family.

And there was one other thing she wishes was different.

“The Holocaust happened because good people did nothing. Good people just stood by and let it happen,” she said. “I would like for people to have been more involved to stop it.” 

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