Riverside students hear first hand about history

Wednesday, March 27, 2002
Max Notowitz, Holocaust survivor, shows a picture of his father that one of the millions of Jewish victims during World War II. (Town Crier photo/Revis Blaylock)

History became more vivid to Riverside High School students last Wednesday when they heard the true story of Max Notowitz, a Holocaust survivor.

It has been almost 60 years since the mass murder of six million Jews in Europe but it remains very vivid in the mind of Notowitz and others that had their lives changed forever.

Brenda Hutchison, Riverside gifted and talented coordinator, said it is an era of history that needs to be retold so we can learn from history and hopefully, never have such a tragedy repeated.

Notowitz, 74, resides in Memphis, Tenn., where he has been in the insurance business for over 50 years.

He spoke to the Riverside High School students at a morning assembly and Riverside Junior High students during the afternoon.

To read about the events of the Holocaust can be shocking, but to hear someone say, "I was there. This happened to me," made it more real to the young students. The Riverside students listened tentatively to Notowitz's story and following a question and answer session, gave him a standing ovation.

Notowitz explained that he was 12 years old when World War II broke out. Poland was attacked and within 10 days the German Army came marching into his town.

"162 German soldiers were killed during the initial attack and as a result of that 162 homes in our town were burned. We were forced to wear armbands and work.

"I was in the fifth grade in 1939 and that was the end of my education for a long time. I went to work. At 12 I worked hard to establish a reputation as a good worker. That was important to survive. My father was taken away in 1941," he recalled.

Notowitz said he found out later that his father was taken to Auschwitz, a place designed as a human death factory. He was charged as a political prisoner and shot to death.

In 1997 he took his wife and 14-year old grandson to visit Poland. He went to the Auschwitz site and found records in the archives. He discovered that 82 others from the same barracks as his father were killed the same day.

After his father was taken, his mother and the three children were taken from their home and put in the ghetto. They stayed there a year before they were moved. His mother, brother and sister were taken to camps and because of his "work reputation" the young Notowitz was chosen to go to a work camp.

At the end of the war, Notowitz was the only survivor of his immediate family.

Notowitz said the work camp he was in was a small camp compared to others. Over 15,000 were killed there and some camps over 300,000 were killed

Notowitz said he was in the camp for four and a half months when they heard they were going to be moved.

"By then, we knew what that meant," he said. "There were 90 of us in our barracks and some of the younger men decided to make a break for it. I was asked if I was going and without hesitation, I joined. There was not much planning, we found out on Saturday we were going to be taken and we left that night. We dug under the barbed wire fence."

Notowitz was the one of the youngest to escape at the age of 14. He survived in the forest for 21 months.

"This was no camping trip. We had no warm meals for 21 months. We made a cave to live in. We were barefoot in the snow. We would steal chickens and have to eat it raw. When you are hungry, you will do things that you would never think you could do," he said.

There were 42 that escaped to the forest and when they were liberated almost two years later there were only eight survivors.

"I survived the war by living in a forest. It wasn't until after the war that I understood the enormity of that. There was not thought of anything but survival. Some of the things that happened make you wonder if anyone told me, would I believe it. I'm here and it is true.

"Unlike Hitler, I'm here because I was there. He destroyed 90 percent of all European Jews. He tried to do away with all of the Jewish people. He may have succeeded if he had won the war," Notowitz said.

He said many Jews committed suicide after the war. They could not cope with being a survivor.

"When I was liberated I asked the question why me. Why not my 10 year old brother or my 16 year old sister. I had a lot of adjustments to make, what to do, where to go, and wondering if I could live a normal live.

"I missed the life I should have lived. My wife used to say to me when our four children were teenagers that I did not understand because I never had the chance to be a teenager."

Notowitz went from Poland to Germany at the age of 18. He had a desire to get an education. The only thing that he was able to save from his life in Poland was a letter that his mother had got to him from her camp to his.

"It was the usual letter, are you eating good, be careful, and I hope to see you again. I memorized on thing from that letter that she wrote, 'My son, I hope to be able to see you again....Promise me if you get a chance you will get a good education...' I took it to heart. In spite of the hardships, I wanted to fulfill her wish."

He enrolled in school in Germany but he was still in the fifth grade. He said he was in the fifth grade from 1939 to 1947. He was so much older than the other fifth graders that it was difficult.

He then made his way to New York where he went to work in the daytime and started to school at night. He also went to school to learn English. A test was given and the two students that scored the highest could skip the elementary and go into high school. Notowitz accomplished that and more.

Distant relatives from Memphis came to visit him and invited him to their home. Once he was there, they insisted that he was not going back to New York. They enrolled him in school, he graduated and earned a scholarship to go to Vanderbilt University in Nashville. He earned his high school degree and college degree in five years.

After that he served in the Army and married his finance on Oct. 10, 1954 in Memphis.

On his trip to Poland in the 1997 he was able to visit one more time with the man that asked him if he was going to escape with them.

"He still had a picture of us together taken right before I left for America. I signed it, "to the man that saved my life." He has passed away since then," Notowitz said.

Notowitz said of the eight survivors that were liberated at the end of the war there are three still living. One is a retired builder and lives in New Jersey and the other also came to New York and became a doctor and biochemist.

Notowitz's shared more than a story with the young people, he shared a part of history. He feels it is his obligation to tell the facts.

"I wish it hadn't happened. This is the last thing I would have wanted to talk about," he said.

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