Before the outbreak of World War II and the Holocaust, the Polish village of Będzin was a thriving Jewish community. But in 1939, Hitler made the decision to turn Będzin into a ghetto. Eventually, most of the villagers were sent to concentration camps. Most did not survive but a few teenagers did, including Flagstaff resident Doris Martin-Springer, now close to 90-years-old. Her story is part of a new student-curated exhibit opening today at Northern Arizona University. As Arizona Public Radio’s Aaron Granillo reports, it showcases Będzin before and after the Nazi occupation, and is told by survivors, who lived through the genocide.
Just a few days before the exhibit opens, Gabrielle Mortellaro shows me what the final installation will look like.
“We have our four sections which we could label, ‘pre-war,’ and then ‘occupation and ghettoization,’ a third section of ‘ghetto and deportations,’ and then we have, ‘life after the ghetto,’ and these are the post-war displays,” Mortellaro says.
Mortellaro is now faculty at NAU, but last year, in her final semester of graduate school, she worked with eleven other students, putting together the exhibit, “Through the Eyes of Youth: Life and Death in the Będzin Ghetto.”
“It did seem like an important ghetto to choose because there’s almost no information out there about it,” Mortellaro says. “It’s not a heavily focused ghetto, but it’s an incredibly important one especially being within Poland and that being the first country invaded.”
The exhibit features 30 giant panels, each depicting life in Będzin through stories and photographs, some taken by villagers, others by Nazi soldiers.
Björn Krondorfer is the director of the Martin-Springer Institute at NAU, which promotes Holocaust awareness. He explains one of the photos shows two young girls standing in a broken down neighborhood.
“Furniture is still on the streets, and that’s a very powerful image to begin with,” Krondorfer says.
The Martin-Springer Institute is also the venue for the exhibit.
“We wanted to use young people as our entry point. So really telling the story of seven young people, and young means teenagers.” Krondorfer says. “Some did not survive. Of the seven, five (survived).”
One of those survivors was Doris Martin-Springer. She was just a teenager in 1939, living with her family in Będzin. She now lives in Flagstaff, and recently invited me to her home to share her story, which is featured in the NAU exhibit.
Martin-Springer says life in Będzin was idyllic before the Nazi invasion. She went to school, played with friends, and spent time with her parents, three brothers, and younger sister.
“It was a normal life until Hitler came and the whole life was changed,” Martin-Springer says. “We had no rights at all, and we cannot forgive and forget the life we went through when I was only 12-years -old.”
Martin-Springer says the Nazis killed thousands of people in her hometown. The rest were forced into a stadium, where they were either sent to work camps, or they were murdered on the spot.
“It was hell. Screaming, taking away the kids, taking away the family,” Martin Springer says.
Martin-Springer and her family were separated for three years; she was in a concentration camp. Her family went into a hiding, until a German sympathizer gave them polish papers, allowing them to escape.
When the war was over, Martin-Springer searched for her family, not knowing if they were alive. What she discovered was that they had all survived.
“It is miracles from God, and I don’t know why,” Martin-Springer says. “Why our family survived not to be torched.”
For years, Martin-Springer says she couldn’t talk about the atrocities. But now she feels it’s her responsibility to educate younger generations about the Holocaust. That’s why she agreed to have her story featured, along with six others, in the exhibit, “Through the Eyes of Youth: Life and Death in the Będzin Ghetto,” which opens today at NAU.
The exhibit will be on display through November 14th on the third floor of the Riles Building. Following the opening at NAU, it will travel throughout Arizona and across the country.