Ella Weiss, 'strong-willed' Auschwitz survivor

  • Article by: MAURA LERNER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 30, 2011 - 8:53 AM

The native of Hungary lived to 100 in Plymouth after surviving the Holocaust with her daughter by her side.

Eva Gross remembers when her mother, Ella Weiss, was ready to give up. It was near the end of World War II, and they were on a death march from one Nazi concentration camp to another.

"It was the middle of winter," Gross recalled, and "we were walking for days and days without food." Her mother, who was in her mid-30s, said she couldn't walk anymore; she knew the Nazis would shoot anyone who stopped. But a German guard urged them on. "You don't have too far to go," he told them. "I don't want to shoot anymore."

Weiss not only survived, she lived to 100 -- long enough to watch her granddaughter and great-grandchildren grow up, and even meet her great-great-grandchildren.

Weiss, who lived with her daughter in Plymouth, died Jan. 20 after a long illness.

"My mother was a very strong-willed individual," said Gross. Even at 100, Weiss still cooked dinner for the family on Friday nights, the Jewish sabbath. "To the last minute of her life, she knew exactly what was going on," said Gross.

In recent years, Weiss would accompany her daughter when she gave talks about the Holocaust to school groups. She mostly listened in silence, but "if I said something that wasn't so ... she corrected me," Gross said. "She was better [remembering] dates than I was."

Gross said she was a teenager in the spring of 1944 when the police knocked on the door of her home in eastern Hungary. Her father had been shot, along with other Jewish men in town, in 1939. Now she, her mother and grandparents were told to pack a few things and head for the railroad station. "As we were walking out of the door, I said 'Grandpa, you didn't take your tallis [prayer shawl],'" she recalled. "He said, 'My [child], wherever we go, I don't think I need it.'"

After three days in cattle cars, they arrived at Auschwitz, the notorious death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland.

It was the first of six concentration camps that Weiss and her daughter would eventually survive. When her parents were forced into a separate line, Weiss ran to help them but was beaten back by a German guard. "That saved her life," said Gross. Over the next year, mother and daughter managed to stay together as they were shuttled among a half-dozen Nazi camps, until they were liberated in 1945.

They returned briefly to Hungary after the war, and after three years in a displaced persons camp, immigrated to New York. Weiss remarried and ran a cigar store in Harlem before following her daughter and granddaughter, Sharon Berkowitz, and her family to Phoenix and, in 1990, to Minnesota.

She was extremely close to her family, her daughter said, and was privileged to see her third great-great-grandchild born just four months ago. "In her very quiet way, she touched a lot of people."

Services have been held. The family asked that any memorials be sent to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

Maura Lerner • 612-673-7384

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