Auschwitz and Dachau concentration camps survivor David Lenga, 96, spoke at Congregation Beth Shalom on Sunday, ahead of Holocaust Remembrance Day on Monday.
Lenga was joined in conversation with Chloe Levian, a UCLA graduate dedicated to combating anti-semitism through education. Before opening prayers, the congregation displayed their Holocaust Torah — not much is known about it, other than it came from Czechoslovakia.
The remembrance day’s theme was “It all started with words,” which aimed to highlight how recent rises in anti-semetic-fueled violence and words today mirror similar events that led to the Holocaust — something Lenga is alarmed by.
“Anti-semitism is so inherent in society, and especially the younger generation that know nothing about the Holocaust. There’s a tremendous level of ignorance,” said Lenga. “I’m speaking out, trying to make young people especially understand the severity of the Holocaust, and the consequences of being apathetic. That’s not an option, because apathy breeds evil.”
Lenga’s story was harrowing and tragic. Born in Lodz, Poland, he lived a normal life with his family: His father was a successful businessman, owning a large tannery; he played in the streets with his friends and brother, and vividly remembers summer vacations to the countryside.
Lenga and his brothers attended Jewish school, spoke both Yiddish and Polish and were surrounded by a large and proud Jewish community.
“Lodz was a very industrial city. It had close to a million people — maybe 800,000. Forty percent of all the inhabitants were Jewish people. So we had a huge, vibrant Jewish community,” said Lenga.
All of this “wonderful life” he described came to an abrupt end and “entered a nightmare” when the Nazis invaded on Sept. 1, 1939. Lenga was 11 years old.
What unfolded next was persecution, brutality, separation and incarceration of the Jewish people living throughout Poland — as it had already in Germany and other Nazi-occupied countries.
After being cordoned off in the ghetto of Lodz, Lenga was taken to Auschwitz, where he barely survived and looked twice into the face of Joseph Mengela, later dubbed the “Angel of Death” due to his sadistic pseudo-scientific experiments on the camp’s prisoners.
Lenga “escaped” Auschwitz by sneaking his way into a group that was selected for work in Germany — Lenga had previously tried to become a part of the group, but was deemed too young.
Once the train to Germany arrived at Auschwitz, he snuck aboard. There were only 200 people selected to be part of this work group and as soon the door to the train car closed, he heard the protest of a man who had actually been selected. Lenga had taken his spot.
“Folks, I was at a point at that time where I had no compassion for this, I had no compassion about what I did. I had no particular feeling of pity. Because I had become dehumanized as all the rest of them,” said Lenga. “The human feelings that we used to possess were drowned out or drained out of us.”
Lenga’s “escape” was into Germany. However, the group was being sent to the Dachau concentration camp — an equally hellish place.
Lenga would spend most of the rest of the war there until he was transferred to a sub-camp. During another transfer in 1945, the train had stopped due to the approaching allied forces in the area.
Suddenly, an American attack on the train ensued.
“We didn’t realize that the war was [practically] at an end at that point. And we were attacked from the air by American fighter planes and machine guns. So many people died,” said Lenga. “They didn’t know that it was a plane full of prisoners. They thought it was military because the next one on the other track was a military train.”
Lenga fled into the forest and was later picked up by American forces, a day he called his liberation. In the months following his liberation, he realized that he was one of only two survivors of his family, which numbered close to 100 members. The only other survivor was his father. He later moved to the United States, eventually settling in the San Fernando Valley.
Following the conversation, readings and prayers were performed and the lighting of six candles were done in honor of 6 million jews who were killed during the Holocaust.
While Lenga has spoken about his experiences for years, he said there’s a particular emphasis on why it’s so important today — because it all started with words.
“History is measured in thousands of years, millennia and centuries. This happened only 80 years ago,” said Lenga. “And yet, this is what we’re facing … I put great emphasis on the fact that the people have to wake up from their slumber and not allow themselves to be indifferent to political developments that are threatening our lives, our safety and our freedom.”