COLUMBUS, Ind. — For half a century, shame kept Irene Zisblatt quiet.
Now, she promises never to be silent again about the atrocities she and her family suffered in Nazi concentration camps during World War II.
“I have only one story,” she said Friday, speaking by phone from her home in Pembroke Pines, Fla.
But what a dramatic story of horror and survival — one she will share with Christian churches in the area over the next week. Forty of her relatives died in the gas chambers.
The 83-year-old Zisblatt believes she was spared from death in the camp at Auschwitz in Poland by the grace of God. Even when she refused to speak of her experience, she still was haunted by traumas that ranged from medical injections to change her eye color to being forced to parade naked in front of armed guards to hiding when she was sent to the gas chambers.
Executive producer Steven Spielberg included all that and more from Zisblatt’s story in the 1998 Oscar-nominated documentary “The Last Days.”
In the past few days, Zisblatt, a native of Hungary, spoke to 10,000 people in Poland near the camp that nearly became her grave. And she spoke to another 10,000 in Jerusalem following her Poland trip.
“The young people learn so much sometimes,” Zisblatt said of her talks. “One of the biggest things is that they become proud of who they are.”
Zisblatt said she wants to encourage people “to love one another.” It pains her to think of violence like the shootings at Columbine High School or Virginia Tech University.
“I keep thinking that, maybe, if I had begun telling my story earlier, maybe those people would have valued their lives a little more before they hurt others,” she said. “Maybe if they had known more about what others such as Holocaust survivors have suffered through, and about resiliency and learning to still go on, maybe those people would have valued their lives a little more.”
The Rev. Della Hamilton, pastor of Westport’s Hamilton Praise Ministries, invited Zisblatt here to speak a message of hope amid heartache.
“No matter what they did to her in the camps, she had such a strong will to live,” Hamilton said. “Sometimes, we have to learn to stand in the face of hell itself.”
Zisblatt sees antiSemitism in some parts of the world. Genocide, too. But she trusts that a Holocaust cannot unfold again today.
“There’s too much education out there,” she said.
That includes her book, “The Fifth Diamond,” which tells of her trials and later triumph to begin speaking worldwide. The title refers to four diamonds her mother gave her before the family was sent to Auschwitz when Zisblatt was only 15.
The jewels became her only keepsakes. She swallowed them repeatedly in the camp to hide them from guards.
And today, she wears them in a pendant.
Co-author Gail Ann Webb labeled Zisblatt the fifth diamond — coming out of tremendous pressure to shine and show herself nearly indestructible.
“Now,” said Zisblatt, “I know I was silent for way too long.”
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