There’s a myth that birds don’t sing at Auschwitz, that it’s too sad, too haunted for such simple moments of beauty. Anneliese Nossbaum survived that hellish place, though. She forged a new life in the United States, found her voice, and spoke to thousands of students about the Holocaust.
Anneliese told me she loved music. When her father, a cantor, sang in their synagogue in Bonn, Germany, she thought he was singing only to her. She enjoyed the Nazis’ music when they paraded past her home, too young to know any better. In late January, when I last saw her, she sang “Hatikvah,” the Israeli national anthem, by a gas chamber in Auschwitz-Birkenau, wiping tears from her eyes with her red mittens.
So I’d like to think the robin that sang Tuesday afternoon was singing for her. The bird sat far atop a wide, old oak tree that grew between the headstones in Montefiore Cemetery in Jenkintown. Its branches cast shadows on Anneliese’s plain, wooden casket.
Her family stood under a tent beside the grave, trying to stay six feet apart from one another in this new, surreal world.
"Anneliese was smart. She was sensible. She was passionate. She was down-to-earth,” Rabbi Adam Wohlberg, of Temple Sinai in Dresher, said to them.
Anneliese Nossbaum died early Monday morning at the Abramson Center in North Wales, having fallen ill within weeks of returning from the trip of a lifetime, her final reckoning with Auschwitz. She was 91. She left behind a son, Jeffrey; his wife, Jan; and their two daughters, Hannah and Mayah, all there Tuesday for the burial. Daughter Ivette Maoz and her husband, Netzer Maoz, were there, too. Their children, Edan and Ma’ayan, watched the small graveside service through a video chat, one quarantined in California and the other in Arizona. She was laid to rest with her husband, Martin Nossbaum, who died in 2010.
Jeffrey and Ivette both marveled at their mother’s life, a few moments after her casket was lowered.
“She taught us to be kind, to think of others,” Ivette said.
Jeffrey reiterated that.
“What amazes me is that despite all her hardships, she always put others first,” he said.
Anneliese had always lamented that the Nazis ended her education so soon. Jan Nossbaum has been working hard to secure an honorary doctorate from a local university for Anneliese. They told her recently that it was happening.
“Dr. Nossbaum,” they whispered. It was one of Anneliese’s last smiles.
Inquirer videographer Lauren Schneiderman and I first met Anneliese on a rainy Tuesday night in January when we went to her rowhome in Jenkintown for the first of several interviews with her and the family. We wanted to get to know them before we all flew to Krakow, Poland, to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Soviet Red Army’s liberation of Auschwitz on Jan. 27, 1945. Beth Razin, of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, had recommended her as one local survivor who was returning.
“Anneliese Nossbaum was truly an inspirational woman, sharing her experience of her survival during the Holocaust with thousands of students and adults over the past years,” Razin said after learning of Anneliese’s death.
The Nossbaums ordered four large pizzas for us that night. They were funny, warm, and open, particularly Anneliese, still whip-smart and sharp at 91. We stayed until about 10:30 p.m., and on subsequent visits, Anneliese continued her quest to feed Lauren and me.
“So, I guess you want me to start from the beginning,” she said to us.
She was born Anneliese Winterberg on Jan. 8, 1929, in Guben, Germany, the only child of Siegfried and Irmgard Winterberg. On Nov. 10, 1938, Nazis and civilians burned down her synagogue during Kristallnacht. In 1942, her family was moved to Theresienstadt, a hybrid concentration camp and ghetto established by the SS in the former Czechoslovakia. Her father died at a satellite camp of Dachau, Germany, in 1944.
Anneliese was taken to Auschwitz on Oct. 10, 1944. Her aunt, Anita Lewinski, was born with a hip deformity and the Nazis sent her to die immediately. Anneliese and her mother went to have their heads shaved. Later, they were moved to Mauthausen, a concentration camp on the Danube River that was liberated by the U.S. Army in the spring of 1945. Her mother died shortly after of tuberculosis.
Anneliese came to the United States alone, at 17, on a ship. The first thing she did in New York City was eat a peach. She met Martin Nossbaum, a civilian equipment specialist for the military, and had two children, living first in Mount Airy, then in Jenkintown. Her inner world was difficult, still haunted by Auschwitz, the memory of seeing her Aunt Anita disappear among the doomed.
Her true healing began in 1971, when she decided to talk openly about the Holocaust. She started with one of her daughter’s classes, her voice and conviction growing stronger each time.
Josey Fisher, director of the Gratz College Holocaust Oral History Archive, was a friend of Anneliese’s for decades, inviting her to speak to her undergraduate classes for hours. Fisher noticed something both Lauren and I could plainly see in Poland: She never seemed to tire.
“Anneliese was willing to stay as long as students asked questions,” Fisher told me. “The intimacy of the classroom matched Annelie’s [one of her nicknames] willingness to go deeper into her story. She encouraged difficult questions, and the students were blessed with her full, honest responses. One student asked if she could communicate with her privately, and Annelie agreed — she invited the student to her home.”
During a survivors dinner in Krakow, I watched Anneliese from afar. She looked so happy with her family, and they idolized her. It seemed silly, as a journalist, to get so emotional about it, but I did. Maybe it’s because I haven’t had a grandmother in 20 years. I asked Anneliese If I could take her picture, so I could send it to my family.
Lauren was far busier than I was that night, trying to take both photographs and video in a dining room crammed with hundreds of people. Still, I saw her smiling with Anneliese from time to time and knew I wasn’t the only one who felt so attached to her, so in awe.
“I didn’t know Anneliese for very long, but throughout the time I spent with her I was impressed by her strength and grace," Lauren told me. "She was an inspiration. And I am so grateful to have met her, have been inspired by her, and had a chance to listen to her stories, many of which I will never forget.”
Two days later, on a dreary Tuesday afternoon, Lauren and I stood with the family by railroad tracks in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Anneliese gave everyone a piece of chocolate, as her Aunt Anita had done there in 1944, before they were forced off the train. Journalists aren’t supposed to take things from subjects, but Lauren and I took a piece of chocolate, too. She was more than a subject, and both of us stood by her casket this week, in a cemetery where birds sang.
The family asked that donations in her name be made to the Holocaust Awareness Museum and Education Center. A memorial service will be held once the world’s in a safer place, they said, and everyone can hug.