Girl Scouts to honor local Shoah survivor

MA-14359. That’s the number tattooed on Maria Szapszewicz’s arm when she arrived at Auschwitz.

She doesn’t try to hide it – she wears with it pride as a reminder of everything she endured during the Holocaust. Szapszewicz speaks regularly about those experiences to visitors at the Holocaust Museum and Learning Center and has shared her story with audiences all over the world.


On April 13, the Girl Scouts of Eastern Missouri are honoring Szapszewicz as a 2010 Woman of Distinction under the category of Inspiration.

“It is clear from reading the nomination and recommendations that Maria has made her life very uplifting, very positive,” said Shara Jones, Development Manager of the Girl Scouts of Eastern Missouri. “It is hard to imagine how someone could survive such horrors and remain a gentle, happy human being.”

Szapszewicz was born in Lodz, Poland to loving parents. Her father was in the import/export business and her mother assisted him in the office along with taking care of her family. Szapszewicz had an older and younger brother.

“We lived in a beautiful home,” she said. “My parents believed in education and tried to give us the best.”

She was 14 when World War II broke out in 1939. Maria has memories of the Germans forcing Jews to wear a Yellow Star, businesses being confiscated, synagogues burning and people hiding. The family was forced to live in the Lodz and Szydlowiec ghettos.

“Soldiers came into Jewish homes and took whatever they wanted,” Szapszewicz said. “People were living and dying on the streets.”

Maria Szapszewicz worked in an ammunition factory in Starochowice before she and her mother were sent to Auschwitz. They traveled to the camp on a cattle car. Many died on the train before it arrived at the camp. She remembers her confusion when they arrived at Auschwitz II death camp, also known as Birkenau.

“There was an orchestra playing,” she said. “We could smell burned flesh when we stepped off the train. Until then, we had hoped the stories about the death camps were just rumors.”

Szapszewicz survived Auschwitz and was sent to Bergen-Belsen. The camp was very overcrowded, with very little food or water, and disease ran rampant.

“There were thousands of unburied skeletons when the camp was liberated on April 15, 1945,” Szapszewicz said. “I weighed 56 pounds and my mother weighed 47 pounds.”

She stayed at the hospital in Bergen-Belsen for over six months following her liberation before going to a Displaced Persons camp.

Szapszewicz was part of group that helped organize the Jewish community in the camp and worked for quite a while for several organizations. Her proficiency in languages came in quite handy.

“I spoke French, German, Polish and Yiddish,” Szapszewicz said. “I understood Russian quite well and a little bit of English, but spoke mostly Yiddish.”

After a few years, she returned to Poland to look for her family – no one had survived.

Unfortunately, once she was admitted to the country she was not permitted to leave it. She decided to make the best of a bad situation and went on to complete high school and went to college. She met and married her husband Jacob and they had two daughters. The family was finally granted permission to move to the United States in 1959.

They moved to St. Louis, where Szapszewicz worked at the now defunct Famous Barr as a fashion advisor and was in charge of alterations. Today, she is a published author of poetry and articles, an active volunteer in the Jewish community and has been a docent and speaker for the Holocaust Museum and Learning Center since it opened 15 years ago.

Sharing her experiences and turning them into lessons is a very important part of Szapszewicz’s life.

Holocaust Museum & Learning Center Director Jean Cavender and Chairman Marci Rosenberg said Szapszewicz’s commitment to inspiring others in their letter of nomination. “Maria has taken her devastating life experience and turned it into a life lesson that she imparts at every opportunity to local, national, and international audiences.”

Szapszewicz’s daughter, Joanne Szapszewicz, knows her mother’s story first hand and has also heard her speak on a number of occasions. Joanne Szapszewicz said many of her friends have been inspired by her mother.

“Knowing my mother’s story made my friends realize their own problems are not insurmountable,” Joanne Szapszewicz said. “It is very painful to hear her story: because it’s sad and real and because she’s my parent to know everything she went through.”

Third Annual Girls/Women of Distinction

WHAT: Awards presented by Girl Scouts of Eastern Missouri

WHEN: 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, April 13

COST: $55 individuals; $400 for tables of eight

MORE INFO: Contact Barbara Arnold at 314-592-2320 or go to