Maria Szapszewicz, 90; Auschwitz survivor shared her story with the world

in a 2010 Jewish Light file photo by Lisa Mandel.

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Maria Szapszewicz never erased the Auschwitz number tattoo the Nazis had put on her arm, nor did she erase the memories of the Holocaust from her mind.  Instead, Mrs. Szapszewicz shared those memories through moving poetry and essays, a published book and a CD of her readings, along with countless talks to high school students and as a survivor-docent at the St. Louis Holocaust Museum and Learning Center. Mrs. Szapszewicz died Thursday, Oct. 25, 2012 at McKnight Place Assisted Living in University City.  She was 90.  The longtime resident of Creve Coeur had suffered a stroke about 18 months ago, according to her family.

Jean Cavender, director of the St. Louis Holocaust Museum and Learning Center, praised Mrs. Szapszewicz’s courage and dedication.  “Maria devoted her life to giving her testimony in order to teach the history and lessons of the Holocaust to our visitors at the Museum.  She was especially interested in making sure that students understood the importance of standing up when they see social justice occur in our society.” 

Even when Szapszewicz’s infirmities prevented her from coming to the museum regularly, the museum would still send individual students doing special projects about the Holocaust to speak with her about her experience, Cavender said. “She never missed an opportunity to convey that message.  She was a great lady who will be deeply missed by our community.”

Fellow Holocaust Museum docent Irl Solomon described the passing of Mrs. Szapszewicz as a “great loss,” and described her as an inspirational mentor and role model for everyone associated with the Holocaust Museum.

Maria Wacjhandler was born on Feb. 28, 1922 in Lodz, Poland.  Her father was in the import-export business. She had an older and a younger brother and often described her family home as beautiful.

When the Nazis invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939, the beginning of World War II in Europe, Maria was 17. Her father was murdered by the Nazis and she and the rest of her family were sent to the the Lodz and Szydlowiec ghettos.  In an interview with the Jewish Light in 2010 when she was being honored by the local Girl Scouts, she described conditions in the ghetto.  

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

From the ghetto she was sent to make bullets at the Hermann Goering ammunition factory, and later she and her mother were sent to Auschwitz in the cattle car of a train.  In her many talks about her experiences, she described the scene on arriving at Auschwitz.

“There were orchestras playing.  We could smell the burned flesh when we stepped off the train.” Immediately she and her family realized that the stories they had heard about the death camps were not mere rumors.  They were true.

From Auschwitz, where she had received her tattooed number — MA-14359 — she was sent to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, the same camp where Anne Frank, her sister Margot and mother Edith would die. Maria managed to survive, and when the Allies liberated the camp on April 15, 1945, she weighed only 56 pounds and her mother 47 pounds.

After she regained her energy and strength, she helped organize over 10,000 survivors in a displaced persons camp.  She was an organizer and secretary for a relief agency of the United Nations.  She returned to her native Poland at the end of the 1940s, finished high school at studied fashion design at college.  Her fiancé from before the war had died.  She later met and married Jacob Szapszewicz.  They had two daughters.

After she and her family finally left Poland in 1959, they moved to St. Louis where she joined her older brother. For 30 years she worked as supervisor of the alterations department at the old Famous-Barr store in Clayton.  As a sideline, she designed clothing for society women.  She also enjoyed knitting various items for friends, including kippot.

After her retirement from Famous-Barr, Mrs. Szapszewicz began to volunteer and became a docent at the Holocaust Museum.  Her husband had fallen into declining health and had to cut back on his own activities at the Museum. Her husband died in 1994.

In 1995, when the Museum formally opened, Szapszewicz was shocked to see a photograph of an arm with an Auschwitz number tattooed on it.  It was her arm and her number.

She shared her story with countless high school students and other visitors to the Holocaust Museum through the years, taking pains to refute the claims of Holocaust deniers through her own eyewitness testimony. Her reflections, poems and commentaries were collected in a CD she issued in 2004, “Memories and Dreams,” and a book she published in 2006, “For Those I Love and Can’t Forget.” Both are available, in limited supply at the Holocaust Museum.  She discussed her book at the “Missouri’s Own” panel at the St. Louis Jewish Book Festival in 2006.

Among many other activities, Mrs. Szapszewicz was an active member of Congregation Shaare Emeth and regularly attended its weekly Torah Class until her illness limited her travel.  

“Maria had a knack for touching people with her sincerity and her profound humanity,” said Rabbi Jeffrey B. Stiffman, Emeritus of Shaare Emeth, who officiated at her funeral service. 

“I cannot imagine how painful it must have been for her each time she repeated the story. Yet she did,” he said. When Szapszewicz spoke to a religious school class, Stiffman recalled that the teenagers, who “had been their usual rowdy selves,” quickly fell silent. “At the conclusion, there were tears in some of their eyes,” he said. “When we realize that this happened hundreds, even thousands of times, we can only imagine the profound impact on the generations yet to come.”

A graveside service was held Monday at Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery, 7500 Olive Boulevard at Hanley in University City.

Survivors include her two daughters, Joanne Szapszewicz of University City and Rose Szapszewicz of Hood River, Ore., and two granddaughters.

Memorial contributions prefererred to the St. Louis Holocaust Museum and Learning Center.