Blanche Porway remembers the guard tearing her from her mother’s hand as they stood in line at the Auschwitz concentration camp with hundreds of Jews and other prisoners. Her mother was led off to the gas chambers while Porway and her older sister were spared, only because the guards deemed them fit enough to work.
Porway, then 19, had already survived the ghetto in Lodz, Poland, where her father and brother had starved to death.
“My sister said, ‘I can’t take this,’ ” Porway recalled tearfully Sunday. “But I said, ‘We have to. We have to live to tell people.’ ”
Now 90, Porway shared her story at a brunch in Rockville to honor Holocaust survivors. The event, attended by about 40 survivors and their families, coincided with Monday’s Holocaust Remembrance Day, or Yom HaShoah, in Israel. Most of the survivors were residents at the Charles E. Smith Life Communities senior facilities in Rockville, where officials say they have one of the largest groups of Holocaust survivors in the Washington area.
They came with their adult children, who had grown up hearing their painful stories, and with grandchildren, who they hoped would learn more. They told of fathers being arrested in the night after an abrupt knock on the door. They told of their synagogues burning, of being boarded onto trains with other Jewish children fleeing the Nazis, of the nuns who hid them in convents. They showed scars on their hands from being forced to work in German factories and cried as they recalled being forced to shovel dirt at gunpoint during years in a labor camp.
Many broke into tears as they told their stories, their accents still carrying traces of their native German, French and Polish.
“It’s hard to accept what happened, even now,” Porway, who lives in Chevy Chase, said in a Polish accent, as her voice shook and her eyes teared up. A few moments later, she added quietly, “I sometimes question if people want to hear it, or if they’ll get too upset.”
Joel Appelbaum said he organized the brunch — this was the fourth — to honor Holocaust survivors in memory of his late father, who had stayed at one of the Charles E. Smith facilities. Appelbaum is vice president of the Progress Club, a Rockville social group that paid for the brunch through its charitable foundation.
He noted survivors’ ages — those at the brunch were between 75 and 100 — and the fact that their first-person accounts would soon be left to books and video archives.
“We have a limited window to do this,” Appelbaum said as younger family members helped their parents and grandparents get seated, often after parking walkers and wheelchairs along the walls.
“Ten years from now,” Appelbaum said, “this will not be an event.”
Charles E. Smith community officials said the survivors benefit from sharing their stories, too. Some had spoken little about the Holocaust during their younger years, after they had started new lives in the United States.
“I think at this stage in their lives, they want to talk, and it helps them,” spokeswoman Emily Tipermas said. “They feel it’s safe for them now to talk, and they understand that they lived through this period of history.”
Yetti Sinnreich said her father, Beril Sinnreich, who is 99, had one question for her as they sat down to eat: “Can I speak?”
Yetti Sinnreich, of Potomac, said she grew up hearing about the Holocaust from both parents, who met after the war in a “displaced persons” camp in Romania. Her mother, Klara Sinnreich, 97, worked as a seamstress in a labor camp.
While growing up, Yetti Sinnreich said, “I remember my father screaming with nightmares and waking up the house.”
Klara Sinnreich no longer speaks much. But when the microphone came around, Beril Sinnreich raised his hand. He broke into tears as he recalled being forced to march to a work camp. He was 26 when Romanian soldiers came to his home, he said. His lost his entire family in the Holocaust.
“For three days and three nights, I didn’t see water,” Beril Sinnreich said. “We slept in train wagons. Every night, frozen people were thrown out like garbage.”
They marched for six weeks, he said, and his father died of a heart attack.
“He couldn’t walk anymore,” he said.
Beril Sinnreich, stooped with age and wearing a white cap, appeared exhausted as he spoke before the crowd.
“Three years, I was in a concentration camp,” he said through tears. “I survived.”
When asked after the brunch what he wanted the children and teenagers in the audience to take away from his story and others, Sinnreich had a short answer: “It shouldn’t happen again.”