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Holocaust survivor: Discrimination 'always starts with words'

Holocaust survivor Eva Unterman, 90, speaks to reporters on Friday, June 16, 2023, at the Jewish Federation of Tulsa.
Max Bryan
Holocaust survivor Eva Unterman, 90, speaks to reporters on Friday, June 16, 2023, at the Jewish Federation of Tulsa.

One of Oklahoma's few remaining Holocaust survivors says hateful words are the initial spark for discrimination, and that it's important for people to call it out when they hear it.

Eva Unterman lived in the Polish city of Lodz, and then its Jewish ghetto when the Nazis took over. She later was forced to move to two concentration camps, one of them Auschwitz.

Now 90, Unterman lives in Tulsa and speaks to educators who teach students about the Holocaust. On Friday, she spoke at a conference for Holocaust educators in reference with a new state law that requires students in grades 6-12 be taught the historic event.

Unterman does what she does, she says, because she believes it's necessary.

"I am one of the very few children in Nazi-occupied Europe who survived," she said.

When giving her account, Unterman said the Nazis specifically went after children because "children represent the future." Her parents told her to not look the soldiers in the eye, she said.

"There was a hunt going around for Jewish children in all of Nazi-occupied Europe, and I’m choosing the word ‘hunt’ very carefully, because we had to hide. My parents hid me many times when word got around about what they were doing," she said.

After four years in the Lodz ghetto, Unterman was sent to Auschwitz, which is considered by historians to be the center of Adolf Hitler's genocide of Jews and other marginalized groups. She was then moved to Stutthof in Poland, where her grandmother was killed.

Unterman and her mother were then moved to a metal factory. She survived the allied bombing of the factory because she slept in the basement.

After the bombing, she walked from Dresden for 11 days on one of the Nazi death marches. She said they wore wooden shoes, that the weather was cold, and that a nail was embedded in her foot.

"Some of the worst moments of my life happened on that march," she said.

Unterman said she survived the Holocaust because she was lucky.

In light of her experiences, Unterman said people should call out bigotry when they hear it. She said there's still "a great deal of bigotry" in the world today. She said bigotry "always starts with words," and that it's important people understand this point.

"Some, even, who spoke against the Nazis were sent to the camps, too. So we have to be very careful not to reach that point," she said.

Ursula Mueller, a former Tulsa Public Schools teacher who moved to the United States with her German refugee family in the 1950s, said children ultimately need to be taught values at a young age so they can exemplify them to others later in life.

Mueller said "an unbiased and truthful education system" is the most important thing in any country. She said indoctrination and agendas open the door to leaders like Hitler.

Mueller, who lived in Alabama during the Civil Rights movement, said America isn't exempt from the issues she alluded to when referencing Hitler or other 20th century dictators.

“I would not want to be Black and living in America. We have not solved that problem — we’ve come a long way,” Mueller said.

Unterman said people should seek to understand each other, because often, they have much in common.

Unterman spoke Friday at her conference for Holocaust educators at the Jewish Federations of Tulsa building. The conference was held in accordance with state law.

Max Bryan is a news anchor and reporter for KWGS. A Tulsa native, Bryan worked at newspapers throughout Arkansas and in Norman before coming home to "the most underrated city in America." Several of Bryan's news stories have either led to or been cited in changes both in the public and private sectors.