Elane Norych Geller was born on April 2, 1936 and died on September 17, 2020. She was one of the youngest survivors of the Holocaust. She was pre-deceased by parents Esther and Mordecai, brothers Jack and Ben, and a sister, stepmother, stepbrother.
Elane was born in Vojislav, Poland, a small town of 4,000 people, half of whom were Jews. She lost her mother to illness at two when the Nazis prevented her from obtaining post-operative care. At three, her father heard rumors of the Judenrein Aktion (the Nazis’ intent to get rid of the Jews) and arranged to hide her with a Christian family. But when the Nazis marched into town and her father saw other Jewish children betrayed by Christian families and killed, he kept Elane with him. Elane watched the Nazis shoot her stepmother, stepbrother and grandparents dead in the town square. She was four. As an adult she remembered, “There was a massacre. I remember liquid coming out of the bodies, but I didn’t know what it was.”
They were moved to a holding camp surrounded by electrified barbed wire and given armbands with yellow Stars of David: “And that was it, that was the end of our freedom.”
Elane was then taken with her aunt Rosa to a work camp in a coal mining town. She hid in the barracks by day, praying for her aunt to return. “Children didn’t play, we hid.”
One night, Elane was thrown over a fence into a truck, buried under a mountain of coal and smuggled to Skarzysko, the camp where her father and brothers were incarcerated. The family was together only briefly though, then the men disappeared.
Disease, starvation, lice and rats became part of Elane’s daily experience. She stole food, ate toothpaste, drank urine—anything to fill her belly. She always said it was mere chance that allowed her to survive. The Nazis could have murdered her at any time, for amusement. They laughed as they shaved her head and beat her, saying “This hair is too pretty for a Jewish girl.” They sicced dogs on her, addressing the dogs as humans, commanding them to attack her as an animal, saying: “Mensch, beiss den Hund!” (“Man, bite the dog!”)
Seeing people killed ceased to affect her. Bodies piled up like trash and were swept into pits at the end of the day. Elane remembered looking at piles of dead bodies and wondering “When will I look like that?” She and her aunt were taken by boxcar to Bergen-Belsen, packed in so tight with people so malnourished and starving that her aunt screamed the whole time, fearing they would eat Elane alive.
In 1945 they were liberated, she and Rosa from Bergen-Belsen by the British, her father and Ben from Terezin by the Soviets, Jack from Buchenwald by the Americans. Her sister had already died in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. The British dropped candy from planes to the emaciated survivors, who ate them straight off the ground. Elane was eight. She had never tasted candy before.
In the refugee camps, Elane learned lullabies in different languages – Russian, Polish, Hungarian. She sang to people in their language, begging for food, targeting people who’d lost children so she could grab bread from their hands while they wept.
Her father managed to gather the family together. An uncle located them by scouring Jewish papers, and sponsored their trip to America. In 1946 they arrived on the first ship from Germany to Ellis Island. For a celebration greeting their arrival, Elane was given a poem to recite in English (a language she didn’t yet speak), and her first orange.
They settled in Brooklyn. Elane couldn’t believe she wasn’t hungry anymore. She would ask, “Was all this here, while we were there?” She started kindergarten at age nine, her brothers and father learned English and found work, and step by step they acclimated. Elane graduated, on time, from La Guardia High School of the Performing Arts, in Acting. Although offered a scholarship to college, her family couldn’t afford to help with expenses, and to her disappointment she didn’t go.
In 1956, she married fellow Brooklynite Murray Geller, and they eventually settled in California. They are both survived by son David, daughter Esther (named after Elane’s mother) and three grandchildren – Jack, Ben (named after Elane’s brothers), and Vera.
Elane didn’t speak of her experiences for many years but was motivated to after the emergence of Holocaust deniers. The Simon Wiesenthal Center assigned her specifically to student groups because, as a child survivor, the students could relate to her stories. Over the years, Elane shared her personal testimony with thousands: to schools across the country; on a talk show with Hogan’s Heroes actor Robert Clary (a Buchenwald survivor); on a panel with survivors of the Vietnamese and Cambodian atrocities, and the Dalai Lama. She received an honorary doctorate from Waldorf College. Her portrait is on permanent display at the Museum of Tolerance‘s Witness to Truth exhibition by Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Marissa Roth.
She inspired her listeners, never failing to stress the importance of individual acts, saying “I beg of you to speak out when there is injustice.”