When she was just 3-and-a-half years old, Suly Chenkin’s parents hid her in a potato sack and put her in a cart to be carried away. Sometime later, Suly was handed over the top of a barbed wire fence into the arms of a woman, who raised Suly as her own daughter for years before her parents could find her again.
The place was a ghetto in Lithuania. The year was 1944. Chenkin, now 73 and living in Charlotte, is a survivor of the Holocaust, the youngest survivor of the ghetto where she and her parents were taken and among only 140,000 survivors still living in the United States today.
This Sunday, in Fort Mill, Chenkin will tell the story of her family, one that she’s told countless times, all for the sake of remembering the 6 million Jews and millions of other minorities killed by the Nazis during World War II.
“Year after year, around the world, people are taking the time to remember the Holocaust and the consequences of it,” said Rabbi Yosef Levanon, of Temple Kol Ami in Fort Mill, who is organizing the event.
Monday marked Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Memorial Day. Congregations and community groups across the country and the world marked the date with memorial services and firsthand accounts from survivors.
Chenkin has spoken to many groups across the area for the last decade, since she realized that so many survivors were dying of old age and the stories still needed to be told. The demand for speakers has increased in the last five years, she said.
“The reason the demand has increased is because it’s been such a long time,” Chenkin said. “It’s become part of history.”
For many years, people didn’t want to talk about or hear about it because of a sense of guilt that nothing was done to stop the atrocities, she said. For the survivors, in addition to dealing with the trauma of living through it, they were trying to move on and lead normal lives.
After the war, when Chenkin’s family had been reunited, they lived in Cuba for some time, then New York, where Chenkin was the “darling” of many survivors, a mascot of sorts, because she was so young and had survived.
“I admire (the other survivors) and how they were able to come back after losing parents and siblings and everything and be able to start a new life and become valuable to society,” Chenkin said.
When she speaks to groups about the Holocaust and her experience, her message changes based on her audience.
“When I speak to people who are grown-ups, I tell them my story,” she said. “I am here today because there were some good people.”
With children, Chenkin said she teaches them that German leader Adolf Hitler was the biggest bully of all time. The only thing Hitler was good at, she tells the children, was hate.
“When I speak to the children, what I’m trying to get across is that we all have a choice of who we’re going to be,” she said.
There are a very small number of evil people and a large number of good people. But the largest group of people are the bystanders, and it is their indifference that sometimes allows evil to win. During the Holocaust, people turned their backs, she said.
But, Chenkin said, a victim who has a friend is not a victim anymore, and that’s what children need to understand.
“If I convince one child, my work is done,” she said.
Chenkin said she will continue to tell her story as long as she can. Once, a student asked her why she survived when so many others did not. While that’s a very large question, Chenkin said, she answered as best she could.
“I survived so I can tell you the story and you can continue telling it to everybody else when I’m no longer here.”