'It isn’t a number. It’s a person': Irene Miller speaks on surviving the Holocaust

Holocaust survivor Irene Miller talks about her experience in the Holocaust, as part of Jewish Heritage Week, Wednesday, Jan 25, in the Biosciences Building.

Irene Miller, a Holocaust survivor, educator and author, took the stage in front of the campus community in her bright and colorful sweater.

Behind Miller, two projectors shown light on a black-and-white picture of her at around 5 years old – right around the time when World War II forced the Poland native and her family to flee their home country and live out the horrors of the Holocaust.

Miller spoke on her journey of surviving the genocide imposed by Nazi regime on Jan. 25 as a part of Jewish Heritage Week events organized by Hillel at Central Michigan University. 

The event opened with remarks from CMU students, Lily Segall and Elizabeth Slater, who discussed the history of the Holocaust – the genocide of Jewish people. 

The Holocaust experience

According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website, 6 million Jewish people were persecuted in the Holocaust. Miller said of her distant 100 family members, she, her mother and sister were the only survivors.

“They become numbers,” Miller said in response to an audience member’s question. “But to translate it to (a) human experience is important. It isn’t a number. It’s a person.” 

Miller said it wasn’t easy to decide to share her story because “it isn't that I tell about it, I relive it." 

“Initially when I started talking about this, a few years ago, I would choke up, become emotional,” Miller said. “I do it because it's very important for people to know what happened, and for young people in particular, (who) will be there to take actions to prevent such things from happening.”

Miller said she saw World War II from a top floor of an apartment building in Warsaw where she lived with her parents and sister. From the window, Miller said she remembers seeing the shiny boots of Nazi soldiers walking on the streets.

Miller said a Polish guide smuggled she and her family to Bialystok, on the Polish border of what was the Soviet Union.

“If you move, you won’t be that cold,” Miller recalled her mom often said throughout the six weeks they spent on the border, developing frostbite and watching people die. Eventually, her father was able to bribe the city official to give his family a permit to cross the border.

Not all of Miller's family members were permitted to enter the Soviet Union, Miller said. Her mother was prohibited from entering with her family, so Miller’s father instead took Miller and her sister through the border to a safety in a Soviet village. Miller said when her dad returned for her mom, she was already taken by Nazi soldiers.

The family settled down in the Soviet Union. Miller said as a little girl, she had a hard time understanding her mother's absence. She didn't remember how her mother found her way back to the family, but one day, she returned and the family was able to stay together. Miller recalled to be waking up at nights to hug her mom just to make sure she was not disappearing again.

“The joy didn’t last long,” Miller said.

As Nazis closed in on the Soviet Union, the family was taken by Soviet soldiers to the labor camp in Siberia. They spent eight long weeks on a train, eating only one cup of soup per day, Miller said.

In Siberia, Miller said everyone had to work. She and her family survived freezing temperatures, wild animals and hunger. She recalled her mother asking what birthday present she would want if there were no war. 

"Bread," Miller answered.

Hoping to escape the hunger and cold, the Millers moved to Uzbekistan. The hoped for a better life. Instead, Miller said, they were “starving to death.”

In Uzbekistan, they had to boil grass and leaves. Miller also suffered through malaria, a disease that causes severe fever. 

She said in Uzbekistan, an orphanage for Polish Jews opened and her family found shelter. In the orphanage, she said, most people had bald heads and lice.

There, her father passed away. Miller said she was living “not knowing what would happen” each day.

But Miller wrote poetry and was eager to educate herself. Miller said she didn't have access to education, but she read a lot of books in different languages. 

After the war ended, Miller returned to Poland where the family lived in an orphanage in Krakow.

Miller said her mother couldn’t survive “living on a graveyard of brothers and sisters.” Soon, the family moved to Israel. When Miller was 21 years old, she came to the United States.

Where is Miller now?

Now, Miller is a successful speaker and author who has maintained her support of the Jewish community and the fight to end hunger in the world.

Her book “Into No Man’s Land” was on sale at the event. It is also available for purchase online.

Miller mentioned a Hebrew saying she tries to live by: "tikkun olam," which embraces improving the world.

“(It's) everyone's responsibility to reach out and help in improving the world,” Miller said. “If we are silent when those (bad things) happen, we encourage (it to) happen, to grow bigger and bigger.”

Miller said she was glad to share her story with students – “The ones who will be leading the world, the ones whose responsibility it will be to see to do everything possible for them to prevent such things from happening again.”

Miller said it is young people’s responsibility now to guard democracy and not be bystanders.

Attendees, Bob and Sara Segall, who came to support their daughter and an organizer of the event, Lily, said it was important to hear from Miller.

“Right now, especially, with the rise of antisemitism in the United States and around the world, I think hearing very personal stories about individuals who are impacted by that is really important,” Bob said. “Certainly, hearing from a survivor of the Holocaust, I think can do nothing but help to spread some empathy and understanding of why keeping humanity in mind as we move through our daily lives was incredibly important”

Katie Sloan, a CMU instructor of human development and family studies, said she also attended the event to support Segall, her former student.

“I think it's important that we're reminded that violent or harmful discourse or political decision making can have really terrible impact,” Sloan said. 

Jaimie Haisma, president of Hillel at CMU, said it was “nerve wracking” to share her culture because of the rise of antisemitism in today's world.

An audience member asked about confronting anti-semitic people, to which Miller responded, it is a “waste of time."

“Those who deny (the) Holocaust is not for lack of information,” Miller said. “It serves their anti-semitic or political purpose.”   

Haisma said the events Hillel and other campus partners hosted this week helped educate the campus about Jewish culture and experiences.

Haisma said Wednesday night's event was the one she looked forward to most.

“It went really great," she said. "We had a lot of people and we had some really great questions and we're so thankful to have (Miller) here."

Haisma said she thinks the audience "definitely felt something" and was able to "connect to it in a different way." 

After the event, attendees were treated with Challah, a Jewish traditional bread.

Around 100 students, faculty and community members exited the warm Biosciences building to the snowy strees.

The last two events of Jewish Heritage Week are a Dreidel night at 5 p.m. on Jan. 26 and Jewish Trivia at 1 p.m. on Jan. 27.