Even after she experienced the horrors of Auschwitz, Holocaust survivor Itka Zygmuntowicz did not hate anyone.
As she told the Jewish Exponent in 2019, hating the Nazis would mean letting them win.
Instead, she channeled her energy into raising her family, writing poetry and teaching students how to have hope in the face of tragedy.
“So many mountains, so many streams/ So many hopes, such endless dreams./ I yearn to fill my empty cup/ And drink life’s joy and never stop,” she wrote in her 1967 poem “Life’s Dream.”
Zygmuntowicz died in her bed in her Northeast Philadelphia home on Oct. 9. She was 94.
She was the author of the poetry books “You Only Have What You Give Away” and “The Power of Words and Deeds.” In 2016 she also published a memoir, “Remember, My Child,” which tells the story of her life through photos, narrative and poetry.
“She felt this incredible responsibility to be a witness,” her son Samuel Zygmuntowicz said.
Zygmuntowicz was born Itka Frajman in Ciechanów, Poland in 1926. She credited her interest in poetry to her mother, who was a Yiddish theater actress. When she was a child, her grandmother taught her, “You only have what you give away.”
She was 13 when Germany invaded Poland in 1939. Two years later, she and her family were deported to the Nowe Miasto Ghetto and then to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
“Itkola, remember, my child, no matter what they do, don’t let them make you hateful and bitter, don’t let them destroy you,” her mother told her before they were separated. She would never see her mother or her younger siblings again.
Even as she endured inhumane conditions, Zygmuntowicz remembered her mother’s words and fiercely reminded herself that she was “Itkola” when the Nazis called her by the number on her arm.
The Swedish Red Cross liberated her in 1945. She was sent to recover at a hospital in Sweden, then to a displaced persons camp. In 1946, she met and married Rachmil Zygmuntowicz. They moved to Philadelphia through a relocation program in 1953.
The couple had four sons together: Erland, Jerry, Sam and Michael Zygmuntowicz. Erland Zygmuntowicz described his mother as a moral anchor, a beautiful singer and a talented cook.
“She created this feeling of beauty and peace in our family,” he said. “And she really taught us the values she learned in her family in Poland, about the meaning of menschlichkeit, humaneness.”
She brought her values of menschlichkeit into classrooms and museums during the 1970s when she began speaking publicly about her experiences surviving the Holocaust. Lise Marlowe, chair of the education committee at the Holocaust Awareness Museum and Education Center, said her words helped students understand that it was possible to endure struggles and go on to live a happy life.
“She gave students so many stories of hope, of how to be a tolerant person and how to be a kind person, and how to love people. She just was really good at giving so much love where you felt so special when you were with her,” Marlowe said.
Marlowe, who is a sixth grade social studies teacher in Cheltenham School District, said one of her students had a particularly strong reaction to Zygmuntowicz’s story because his family survived the Cambodian genocide.
“He shared that with her, and broke down into tears in front of, you know, 50-plus students because of what happened to his family, and she said, ‘Come here and give me a hug,” she said. “We were all in tears.”
Itka Zygmuntowicz would endure even more tragedy with the loss of her husband and her son Michael in separate car accidents. She became physically disabled in her later years after she fell down the stairs in her home.
Samuel Zygmuntowicz said that after years of confinement, personal freedom was extremely important to her, and she was determined to live in her own home rather than an assisted living facility. Despite relying on a cane to walk and needing assistance to leave her home after the accident, she remained active and regularly attended KleinLife programs.
He said his mother never let tragedy change her loving personality.
“It was about not being hateful, taking tragedy and transforming it into something that bolsters your humanity,” he said.