When Itka Zygmuntowicz reflects on her life — her imprisonment in Auschwitz-Birkenau, her postwar life in Sweden, her flourishing in the United States — poetry is something the 93-year-old great-grandmother turns to.
“America, my country,” Zygmuntowicz recited, when she wanted to explain what living in the United States means to her. “You are a great land. To the homeless and oppressed, you extend a helping hand. I found here freedom to work, play and pray, and so many new opportunities to heal and grow each day. America, my country, I love you so dearly, and for all my blessings, I thank God for you sincerely.”
Zygmuntowicz, who now lives in Northeast Philadelphia, has written three books. Two, You Only Have What You Give Away and The Power of Words and Deeds, are works of poetry. The third, Remember, My Child, which was published in 2016, is a memoir, which tells the story of her life through photos, narrative and poetry.
She wanted to write the memoir so her descendants would know her story.
“Despite everything that’s happened, I don’t hate anyone,” Zygmuntowicz said. “Not even the Nazis, because if I would hate them, they would win, and I would lose.”
Her life includes highs as well as lows. She has met former President Bill Clinton. She has spoken about her experience in the Holocaust at synagogues and schools. Despite now being physically disabled, she is still active, regularly attending KleinLife programs.
Zygmuntowicz was born Itka Frajman in Ciechanów, Poland in 1926, the eldest of three siblings.
Her interest in poetry came from her mother, Zygmuntowicz said, who was a Yiddish theater actress.
When her mother had children, she stopped working in the theater, but her love of the arts remained. She would read poems and sing to her children.
Zygmuntowicz always had a way with words, she said. She wrote about anything that inspired her.
She was only 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. She was separated from her parents and siblings, never seeing saw them again.
During her years of imprisonment at Auschwitz, she endured starvation and inhumane conditions.
In the barracks, she also became friends with a girl named Bina. The two of them would remain friends for decades, even as the events of history took them to different continents — Bina to Brazil, and Zygmuntowicz to the United States. Bina died about a decade ago.
In Auschwitz, “I didn’t write poetry,” Zygmuntowicz said. “At that time, I was just praying that I can get through the day.”
Though she didn’t at the time, later in her life she would describe the experience through some of her poems.
“Barbed wires surround me,” one of her poems read. “Watch towers, Nazis, smoke and flame. A number is tattooed on my arm. 25673 is now my name.”
The Swedish Red Cross liberated her during Passover in 1945. She was sent to recover at a hospital in Sweden, then to a displaced persons camp. In her testimony to the Holocaust Awareness Museum and Education Center, she recalled being kept with other survivors, quarantined behind a fence. Locals would peer at them through the fence.
In 1946, she met Rachmil Zygmuntowicz. They married two weeks later in a double wedding ceremony with Bina and Bina’s fiancée, Mendel.
“The heart knows of reason what reason doesn’t understand,” she said, on her decision to marry a man she had known for less than a month.
In 1953, the young Zygmuntowicz family moved to Philadelphia through a relocation program for displaced Jewish people.
Years later, she learned she had family in the United States. Up until that point, she thought she was the sole survivor of her family. They gave her pictures of her family, something she thought the Holocaust had taken from her.
The Holocaust hasn’t been the only challenge Zygmuntowicz has faced.
Both her husband and one son died in separate car accidents.
Some years ago, she fell down the stairs of her home in Northeast Philadelphia. She broke her back and was lying on the floor for a full day and night before anyone found her.
She never fully recovered from the accident. She relies now on a cane to walk and doesn’t leave her home on her own.
“No one believed that I’m going to survive,” she said. “But I did.”
The title of her memoir, Remember, My Child, is a reference to some of the last words her mother ever said to her.
“Yitkele,” Zygmuntowicz recalls her mother saying to her, as the Nazis separated families entering Auschwitz. They had sent Zygmuntowicz and her mother in one direction, and Zygmuntowicz’s younger siblings in another. In that moment, Zygmuntowicz’s mother decided to turn and go with her younger children, whom she felt needed her more.
“Remember, my child, no matter what they do, don’t let them make you hateful and bitter, don’t let them destroy you.”
The words are ones she has never forgotten.
My body belongs to me
To God belongs my soul
To my children belongs my inheritance
My love belongs to all
[email protected]; 215-832-0729