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November 8, 2012

Eugenia’s Story

Daughter shares how she learned of Jewish heritage, mother’s survival of the Holocaust

VALDOSTA — As a child, Donna Farwell knew her parents had been held in a Nazi concentration camp. The evidence of her mother surviving the Holocaust was as simple as looking at the registration number tattooed on the inside of her mother’s forearm: A26460.

But Donna Farwell didn’t know until near her adulthood that her parents were Jewish.

“My parents were Catholic,” Farwell says. “I thought they were political prisoners from Poland in the concentration camps.”

It wasn’t until the early 1980s, about three years after her father passed away, when Farwell learned of her family’s Jewish heritage.

In 1951, wanting to move to the United States, worried they would be denied a visa, worried their children may one day face a second Holocaust, Feliks and Eugenia Gwozdz converted from Judaism to Catholicism.

Stateside, the couple raised five children. Donna is the youngest. They settled in Texas. They didn’t just join the Catholic church there. The Gwozdz family became deeply involved in the church and its music programs, a trait shared by their youngest daughter.

Donna Farwell has served 16 years as the youth choir director at St. John’s Catholic Church in Valdosta; she has also worked for eight years as a personal banker with Bank of America. Married to Doug Farwell, who is Valdosta State University Music Department interim head, Valdosta Symphony Orchestra executive director, and a music professor of trombone, they have two daughters, Donica, a Valdosta High School junior, and Darcy, a St. John’s Catholic School eighth grader.

Recently, Donna Farwell shared her parents’ story with Dr. Louis Schmier’s VSU Holocaust class. Her presentation included an abridged taped interview for the Shoah Foundation. In the tape, Eugenia Gwozdz shares her experiences in pre-war Poland, in the concentration camps, and the move to the United States.

Feliks was born in 1920. Eugenia was born in 1924. She came from a prosperous family that manufactured furniture. Growing up, Eugenia lived with her parents, grandmother, and two younger siblings; none of them would survive the Holocaust.

Feliks attended school at Poland’s University of Krakow. One of his classmates was Karol Josef Wojtyla, the man who would become Pope John Paul II.

Eugenia met Feliks. They fell in love. Though she was young, they married in 1939 in the ghetto. As the Nazis invaded Poland and rounded up the Jews, their honeymoon became a nightmare.

Decades later, Eugenia would recall the screams of her beloved grandmother as the Nazis dragged her away. Eugenia never again saw the family of her childhood. With exception of a few photos she managed to preserve through the years and her memories, Eugenia’s childhood family vanished.

Separated from her husband, she was processed into a concentration camp with her mother-in-law and sister-in-law.

“We didn’t know where we was going but we knew of the gas chambers,” Eugenia said in the taped oral history of how the Nazis killed hundreds of thousands of Jews. She continued the remark referring to Holocaust deniers. “Of course, some people don’t believe that. Of course, then, we didn’t believe that.”

Eugenia recalls all of the women being forced to strip naked but being allowed to keep their shoes. Her shoes were a rugged pair of ski boots, which she wore until war’s end.

She survived and was able to keep her boots, a few family photos and a small, heart-shaped trinket from Feliks because a Nazi guard fell in love with her sister-in-law.

Her jobs in the concentration camps included transporting rubber to factories and transporting dead bodies. Though protected by the Nazi guard, Eugenia and her in-laws endured many hardships. They never knew when they would be called to witness a fellow prisoner’s execution, which could be a man, woman or child.

“Every execution you have to witness because this is an event,” she said of their forced attendance. She recalled two young girls being executed. The Nazis told the gathered prisoners that the children had abetted a thwarted uprising. They were tiny little girls, Eugenia said. Soldiers and police dogs surrounded the girls as they were led to their deaths. Contrasting the brutal security with the frailty of the children, Eugenia asked in her taped interview, “Where were they going to go?”

Some prisoners committed suicide on the electrical wire surrounding the camps. People faced losing body parts or being poisoned through various injections as part of Nazi experiments.

Soup was mostly water, but some prisoners would hoard or steal what small amount of soup they received to sell to other prisoners. Nazis forced prisoners to march to classical orchestra music broadcast through loud speakers.

Near war’s end, Donna Farwell shares that her mother, aunt and grandmother were being marched to another location. Eugenia and her in-laws used the move as an opportunity to escape. Guards fired at them. One bullet, according to family lore, struck the heel of one of Eugenia’s ski boots protecting her foot from injury.

With the Allied invasion approaching, the guards made no real effort to pursue them. Eugenia was free but had no idea where Feliks might be. As the Nazi regime collapsed, the war ended and the concentration camps liberated, Eugenia searched for Feliks. Every day, she walked to the train station, searching the faces of people for hours, looking for a glimpse of Feliks.

One day, she noticed the person sitting next to her reading a letter. Eugenia’s eyes moved to the handwriting. Remarkably, she realized the handwriting was not only familiar but that of her husband. The man next to her confirmed that Feliks had written the letter. Feliks was in Munich looking for Eugenia. They were soon reunited in Munich.

“It was like heaven on earth,” Eugenia said of the reunion.

They spent the next several years attempting to move to America. Converting to Catholicism, their dream of an American life came true for Feliks and Eugenia as well as their five children and new generations of grandchildren.

Moving to America was “a relief,” Eugenia said. “We starting life new like Adam and Eve. It was like a miracle.”

In 1979, Feliks died. By 1982, Eugenia had shared their Jewish heritage with the family. The movie “Schindler’s List” compelled her to share her story with more people. Eugenia also became concerned with the number of Holocaust deniers, who believe millions of Jews did not die at Nazi hands. People needed to know what happened. They needed to know of the lives lost. They needed to know that such a thing should never happen again.

“God gave us free will not to kill,” Eugenia Gwozdz said, “but to love one another.”

Eugenia Gwozdz died in March 2001. She was 76 years old.

Though they had endured tragic loss and nightmare conditions, Donna Farwell says her parents refused to be openly haunted by their past. They raised their children with optimism and kindness.

“My parents loved life to its fullest,” Farwell says. “My mother, she loved America. She was very positive. Every time she sang the National Anthem or ‘God Bless America,’ she cried.”

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