is a survivor of the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp.
Since 1970, she
has shared her
experiences at universities, schools, and religious organizations as a member of the speakers bureau of the Jewish Community Relations Council
Itka is a member of the Memorial Committee for the Six Million Jewish Martyrs and the Association of Jewish Holocaust Survivors.
has shared her
story in documentaries: "Eye On - The Lessons of the Holocaust: From Pain Comes Knowledge" (1978), and "From Out of the Ashes" (1981) filmed in Israel.
Itka's stories appeared in Four Generations of Jewish Women's Spirituality (Beacon Press).
was filmed by Steven Spielberg's Shoah Foundation
hometown of Ciechanow, Poland during the March of the Living in 1996.
Itka is a former fashion designer and resides in Philadelphia.
bears witness so the Holocaust will never be forgotten or repeated.
writes both prose and poetry, but often expresses herself in rhyme, where she
can best convey her
deepest messages and feelings.
poetry gives voice to the pain and longings as well as the joy that are so powerful within her
"I've had so many tragedies and so many miracles in my life," says Itka Zygmuntowicz
"I'm the luckiest unlucky woman."
has not let the tragedies destroy her
spirit, they easily could have.
is a Holocaust survivor of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, forced with her
family into an overcrowded ghetto when she
was only 15 and herded into a concentration camp at 16, emerging completely alone at 19.
To comprehend where she's
been is simply impossible; that she
can talk about it, remarkable.
And it's not easy-she breaks into tears several times, then just as quickly composes herself and continues on with her
had said nothing, her
"Your menschlichkeit" (humaneness) was of utmost importance because it does not depend on how others treat you but on how you treat others, she
"Menschlichkeit is the highest form of religion, education, and achievement," so the bigger punishment would have been if she
had talked back to them.
mother's words became a creed by which she
lived, even though she
would later learn that "menschlichkeit doesn't shield me from attack or going through pain.
embraced a saying she
learned from her
grandmother: "You only have what you give away"-which would come to have more meaning for her
in later years.
Young children were taken away, and when her
mother saw that her
younger son and daughter were among them, she
turned to Itka
and said, "You are a big girl.
I have to go with the little children.
But remember, no matter what will happen, don't become hateful and bitter.
Don't let them destroy you.'" She
never saw her
For the next three years, she
endured hunger, long hours of labor, and unspeakable experiences at Auschwitz.
The only bright spot was meeting Bina, a girl who would become a lifelong friend.
held memories of her
family close to her
heart and devised ways to get through the inhumanity.
realized that if she
became like her
would not make it.
Menschlichkeit would be her
eventually found work.
met and married another survivor of Auschwitz, also the only survivor in his
family, after knowing each other just 18 days.
"Every person who knew me then said you are crazy . . . but I felt for me this was right. . . . I am a very simple woman, but I am guided by my inner voice," she
decision was a good one.
"I found here freedom"
In 1953, the couple came to the United States through a relocation program for displaced Jewish persons.
They arrived with their two sons (one just four years old, the other only nine months).
Philadelphia became their new home, and Itka
has lived there ever since-and from 1970, in the same house.
In America, she
had two more sons and devoted herself to raising them until the youngest of the four was in school all day.
began to do volunteer work, first at a local hospital, then with senior citizens, then with Jewish prisoners.
began speaking to groups about her
Holocaust experiences in the 1970s, which she
continues to do today.
now has six grandchildren.
Up until the 1980s, she
thought all her
relatives had died.
received a letter from a woman living in Falls Church, Virginia.
The woman turned out to be her
cousin, whose family had come to America when she
hopes to someday write a book about her
experiences-as well as another book featuring the 101 sayings she
has come up with-her first published book of poetry was just released.
The 35 poems in Itka's
You Only Have What You Give Away range from cries of disbelief and sorrow to finding her
way to understanding and gratitude.
"I say, How come I was privileged to survive when six million perished?
pauses and the tears return.