Last Auschwitz survivor speaks to packed room at UF Chabad 

Irene Zisblatt, 95, speaks at Chabad UF about her experience in the Holocaust.
Irene Zisblatt, 95, speaks at Chabad UF about her experience in the Holocaust.
Photo by Seth Johnson

Irene Zisblatt, 95, wears four diamonds on a necklace. She touched and referenced the sparkling jewels throughout her hour-and-a-half talk on Monday night.  

She swallowed those diamonds as a young teenager, and Zisblatt kept retrieving and re-swallowing the diamonds throughout her time in the Holocaust.  

“I never had the pleasure of sitting on one of those holes because I had to find a safe place that nobody could see me so I could retrieve my mother’s diamonds,” Zisblatt said. “And I swallowed them again and again.” 

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Zisblatt is the last living survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp that claimed the lives of her parents and five younger siblings. Zisblatt told that story to a standing-room-only audience at UF Chabad in honor of International Holocaust Remembrance Day.  

Rabbi Berl Goldman, director of the Chabad UF Jewish Student and Community Center, said the event had 430 registrations. Attendees began carrying their own chairs into the room, setting up an additional row against the back wall and squeezing into the corners.  

The attendees ranged from young children to college students to parents and grandparents.  

The event focused on Zisblatt’s harrowing story from decades past, but the ongoing war in Gaza and the Hamas attack from October 2023 also weighed on the room.  

“The horrors that we saw on October 7 in Israel, regrettably, remind us that history repeats itself if we are not vigilant and prepared,” Goldman said at the start of the event. “Hamas is poisoned in their hate just as the Nazis were 80 years ago.” 

Zisblatt also lamented that for years Holocaust survivors have raised the call of “Never Again.”  

“But never again is now,” Zisblatt said. “So, remember. Do whatever you can, wherever you are to fight hatred because that’s where it all begins.” 

Rabbi Berl Goldman speaks at Monday's event featuring the Auschwitz survivor Irene Zisblatt.
Photo by Seth Johnson Rabbi Berl Goldman speaks at Monday’s event featuring the Auschwitz survivor Irene Zisblatt.

Zisblatt’s first experience with war started in the mountains of Hungary. Even before the invasion of Poland, she recalled being kicked out of school and forced to wear yellow stars to mark her as a Jew.  

After the invasion, Zisblatt said refugees began escaping over the mountains with the help of her father and others, making their way to Palestine. One man stayed in their house and tried to convince them to run away, warning that the Nazis were killing children.  

Zisblatt said she couldn’t believe that. She asked her father, and he said the man didn’t know what he was saying.  

Before long, Zisblatt would see exactly what the man warned.  

A cattle car packed with Jews; a guard beat Zisblatt’s hand to separate her from her brother; head shaved; people walking to barbed-wire fences seeking death; and ash rising from what she first thought were factories.  

After sneaking onto a train, Zisblatt worked in an ammunition factory before, as the war was ending, being taken on a death march.  

“The death march meant that we were marching away from freedom,” Zisblatt said. “Everywhere the Allies were trying to come in, they put us in a different direction.” 

One dark night, Zisblatt and her friend slipped away. American soldiers found the two girls huddled under half a blanket—ready for heaven after a final meal of water and half a potato each.  

Her friend died the next night from disease.  

Zisblatt and the soldiers made it to a hospital where she was nursed to health. She was put in a displaced persons camp and then a waiting list for a Swedish orphanage when a letter came.  

She had family in America she had never known. Her father had five siblings in America, and after two years of paperwork, she crossed the Atlantic Ocean to join them. 

Zisblatt didn’t tell her survival story right away. But on the 50th anniversary of the Holocaust, at Auschwitz, Zisblatt finally spoke up. Since then, she’s shared her history around the world, writing the book “The Fifth Diamond” and appearing on “The Last Days” by Steven Spielberg.  

She said she’s spoken to millions of people with four glittering diamonds around her neck, and she hopes the experience changes them. 

With so few Holocaust survivors left, Zisblatt said the next generations will have never met someone who experienced the concentration camps. She said the people who’ve heard her story carry it on. 

“I don’t want the world to forget what happened to us because I don’t want it to happen again,” Zisblatt said. 

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The young will always learn from the old, but first they must listen.

It’s good to see many are listening.