Ellen Zinn grew up “a little freaked out” with the feeling of being powerless as a “2G,” or second-generation Holocaust survivor.
“Memory is defined as the power of recalling what’s been experienced or learned,” Zinn told Naval Support Activity Philadelphia employees during a Holocaust observance program May 3. “Power … an amazing word when we think about the fact that Jews of the Holocaust spent their lives, during and afterwards, feeling powerless.”
Zinn works with the Community Relations Council at the Esther Raab Holocaust Museum and Goodwin Education Center Jewish in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.
It’s important to observe the Holocaust “so that we don’t forget that there are evils in this world,” Marine Col. Shaun McDoniel, NAVSUP Weapons Systems Support Marine aviation liaison, said before introducing Zinn.
“But it’s people like us, and what we do here in Philadelphia, that enable this country to be able to fight those evils to ensure they don’t ever happen again,” he said.
Zinn’s father was a runner for the Jewish resistance to the Nazis during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943. He went to the Majdanek concentration camp after being arrested for smuggling arms and gasoline used for Molotov cocktails.
He was being transferred to Auschwitz when he and a friend jumped off the train. For nine months, including a bitter winter, they lived in trenches in the woods, which survivors called “living graves,” Zinn said.
Her father survived on scarce food left by a local Christian farmer and weighed 85 pounds when the area was liberated by the Russian army at the end of the war. While at a Russian field hospital, he met Zinn’s mother, a Romanian-born nurse.
After they married and the war ended, her parents returned to Warsaw, where Zinn was born. When it became clear that life in Russia-controlled Poland would be difficult, they joined the hundreds of thousands of refugees who left Eastern Europe between 1945 and 1948.
Zin grew up in New York with her brother and sister, with both a fear of authority and an obligation to help those without the power to help themselves.
“Much of what I observed and experienced during my childhood stemmed from these feelings of powerlessness,” she said.
But there was also a sense of empowerment due to her parents’ “survivorship,” although she wasn’t aware of it until she “was a little older and little wiser.”
Later, while being considered for citizenship in the United States, Zinn said she was put in a small office to answer questions from a woman who didn’t bother to look up at her.
The woman asked Zinn what she did. Zinn told her, “in broken, accented, but perfect English” that she was a full-time college student.
“She looked up and swore me in. Talk about empowerment,” Zinn said.
The Holocaust program was hosted by the DLA Troop Support Equal Employment Opportunity Office and the NAVSUP Weapons Systems Support Equal Employment Opportunity Advisory Committees.