Survivor Profile: Livia Shacter
I recently had the opportunity to paint Livia Shacter. Livia was born on April 2, 1917, in Czechoslovakia. Being the only daughter, with five brothers, she says her parents spoiled her terribly. She and her siblings were Zionists, and at age 16 she learned Hebrew, in addition to speaking Yiddish, Hungarian, Czechoslovakian, Russian, Ukrainian, and German. Before the war she became engaged to a young man in the Hungarian military, who she met at her uncle’s Shabbat table on a visit to Hungary. They exchanged letters until he was killed in combat in Russia, fighting the Germans.
In 1944 the Jews in her community were put into a ghetto in the poorest neighborhood, taking just a mattress and some clothing. She and her family were put in a school building, where they spent four weeks until they were packed into the trains, a hundred people crammed into one car, and taken on a three-day journey to Auschwitz. They were given one pail of water to drink, and one pail to use as a toilet.
Upon her arrival at the death camp, she witnessed a Nazi grab a crying baby from its mother’s arms, and throw it onto the concrete, where its head split open. She saw the big chimney in the distance that kept spitting out fire and smoke of human bodies. She was directed by Dr. Mengele to the left, while her parents, two brothers, and hundreds of aunts, uncles, and cousins went to the gas chambers.
Livia was at Auschwitz for four months, and then was taken by train to a German factory where they were fed better to enable them to work more efficiently for the German war effort. Nevertheless, when the war ended, people were so weak that they were crawling on their hands and knees, having had no food for many days. Livia approached an American soldier and in her limited English said, “I hungry.” The soldier reached into his pocket to give her an apple or piece of bread, whatever he could find. She and the other survivors were taken to a hospital to regain their strength.
When she was released, she went to register herself with the Joint (UNRRA). When the found out that she spoke six languages, they jumped at the chance to hire her, because she could communicate with so many survivors from other countries. She was not paid, but was given food and housing. In the evenings, the “boys” would come to the girls’ room to socialize, and it was there that Livia met her husband. She was 26 years old, a bit older than most of the girls she lived with, and he was also older than the other boys, most of whom were in their early 20s. After knowing each other for four days, he proposed. A day or two later, they were married. Livia borrowed a white blouse and veil, and sewed herself a white skirt. There was no rabbi available, so they were married by a yeshiva bochur. Every day, Livia recalls, there was a chuppah.
Livia had some relatives in Los Angeles, so eventually she and her husband moved here with their young daughter. Later, they welcomed another daughter to the family. She lived in L.A. for 50 years, working for Prudential as a keypunch operator in the early days of computers. Livia then moved to Baltimore for 10 years before making aliyah to Israel, where she currently lives with her daughter and son-in-law in Ramat Beit Shemesh. Today she has 11 grandchildren and 54 great-grandchildren, with a few more on the way.
At 100 years old, she needs a hearing aid, uses a walker, and complains that she can’t remember things the way she used to, but she was happy to talk to me about her life story when she sat for my painting and seemed to remember everything in great detail. When she lived in Los Angeles, she lectured for visitors at the Holocaust Museum, so she is very open about her experiences during WWII. She speaks about most of her experiences in a matter-of-fact way, although some topics, like her parents, make her emotional. She has lived a full and eventful life, overcoming tragedies that we can never comprehend. Today she has a loving family and an active social life. I am honored to share a glimpse of her life and her great warmth with others.