CONCORD (CBS 5) – It causes her nightmares, but a Concord woman has spent a quarter century sharing with students how she survived the darkest, most horrific chapter in her life, the Holocaust.
Eighty-two-year-old Yanina Cywinska describes the horrors of the Holocaust to Solano Community College students in Fairfield.READ MORE: Redwood City Sets Up Vaccination Clinic for Special-Needs Community
“The bodies fell on top of me and gas was carbon monoxide,” Cywinska said.
She was a 10-year-old aspiring ballerina when she says the Nazis captured her Catholic Polish family for helping Jewish people. In the concentration camps, she watched her parents die.
“Memories come back of my mother, pulling her out of the gas chamber by her feet, yelling to her, ‘I wanna go home, Moma, I wanna go home. Take me away from here,'” she said.
She remembers a woman nearby described her new reality.
“She said, ‘She can’t help you, she’s dead.’ And I’d say, ‘What is dead?'”
Miraculously, Yanina herself didn’t inhale enough poison to die. She says she worked as a slave, dragging out and sorting through dead bodies.
After six years of imprisonment, 16-year-old Yanina was freed by members of the Japanese American 442nd combat team. She looked like a skeleton.
“I climbed up on the American tank and wrapped myself up in an American flag and yelled to everybody that we are free!”READ MORE: Parishioners of Burned Concord Church Stay Committed to Helping Homeless
Yanina has been telling her story to Bay Area high school and college audiences for the last 25 years. She started her talks to counter skeptics who believed the Holocaust was a lie.
She shows students the number tattooed on her arm, and shares her story to make her world more peaceful. But the memories still haunt her, especially the night after a presentation.
“I have nightmares of all sorts. By then, second day, after speech, everything’s calmed down. And I realize what a gorgeous world this is.”
Karen McCord, Ethnic Studies Professor at Solano Community College, regularly invites Yanina to speak.
“People across cultures can relate to what she’s saying because it’s a story of strength and it’s a story of survival,” McCord explained.
Student Lala Myrick says hearing Yanina’s powerful story makes her problems seem small.
“I love her spirit — her spirit and uplifting smile. And her personality. It makes her story more motivational,” said Myrick.
After she was freed, Cywinska studied in Paris, and became a ballerina. Today, she leads a weekly senior citizens’ exercise class, and substitute-teaches ballet in the East Bay. But she’s known best for speaking out.
“I want them to know that hate leads to Holocaust, that hate is a bad thing,” Cywinska said.MORE NEWS: San Francisco Homeless Camp to Be Removed Monday, Advocates Say Residents Have Right to Stay
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