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A Voice for the Generations: SSP Workforce Hears Inspiring Story of Perseverance from Second-Generation Holocaust Survivor

10 May 2024

From Lt. Jennifer Bowman

WASHINGTON NAVY YARD – “I can’t remember a time where my mom didn’t speak to me… my mom’s voice filled my world,” Connie Liss said as she reminisced the ever-present memories and stories passed down from her late mother, Dina Rosenberg Jacobson.
Liss—the daughter of Holocaust survivors—spoke to the Strategic Systems Programs (SSP) workforce Wednesday about Jacobson’s life. She shared her mother’s harrowing story of surviving three years at Auschwitz—one of the most infamous of the concentration camps of the Holocaust—during World War II. Liss’ remarks come on the heels of Yom Hashoah—Hebrew for Holocaust Remembrance Day— which marks the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

Liss’ presentation wasn’t necessarily centered on a history lesson, rather, she placed sharp focus on humanizing the Holocaust—and the people whose very lives were gravely affected because of it.

“My mother isn’t just a survivor,” Liss noted.

“She’s a real person—and she lived a life before and after the Holocaust.” 

Liss—a resident of Gaithersburg, Maryland—is a former school teacher and has been an active voice in her community, educating students in Montgomery County public schools about the devastating impacts to human life brought about by the Holocaust. She said imparting personal stories can bring about a shared sense of community—and that is why she has been telling her mother’s story for more than a decade, now. Liss said her mother had been very vocal about her experience during the Holocaust and when she [Jacobson] passed, Liss wanted to carry on this oral-storytelling tradition to honor her parents and educate the community around her.

Jacobson, born in 1922 [an approximation as they could not identify her particular date of birth] was the daughter of two proud Jewish parents and one of seven children who lived in Lybohora, Poland (now Ukraine). Her family owned a farm and a grocery store and ran both independently. Liss said life was pretty good for her mother’s family.

“I pictured my mom—with her red hair and freckles—running around the farm and fields eating berries, getting berry juice on her lips and dress—unaware of what the future would bring,” said Liss.

“At least, that’s the way I hope it was.”

Life started to take a dark turn in the early 1940s when Russia invaded Poland and demanded the residents of Jacobson’s small town ‘share the wealth,’ Liss explained. Jacobson told her daughter that her family had to surrender their entire store and farm—and hope that the Russians never tried to kill them. The family survived until 1942, when the Germans arrived.
“My mom once told me about a day when she came home after school… the house was empty, no one was home, and no one ever came home again,” Liss said.

What happened to Jacobson’s family is still unclear to this day, but Liss noted the only official documentation she knows of was from a cousin who gave a testimony stating Jacobson’s father had been executed by the Nazis. In her experiences of telling her mother’s story to middle and high school students, Liss says she has always asked the kids to ponder the moment—to think about how they would feel coming home to an empty house with no trace of their family. This is part of how Liss connects the humanity of the situation to students many generations removed from the Holocaust.
Soon after, Jacobson would be taken by the Nazis from Lybohora to Auschwitz where she saw and experienced unthinkable horrors. Liss said her mother told her many stories, but one that particularly resonated with Liss was about how mothers would get off the train at Auschwitz and choose to stand in the lines with their children who were sent to the gas chambers—they did not want their children to die alone.
“My mom said that was her forever nightmare—mothers and children dying together,” Liss somberly recalled. Liss later shared that her mother had survived her own experience in the gas chamber, sitting for hours and hours and waiting for something to happen—but nothing ever did and the group walked out alive.

Among other stories her mother told Liss were about the conditions at Auschwitz and how standing in grueling lines for a mere morsel of bread deeply affected her mother for life.

“[Bread] was her lifeline,” Liss recalled.

“Mom had lots of bread in our house, she saved toast to the last bit, wetting her finger as to not let one single crumb go to waste—I can’t imagine what bread must have meant to her.”
This was the bleak reality faced by millions of Jewish people taken captive by the Nazis and imprisoned in these camps. Liss also said her mother was abused at the hands of the soldiers running Auschwitz, including being hit so hard that she lost most of the hearing in one of her ears. Liss said her mom recollected how she prayed night after night for death—but that would not be Jacobson’s fate.

“I don’t think [my mom] thought she was lucky, but she was lucky,” said Liss.
In 1945—the year also marking the end of the war—Liss said her mother was released from Auschwitz and had to figure out how to rebuild her life. In her early twenties, she found herself wanting to go back home and find out what had come of her family. But she never made it back to Lybohora; instead—after miles of walking and hitchhiking—she found herself in Budapest.

“My mom always moved forward, always,” Liss said to the audience as she described her mother’s fervor and will to keep going in those very difficult moments.

“My mom was fierce, and I’m sure that helped her survive.”

Eventually, her mother moved to Feldafing, Germany where she would meet Liss’ father—a Dachau survivor—and the couple married while living at the Feldafing Displaced Persons Camp. Feldafing was the first all-Jewish displaced persons camp—opened and managed by the U.S. Army in 1945; a year later, the facility became home to roughly 4,000 Jews. In 1949—four years before the camp would officially close—Liss was born.
Just a year later, Liss and her family would move to the U.S. with the help of a Jewish-American soldier whom they met at Feldafing. Liss' great aunt lived in New York, and the family thought she lived on Elmira Street which is what Jacobson told the soldier. Actually, the aunt lived in the town of Elmira in New York and the soldier--whose family lived in a small town near Elmira--was able to make that connection for Liss' family. There were many difficulties moving to the states for Liss and her parents, but they persevered and found a place to call home in Elmira.

Liss’ message comes at a very pointed and intense time in history marked by the ongoing Israel-Gaza conflict; by civil unrest surrounding the conflict; and by reports of a rising number of anti-Semitic incidents at college campuses around the United States. She made note of these events in her remarks to those in the audience at SSP’s headquarters building—but her emphasis remained on the brave life of her mother and the profound impact that had on her [Liss] own life. Attendees at the presentation were visibly moved by this story of bravery.

“By sharing her mother's story, Mrs. Liss provided an amazing example of courage, perseverance, and the importance of listening and sharing stories with one another,” said David Macht, director of mission support at SSP.
“Powerful speakers like Mrs. Liss help inspire all of us to make connections and treat one another with respect and dignity.”
SSP—the Navy command that provides cradle-to-grave lifecycle support for the sea-based leg of the nation’s nuclear triad—seeks to educate and contribute to the vitality of its workforce with events like this through its Special Emphasis Programs. These employee-engagement programs illuminate underrepresented groups and topics in an effort to highlight diversity within the workforce. Each event gives the workforce a moment to incorporate thoughts, practices, and inspiration into the vital mission they serve.

Employees like Caroline Magdinec—who also helped coordinate this presentation—were especially touched by the emotion and depth Liss exhibited in her very personal reflection of her mother’s life.
“There is raw emotion in every story she tells, mirroring the emotions originally felt in that moment,” Magdinec said.
“Personal reflections like these need to be remembered not only in a historical context but to ensure humans are never subjected to the kind of horrors the Holocaust wrought on them, ever again.” 
And that’s one big reason Liss will continue to use her own voice to speak to all generations.

“Even with all the trauma in her life, my mom found her voice over and over again,” said Liss.

To Liss, it’s the among most important principles her mother imparted.

“If we don’t tell personal stories, we don’t connect in this world, and you can only make things better one relationship and one person at a time.”

Based on the song ‘Blue Tattoo’ by folksinger Joe Crookston, the film ‘Blue Tattoo: Dina’s Story, Joe’s Song’ is based on the life of Dina Jacobson and can be watched on Vimeo. A very special thanks to Connie Liss for sharing her mother’s profound story of perseverance and honoring the Holocaust Days of Remembrance with the SSP workforce. 

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