FORT COLLINS — Fanny Starr lay in a field in Auschwitz more than 70 years ago, looking at the night sky and asking God how it was she ended up there.
White flakes fluttered through the darkened sky. It was not snow, but the ashes of bodies burned in ovens.
Her mother, two of her siblings and her extended family members were gassed and burned when they arrived at Auschwitz, Poland, and her father later starved himself in Dachau, she told The Coloradoan. Her pain has not receded in the intervening decades.
"The pain will never go away," said Starr, who is 95 and lives in Denver. "It's hard. Never can you forget."
Starr shared her story Wednesday night at Colorado State University. The university's Students for Holocaust Awareness organized for her to speak during the 20th Annual Holocaust Awareness Week, and the event was co-sponsored by: the Associated Students of Colorado State University, Hillel, Chabad Jewish Student Organization, and the Jewish fraternity and sorority, AEPi and Sigma AEPi.
Starr was born and raised in Lodz, Poland, as one of five children. Her father ran a successful tannery, but the family was forced into the city's ghetto in 1939 when she was a teenager. The Lodz ghetto became one of the largest in German-occupied Europe.
Nazis came to their home, forced them out, and put bullets in their St. Bernard's head and through their aquarium.
During her time in the ghetto, Starr was forced to carefully cut apart clothes and retrieve gold, diamonds and other valuables that had been sewn in them. She tied the cloth pieces in bundles and sorted each retrieved item into barrels that would later be taken away. She did not know until she arrived at Auschwitz that the clothes she had been cutting apart belonged to murdered Jews.
When the ghetto was liquidated in 1944, Starr and her extended family members were forced into a train car. By her estimate, more than 60 of them crowded into one car.
They arrived at Auschwitz, where they were shaved and undressed. Starr and her younger sister, Rena Alter, survived. So did a cousin and an uncle. She wouldn't find out until 1964 that one of her brothers also survived. The rest of her family members died — they were among 6 million Jews and more than 11 million total people who died during the Holocaust.
Starr and Alter were dressed in gray-striped outfits at Auschwitz, but they weren't tattooed because there were too many people coming through the camp at the time. It was then that Starr said that she gave up.
"I didn't want to live," she said. "I lost my will to live."
The camp was crawling with lice, she said, and many of the people on the bunk beds around her were dead. She pauses and cries when sharing these details, and folds and re-folds a tissue she holds in her hands.
She credits her sister with keeping her alive. Alter grabbed Starr by her striped dress, stood her up and smacked her in the face.
"You have to put yourself together," Starr recalls her sister saying. "We have to go forward."
The pair filtered through other camps across Europe, including Ravensbruck, Mauthausen-Gusen and Bergen-Belsen.
In Mauthausen-Gusen, Starr helped build V-2 missiles for the Germans. A man taught her how to do the job and hid half an apple to give to her, an act she said proved he had a good heart.
She was liberated on April 15, 1945, in Bergen-Belsen, but she remained there because it served as a camp for displaced people and because they could not leave without a sponsor. She met her husband, Zesa Starr, there, and they were married at Bergen-Belsen. Their first child was born at the former camp.
Their second was born in Des Moines, Iowa, and their third in Denver. Helen Starr, their youngest, traveled to Fort Collins for her mother's speech Wednesday. She's also helped her mother to tell her story across the country, a story she said has incredible significance today.
Helen Starr noted the recent threats and vandalism aimed at Jews, including destruction at a Jewish cemetery in St. Louis and a spate of bomb threats aimed at Jewish community centers.
Helen also noted that Fanny Starr is one of a small number of survivors alive and willing to talk about the atrocities committed during the Holocaust.
"There is only a handful of survivors that will speak," she said. "You could sit down in a room with all of her friends, who are all survivors, they will not talk about anything. It is very painful. They're humiliated and ashamed that they couldn't stand up and fight."