PEABODY — Not all teenagers follow through on the promises they make to a parent, but for Sonia Schreiber Weitz, the oath she made to her mother at 14 was sacred.
For the next 67 years, Weitz carried the pledge she took while watching the Nazis lead her mother away to a death camp — to tell the world about the Holocaust — rising from a Peabody housewife and mother to one of the most recognized Holocaust survivors and speakers in the country.
This was not the kind of life Weitz pictured for herself as a child in Krakow, Poland. But somehow, she was able to survive five death camps – including Auschwitz – and will herself to America, where she spent decades advocating for human rights and justice, and telling her story.
Weitz was 81 when she died almost two years ago. On Sunday at 11 a.m., the city of Peabody, the Peabody Institute Library, and the Holocaust Center, Boston North will dedicate a Japanese maple tree and a plaque in honor of Weitz at the entrance of the children’s section of the library, site of the Holocaust center she helped to found.
The tree already is planted, and the plaque is simple and to the point. It lists her name, the dates of her birth and death, and states in italics: She Promised She Would Tell and She Did.
“I think it’s wonderful that the community is giving my mother the recognition she deserved after so many years of humanitarian projects,” said her daughter Andi Vilnai, who lives in Israel and has returned to Peabody for the event. Andi’s twin sister, Sandy Weitz, who still lives in Peabody, and her brother Don, of Dallas, also will attend the ceremony, along with city officials, including Mayor Ted Bettencourt.
After three years in a displaced persons camp in Austria, Sonia Schreiber arrived in Peabody with her sister, Blanca. Of 84 family members in prewar Europe, they were the only two to survive the Holocaust. After marrying Dr. Mark Weitz, she started a family and became an artist and a poet. Most of her writing focused on the Holocaust.
After Holocaust revisionists began to deny that 6 million Jews were killed by Germans and Nazi sympathizers, Weitz became one of the first survivors in Massachusetts to speak publicly about the Holocaust. Weitz, whose weight had dwindled to 60 pounds by the time she was freed from the Mauthausen death camp in 1945, was asked to return to Auschwitz in 1986 with Cardinal Bernard Law and Leonard Zakim, leader of the Anti-Defamation League.
During the next decade, she helped create Holocaust Center, Boston North, with her friend Harriet Wacks, and in 2002, she was appointed by President George W. Bush as a member of the council advising the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. Weitz was just the second survivor named to the post, joining Elie Wiesel.
A soft-spoken woman, the petite Weitz spoke as often as 100 times a year at schools, colleges, churches, temples, rotary clubs, and to anyone else who extended an invitation. Weitz barely slept the night before or after a lecture: She was haunted by the violence and suffering she witnessed as a child. But when she spoke, rooms grew silent and often, following her speech, strangers would approach her in tears and she would offer a hug.
“Sonia’s legacy was to put an individual, personal face on the Holocaust,” said Christopher Mauriello, chairman of the history department at Salem State and vice president of the Holocaust Center, Boston North. “She used history to create civic responsibility.”
There are now about 2,000 books and videos — including more than a dozen local survivors’ testimonies — available at the Holocaust Center in Peabody, and also through the North of Boston Library Exchange. The center holds special programs during the year, gives out an award in Weitz’s name to students who take action to prevent prejudice and hate, and through the center’s Holocaust Legacy Partner program, keeps the name and memory of Weitz and other Holocaust survivors alive. More than 40 people have enrolled in the program, which pairs survivors — living and deceased — with individuals who tell the survivor’s story in public.
Wacks, executive director of the Holocaust Center, could not estimate how many Holocaust survivors are still alive on the North Shore. Throughout the world, there are about 300,000, with two-thirds living in Israel. She said she created the partner program with Weitz in order to continue the survivors’ legacy.
“We knew that the time was going to come when our survivors were going to be aging and the population would be decreasing,” she said.
Weitz’s daughter Sandy is part of the legacy program and speaks at middle and high schools in the name of her mother.
“I wanted to tell her story,” said Sandy. “I meet too many people who don’t understand. People need to know that this happened and it keeps repeating in different countries. People have been killed in Darfur and Rwanda. It’s terrible. If people speak out about these atrocities enough, then one day they’ll end.”