‘She Prayed in Every Language’: Son of Holocaust Survivor Speaks to Centralia Students


After an auditorium full of sophomores at Centralia High School watched the first half of “Schindler’s List” Wednesday, the son of Holocaust survivor Felicia Lewkowicz took to the stage. He noted that his mother told him “Schindler’s List” wasn’t a realistic enough portrayal of the Nazi death camps.

She would know — she lived through both Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen.

Through little moments and reflections throughout Felicia’s life, her son Matthew Erlich pieced together her story and the presentation he delivered at Centralia High School on Wednesday morning.

“There was no time where Felicia sat us all down as children and said, ‘Now let me tell you about the Holocaust,’” Erlich said. “Instead there would be moments where she would be remembering something or reflecting on something, and it’s in those moments where she would talk about the Holocaust — and we were able to get additional information from other sources that helped corroborate what she was saying, of course — and it allowed us to be able to put together what amounted to the presentation that you saw today.”

The sophomores’ social studies and English teachers worked together to cover World War II from different perspectives. Erlich, who is a volunteer with the Holocaust Center for Humanity Speakers Bureau, spoke to the students about how his mother initially escaped Krakow, then later survived the death camps.

Felicia was able to originally escape because she had a job outside of the Krakow ghetto cleaning German offices. Without papers, a train ticket or even saying goodbye, she took a train to Vienna. When the conductor came to collect her ticket, she told Nazi soldiers she forgot her papers and asked them to hide her. For reasons Erlich will probably never know, they did.

Felicia assumed two different identities while in Vienna, but was eventually found by the authorities. In late August of 1944, she arrived in Auschwitz.

“She managed to pass selection because they saw she had a blood type they wanted,” Erlich said during his presentation. “She said she prayed in every language for the bombs to drop, to end the suffering.”

Felicia spoke Polish, Yiddish, French, Ukrainian and German.

In October of 1944, Felicia was transported to Bergen-Belsen. Bergen-Belsen was liberated by the British in April 1945, and they burned it to keep disease from spreading.

Felicia married Arthur Erlich in 1948. They had four sons, but Matthew was the only one born in the U.S. She and Arthur divorced in the early 1970s. 

Felicia suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome for the rest of her life. Erlich noted that in the same way parents often tell their children to remember a coat when they leave the house, his mother told him to take food. He later learned it was because she thought Nazi youth may take him.

After Erlich’s presentation, he opened the floor for student questions. Students wanted to know if his mother was religious after the Holocaust, if she talked much about her experience and if she ever recovered. 

“The short answer is, she never got over it,” Erlich said.

Erlich also noted that as people who lived through the Holocaust age, it’s left to people like him to continue telling their accounts. One student wanted to know what qualities Erlich’s mother would want him to pass on to others.

“Fight for what’s fair,” Erlich answered. “Felicia would be the first to have said you speak up for people and you help.”

Sophomore Sheila Johnson said after the presentation that the biggest thing she took away was to be careful about how we, as a society, treat people.

“Not just saying, ‘Oh it’s no big deal that we’re treating this person this way, it’s just one individual’ (is what I took away from the presentation),’” Sheila said. “It could get to something bigger that is awful.”

Phoebe Miller, also a sophomore, said Felicia’s resilience struck her.

“I think what surprised me the most was her ability to go on to live a sort of normal life after all that happened, like especially all the trauma,” Phoebe said. “She went on to have kids and she was working and she just lived a life, and I think that was crazy after all she had been through.”

Teresa Ramirez, who worked with Holocaust Center for Humanity to bring a speaker, said she was impressed with the depth of students’ questions for Erlich.

“A lot of times we don’t give kids this age credit for being the compassionate, empathetic human beings that they can be, and they demonstrated that they are today,” Ramirez said.

On Tuesday, she and her students generated ideas in class about how to make the event run smoothly. They discussed how to show they were actively listening to the presentation and follow up with questions they wanted answered.

“I’m really hoping that students come away with an increased sense of empathy and compassion,” Ramirez said. “A lot of what they see around them right now can be troublesome to them … And I think for them to see that there is hope and that there are good people out there, and that if you allow hate to continue without checking it in your personal life, that we allow this progression of events to take place and that’s where we want their own personal responsibility to kind of kick in and think, ‘What do we do when we see this around us everyday?’”

Erlich also said he was impressed with the students’ questions after his presentation.

“Felicia in her life would make presentations to schools,” Erlich said. 

“When I went to high school she made presentations and did that throughout most of her life, and it was clear that she was telling something that people had no connection with, no understanding of. So for me, I do it for a couple of reasons. One is because the message of the Holocaust of where hate leads, about the need for openness to our society as a whole are all very important, but also because I do get to spend time, if you will, with my mother. That being able to see her and hear her helps me remember her, even though she passed in 2009.”