By Mitch Meador, Fort Sill TribuneApril 25, 2019
FORT SILL, Okla. (April 25, 2019) -- Holocaust survivor Zitta Wilkinson of Lawton is 89 years old, but she has forgotten none of the horrific events she experienced between the ages of 9 and 15, when an all-encompassing war held her family in thrall.
She was born Willimina Zitta Uhl on May 25, 1930, in Bauetz, Romania. She comes from a family of Pennsylvania-Dutch ancestry who settled in Romania.
At the age of 9, she stood helplessly by while German Schutzstaffel (SS) soldiers interrogated her father, Johann Uhl. The SS had information that the Uhls were hiding a Jewish family. Although terrified at what they were witnessing, Zitta's family stayed strong, allowing the family to escape the next morning. To this day, her family does not know what happened to the neighbors they hid that night.
Fires Center of Excellence (FCoE) Chief of Staff Col. David Stewart said that was the beginning of a harrowing journey for Zitta Wilkinson and her family. In the years before the Allies celebrated Victory in Europe Day, they would endure forced labor at multiple refugee and work camps.
"She is a survivor, no doubt. She is a wife of 65-plus years, a mother, a grandmother, and a great-grandmother. I'd argue she's also a historian, a witness, a storyteller, and a living reminder of the good, the bad and the beauty in the human spirit," Stewart said.
The speaker for Fort Sill's annual "Ðays of Remembrance" luncheon was accompanied by her husband, retired Chief Warrant Officer 4 Richard Wilkinson. This year's theme was "Learning from the Holocaust: Beyond Religious Boundaries." Hosting the April 18 luncheon were the FCoE and the Installation Equal Opportunity Office.
As a 9-year-old, Zitta Uhl had to confront the reality that people could suddenly disappear overnight, never to be seen again.
"There was no funeral. They just were gone," she reflected sadly.
She came to the conclusion that Adolph Hitler "had a vision, that he was going to extinguish all the Jewish people." Only after the war did it come to light that death camps in places like Dachau and Auschwitz were where the missing families had gone.
Her father, along with other men and boys in the town where they lived, were taken away to dig trenches for three months. His family had no idea where he was. He returned gaunt and malnourished. Zitta and her elder sisters had to gather what food they could when he was gone or physically unwell.
Over the course of her talk, she described how her whole family was told to get on a train because "you need to go to a meeting." They had to spend three days and three nights in a boxcar with a straw-covered floor. That was the last they ever saw of their family farm.
The train took them to Germany. They were scared and wanted to go home, but couldn't. A big fence encircled the building. This was the Augsburg Displaced Persons Camp close to Bavaria.
"The food was just terrible. It was such an adjustment to make. So challenging. My father couldn't tell us because he didn't know. And my grandmother, she was crying. She said, 'Just let us go back home.'"
They were not allowed to turn on any lights, because the camp was next to a silk factory that made parachutes for German military forces and the Messerschmidt factory that made the infamous fighter planes. They didn't want to become a target for the bombers.
After two years they were relocated to another refugee camp in Poland, living in a room that used to be the morgue of an old hospital. Then they spent a year in a different refugee camp in Czechoslovakia before the SS soldiers ordered them to move to Strasbourg, France.
There the Germans put her father in charge of training horses at a farm that had been taken away from its owners. When D-Day came, he decided it was no longer safe for his family to remain in France, so he hid his children in the back of a wagon and led the horses by hand, in the dark of night, back to Bavaria. Along the way she saw dead soldiers of all nationalities stacked like firewood.
The little village of Badeutz, Romania, had been destroyed, so they made Bavaria their new home. Her father chose it because when they were at nearby Augsburg, the owner of a bicycle shop had promised to make a place for him if he ever came back.
After the war, Zitta fell in love with an American sergeant who was then 19 years old. She was a nanny for a U.S. military family at the time. The Wilkinsons have now been married 66 years. They have three daughters, Rosemary, Betty Jean, and Janice, six grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren.
As emcee, Sgt. 1st Class Tiffany Bjorklund, garrison equal opportunity adviser, lit six candles in memory of the 1.5 million children who lost their lives during the Holocaust, for the untold millions whose entire families were annihilated, for the Righteous Among the Nations who risked and even gave their lives to help their fellow human beings, for the brave Soldiers who liberated the death camps, the nearly 6 million Jews and the 6 million non-Jews who perished in a planned system of human destruction, and for those who live even now under the yoke of oppression, in places where the threat of genocide is real and ever-present.
Gerald Hodge, Jewish lay leader for the Fort Sill community, shared a prayer written in 2016 by Rabbi David Katz for Yom HaShoah, which is Hebrew for Holocaust Memorial Day. Tovia Coops sang the national anthem.