There’s immense power in hearing the story of a Holocaust survivor in their own voice. As the number of living survivors dwindles rapidly, there are fewer people who were eyewitnesses to the earth-shattering events.
Soon there will be no opportunity to hear a survivor’s experience first hand—to hear the subtle nuances in their voices that make their experiences real for their listeners.
This spring the Des Moines community once again hosted Celina Karp Biniaz, a Schindler’s List survivor who previously made a series of popular presentations in 2017. According to Sandi Yoder, Iowa Jewish Historical Society (IJHS) Director, each of Celina’s presentations make an invaluable impact on people of all ages and walks of life.
“Celina’s story of suffering and forgiveness is an important one for people of all backgrounds, beliefs, ethnic groups, economic status, and anyone who is interested in learning more about the Holocaust from someone who lived through it. With all the division and strife in today’s world, it is critical that we listen to each other’s experiences and points of view and that we learn from the atrocities of the past.”
If you weren’t able to join us—or if you’d like to revisit her story—we welcome you to learn more about the different events below. The IJHS is pleased to be able to offer and share recordings of Celina’s 2017 and 2019 presentations as part of our oral history collection.
During her weeklong visit, Celina spoke to a crowd of 600 at Iowa State University and to standing-room-only crowds at three Des Moines Area Community College (DMACC) campuses—Ankeny, Urban, and Boone. She also met with high school students from Des Moines and Marshalltown in collaboration with Al Exito, a non-profit providing programming that builds the leadership potential of Latino/a youth.
On April 1, 2019, Celina was joined by her grandson Alex Biniaz-Harris and his fellow pianist/composer Ambrose Soehn for the premiere of Memories and Melodies of Auschwitz.
Celina Karp was only 13 years old when the train carrying her, her mother Phyllis, and 298 other women on Oskar Schindler’s List was diverted to Auschwitz instead of Schindler’s factory. During a terrifying meeting with Dr. Josef Mengele, when he pointed her toward the gas chambers, Celina found the strength to cry, “Let me go!” And Mengele did.
Seventy years later, Celina returned to Auschwitz to help mark the Anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz by the Soviet army. Joining her on that trip were her grandson Alex Biniaz-Harris and Ambrose Soehn. Alex and Ambrose had been invited by the Director of the Shoah Foundation to compose an original piano piece inspired by the testimonies and the music of the Holocaust survivors.
The April event here in Iowa marked the first time ever that Celina, Alex, and Ambrose presented a program together. The evening included a behind-the-scenes video documenting the making of the piano piece, followed by the performance and then a talk from Celina.
It is especially fitting that the program was presented at Tifereth Israel Synagogue, as this was the synagogue that Celina’s parents, Phyllis and Irvin Karp attended during the nearly 50 years they made their home in Iowa. In the words of one of the event attendees:
“The world is a better place because of Celina and her willingness to share her story. The IJHS and Iowans have been inspired and touched by Celina’s message of hope. Alex and Ambrose’s stellar composition as well as their warmth and purpose gives us all hope for the future.”
As part of the Memories and Melodies of Auschwitz event, Celina explained the history of the Schindler Scissors, which were given to her and her parents the day before the liberation of Oskar Schindler’s factory in May 1945. The family was given five pairs of scissors in total, along with two bolts of cloth, to help barter for food, transportation, and other needs following their liberation. One pair made the journey with the family to the United States in 1947.
At the event, Celina generously donated the Schindler Scissors to the Iowa Jewish Historical Society as she believes they belong here in Iowa with the Schindler Cup she previously donated.
The Iowa Jewish Historical Society is deeply grateful to our sponsors who made Celina’s visit, presentations, and Memories and Melodies of Auschwitz program possible and free to all.
Larry and Suzanne Engman
Marilyn and Lou Hurwitz
Des Moines Area Community College War and the Human Experience Series
Linda and Gary Bremen
Karen and Arny Engman
Jan and Lou Hockenberg
Bud and Dorothy Hockenberg
The Iowa Jewish Historical Society is proud to initiate events like these as part of our education mission. By strengthening connections and commitment between cultures and fostering understanding of multiple perspectives, we are helping to build bridges so that together we can build a better future together.