When Annette Cabelli walked into the auditorium at Pabellón de los Jardines de Cecilio Rodríguez, a pavilion of the Cecilio Rodríquez Gardens at Madrid’s Retiro Park, all conversations ceased and eyes turned to her. A survivor of three concentration camps and three death marches, Cabelli had traveled from France at the invitation of Casa Sefarad and Madrid’s Jewish community. She came to Spain—as a Sephardic Jew, her ancestral home—to share her testimony during the Holocaust remembrance week that takes place annually around Jan. 27, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.
“Every year we invite a Holocaust survivor,” Yessica San Román told me; she is Casa Sefarad’s director of the Holocaust and anti-Semitism department, which works with teachers throughout Spain to foster Holocaust education. “For quite a few years we’ve only had men so it was important to invite a woman. [Cabelli] is Sephardic, and she can tell the story in Ladino, a language we don’t hear very often. For younger people to meet a Sephardic descendant is extra special.”
Now 92, Cabelli walked slowly and needed help when she went up or down the stairs, but her voice never failed her. During the week in Madrid, she participated in Holocaust commemoration events in the senate, at the Asamblea de Madrid, at the Municipal Council of Alcobendas, at the ministry of education, at a local school, and in the nearby city of Avila. “Everyone needs to know what happened because this must never happen again,” said Cabelli, explaining how she maintained such a busy schedule. “And that’s why, until the final moment I can speak, I will.”
At the age of 17, Cabelli was deported with her mother from Thessaloniki, Greece—known to Jews as Salonika—to Auschwitz in 1943. Upon arrival, a Nazi guard saved Cabelli by pulling her off the truck she and her mother had been instructed to board, but her mother was taken to the gas chambers. “See the smoke?” an SS officer asked her a few days later. “That’s your mother.”
Her younger brother was taken by the Nazis into the mountains of Greece to extract lime; he was never heard from again. Her older brother, taken to Auschwitz a few weeks before Cabelli, was subjected to Nazi medical experiments there. “The doctors had an opportunity to practice whatever they wanted,” she said in a recent interview. “They took young women and cut them open without putting them to sleep. They cut off my brother’s [testicles].”
Assigned to work in a barrack that doubled as a hospital, Cabelli’s job in Auschwitz was to dispose of the dead. “A person who came into a hospital never left,” she said. “Every morning we had to take out the dead. There were women who weren’t dead yet. [They were] dying. But parts of their bodies were eaten by rats.”
With the advance of Soviet troops in January 1945, Cabelli was sent on a death march along with many others. “For days we marched through the snow,” she recalled, in temperatures as low as 15 below zero Celsius. “Many died. When you couldn’t walk, the Germans shot you.” After passing through Ravensbrück, where she had to fight for food, and Malchow, where she worked making matches, Annette suddenly found herself free: The Nazis accompanying them on her third death march had disappeared into the night. “Are we finally liberated?” the women asked each other.
Then came a fearful encounter with Russian troops (“they were men and we were women,” Cabelli remembered), a Jewish Russian soldier who ordered a guard to protect them at a house they used as a temporary shelter, the death of a fellow marcher who died upon eating too much at once, a trek to the Allied side, and ultimately, a new life in France. She didn’t want to go back to Greece. “[They] were anti-Semites,” she said. “We suffered a lot. We were always afraid of them.” She married a fellow Greek Jew—a friend of one of her brothers whom she knew in Thessaloniki but accidentally ran into “en camino,,” on her way to France after the war—and had two daughters.
For years, she didn’t speak about her experiences—until Night and Fog, a French documentary about the Holocaust, came out in 1956. “Before that, we couldn’t talk,” she told me, “because people didn’t believe us.” In the decades that followed, Cabelli went back to Auschwitz first with her daughters and then with her grandchildren, gave testimony to the Shoah Foundation, and accompanied Jacques Chirac—then the French president— during his visit to mark the 60th anniversary of camp’s liberation.
Cabelli has been living for the past 15 years in Nice, where she is often asked to participate in Holocaust memorial events and speak in schools. “In France, the Holocaust is part of the history curriculum,” said Linda Calvo Sixou, Spanish-language professor at the city’s Lycee Honoré d’Estienne d’Orves, and a Sephardic singer. Calvo Sixou and Cabelli met seven years ago because of the professor’s interest in Sephardic music. They became friends, and now Calvo Sixou often accompanies Cabelli on her talks. “We have two parts to what we usually do,” said Calvo Sixou. “I speak about [Cabelli’s] heritage in relation to Spain, her life in Thessaloniki, and why she speaks Ladino, and she gives the testimony. Her Sephardic ancestry is very important to her.”
Cabelli’s Sephardic origins were initially what propelled Calvo Sixou to invite her friend to speak to her Spanish language students three years ago. The difference between Ladino—the language of Sephardic Jews that Cabelli grew up with in Greece—and modern Spanish was the purpose of the talk. But then Cabelli recounted her experiences during WWII. For French students—though already versed in Holocaust history—her testimony was a revelation: Several students told Calvo Sixou that having a live person talk about it was “very important.”
Their reaction mirrored that of Madrid’s students this January. Young people of different ages attended Cabelli’s events, and after every presentation, the youngest came on stage to hug her. “It’s as if they wanted to take her away from everything she’s lived through,” said Calvo Sixou, “to help her forget and give her love she didn’t have during those years in the camp.”
After meeting Cabelli at January’s Alcobendas event in Madrid, Javier Arias Bonel’s class of sixth-graders from CEIP Ventura Rodríguez, a public school in Ciempozuelos, put together a project that included a letter to Cabelli, drawings dedicated to the victims of the Holocaust, and dioramas that interpreted stories of the Lodz ghetto children they learned about in class. They also sang “Adió Querida,” a Sephardic song Cabelli sang at the end of her testimony, and made a recording especially for her.
“The tenderness, the love, the dignity that Annette had really impacted [the children],” Bonel told me via email. “Annette doesn’t talk about vengeance, hate … She talks about not forgetting, about the memory, dignity, and truth.”
For her part, Cabelli said she always cries when “little ones hug me.” “It was very emotional, very emotional,” she said, thinking back to her meeting with Bonel’s class. “I remembered everything that happened in the camp with the little ones.” In her testimony, she recounted how Auschwitz children lied about their age: “Those under 14 were sent directly into ovens,” she said.
Because Cabelli was 17 when deported—the age of many students who came to hear her speak—teenagers learn their own lessons listening to her. “I learned how to be stronger,” said a 16-year-old named Sara, “and that whatever happens in my life can never compare with what happened to Annette.” Her message to the youth at the end of all of her talks is to keep their heads up high and fight for who they are: “Never let anyone insult you because you are a Jew.”
At the end of her testimony at the Pabellón de los Jardines de Cecilio Rodríguez, a high schooler asked what gave Cabelli the strength to go on. “I always said to myself: I want to live, I don’t want to die,” she said without hesitation. “Every night I thought: Tomorrow we’ll see, tomorrow is another day.”
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Margarita Gokun Silver is a freelance journalist, essayist, and novelist.