Retired UNC Charlotte professor and Holocaust survivor Dr. Susan Cernyak-Spatz died Sunday at the age of 97. She was remembered as a pioneering intellectual who used her concentration camp experience to speak out against violent extremism.
Cernyak-Spatz was born in Vienna, Austria, in 1922. She spent her childhood in a middle-class family enjoying theater and dance, and studying history. But by the 1930s, her family was swept up by the Nazi takeover of Central Europe, and she was separated from her parents while living in a Jewish ghetto in German-occupied Czechoslovakia.
Cernyak-Spatz ended up in the concentration camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau, where she experienced the Holocaust as a woman in her early 20s. She later published a memoir detailing in frank terms her upbringing and what life was like in the camps.
"You had to make up your mind very quickly," Cernyak-Spatz said to WFAE's Mike Collins in a 2005 interview. "Did you want to live, or did you want to die? I mean, it was a very conscious decision. Because if you wanted to give in, dying was no art in Birkenau. Absolutely no art. Living was the heroism."
Cernyak-Spatz arrived in the U.S. in 1946 after marrying an American serviceman. She earned a Ph.D. at the University of Kansas and later moved to Charlotte. She taught German language and literature at UNC Charlotte, and was the first person to teach Holocaust Studies at the university. Judy Schindler was her rabbi for more than 20 years, and said she saw the impact those courses had on students.
"Susan’s story was just invaluable," Schindler said. "When she conveyed it to students, they could take her story and take it into their souls, and hear the lessons she had to teach, based on her experiences, and try to create a much better tomorrow."
Cernyak-Spatz is survived by her three children and six grandchildren. A memorial service will be held at Temple Beth El at 1 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 24.
Her family has asked that in lieu of flowers, donations be made in her memory to a fund that sustains UNC Charlotte's German Studies course 3650, a seminar that Cernyak-Spatz taught for many years, or to the Stan Greenspon Center for Peace and Social Justice at Queens University. Instructions for how to make donations can be found here.