They came to see the tattoo on Pearl Brown’s left arm.
Only the blue ink had faded and blurred over the years, leaving the small markings unreadable. So Ms. Brown, pulling back her sleeve, recited them from memory: A11728.
That was how she was known at Auschwitz.
Ms. Brown, 89, shared the most personal details of her imprisonment at the concentration camp complex with 20 curious young girls from the Bronx, not one of whom was Jewish. The lesson in oral history on Wednesday was arranged after the girls wrote heartfelt letters to Ms. Brown and other Holocaust survivors at the Kittay House, a residence for the elderly in the Bronx. The adults were struck by their interest and empathy, as well as their neat penmanship.
“I knew I was never going to experience it,” said Sira Nassoko, 10, whose parents immigrated from Mali. “I just wanted to know what they went through.”
The girls are fifth-grade students at Public School 75, an elementary school in the South Bronx with a predominantly Hispanic and black enrollment. Their teacher, Phyllis Murray, said they had read the writings of Anne Frank as an introduction to the Holocaust. “They had so many questions that I really could not answer,” recalled Ms. Murray, who advised them to take their questions to the source. “These ladies are living history. It’s something you’re not going to get out of textbooks.”
At Kittay House, the girls eagerly gathered around Ms. Brown and another resident, Marion Sacher, 90, a German-born Jew who fled Berlin just before the war started. Clutching leaves of paper with their questions written on them, the students stood up, one after another, and candidly asked the things that their young minds wondered about.
Did it hurt when the Nazis gave Ms. Brown the tattoo to identify her? It did.
What did she wear at the concentration camp? A summer dress that was too small and light for the cold. No socks, no coat.
What was the first thing she did when she was free? She got married (aaahhhs of approval from the girls).
How did Ms. Sacher manage to get away? Just luck, she replied.
Ms. Sacher noted that she was around their age when the Nazis came to power, drawing gasps from several girls. As a Jew, she told them, she was forced to wear a yellow star and forbidden to sit on public benches or go to the movies. She tried to fly a paper kite that her mother had bought for her 13th birthday at a nearby park, only to have German boys call her a Jew and rip it apart.
After years of plotting their escape, Ms. Sacher and her mother finally boarded a train for Italy in 1938. But as the train approached the German border, Nazis in boots trolled the aisles and pointed at passengers. They were not picked. “Those people who were taken out never came back,” Ms. Sacher said. “I get goose bumps when I talk about it.”
There was no escape for Ms. Brown. At 20, Ms. Brown and her mother were put on a train to Auschwitz from a small town in the former Czechoslovakia. Her mother was killed shortly after they arrived. Ms. Brown was assigned to the kitchen, working 12-hour shifts to prepare steaming cauldrons of soup for the prisoners from nothing more than water, flour, potatoes and canned horsemeat.
“You wouldn’t give it to your dog,” she said. “It tasted bad but you wished you had more. You had half a cup, or less. We were starving.”
For nearly two hours, the girls were fixated by these desperate stories of survival, trying to imagine a world far different from the one they knew in the Bronx. Many of them could not take their eyes off Ms. Brown and Ms. Sacher.
Afterward, they celebrated their newfound friendship with ice cream sandwiches.
Sira, who had asked Ms. Brown about the first thing she did after being freed, said she understood the Holocaust better now that she had heard what the Nazis did to the Jews. She said that reflecting on such evil made her want to be nicer to people. “It’s changed the way I think about life,” she said.
Linda Torres, 11, said she was inspired by the women’s bravery and their determination not to give up, no matter how bad things looked. “In the future, I’ll believe in myself and never give up,” she added.
When the time came to return to school, the girls reached over and impulsively hugged the frail women. Several affectionately called out “grandma.” They promised to return with a kite for Ms. Sacher, who still loves flying. Then they were gone.
Ms. Brown said she was glad for a chance to tell her story to a generation that never had to live through the Holocaust.
“I’m removed from it now, but I never forget it,” she said. “I might forget what I ate yesterday, but this I remember, always.”