My family lived in a small town in Hungary. My father had a lumber business. We were a family of six children, between the ages of 7 and 17. I was a schoolgirl of 13.
Life had already begun to change for us in 1940, when Hungary joined the alliance with Germany and began to institute the Nuremberg Laws. Jews who had lived there for generations had to prove their citizenship. My father’s business was confiscated by the government and given to a non-Jew. We were required to wear the yellow star. I was expelled from school.
In April 1944, it was announced that all Jews had to assemble at the town hall the next day, bringing with them not more than one suitcase each. My mother began preparing food to take with us without knowing where we were going. She also sewed some family jewelry into pieces of clothes, with the idea that it could later be exchanged for food for the children.
The next morning, the mayor, police chief, and my school principal knocked on the door. They demanded our valuables, and my father gave them some money and jewelry. We left our house, my father closed the gate behind us so our dog wouldn’t follow.
Along with the 100 or so other Jews in our town, we were taken to an abandoned brick factory in the city of Munkács, some miles away. There we joined hundreds of Jewish families from neighboring towns.
We stayed there for about a month, sleeping on the crowded floor of the factory. Our food from home was soon gone, and we were dependent on a daily soup ration. One day there was an announcement that all girls under 16 must have their heads shaved or their fathers would be beaten. My mother gave me a kerchief to cover my newly shorn head.
In the middle of May 1944, a freight train arrived on the tracks alongside the factory. Loudspeakers announced that everyone must get into the train. No one told us our destination.
Flanked by guards, my family struggled to stay together, managing to get into the same boxcar along with some 80-100 people. For the sake of modesty, men moved to one side and women to the other. A guard slammed the door shut and bolted it from the outside. Instantly it was dark. The only air and light came from a small slit in the upper corner of the car. Hours later, the train began to move.
There was a bucket for the toilet in the middle of the car. Hours passed, two nights and a day. The bucket filled. Peering out the slit, my father confirmed our worst fear: the train was crossing into Poland. We had heard rumors of mass shootings of Jewish families in the forests of Nazi occupied Poland. We had never heard of Auschwitz.
Finally, on the morning of the third day, the train stopped. “We are at some kind of camp,” my father said. “There are barracks and prisoners in uniform. This must be a work camp.” We were relieved. The rumors had been wrong: we were not going to be shot in the forests of Poland.
When the doors of the train opened, we heard shouting, “Out! Out! Fast!
Leave everything behind!” Hearing that, my mother pulled out extra clothing and told us to put on more layers. My head was already covered with a kerchief, and I put on an over-sized winter coat.
Hundreds of people poured out of the train. Prisoners in striped uniforms jumped into the boxcars, began dumping suitcases and possessions onto the platform, and loading them into trucks.
On the platform, my family clutched at each other, trying to stay together in the crush of people, noise, and confusion. SS Guards with guns moved the huge crowd forward, up the platform.
An SS guard shouted, “Men to one side, women and children to the other!” In an instant, my father and 16-year-old brother disappeared into a column of men off to one side. I never saw them again.
My mother, my older sister, Serena, 17, my younger sister, Edith, 12, my two younger brothers, and I, joined a column of women and young children. Smoke billowed from a chimney in the distance. The column edged forward. When we reached the front of the line, our way was blocked by 10 or more SS guards. One held a small stick.
The SS guard with the stick motioned my older sister, Serena, to one side, and she moved down a road in that direction, disappearing from view. The guard motioned my mother and my two little brothers to the other side, and they also disappeared from view. Only my younger sister Edith and I remained. The stick came down between us.
Edith was sent in the direction that my mother went. The SS guard looked at me and hesitated for an instant. Although I was only 13, my kerchief and coat may have made me look older. He motioned me to go in the direction that Serena and the other young adults went, and turned his attention to the women and children lined up behind me.
I didn’t move. I leaned over, peering into the crowd and trying to see if Edith had caught up with my mother and my two little brothers. Women and children continued to move in that direction. It was not possible to see what had happened to Edith in the fast-moving crowd. During the separation, we made normal assumptions that this was a work camp and that we would be reunited with the family. I was horrified that she would not find our mother. No names or identity information were taken. She would be lost to our family, alone among strangers.
Our family had tried so hard to stay together, with the older children looking after the younger. We were now completely torn apart. The trauma of this separation lingers with me to this day.
The SS guards motioned for me to get going and I ran, catching up with Serena. “Why didn’t you go with Mom?” she said.
Serena and I were directed into a bathhouse, where newly arrived women were shaved, disinfected, and handed prison clothes. We were then moved to a barrack with about 200 other women. We still didn’t know where we were. We asked the other prisoners, “When will we see our families?”
A woman pointed to a chimney and said, “Do you see the smoke? There is your family.”
I thought—“Why would anyone say such a thing?”
Serena and I were assigned to a bunk – basically a wide wooden shelf. Six of us shared one thin blanket. None of us could sleep. My sister tells me I cried for days.
We were awakened before dawn every morning for inspection or “Zähl Appell”. We were made to line up in the morning cold, five in a row, standing for hours to be counted. This was also another opportunity for the SS guards to pull out children they missed at the selection ramp, and those who looked sick. This was a very dangerous time for me because I was only 13 and small. I tried to stand on a rock, so that I would seem a little taller, and pinched my cheeks, so that I would look healthier.
By sheer luck, we discovered my mother’s two sisters, Roszi and Piri, in a nearby barrack. Their loving devotion helped to protect and shield us in this terrifying place.
After a month, numbers were tattooed on our arms. Soon after that, we were sent to work near crematoria # 4 at a storage and processing area that the prisoners called, “Kanada.” There we sorted through mountains of clothing, shoes, bedding, eyeglasses, toothbrushes, baby carriages, suitcases, books, pots and pans, and every other household item. We were ordered to hand over any valuables that were found among the belongings.
While at work one day, sorting clothing, I found my mother’s white dress, and beige shawl.
We worked outside day and night, to bring the belongings into the barracks, out of the weather. But the trucks kept bringing more and more from the platform and the crematoria, and the piles never became smaller. The piles reached as high as the roof of the barracks. Once the goods were sorted inside the barracks, we tied them into bundles. Male prisoners then came and loaded them into trucks.
It was clear that to the SS guards, we did not even have the value of slaves, but were less than human, and at any moment, for the slightest of reasons, or for no reason at all, they could exercise the power of life and death over us. One day I was part of a group of women in the bathhouse, when an SS guard entered. The naked women huddled to the side, opening a path for him, when he suddenly used his whip on us, as he passed. Was there a reason? He did it because he could. I also remember being marched from one part of the camp to another, when suddenly a guard unleashed his dog on my aunt Rozi. After a terrifying moment, the dog was called back. The other guards watched and laughed.
Because we worked and lived next to the gas chambers and crematoria, I had first-hand knowledge of what had happened to our families. Day and night, columns of women, children, and elderly would pass by our barrack and disappear into the gate that lead to the gas chambers.
Much later, in 1982 when I first saw the picture from the Auschwitz-Album showing me at the selection, I also found out what had happened to my mother and two little brothers in another picture:
My brothers Reuven, age 9, and Gershon, age 7, stand in the lower left. My mother Leah, age 44, is seated just behind them. They are waiting with others in a grove just outside of crematorium 4 and 5. My little sister Edith is not in the picture. I have to assume that she did not catch up to them and must have been alone. To this day, this realization causes me great sorrow. Soon after this picture was taken, everyone in the picture would be killed in the gas chambers.
The sounds were magnified when I worked outside at night in Canada. First, I would hear the whistle of the train, and the hissing of the steam engine arriving at the platform. The people coming from the train at night saw the fire from the chimneys and open pits where bodies were being burned, and began to scream and pray. I plugged my ears to block out the sound. Then there was silence. In the distance I would hear the whistle of another train arriving. Day and night, the transports kept coming.
In January 1945, as the Russian front approached, we were taken on a death march from Auschwitz into Germany. Those who stopped to rest or fell from exhaustion were shot on the spot. By the time we reached Ravensbrück, and then Neustadt-Glewe, we were sick and emaciated. My aunt Piri came down with Typhus and was taken away by a truck and killed. Soon after, Serena, was also selected for death. When I realized that we were about to be separated, I said, “I am her sister!” I was told, “You can go, too.”
We were put in a room with other selected women, awaiting a truck that would take us to be killed. Perhaps because of the approaching Russian front and the resulting chaos, the truck never came. Soon after, the guards fled and the remaining survivors drifted out of the camp.
In the years since I was in Auschwitz, I never talked about my father, other than to say that he didn’t survive. I couldn’t bear to talk about how he died.
He was a loving, gentle, kind person. When we were little, he found a fun way to teach us the Hebrew alphabet, so that we would be able to read the prayers. Our living room ceiling had wood beams, with knots in them. He would attach a coin to the tip of a broom handle, and when we performed well, he would lift the broom handle to the ceiling and hit a knot in the beam, causing the coin to fall, as if from heaven. We were delighted and amazed, and would run to the store across the street to buy candy with the coins. Every night, when he came home from work, we children would surround him, and he would give each of us his attention and love. His whole life was his family and his faith.
This was my father, aged 47, who upon arrival in Auschwitz, was forced to work in the Sonderkommando, pulling bodies from the gas chambers. We learned that he was in the Sonderkommando from a young man from our town, who passed us a note over an electrified fence separating us from crematorium 4. From this note, we learned that he was shot not long after being made to do this work.
We never learned what happened to my 16-year-old brother…… From my immediate family of eight, only Serena and I survived. All thirteen of my young cousins perished along with their mothers. When I saw children after the war, I stopped and stared. I had not seen children in almost a year and a half. Children were condemned to death in the world I had just come from.
Condemned to death, but what was their crime? Even as a thirteen year old, I knew that we were not the guilty ones, we were not the criminals. The SS guards, who tore families apart, herded mothers and children into the gas chambers, enslaved and starved innocent civilians, and kept this factory of death running, are the ones guilty of mass murder.
The defendant might say, that he was merely a small cog in the machine. But if he were sitting here today wearing his SS uniform, I would tremble, and all the horror that I experienced as a 13-year old would return to me. To that 13-year-old, any person who wore that uniform in that place, represented terror and the depths to which humanity can sink, regardless of what function they performed. And today, at the age of 85, I still feel the same way.