My name is Hedy Bohm. I was born in Oradea, Romania on May 11th, 1928. I was an only child to my parents, Elisabeth and Ignac Klein. My father was a master carpenter. As an only child, I was overprotected, and sheltered from the harsh realities of life.
My father was a gentle quiet man, I never once heard him raise his voice my entire life. My mother, a homemaker, was always there quietly managing our lives. My parents didn’t believe the rumors about the terrible things that were done to Jewish people as Hitler’s army took over one country after another. They were convinced the Hungarian government would not betray them. So we went peacefully to the ghetto when so ordered. We had to leave everything in our apartment and were allowed only a small suitcase to bring with us, nothing valuable, only the bare necessities. I had just turned 16 years of age.
Transports left daily, the Hungarian soldiers collecting people, from the buildings and marching them to where the cattle cars were waiting to take us away. We were in the ghetto about one month before they came for us around the end of May 1944. They pushed and shoved us. They put about eighty to ninety people in each cattle car. There was only standing room. We were like sardines in a can. We were given one pail of water, and another empty pail. The doors were locked from the outside and we were on our way. A very small window with barbed wire was our source of fresh air. With our bodies pressed close, the air became awful. There was no food or drink. The children and babies were crying. There was stench, hunger, thirst, and sick people moaning. The buckets overflowed with human waste. For three days and nights the train went, stopping at times, and then continuing. We didn’t know where we were going. We still believed we were being taken to work. I remember fanning my mom, when she complained she couldn’t breathe.
After those three days in the cattle car, the train finally stopped. We had arrived, but where were we? The doors were opened, and immediate chaos followed. There were shouts of, “OUT! OUT! FAST!” as we got out.
I was looking at a scene that was alien and incomprehensible. Immediately in front of me there were people pouring out of the cars; mostly women holding on to their children’s hands, or with babies in their arms, older people helping each other down. And overlooking all this were the black uniformed German guards with rifles pointing at us, others holding, large, snarling dogs on tight leashes. The guards and other men dressed in black and white striped uniforms were shouting at us to hurry. Beyond this swirling mass of frightened people, there were tall fenced enclosures as far as the eye could see. The physical size and scale of this place was beyond anything I had ever seen or heard about. Yet, it was overshadowed by the horror of what was being done. There were barn like barracks lined up. Everyone was yelling and screaming; orders were being given rapidly, one after another.
The first order was for men to go to the left. Before I could say goodbye, my kind gentle father was gone. I never saw him again. Women were ordered to proceed on the road ahead. I saw my mother way ahead of me and I ran to catch up. I was suddenly stopped by a rifle in front of me across my chest barring my way. The SS-man me, “NO”, pointing to the right, “Go there!” I begged him to let me go with my mom, quite far ahead by then, but he continued to bar my way. He repeated, “To the right!” I cried out after my mom. She heard me and turned, looking at me. Time stood still. I don’t know if it was a moment, or a minute. I looked at her. Her eyes met mine. Then, without a word, she turned and marched on. I was stunned and bewildered. This was beyond my understanding. I was totally alone, amongst strangers for first time in my life. I was in shock. Though I longed to see my mother again, I would never do so.
We were ordered to form rows of five and proceed ahead and then through the open gate. We found out later that this was the section of the camps referred to as C Lager. On entering the first barrack on our right, we were ordered to undress in preparation for a shower and disinfection. We were told to leave our clothes and shoes in a bundle and that we would find them on our return. We entered a grey, bare, concrete room
with showerheads above us on the ceiling. After our shower, we were ordered into the next room. Naked, dripping wet, trying to cover ourselves with our hands, we entered a large room, with men and women who shaved our heads and bodies of all hair. They then blew a yellow powder on our lower bodies. Next, we had to pass by a long table piled high with dresses, and were thrown a dress. It didn’t matter if it was too small or too big, that was what we had for the rest of our time there. I was given wooden-soled shoes. No panties, no slips, no bra, no socks, nothing but the dress and shoes.
Next, they ordered us to go and find ourselves a place in one of the large barracks referred to as blocks. C Lager had about 30 of them; lined up along barbed wire fences, with a wide path between them. Each block had several hundred women in them. I went with a small group, walking along the wide lane. The big barn-like doors of the blocks were open. As we passed by, I saw that some had wooden bunkbeds. Others had nothing but the same beaten earth that we were walking on outside.
In the middle of everything, was a tall guard tower, with armed SS-guards overseeing the compound at all times. We were told not to go close to the fence surrounding us or the guard would shoot. Some people committed suicide by running up to the electric fence and grabbing on to it. We were aware of being watched at all times.
As we passed by several structures, I noticed one on my left that had a window. The sun was shining, turning the glass pane into a mirror. I stopped to look. So did a half dozen others. I looked in the mirror at the strange faces looking back at me and didn’t recognize myself. Counting from my right I was third. Then, counting the reflections of the faces in the window, I stared at the odd looking bald girl for some time, until I could accept that it was me.
I went towards the end of the camp and found in one barrack, what looked like a tiny unused spot on a wooden platform. I asked if it was occupied and was told no. I settled down there.
Soon I realized why it was available. The wooden slats covered only half the length of that spot. There was nothing to support my lower body. After a few uncomfortable nights curled up in a ball or trying to rest my legs on a frame post, I left and settled in another block with no beds, just the hard beaten earth to sleep on.
In C Lager one barrack served as our washroom. It had wooden holes on a seat and several, large cement sinks with a faucet, where we could wash; cold water only.
Days and weeks went by. When it rained, the roof leaked in several places and puddles would form in my sleeping spot. I moved to the back to squat on the ledge of the concrete sink to stay dry, because everywhere else that was dry was jammed with people. Walking around the lager later, I discovered some help for this problem. I found three little bits of wood that were left over from the building of the structures. They were about 2-3 centimeters square and about 1 centimeter thick. The next time it rained, I put one piece under my knee, one under my hip and the third under my shoulder. It lifted me up a fraction above the puddle, and that is how I slept.
I convinced myself that my mother was in a similar place, and being intelligent and strong, she would survive. I told myself that we would meet again after the war. Until then, I had to do everything in my power to stay healthy, clean and well. I had to look after myself as best as possible under the circumstances.
I didn’t understand the place I was in, where it was, or what the purpose of it was. I didn’t know that the road my mother followed was taking her to the Crematorium, to be killed along with all the children, young mothers with babies in their arms and grandmothers I witnessed being led away by the Nazi soldiers. I had no idea and therefore kept on hoping and believing that one day this would all end and I would be reunited with my mom. I understood that my father being handicapped didn’t have a chance, but I kept on telling myself that my mother will survive, and we will be together again. All through the months in C Lager, and later in Germany, I kept on hoping and not knowing.
Every morning while it was still dark, I would go into the washroom barrack and take off my dress and shoes. I washed from head to toe in the cold water and dried myself with only my hands. I put my dress back on and would go back to my sleeping spot in time for the roll call. One night, I remember waking up to some unusual sounds of moaning, crying, and whispering. The next morning I was told that a woman gave birth. She was helped by several others who took the baby away afterwards to save the mother’s life. I didn’t understand at the time what was happening.
Our life in C Lager started out every morning with the roll calls. In front of the barracks, we formed columns in rows of five. The SS-guards referred to us as the “Heftlinge.” We were ordered to stand straight and not to move or talk. We stood like this for hours until the counting was done. SS-guards with whips enforced these rules. Sometimes the process was repeated if the numbers were thought to be off. This was exhausting. Sometimes I lost all feeling in parts of my body. When this process ended we had a few hours until it was repeated all over again in the afternoon.
Hunger was my constant companion.A barrel was brought to each block, and the contents ladled out in to bowls, or small pots. They were handed to the first person in a row of five to take a few sips and pass it on, until it was gone.
The first day after our three day journey in the cattle car without food and drink, I was very hungry.I hungrily watched the girl first in line as she took a sip from the bowl. She burst out crying, stopped drinking, and gave the bowl to the next person. When it came my turn and I took a sip, I understood why. That was not like any soup I ever tasted. It was a brown liquid, with almost nothing in it. No Meat, no potatoes, no carrots, no vegetables, or anything I recognized as food. There were twigs, floating around in it, little pebbles and a sandy residue. It tasted awful. I imagined my mother saying, “Drink it: for whatever nourishment may be there. It will help you to survive.” So I gulped down the terrible liquid, while tears flowed from my eyes. This and a piece of dark bread with a tiny square of jam, or cheese made up our daily ration for the next three months. We were starving. There were some who could not drink the so called “soup”. They were the first to become ill, and get diarrhea that weakened them until they had no strength to walk. They were the first to perish.
One day, walking around between roll calls, I met a favorite classmate of mine, Mazso. She was a talented, sweet girl, who sat behind me in class. Two years earlier, I invited her to contribute to my “memory book”; a little diary like booklet of blank pages given to me by my parents, to be filled by my friends and family. She drew a lovely picture in ink, with her good wishes. She said, “Hedy, I have a favor to ask.” I looked at her puzzled and asked, “What can I possibly do?”
She asked, “Do you remember my boyfriend?” I answered, “Yes, why?”She replied, “When you go home after the war, find him and tell him that I loved him very much.”
I asked, “Why are you telling me this? You can tell him yourself, when you go home.”
She just looked at me with a gentle smile on her face and said, “I know I won’t go home, I won’t make it, but you will.” She was right.
I was selected and taken out of the camp shortly after to work in a factory. I never saw her again. Selections were done by SS-officers and SS-guards daily. Hundreds of people were taken away never to be seen again. We did not know their fate. We wondered, was it better to go, or stay? Could it get worse, or maybe better?
Months went by with the same exhausting endless roll calls, selections and hunger. Our crowded and insecure existence continued. One day, I went to visit my Aunt Margit, with her two daughters, Kato and Eva. No sooner than I arrived, whistles blew and orders were given for an immediate roll call. With no time to go back to my block, I lined up there. On that day, I was selected with my relatives, and about a thousand others. We were immediately marched out of Camp C to be disinfected, showered, dressed and made ready to be transported. After waiting a long time, we were ordered to go back toward our Camp C. But instead, they opened a gate opposite to ours, and marched us in to an empty block. We were ordered to take off and return our dresses, and were locked in naked, without any explanation. Frightened, we huddled there through a whole day and night. When we were then let out, we were given our dresses and marched to the train station. There we were ordered to get into waiting cattle cars.
It was around the end of August 1944. I don’t remember exactly how long it took for us to reach our destination; I would estimate around two days. At one of the stops, they divided the train and left about 500 people, while the rest of us continued on. We had no idea what their fate would be. When the train stopped, we were ordered to form rows of five and march to our destination. We marched to an ammunition factory near Fallersleben, now Wolfsburg Germany.
Across the road from the factory was a bombed down building with the basement intact. That was to be our base, our home for the rest of the war, working as slave labour. On April 14th, 1945, I was liberated by the American Armed Forces. I was one of the fortunate few.