Personal Reflections - In Ghettos/Camps
HELEN SCHWARTZ'S STORY....
A HOLOCAUST SURVIVOR
Recounted by Helen Schwartz
Written by Marnie and Rena Schwartz
Edited by Susan Schwartz
Copyright October 1998
After my last moments with Eric at Blishjen, all of the men and women were placed into cattle cars once again. By this time, we knew that more bad times were in our immediate future. After a time, we were brought to Auschwitz. I think everybody knows about Auschwitz. It was not like any other camp. It was gruesome. Even today I cannot clearly describe the place. It was here that the crematoriums burned day and night. Luckily, when we arrived, it was December. I remember because it was before Christmas and Chanukah. Many times, I was so confused with the days that I never knew what day it was. The worst was standing in line to be counted--day and night, night and day! If something was wrong in another building, even if someone dropped to the ground, they did not let you in the barracks. We were forced to stand in the freezing cold, while they counted us over and over again, until they had the right number.
While in Auschwitz, I saw Eric twice. The first time we conversed, he threw me a shirt over the wires. It was the most beautiful shirt I had ever seen.
At Auschwitz, the men used to come into the women's quarters to clean the toilets. I met a man there that I knew from Poland and who knew my family well. He too used to give me food. The second time I met him, we were near the toilets, he let me know right away that he could not give me anymore food unless I would have sexual intercourse with him. I told him it was impossible. He said, "I know you are Eric's girl friend, so you must be good for something, so why not me too." I could not believe that this man whom I knew from my childhood would think of me like that. After that day, he dropped me as a friend and chased after another girl. When the war ended, I met up with this man in Germany. I looked at him and I started laughing. I thought, 'How would I feel now if I would have gone with him to the toilets?' Thank goodness, I made the right decision.
When the Germans brought us to Auschwitz, they stripped us of our clothes. Again we were naked in front of everyone. Some girls shaved their bodies including their heads because they had lice. But Freida and I always tried to keep clean, washing our hair and skin with my comb. When I went through the line, the SS lady said, "Beautiful hair", because I had no lice. She ended up cutting my hair off in spite of its beauty, although she did not shave it.
The humiliation of being shaved was immense. After our hair-cuts, the SS tattooed us. I remember standing in a long line. When we reached the front, each girl had to present their forearm to the SS and with a needle, they pricked and imprinted us with a number. My number is A-15697. It was very painful. I remember bleeding and having nothing to stop the blood and the pain--no bandages. The SS did not clean any part of our wounds that they caused. They tattooed one Jewish girl after another, not caring about the consequences of their actions.
A NEW JOB...
Afterwards we sat down and Frieda said, "I hate to say it but we have to find something to do instead of going to work." Our job was to dig ditches, and this job involved wearing big clunky wooden shoes, carrying a large shovel that was bigger than us. In the first few weeks, I worked, there were always soldiers with German Shepherd big scary and ugly dogs. We had nothing with us, except our shovels. There we were, young women doing physical labour and older men with weapons and dogs watching over us ensuring that we were not going to fight back or hurt them. The SS thought that we were the dangerous murderous ones. They should have looked carefully in the mirror.
The Germans gave us only one piece of bread and some margarine in the mornings. We were usually always starving. I remember I used to keep a little bit of margarine until my last bite of bread. I can still taste it and see it. It looked like candle wax.
ONLY ONE SHOE...
On our journey to work one day, my wooden shoe got stuck in the mud. I recall trying to get it out by bending down and pulling at it, but it would not give. One German soldier started to yell at me to continue with the rest of the girls, but I ignored him because my shoe was stuck. He called his dog and in seconds, the dog pushed me and then bit my buttocks. There I was, lying flat in the mud. The German soldier forced me to get up and catch up with the rest of the group. I had one shoe. That day, I walked, worked and walked back at night wearing only one shoe. It was an awkward experience and by the end of the day, quite painful.
The next day, a Jewish woman in the barracks gave me a pair of shoes. I really appreciated her good nature and thanked her for the mitzvah. There were a lot of Jewish people from Bialistock in the barracks. Some were familiar with the Jewish holidays and they quietly celebrated them.
PERISHING ONE BY ONE...
At this time, some of the girls that I worked with on the farm were living with me. Others had already perished. (For the most part, many of the girls survived the war. Today, we still keep in touch--some live in New York, Israel and Canada. But it is becoming more and more difficult to stay close because Holocaust survivors are slowing dying and leaving this world. )
On the evening of Kol Nidre, while I was in Auschwitz, I was finally selected among many to go to the crematoriums. I was frightened. I thought my life was over. I feared that it would be my turn to die and I prayed to G-d to change my destiny. At the crematorium, I was forced to become naked once again, so I took off my dress and stood naked in front of the Germans. They stared at every inch of my body, inspected and pinched my arm, and confirmed that I still had meat on my bones. Surprisingly enough, they did not hurt me that evening. Instead, they sent me back to work. I was lucky. I was relieved and thanked G-d for his guidance. I was in G-d's hands and once again was saved!
The next morning was Yom Kippur and we had to go to work. I took the piece of bread they gave me and I hid it in the straw near my bed. Because I was spared by not perishing in the crematoriums, I practiced the rituals of Yom Kippur the following day. I kept thinking to myself, "'I have to survive". At the end of the day, I was exhausted and famished. I rushed over to my bed and searched for my piece of bread, but it was gone. For some reason I did not care. That day, I remember appreciating the small possibilities of life. Before falling asleep that night, I thanked G-d for enabling me to survive another intense, long and hard working day and hoped that my life would continue.
After that night and every night following, I cried and prayed that I would survive the danger of this place. I found even going to the toilets a dangerous ordeal. The toilets were in a large shed with a big long wooden bench containing cut-out holes where we had to sit to relieve ourselves. I had to hold on for dear life fearing that I would fall in among the urine and feces. However, the toilets at times proved to be a haven for me and for some of the others. Sometimes, we hid behind the boards in order to escape the Germans who were looking for us in order to send us to work. On the days that we hid, we eventually came out when the coast was clear. Day after day, night after night, many of us outsmarted the Germans and continued to survive.
One day, I decided to go to a Blockova, the leader of the block, placed by the German government into a place where most of the women were prostitutes. They had a room with a bed and the soldiers were in there. I offered my services for cleaning, cooking, sewing and washing, etc. They accepted my offer and I began working there in this way. Performing these tedious tasks enabled me to remain on their good side until January.
One day, Freida discovered how to find more food. She knew the time when each barrack got their two urns of food, so we went to another barrack before the women arrived and we stuffed our bowls with handles into the urn and took some extra food. We used to take our bowls, run to the toilets, stuff our faces, wipe our mouths and then go to our block and stay in line to receive our respective serving of food or soup. This is how we survived. Nobody ever thought about anyone else but themselves. It was a selfish mind pattern, but it was necessary for survival. This was the true meaning behind "the survival of the fittest". Frieda cared about me and I cared about her, that was as far as it went.
Soon the Germans entered the barracks and removed the thin girls, and again, I was included in this selection of girls. Once again, frightened for my life, I prayed to G-d to save me. In the end, I was spared for one reason and one reason only, I still had meat on my bones. Not long after this, the Russians were nearing Auschwitz and the Germans decided to rid themselves of us, so we were again packed into cattle cars. We could hear gun fire and shooting, but we had no idea what was going on. Not everyone fit in the cattle cars, so some people had to walk. Whoever fell down and was not able to get up were left behind. Eric's brother and son both dropped dead on the walk from Auschwitz. We were lucky that we were in cattle cars.
The Germans then took us to Bergen-Belsen, another concentration camp. This was the epitome of hell. It is very difficult for me to describe. People were starving to death. There were many walking skeletons. Some people would get into a comfortable position, sit with their eyes closed and die. When we arrived in Bergen-Belsen, the disease known as typhus, spread throughout the camp. This disease brings with it a high fever and you feel like there is a fire spreading inside your entire body. There was no water, no food and no medicine.
There were fifteen of us from Bialistock who always tried to stay together. We were the stronger ones. We had one corner of straw in the barrack. It was winter, but there were no soldiers in the blocks. They left us there hoping that we would all die. Many people had broken bodies. Most were sick with typhus, including one of the fifteen girls from Bialistock. The disease killed the weaker people. The women in Bergen-Belsen were sicker than the ones in Auschwitz. Being one of the healthy people in Bergen-Belsen, I took care of the sick women. I washed them, brought them ice, snow and other things that they needed. Due to the intensity and lack of medication, people dropped like flies. Numerous died in our barrack. All we had to eat was vegetables or grass and water. People used to cry for water. I can still hear people crying and begging for water and food today. Those things, you never forget. The headmaster would always command me and the other healthy girls to quiet down the sick women who were often delirious. The memory of Bergen-Belsen continues to haunt me today. Observing the pain and suffering of the women in the barracks was a very difficult experience to overcome. I will never forget the torment and anguish on their faces and the torture they experienced while living with typhus.
In Auschwitz, the death of women and men was easier to handle because when someone was ill, the Germans would take them away to the crematoriums and it was the last we saw of them. We didn't watch their suffering or their death. In Bergen-Belsen, all people regardless of being healthy or ill experienced the negative effects of the disease, as everyone viewed a friend or family member dying from the disease.
If you visit a Holocaust museum today, look at Bergen-Belsen and compare it to other camps. You will realize that other camps burned bodies in the crematoriums. Bergen-Belsen did not use this method and countless number of bodies lay on the ground and in the streets. Bergen-Belsen did not have anywhere to put the bodies, so all of the dead bodies were piled one on top of each other in a pit. The Germans could not bury the bodies because the death rate was increasing by every moment. This was one of the most upsetting circumstances that I could have ever witnessed.
THE GOLD LOCKET....
Soon after the depressing incidents in Bergen-Belsen, I met this woman with whom I was immediately attached. She reminded me of my mother. She also had a daughter around my age with whom I became friends. I always used to bring them snow and wash them and help them out with house work. All of us knew that her daughter had a short time to live because unlike me, she was frail, thin and weak. Typhus was killing her. It broke my heart to see her experience such pain and agony, yet there was nothing that I could do. One night, the girl passed away. The mother could not help lift her daughter's body, so with some help from my friends, we took the girl outside and recited some prayers over her corps. I was extremely upset, but I tried my best to comfort the mother. I could see that she had lost her will to live. I noticed a chain and locket around her neck and I could not for the life of me understand how she smuggled it into the camp. She asked me to remove it from her neck. I was confused. She begged me and asked me to take it off and put it around my neck. I did what she asked. She made me promise that I would wear it but I agreed only on one condition. I said to her, "As soon as this madness is over, I will return this locket and chain to you. When you survive the war, you will take it back from me!" So I promised to wear the gold necklace and locket, in return for commitment to survive the war.
Unfortunately, the next day, we had to carry my friend out of the barracks to join her daughter. I was so sad and we were all discouraged as we recited a prayer.
Since that day, I have worn her locket and to this day, I continue to wear it around my neck. I never engraved my name on it because I believe that it is not mine. It is a symbol of my past and all that I witnessed and experienced during the war. The locket will always hold fond memories of the beautiful woman who generously gave me her precious locket before she died. I wear the locket close to my heart, which is where my memories lie and remain safe. Today when I speak of my life in the war, I always mention the story of my locket and the history that lies within this piece of jewelry. As I sit here admiring the locket, I look inside and see two pictures of my three grand-daughters. I feel myself smile. Tears begin to fall down my face, as I reflect on all the precious time that I have spent with my grand-daughters. As I close the locket and place it close to my heart, I am reminded of the time that I spent with that special woman and her daughter. I have already promised the chain and locket to one of my grand-daughters and I have explained to all of my five grandchildren that they must always remember from where it came.