Personal Reflections - In Camps
Judith Rubinstein Remembers Some More | Judith Jaegermann | Vera Szöllős
JUDITH JAEGERMANN, nee: PINCZOVSKY
At the age of seven I knew already that we're different from our neighbours. We lived in Karlsbad, Czechoslovakia, where I was also born.
It was Sukkoth (Feast of Tabernacles) and my Papa had just been busy making a "Sukka" in the yard of the house where we lived and where my parents had a big kosher restaurant. When all of a sudden, stones were thrown from the windows of our neighbours. I was terribly scared and asked Papa why they did this to us? He said softly " Because we are Jews". That was in the year 1937.
We stayed for another two years in Karlsbad, after which we had to flee from the Germans to Prague. Once in Prague, we had to wear the yellow Star of David and we were not allowed to leave our homes after 8 p.m., while we could ride only in the last carriage of the tramway, since the first ones were "Not allowed for Jews".
Many houses bore captions in large letters: " Do not buy in Jewish shops" or "Jews get out". Instinctively I didn't want to know anything about it and that's why my teddy bear was my best friend. My elder sister Esther had once brought it to me from Leipzig, while I possessed plenty of dolls - 28 precisely. I really used to be an extremely playful child.
One day, when I was eleven and a half years old, Mama received a printed summons, instructing us to appear at Prague's Exhibition Halls, in order to join a "transport" (i.e. the actual deportation convoy of human beings to the concentration camps) which would drag us into the unknown.
Papa was at that time in the Karlien prison and I can well remember that dear Mama had done everything possible to have Papa join us at the "transport". As a matter of fact he had been released and had been delivered to the Exhibition Halls, where everyone was waiting to be shipped on. Everything went so fast... It had been very hard for me to cope with this sudden change in our lives and for me the only little light in this situation, had been the fact, that after his long detention, I could finally hug and kiss my dear Papa again, having missed him so much during his absence from home. I had been allowed to visit him sometimes and he could only stick a finger through the very dense fence and was then overjoyed that I could kiss his finger. Since I was the youngest of 3 girls, I was also the most spoilt one by Papa. At the Exhibition Halls we had the first roll-calls, during which we were to stand at very rigid attention.
One day we were very suddenly called for a roll-call. The shouting and the inhuman behavior of the Germans frightened me so much, that, while standing there, I simply fainted. Since then I was very sad during all those years of our detention, during which I spoke very little. I always accepted everything quietly, without budging. This was due to a very strong internal feeling, which told me in my deep sadness and despair, that there is just nobody to turn to.
After a couple of days we were sent from Prague to Theresienstadt. This was in September 1942. It was an enormous confusion. Men, women and children, all were separated; my sister Ruth and I were transferred to a children's home. From the very first day I reached Theresienstadt, I was crying there all the time. I simply couldn't get used to this situation of being without my parents and I even isolated myself from the other children. This continued for a couple of weeks, until one day I simply escaped from the children's home and ran straight to Mama.
She somehow could give me shelter and that is why I stayed with her in the same room, together with many adult women. Mostly they were Czech women, but also some Viennese and a few German Jews, who knew nothing whatsoever about Jewishness and who wouldn't believe that something could happen to them. They were German and felt themselves as such. And so we started to live together with total strangers.
Mama was very much liked by all, because she was really an extraordinary woman, so delicate and noble, always ready to help and never grumbling. From the time I could be together with Mama again, instead of in the children's home, I could endure everything better: the bad food, the snoring of the women at night, the skimpy washing convenience, as well as the cold, because there was a lack of blankets. Though I usually was quite depressed, there is no question about it, that the presence of my dear mother did definitely give me courage to live.
My sister Ruth, who was only one year older than I, used to be much more together with the girls; she even worked in a vegetable garden and together with her girlfriends they were able to make life as bearable as possible under the circumstances.
Meanwhile my father was employed as a cook at the Hanover barracks and though he had to work hard, I believe that he didn't go hungry at least. We could see him only very seldom because he was very busy. All the young men who got to know him and who worked with him, liked him very much and called him "Pincza", derived from his name " Pinczovsky". In Theresienstadt I came down with a very bad case of scarlet fever and had to be put in quarantine. All around me children died of meningitis, which came as a result of the scarlet fever. At the time I figured that I would end up in the same way.
We were 16 months in Theresienstadt, when one day we heard that people were being sent to Auschwitz, where they were going to be gassed. Of course nobody wanted to believe this and everybody said that this is impossible and that these were only rumours. Unfortunately Papa, Mama, Ruth and I were also amongst those to be sent to Auschwitz sometime during the winter of 1943.
Our fear grew by the hour since we didn't know what to expect. The unknown is something dreadful, which is even impossible to describe. As long as we were all together, even though we didn't live together in the same place, it was somehow bearable, but how would this go on? Where would they send us next? Would they tear us all apart? Would we continue to live? It was an enormous chaos.
We were pushed into the cattle cars of the train, in the presence of Eichmann, in his flawless uniform, his booted legs spread wide apart. With his famous slanted smile he was looking on, how these unhappy, nothing anticipating people were treated like animals. Struck with dismay and terrified, nobody would think of refusing or resisting to board the train cars. Everything went so unbelievably fast, with shouts of "Now come on, you miserable Jews!", while the dogs were barking from all directions.
The main thing for me, I thought, is to be together with my family. For me, the fact that we all were together was the most important thing. The continuous fear of the unknown, or that we would be torn apart, was hell for me and almost unbearable, though it seems that one can suffer even worse; a person can be humiliated to such an extent, as if he were just some disgusting animal.
In the cattle cars one could hear nothing but moaning and crying, as well as whispers that this "transport" was going to Auschwitz. Of course, absolutely nobody knew anything definite, but everyone had bad forebodings.
At present I cannot recall how long the trip from Theresienstadt to Auschwitz took, but one of my most dreadful memories, which I even cannot forget until this day, was the fact, that they had set up a "shit bucket" in the middle of the car, which was placed there to serve as a toilet for all: men, women and children. It was inhuman and degrading.
As we were pretty near to this murderous death machine called Auschwitz, Papa spoke through a tiny opening and asked a railway employee whether from here "transports" would go on to some other destination. The employee replied - thumb up - and said : "Sure, to up there, through the chimney, which is burning 24 hours a day, that's where the 'transports' go". I had overheard this conversation by chance and my poor Papa, upon hearing this, immediately got stomach cramps and diarrhea. I had to watch how my big, strong Papa, who to me seemed the most daring and strongest in the whole world, had to let down his trousers and without shame, had to sit down on the shit bucket in front of all these people. The fact that he had to go to the toilet in such a degrading fashion, made me feel that my entire world collapsed.
I immediately understood that we would be gassed. But how? How would they torture us until we die? I started shivering and so did Papa. He was very depressed from that moment on, when he got the reply with the thumb up.
Finally the cross bars were taken off the doors outside and the doors opened. Though it was dark, searchlights were focused on us from all directions and again the barking dogs and the shouts: "Out, out, faster, faster, come on, come on". Nobody knew what was happening. The men and women were kept separated. Everything happened very fast and again we were without Papa. I saw lots of barbed wire and searchlights and felt a strong smell of smoke. We were herded into a huge hall and we had to undress completely. I was 13 years old and I felt probably more ashamed at this age than the adult women, who couldn't care less.
We were standing in rows in order to be shaved everywhere. Our clothes and personal belongings had immediately been taken away from us and it was evident that the people who had to execute this action, were already so callous and dulled by their long imprisonment in Auschwitz, that they lacked all human likeness. These were the early settlers of the place.
When it was my turn to be shaved, I discovered that the person who did the shaving was a man. But then in fact, he wasn't a man. He was just a poor prisoner in a striped suit with hollow eyes and gaunt cheeks. He did his job without caring and without strength. Once we girls had been shaved everywhere, heads, underarms, pubic area, we all looked like monkeys. None of us dared to look at the others. Some had cried, while others started to laugh hysterically. It was definitely grotesque. Then we yet stood for hours naked until we were given old rags and again , as if on purpose to degrade and to debase the people, they would give tiny rags to the big women, while the smaller women were given oversized things. Some girls had only received a coat, without anything underneath, while others got torn thin dresses without anything over it. And no underwear whatsoever. Everything went quickly; we were totally at the mercy of destiny without being able to complain to anyone.
I was only thinking: "Where did they take Papa? Will we ever see him again? What will happen to all of us now?". After we were given the clothes to wear, we had to stand in line again to be tattooed. To stand around for hours was not unusual in Auschwitz. Mama was standing in front of me, then I and behind me my sister Ruth. Mama was given number 71501, I was 71502 and Ruth got 71503. It was very painful and when I wanted to take my hand away because it hurt, I was given a slap in the face. It was a big, ugly Polish woman who did the tattooing.
In short - it took only a couple of hours after our arrival to Auschwitz and we were no human beings any more, but only numbers and none of us could do or say anything about it. I was only thinking: "How is it possible that grownups are capable to do these things to others?". Where is Justice and why do we deserve this? After which I became more and more silent and reserved.
After the tattooing, we were driven into barracks without mattresses. From now on the women had to live squeezed together, on three levels of bunk beds. It was terrible and cold, and we didn't know what the next minute would have in store for us. The only thing one could do, was to swallow hard and to suffer in silence. The food was some kind of feed, called soup, a dark, watery liquid, for which one had again to stand in line in order to get some of it into a small tin bowl - not even full. Within a couple of weeks we all became thin, numb and listless, just as those who had been before us in Auschwitz. Our camp was called Birkenau. B 2 B. Block 12.
We saw Papa again after a couple of days and my heart was crying out when I saw him. He was wearing a very short and narrow coat and looked terribly wretched and degraded in it. He was totally depressed, because we too must have looked terrible to him. After some time he reported as a cook and had to work for the SS. If they didn't like the food, they would keep his head immersed under water, until he almost suffocated. I overheard this by chance when he told it to Mama. Sometimes he would bring us, under mortal danger, some boiled potatoes and then he ran immediately back to his barrack, where he would rack his brains what to cook for the SS so that they would like it and he wouldn't be tortured as a result. Back home in Karlsbad my parents used to own a big kosher restaurant, but of course Papa didn't do the cooking, because for that purpose he had plenty of kitchen helpers.
One day Ruth was looking when another 'transport' arrived at Birkenau's railway station. These were Hungarian Jews, who were taken straight away to be gassed. She had seen this together with a girlfriend and she was caught looking; so she and her girlfriend had their heads again totally shaved after the hair had already started to grow a little after the first shaving. Ruth returned crying and with a shaven head into the barrack. After I saw her, I started to cry so hard that I hardly could calm myself. Neither had I immediately understood why she had been punished, but the sight of her bald head was terrible for me and only after a couple of hours did I calm down, after one of the girls reassured me and said that we had to find a scarf for Ruth which she could wear on her head, so that the baldness would not show. But this incident depressed me even more. I was very low and always worried that they shouldn't - G. forbid - catch Papa when he would sometimes come and see us for a moment and bring us some food. The men who would visit the women were whipped until they would loose consciousness. This shouldn't happen to Papa.
The roll-calls in Birkenau were horrible. They drove us already at half past four in the morning from the barracks and would let us stand for hours at a time at attention, either in the freezing cold or during a heat-wave. Many women could not take it and fainted, being already extremely weak due to the lack of food, while the cold also bothered us a lot. My feet were totally frost-bitten. I had only wooden house-shoes which were constantly falling off my feet, because Birkenau had during winter heavy mud in which my house-shoes got stuck. Mama had torn her blanket apart and had made bands to swathe my legs to keep them a little warmer. But my legs became worse all the time; it was terribly cold, -20 C., (i.e. 20 degrees Centigrade below zero) and the frost-bites became open wounds, infected and with puss. It is like a miracle to me that - over the years, here in Israel - this has totally disappeared, but I am still fragile in winter and I am wearing only boots, because those places who had been frost-bitten still hurt sometimes. The local sun has accomplished miracles.
Also appalling were Birkenau's latrines. Made as deep pits, they were separated in the middle by a narrow board and divided by a transparent canvas fabric, so that men and women could see each other through the material. This was so degrading and inhuman, because all one could see were the naked and skinny behinds of the men. Since everyone was suffering from a watery diarrhea as a result of the long period of under-nourishment, this was the sight we were seeing when we had to go to the latrines.
I will never forget a woman, I believe her name was Kleinova, who always used to carry her bread ration around with her, so that she would not die of hunger. One day her bread ration fell into the dirty latrine and out of sheer despair she crept into the pit, or it seems that she had let herself fall into it, to recover her bread ration. Though she, as the bread, were disgustingly filthy, this was of no importance to her. The animal instinct to survive, by keeping food at hand, had triumphed.
I saw this same Kleinova woman die next to me a couple of months later in Bergen-Belsen. It is a miracle that she even stayed alive that long, because she had literally eaten nothing at all, while only hoarding and storing rations. I will never ever forget this incident with the latrine. People simply became animals.
The daily roll-calls which took hours, were totally senseless. Occasionally 2-3 times daily and only in order to annoy us. More and more people collapsed. They just were shot and taken away. The eternal barbed wire was our only view and all the camps were divided by high tension wires. Many people committed suicide in this way; they simply would crawl up to the barbed wires and would die immediately, glued to the wires. I still can clearly recall a young girl who did this. I had seen her still alive and the very next moment she had chosen death by reaching out and clutching the barbed wire. There we had hell in its purest form, impossible to describe.
One day Mengele, the doctor who did experiments on twins, appeared in person and asked the person responsible for the barrack whether there were any twins amongst the girls? Since nobody ever knew whether these questions meant life or death, she didn't want to take the responsibility upon herself and asked loudly: "Are there any twins amongst you ?".
By chance I had become the best friend of two of the girls who were twins. They slept opposite me on the bunk beds on the third level and we had become very friendly, since we all were of the same age.
I suddenly heard when these two girls said: "Yes, we are twins". Mengele came closer. He looked at them very carefully. They were almost identical with their freckled faces.
All Mengele said, was: " O.K., so come with me. Anyhow, by night you'll be back here". My instincts told me that I would never see my friends again. Indeed, I never saw them again and I even couldn't inquire about them since I have forgotten their names.
I have been thinking a lot about these two. Who knows what experiments this brute carried out on them and how they had to die.
And again rumours started, that they needed some people for mop-up actions, but then who could believe that we would get out of Birkenau alive? I believe it was spring when my dear Mama said: " Look Laluschka, look over there, a little bird is flying there and I tell you, that this is a sign of life or a sign to live and with the Lord's help we'll get yet out of here. I marveled at her for being able to be so optimistic, because I didn't believe anymore in such miracles and I said only very softly and without strength: that G. will help us." This is what she answered me, this poor, starving, yet admirably devout and dear little Mama. How terribly must she have felt to see her children so miserable and hungry.
And in fact it was on July 5th, on Mama's birthday, when Mengele personally carried out the selection. Again we were standing in line, four rows deep and had of course not the faintest idea what was going to happen to us next. Anyhow, we always stayed together and rubbed each others cheeks, so that we would look healthier and more capable to work
While we were standing there to wait for our destiny, I saw Papa standing at a distance watching the selection process. At that very moment I knew that I would never see my dear Papa again, no matter where we would be going now. I tore myself away from my row and ran to him, not listening to the shouts of the women, that all would be punished or killed because of my leaving the row. I hugged Papa with all my strength and knew instinctively that this was our farewell, forever. Then I walked calmly back to my row, feeling that I had said goodbye to Papa, who was standing there crying. I was lucky that none of the SS people had watched me.
And that's how we continued to stand and wait what Mengele had for us. Nobody ever knew at this point, which side meant life and which side meant death. As if by miracle all three of us were pushed to the same side. That is how we stayed together again. As I said before, we only didn't know whether this meant life or death. We saw how children were torn away from their mothers and I can still vividly recall today the cries of those mothers. After a long time of uncertainly we have been led through the women's camp, called F.K.L., to the railway station. But in the women's camp they still had us stand in the burning heat, without a bite to eat or a sip of water.
Though the person responsible for the barrack was a woman, she was more like a hyena. For hours on end we had to stand at attention and she only watched whether someone would budge.
Amongst us was a Viennese girl, called Martha. Since the girl made the impression that she was smiling, the barrack's responsible became so upset, that she had Martha fall on her knees with both hands stretched up. she had to stay in this position - without moving - for quite a while and again it seemed to her that Martha was smiling. The beast became even more furious and gave Martha a brick, which she was to hold up with stretched out arms, while being on her knees. I was standing facing her and until this day am unable to describe the pity and heartache I felt for her. I could see very clearly, that one can humiliate and degrade a human being to a degree lower than that of a worm. By this time I had totally lost my confidence in adults, even before I started trusting them. For me, it was again a shocking experience
I will never, ever, for as long as I'll live, forget it. I have been told today that Martha has survived and is living somewhere abroad. I don't even remember how long we had been standing there, but after a very long time of standing, we were driven into the cattle cars. That's when Mama said to me: "You see, Laluschka, I told you that the little bird brought us the good news to get out of this hell. This is the most beautiful birthday present in my life." Neither had she lost faith to see Papa again some day.
We were travelling into uncertainty. Though nobody knew where to, everyone said that it couldn't be worse than Auschwitz. Today I cannot remember anymore how long we were riding in these cattle cars, all squeezed together like sardines. We also had lost all sense of time. Unfortunately, many girls suffocated and when the railroad cars were opened their dead bodies fell out. We arrived in Hamburg, where they accommodated us next to the port, where we had to engage immediately in the cleaning up after bombardments. Since I was the youngest of all and couldn't keep up with them, the older girls often used to help me with this hard work.
Hamburg had more water and all of us were quite happy that after a long time we finally could somehow wash and drink. In the beginning we even got a little more food, but then winter came. Again it was snowing heavily and we had to shovel the snow from under a bridge in the icy cold. I can remember that one day during work, I blacked out and kind of started to sleep. Suddenly I felt as if someone wakes me and I saw the faces of many women over me. I overheard them saying: "The little one almost froze to death". They let me lie down for a little while longer and then many girls started massaging me and rubbing me, so that I started to feel my body, hands and feet again.
I felt miserable, totally depressed and without strength. I got up and continued to shovel snow and was thinking, how one can go on living like this. Everything was so inhuman, always connected with fear and one had to take the utmost care that the SS people should not notice that one of us women would feel bad, so that they would not - G. forbid - declare her as unfit to work. Because there was always the danger of being sent back to Birkenau, which would of course mean death by gas. With this the Germans used to threaten us all the time. That's why we used to work over and beyond our strength. On our way from the camp to work and in spite of being mostly so hungry, we even used to sing sometimes a marching song like this: " This cannot upset a seaman, no fear, no fear, Rosemary. We won't let our life be embittered, no fear, no fear, Rosemary". Even the SS woman would allow us to sing, because that made us march faster. And the song itself gave us a little courage to live.
Sometimes we also saw political prisoners, who had of course much better conditions; seeing us wretched, hungry and in rags, they would sometimes throw us a cigarette or a piece of bread. I personally never dared to pick up something, since everything was linked to the greatest danger. Girls who were lucky enough to pick something up, would usually share it with a neighbour or a friend. As a matter of fact, there was never any scuffling. Only at night, when we used to come back to the camp, it was terrible. Then they used to check us, even gynecologically, to verify whether we hadn't smuggled anything into the camp from the outside. The name of the camp's responsible was Trude. She, together with camp commander Spiess would search us very thoroughly and G. forbid, if a piece of potato peel or something else would be found. Then the person in question would be treated to 50 whippings on his naked behind in front of everybody and administered with the greatest pleasure by Spiess himself. This would sadden me so much, that for days on end I couldn't speak a word.
The long period of under-nourishment made us all suffer from furuncolosis. I personally had many furuncles, mostly in my arm pits and innumerable ones on my behind. Amongst us we had a pediatrician, Dr. Goldova, who had somehow got hold of a scalpel - probably through the SS - with which she used to treat us and to squeeze out the puss. Of course there was no hygienic care, such as disinfecting, therefore the puss boils would multiply more and more, one disappearing while another one started. It is both very contagious and very painful. I couldn't get rid of mine for months on end. I also got high fever from it and had to be operated. But very soon and with superhuman strength, or maybe out of sheer fear to be "liquidated", I returned again to work. Though I had suffered tremendous pain, I didn't want to bother anyone and suffered in silence, until miraculously it did heal. This really was one of the miracles which came about. Evidently G. always helped to get better, in order to be able to carry on with destiny.
We had many rats in our barrack, which at night would crawl over us. We had to get used to that too and learned to live with it. One night, when we returned dead-tired from work, the camp had disappeared. It had been bombed by the British and totally wiped out; we had nowhere to put our heads down. If we had stayed in the camp that day, we had been killed or injured. Our doctor had also been hit and injured. And one of our guards was lying there stretched out and dead. I still can see the picture before my eyes. And that's how we have been once more sent on; again into uncertainty, without anything tangible, only fear in our souls, hungry and uprooted, not knowing what else is in store for us. And always in a herd. The only thing I kept thinking about, the only important thing, was to stay together, because that was the one thing that kept us alive. Many women, who had been alone, just didn't care any more, they didn't want to live any more and finally died due to emotional exhaustion. So they accommodated us in another camp in Hamburg and straight away we had begun working again.
It was an icy cold day and even the SS woman had permitted to improvise a small fire, so that we could warm our hands, which were stiff from the cold. Therefore each of us had looked for a small piece of wood or paper, in order to put it into a pail, which was lying there in the ruins of one of the houses, in order to light a fire. The SS woman had the matches and after long efforts we succeeded to get these wet pieces of paper and the few pieces of wood to burn. Naturally, it smoked quite a lot and it also smelled bad, but we were happy and proud to have succeeded and the entire group was standing around the pail, their hands stretched out. We also moved our feet in order not to freeze. All of a sudden, we heard - coming from the ruins - a man shouting:" What are you doing here, you dirty Jews? Get away from there, at once, you scoundrels!". Of course, everybody was frightened, even our SS woman didn't know who could be behind those stones. Everyone ran away as fast as they could and we could hear that the man came closer. Since I was the last one, because I couldn't walk that fast, this man got hold of me and poured the entire contents of the burning pail over my head and neck. I fell, due to pain and fear, while all the girls were ahead. Only Mama turned around for me and when she saw me on fire, she pulled me with all her strength and cried out for help.
That's why some of the girls came back and their hands patted my rags in order to extinguish the fire. It burned terribly and I was lucky that I had been wearing a rag around my head, which prevented me from getting deep burn wounds.
That same evening, when we came back from work, even camp commander Spiess ordered that I be given a second helping of soup. However I was so terrified and unhappy after the day's events, that I couldn't eat it.
This same Spiess had almost once beaten Mama to death with a revolver, because Mama had found a potato peel. she said that he wanted to shoot her, but possibly the revolver hadn't been loaded and therefore he had beaten her with it on her head like a madman, until foam appeared at his mouth. For many weeks Mama couldn't go to work and her head was terribly swollen.
My grief, not to have Mama with me at work, was considerable and I had the most terrible and fearful mental images, fearing that I wouldn't find her again. But the camp responsible had kept her busy in the camp during her illness.
In the evening there was a total black-out in the camp, since Hamburg had been heavily bombed by the Tommies (British soldiers). Several times during the day and also at night there had been very heavy bombardments and we therefore couldn't go to the latrines, because darkness was so complete, that one couldn't see anything at all. This scared me a lot, since I couldn't find my way around, and didn't want to wake Mama, who was so tired due to the heavy physical work she had been doing. And that is why I always tried to retain myself, which kept me from sleeping, while having a very hard time to hold out until the morning. In the morning, when we were finally allowed to go to the latrines, we of course lost half of it on the way.
And then, the number of lice we had! We of course couldn't control them, because no sanitation whatsoever was possible. On the pillar in our barrack there was written:" One louse, your death " and that's why we couldn't show that we were full of lice; furtively we used to delouse one another and crush the lice.
One evening, again dead tired after a heavy working day, we were standing in line with our tin plate, in order to receive the little bit of warm water, called soup. When it was my turn, I was already so hungry and exhausted from standing there, I simply thought that I can take no more. Finally the soup was already in my plate. I turned around in order to eat and stumbled in the dark. My entire soup was spilled and I was left with an empty plate. I started to cry so hard that I was shaking all over and that's how I went to sleep, terribly hungry, after I hadn't had any food all day. I wouldn't have dared to approach the camp responsible in order to request a little bit more soup.
We had lost quite some weight since our arrival in Hamburg nine months ago. We had gone through terrible bombardments, during which many of us would cry "Shma Israel" and often enough we thought that this would be the end of it. Because next to our camp there were a lot of industrial plants, which were the real objective of the British.
Then came the day when the front drew nearer and once more we had been evacuated. Partly again squeezed into cattle cars, where I felt like being choked. The bang of the bolt being shut, still remains until this day in my ears. After a couple of days, I cannot recall how many, the door was opened. Most of us were already half dead when we saw also other trains with emaciated - to us totally unknown - people. These must have been people from other concentration camps, being evacuated to another place. Once out of the trains, we were standing again in rows of four and that's how the death march started on foot. Again, we had not the faintest idea where they would drag us.
In the beginning it was somehow still all right, mostly because we were very happy to be in the fresh air and not like cattle in the cattle carriages. But slowly, every now and then, one of us would sit down by the road, feet all swollen, not being able to continue to walk any more. Those, who couldn't go on any more were left by the wayside Further and further we went, with the strength of an iron will.
And again I must stress, that hadn't it been for my beloved Mama, who was next to me, I'm sure I wouldn't have survived this. She gave me courage, she comforted me in my desperation; she, who was desperate herself. She was my guardian angel. She also was mother to all the girls who were alone and she always found a word of comfort for them. All the girls tried to stay near to her and felt sheltered by her.
After many days of walking and after the house-shoes fell off from some swollen feet, we arrived in Bergen-Belsen. Though we had absolutely no notion where we were, we learned it afterwards. The very first sight of this ghastly camp, was a huge hill of naked, dead people, who were practically only skeletons.
Such a terrible and frightening sight I hadn't seen even in Auschwitz and right away I was thinking that within a few short days we would be looking the same stacked like these corpses. Because we wouldn't be able to take it much longer. Since we had lost a number of women from exhaustion on our way, I felt that we too were nearing the end.
The ones who were still alive, could move only very slowly; it looked like a "slow motion picture". There was absolutely nothing to eat. There was no water whatsoever. It was a total chaos, because the Germans had all run away, while the front was drawing closer and closer. We could hear cannon shots, but nobody could estimate the distance from which they were shot. There was nobody to supervise us, or to ask any questions.
Suddenly we saw Hungarian soldiers, or maybe they were Ukrainians, who had taken over the sentry boxes. They were shooting quite brutally all around and it seemed as if they would have liked to hit someone for fun. That's how they kept themselves happy and amused. A couple of days later I personally witnessed when one of these soldiers shot at two sisters, who could hardly creep anymore. One of them died on the spot. The wailing of the living sister was heart-rending. The only thing she was yet capable of, was to whine and to moan. And that's how we all became "Mussulmen". Emaciated, lifeless, thrown together in dirty barracks. Destiny brought me again together with the woman, whose bread ration had fallen into the latrine in Auschwitz. She died on the floor one morning in my presence. Her daughter sat next to her, indifferent and numb. We had been for approximately two weeks in this snakepit, without eating or drinking. People died like flies; they simply collapsed. Death was everywhere and everywhere death was anticipated.
One morning we heard tanks and someone came into our barrack and said:" Kids, we are free!!!" It was April 15, 1945. But nobody moved, because nobody had any strength left over to be happy. All of us were already so apathetic, that even with the best of intentions, we could not move. This is almost indescribable.
Now we had a typhoid fever epidemic, because the British, when entering the camp with their tanks, threw canned food and bread to the people. Those, who could still crawl, ate some of it and the results were terrible. These people simply died like flies, not being used to food any more.
Mama, my guardian angel, had immediately warned us in a soft voice: "Children, do not touch this. After being hungry for so many years, the stomach is not able to process this food. Wait and eat slowly. Eat only tiny portions ."
I personally couldn't eat a thing. I had contracted typhoid fever and my temperature was very high, while the same happened to Mama and Ruth. It was, once more, a miracle that we survived. All around us people were dying. There was really terrible misery and desperation everywhere. I was weak, that I could speak no longer and I could only hear as if the sounds were reaching me through a thick veil. Some time later, I really believe it was a miracle, my temperature fell.
The British soldiers taught us to walk again, just as one would teach a small child. So we stayed on for some more time until they organized our repatriation, for each one to go back to his homeland.
We got a little more strength, thanks to the many vitamin pills we were taking and also some bread and milk. I was thinking again of my dear Papa, who most certainly would not be alive any more. He had been all the time alone and had had no news from us. It was indeed very sad when we reached Prague and of course didn't find him there any more. And thus we received from the Joint fitting clothes and food supplies. Our hair grew also again. More or less we started to look like human beings.
The memory of the heaps of the degraded naked corpses, before they had been thrown into mass graves will always stay vivid in my memory. Bergen-Belsen was a ghastly camp, without hope nor life. On our way from Bergen-Belsen to Prague, after the liberation, we made several stops. When the train would stop, we could even leave the train for a few minutes.
One of these stops was Pilsen in Czechoslovakia. When the people saw us, they asked us from where we were coming and about the meaning of the tattooed numbers on our arms. We told them that we had spent 3 1/2 years in concentration camps and that we had gone through hell. Upon which these people asked us: "And why didn't you stay where you were? Who needs you here?" We went back to the train, emotionally totally worn out. This was the welcome reception to freedom, for which we had so desperately been waiting.
Back in Prague we didn't know what to do. Transportation was being arranged to Palestine and thus Mama had registered me with the Youth Aliya. According to her, at least one of us should take this step to freedom, after we hadn't been able to find Papa again. My eldest sister, Esther, had been living in Palestine for the last seven years already. She lived in Netanya and I went to stay with her.
After our arrival in Haifa, we had been detained again in the Atlit camp. I had to stay there for three months and was once again behind barbed wire. Being only 16 years old, I couldn't understand that the same British, who had taught us to walk again, kept us here once more detained. I cried day and night and could not accept that this had to be, since I had believed that I would be really free.
Luckily enough, I had good friends, who all had come from various concentration camps. They were mostly people, living alone and without family ties, who, for the most part joined a kibbutz. Finally came the day when Esther came to pick me up. She took me to her home, where she lived with her husband and son in only one room.
My terrible traumatic memories will never leave me.
My dearest Mama will always stay sacred to me.
December, 1985. Published here with the permission of the author.
© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2001.
© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2001.