From Generation to Generation

My Great-grandmother

Introduction by Great-granddaughter Vanessa Schwarz
Cold Spring Harbor High School, New York

AETI '99

My great-grandmother, Else Schwarz-Katz, was an incredibly strong woman. Not only did she survive over three years in a concentration camp, but she lived on to be ninety-seven years old. When she was alive, I was too young to realize the details of anything which she suffered. I thought she had been imprisoned for committing a crime. I had no idea it was because she was a Jew.

A year after her death, I was preparing for my Bat-Mitzvah. I decided to dedicate my Bat-Mitzvah to my great-grandmother. I called my grandfather, her son, for some information about her. He sent me the following recollection, written after her release from the concentration camp. He translated it from its original German to modern-day English. It covers a period of three years and ten months, from December 6,1941 to January 26, 1945.

Her story is similar to the millions of others who suffered during this time period of the Holocaust. It is astonishing how she had the strength to survive such harsh experiences.

The following was written by Else Schwarz-Katz (nee Honig) shortly after her release from a concentration camp at the end of January 1945. Written in German, translation by Dennis Schwarz (Born 2/12/1898-Died 3/7/1995, aged 97 years).

Saturday, 8:00 A.M. December 6, at the Industrial Fair building in Koln-Deutz (Cologne).

Yesterday, Friday, we had some indication of what our future would hold in store. We were alphabetically listed and then locked into the fair-building. I think locked is the right expression; it was like a cage. The room was fenced and the remainder of the day and the following night were spent on a straw-covered floor. On the other side of the fence stood S. S. guards with fixed bayonets. The still existing kitchen of the Jewish congregation sent in hot soup and coffee the next morning. The trip to the railroad was an ordeal. Most people were unable to carry their luggage because they had brought too much, and a lot of it was abandoned along the street, for the "Scavengers." It rained, and we arrived wet and tired at the train. The journey took until Wednesday (approx. four and a half days) and many people were sick. Dr. Aufrecht and Dr. Bischofswerder moved from car to car while we were able to get water at various stations until we reached Tilsit and the border. There, the cars were sealed. We opened a one-gallon can of coffee which the congregation had gotten to us, and we ate whatever food remained in our luggage. There was great unease in the car, the sick, the exhausted, and the despairing.

Since they had not yet annihilated the Jews in the ghetto at Riga, we were a long time in the freight yards at Skirotawa while this was being done to make room for us. Then we started out, having to leave behind anything that could not be carried. We were told it would be 1 hour walk but it was over 2 hours in the rain and sleet and so slippery that we fell down frequently. A sad march it was and the Latvian residents watched helplessly. They also were suffering under the Nazis and understood our grief. When we arrived at the so called Moscow suburb (ghetto) they closed the barb wire fence behind us and p o s t e d guards. We expected the end r i g h t there because on the street leading into the compound we had seen blood t h o s e who were murdered shortly before our arrival. We were put into their houses and apartments and could see that these poor people were torn away in the midst of their meals, the utensils and half-eaten food were still on the tables.

In our group, which was the first from Koln, were 1200 people who were placed in rooms which often held as many as 25 persons, depending on room size. It took nearly 3 months until things were sufficiently organized to provide us some work and halfway decent food. Meanwhile other transports arrived from Rhineland, Berlin, Westphalia, Hannover, Saxony, Vienna, and Czechoslovakia. Many were killed on the way from the station; other died from the -40 degree weather of that January - February.

After everything was sorted out, work-columns under guards were sent into town. This enabled occasional contact with the Latvian residents and sometimes that led to being given-or-trading for a piece of bread or other food by these Aryans or a well-meaning German soldier. But we were checked on our way back and if any of these items were found, the camp commander had that person killed. This was done with a bullet in the neck, bodies thrown into a ditch. This was the beginning. Then came the "Aktionen" and gas. Upon orders from Berlin, 200 or more persons were gassed in short intervals.

We who remained, sorted out the clothing they had worn which was then collected by the military for the N.S.V. in Germany. (NVS- a sort of Nazi Red Cross). We suffered greatly during this first year, not only physically but especially mentally.

This ghetto was discontinued in November of 1943. Only about 25% of all the people from all the transports survived. For a short period we were put into the Kaiserwald concentration camp and from there some of us were put into barracks. I was sent to the A.E.G. in Riga (AEG- a major German manufacturer) where things were not too bad hygienically, but food was less and worse.

For that we had to work in their factory for 8 hours in 3 shifts repairing cables. Our supervisor Dallmann was a first-class Nazi. Once, when our female guard asked him for the leftovers from the lunchroom as an addition to our soup, his answer was "Better to give it to the pigs than the Jews." And so, every day more women broke down for lack of nourishment. Occasionally one or the other was fortunate enough to get a sandwich from the Latvian workers, but that helped little after and during all this privation. During this time our overseers and section leaders were changed frequently and some were demons of sadism. They had our heads shaved a la Auschwitz. Whatever remained of our clothes was confiscated and we were given striped prison clothing, and wooden shoes. During about 4 weeks at that time, we had a section leader who got his perverse kicks by standing in the middle of the room where the women bathed.

I really fail to see what could have attracted him looking at these often old and always wretched, starved bodies. In the interim we heard about horrible goings-on at Kaiserwald, where a part of our former ghetto remained. But dulled and deafened by our own privations to the suffering of others, we 1,000 women were glad to have gotten into the A.E.G. There were, however, "Aktionen" in our group too and we trembled in fear of becoming part of them.

Now it was autumn 1944; the Russians were approaching, and we were taken from Riga to the concentration camp Stutthof near Danzig (Gdansk). To do this, they assembled the Jews from the various units deep down in the hold of a warship. The journey was horrible, seven days and nights without food. (Yom Kippur on the high seas) People almost went berserk. We were lying in sand and did our bodily functions right there where we were. Only the last day did they give us a bucket, but it was emptied into a trough from which came the only water we had. As a result, most of us who reached Danzig alive were suffering from typhoid, myself included. There we were moved into a small, coastal vessel, and during this transfer a few of our women saw their husbands or sons for a couple of hours. How awful those poor men looked.

Today I think I know why more women than men survived. A women is, in a sense, tougher and more preservation- oriented.

Our little boat arrived in Stutthof and we then had a one hour walk in heavy rain to reach the camp. At first we breathed easier seeing German stores and signs and thought already we would soon be free. Oh how wrong! This camp was surrounded by the feared electrically charged barb wire. Here was a camp that held about 50,000 Polish political prisoners and about 45,000 Jews. Men and women were separated, and those selected for extermination were in a third area. We were given our block, and there were 1,200 women in our room. There were wooden bunks, each three bunks high and in each bunk sat 4 women. Sat, because it was impossible to lie down or sleep. 4 a.m. roll-call.

Since ability to wash was rare, and we wore all that we owned because there anyway was neither toothbrush, comb or soap, it was easy to appear for the roll-call within the 10 minutes they allowed us. If one was too exhausted to move fast or needed to eliminate, that brought the leather strap beatings and so we rushed to get to the line-up on the camp street, doing what had to be done on the way. And so was increased the pestilence and so was provided extra work for the crematorium.

It rained a lot during these autumn weeks and we stood, cold, wet, and tired and hungry, until 8 a.m.(4 hours). The S.S. invented some transgression of their rules on many days and then punished us by pouring our coffee into the sand and giving us 3 or 4 more hours of roll-call, on our knees with arms raised. Ordinarily the distribution of our lunch soup started at 9:30 a.m., consisting of hot water in which swam a few slices of red beets or other beet-like tuber. Not until 1p.m. was the distribution of this "hearty meal" completed and we at last were able to crawl into our boxes. But there was little rest. Plague by lice, pangs of hunger and diarrhea, we soon were ordered outside again because the woman running our barracks wanted to rest and we were disturbing her.

Vanessa Schwarz and Great Grandmother Elsa Katz

Now five or more of us would have to hook arms and run round and round the barracks singing all the while. Like horses on a carousel, stupefying. On the rare occasions when one or the other was fortunate enough to find or steal some raggedy blouse, skirt, slip or perhaps a spoon, they were soon found and taken away by the B.D.M. (BDM-female arm of Nazi party). How many times, how, often, would those who could no longer bear it throw themselves upon the electric barbed wire to bring an end to this existence. There was another roll-call at 6 p.m. and then line-up for food. This consisted of 200 gram (about 7 ounces) bread, a dollop of jam so small one needed a magnifying glass to see it and half a cup of coffee. If we were not very careful to catch our portions as they were literally thrown at us; bread and coffee would wind up in the mud at our feet. If the starving tried to lick the trough, they were whipped. By 9 p.m. we had to be in our bunks, but there was no real peace or rest.

About seven weeks later a sergeant from the A.E.G. came and selected 200 of us for work in a place called Thorn. It was a mournful parting from those left behind, and we learned that they all died by and by from starvation and typhus. We went through a release process where we were given different prison clothing and, oh wonder, an overcoat. Thus we were transported to Thorn. We met there some of the women who had been in Riga with us and whom we were replacing. They were being returned to Stutthof. When the time came for their return, a brute from Kaiserwaid named S.S. leader Hirsch took charge.

These 1,000 women were forced to strip naked in the open. Whatever they had worn or owned was confiscated. The few who still retained a feeling of embarrassment and undressed too slowly were beaten bloody. We, who had to stand and observe, were frozen with nausea and shame as the sadists did their work. Our walk into the camp took over 2 hours and went through the town. The barracks at the camp were newly erected and did not yet have kitchens or sleeping facilities. We stood at roll-call, in the rain, the whole day (12 hours) without food or the opportunity to relieve ourselves. At night we laid on the barrack floor, much of it wet from leaks, and knew to expect more deaths from these conditions. Our head section leader (the Poles kept wishing him "in d'rerd") was the worst kind of criminal. He made us tremble; even our supervisors were afraid of him.. In time we were provided a kitchen and plank beds with straw bags. We again worked shifts in the factory, although there was not sufficient material available for vulcanizing the cables. This was during the months Nov.-Dec.-Jan., 40 (degree) cold and nothing to cover up with. During the 15 minute walks to and from work through high snow and ice we hooked arms five in a row to reduce the falling down. Whoever failed to produce the set minimum of work was given 25 lashes on the naked back and their heads were shaved again. With all this torment the work helped somewhat because it diverted our attention. In the barracks it was even worse, with fights for a thimbleful of water. One hardly washed anymore. Lying on the straw bags pressed together like sardines in a can, we were overrun by lice which kept us from sleeping. If one did fall asleep, totally exhausted for an hour, one awoke stiff and covered with ice. No wonder that there was fever always but it had to go up to 40 (degrees) (approx. 104 (degrees) F.) before we were excused from work, and the moment the temperature was a little reduced, we were forced out again. Since we ourselves had to complete and finish the barracks, it meant 16 hours of work instead of 8, all that with the minimal food given us.

Many times we carried heavy pieces of wood from the factory to the camp, to make a fire with which to make a soup. We also used the wood to make a crude coffin whenever a woman died and we buried them instead of the common body hole. Death was our only wish for ourselves and each other for New Years 1944-45. We were so emaciated, even the old man with the scythe (Death) must have felt aversion.

The Russians approached during Jan., and on Jan. 23, 1945 we left our "home-sweet-home". Returning from work at noon we were told to line up for departure. Each was given bread, a little margarine and about 3 ounces of meat. Before leaving, our brave section leader shot out all the bulbs and windows and then we set off, through the night with snow up to our knees for a distance of 51 kilometers to a place called Bromberg. The feet of many women were frostbitten again when we arrived, and we spent the hours until daybreak on the stairwells of a tall building. In the morning they took us to a prison hospital and gave us coffee, then we continued to walk for another 30 kilometers. It seems the Russians had nearly encircled the town, and were on the only road still open. Here those women who were Polish had the advantage, being able to converse with the local population, and most of them dropped out and disappeared. We later learned that many went to work for the Russians in their First Aid stations or hospitals. Meanwhile, our B.D.M. guards fled, along, with the German soldiers. We found ourselves in the open country, just 65 of us still remaining with the head section leader who now decided to rid himself of this encumbrance. There was a village which had a dance hall, and into this he had us locked up. When he arranged to have straw piled all around this room we realized his intention. At this point Naphtalie, the camp-eldest, pointed out to him that the Russians were blocking all the roads and the bridge had been blown up and he had only moments left to save himself. He realized the truth of this and disappeared, presumably into the forest where other Germans were hiding.

For us, this meant freedom.

We now stood on foreign earth and did not know what to do. But there were a number of houses deserted by their German owners and we separated into small groups. Two others and I found a large farm, its Nazi owner just on his way out. Later that night the first Russians arrived and they gave us food and took the sickest to hospitals where, unhappily, many more died from the results of frost and malnutrition.

As of January 26, 1945 we had been liberated.

The tiny remainder of the deported recuperated to a point where they were able to return to their former homes. But the experience will be with us to the end of our days. The few survivors were from that group that had been at the A.E.G. A tiny remnant.

Title: "Survivor" by Stan Kaplan

This article first appeared in the journal called: "An End To Intolerance" volume 7, June 1999. "The Holocaust/Genocide Project" is now linked to I*EARN internet website.  This issue's theme is "Stories on Women." A student endeavor with the help of educators.

This article published here with the permission of Vanessa Schwarz and the editors of the journal.

© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2001.
All rights reserved.