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Chapter 8 | Chapter 9 | Chapter 10 | Chapter 11 | Chapter 12 | Chapter 13 | Chapter 14

My Mother's Journey
Through the Fire


In September and towards the end of October,1944 the Germans started evacuating Auschwitz. Every day they would empty more and more of Birkenau. Every day I could see transports full of people coming in and leaving.

Everyone talked about the Russian front. Every day there were reports on its movements through Poland. People were already talking about a liberation. We knew that the war was going badly for the Germans, but nobody knew for sure what was happening. Everything was just rumors. One day we would hear one story, and the next we would hear just the opposite.

By the end of the summer we heard rumors that the crematoriums will be dismantled. There were five crematoriums, and the Germans dismantled crema no.III, in December 1944. Later I learned that the other four crematoriums with the gas chambers were blown up in January 1945.

There were strong rumors also that there will be no more selections. To us the news of no more selections was like hearing that the Messiah had come. We walked around kissing each other and wishing Mazel Tov to every one we saw. What we were really congratulating each other on was - surviving. In spite of these rumors there were two more large selections still. One, in September 1944, on Yom Kippur and the other some time in early October 1944. The selections stopped only in November.

At the end of the summer of 1944 our kommando, the 103rd, was dismantled. All the buildings that we built in Birkenau were by then destroyed by Allied bombardments. The only work for us was to clear away the rubble. There was a rumor that the members of our kommando were going to be evacuated to Germany by truck. I was afraid to go. Some said that the trucks use in the evacuations were the kind of trucks used to kill people before the gas chambers were built. The people who were loaded into the trucks were gassed with the engine exhaust as the truck moved. But I was wrong. The people who left the camp at this time did go to other camps in Germany.

After the war my sister, Fay, told me about the time she found out that I was in Auschwitz. Fay was in a labor camp in Germany called Langinbello. She worked there as a seamstress. There she met a woman who thought Fay was me. The woman was evacuated from Auschwitz at the time I was afraid to go. She ended up in the work camp with my sister. She came over to my sister and started talking to her as if she was talking to me. When we were children, people were always confusing me and my sister Fay. That's when Fay knew I was alive and in Auschwitz.

I had a friend in camp named Lutka Moskowitz. She was from Dabrowa, near Sosnowiec. Today she lives in Israel. She also worked in the 103rd Kommando, and was one of the nine other girls that stood with me in a row on the "Appel" . We helped each other with our trading. Sometimes I would arrange a trade for her, and sometimes she would arrange one for me. We would arrange to pick things up for each other. We helped each other when we could. She also kept an assistant to help her just like Rose Etta helped me.

Lutka also feared the evacuation of our kommando. We talked about what we should do to make sure that we stayed in Auschwitz. We decided to try and bribe the "Arbeitseinsatz". The "Arbeitseinsatz" was a German who assigned the women in the camp to the different jobs. We were going to bribe her to get a job that was indoors. At that time only the Ausser Kommandos were being evacuated.

We learned that she was a drinker. We got a couple of things of value together and traded them on the kommando for a bottle of whiskey. I carried it back into the camp under my jacket.

At first we were afraid to go to her directly so we went to a Jewish assistant of hers. We told the assistant that we wanted to see the "Arbeitseinsatz" and showed her the bottle of whiskey. We told her we wanted to trade the whiskey for jobs in the Blue Affect. We had a friend who worked there, and we knew that we could find things there to trade. The assistant picked up the bottle of whiskey, gave it a shake, and handed it back to me. She said that the "Arbeitseinsatz" demanded very clean whiskey, and ours wasn't clean enough for her. She sent us away saying she couldn't help us.

This was a great blow to us. We had traded all our valuables for that bottle. Just getting that bottle of whiskey proved to be very difficult. Getting another one that was cleaner we knew would be impossible.

I was heartbroken, but Lutka decided not to give up. She said that we should take a chance and go directly to the "Arbeitseinsatz". She figured that if she was a drinker she would take the whiskey anyway. So that's what we did.

The "Arbeitseinsatz's" name was Katka. She was a German political prisoner. We went to the barracks where her office was. When we got there the Blockalteste of that barracks asked us what we wanted. We told her we wanted to see Katka, and that we had something for her. She had us wait outside and went in to see if Katka would see us. A minute later she returned and let us in.

We came in to Katka's office and walked up to her desk. I said to her, "Gutten tag," and pulled out the bottle of whiskey.

I placed it on her desk. First she looked at the bottle and then at us. She said, "What do you want my children?"

By the sound of her voice I knew we had her.

I told her that we had been working in the Ausser Kommando already for over 15 months. We felt that it was time we were allowed to work under a roof. She asked, "Where do you want to go?"

"Kommando 105, the "Blue Effect."

"Good, more workers are needed for the 105th Kommando."

Since they were liquidating the camp there was more to do at the "Blue Effect". She said she was going to assign ten more women to the "Blue Effect". We asked her not to assign anyone yet. We would give her a list of the numbers of 8 friends of ours to assign with us to Kommando 105.

She said, "Fine, give me the list in the morning as you leave the camp for work."

Every morning she stood at the gate to the camp counting the workers as they left. The workers marched five to a row. She was handed a list of ten numbers every second row. She told me to make sure that our ten numbers were on one list and that I should hand it to her.

The next morning we did as she told us. That evening Lutka and I went to see her. She said that she was able to only assign 8 women to the 105th Kommando, and she had removed our 2 numbers from the list. We started crying and asked her why she had removed our numbers. She looked at us and said, "Which two other numbers should I remove from the list?"

Lutka and I looked at each other. We didn't want to remove anybody else's number because we were sure it meant their death if we did.

We continued to beg her to restore our two numbers and try to get us into Kommando 105. We promised her that the girls would get together and pay her whatever she wanted. She said that she would see what she could do.

Over the next few days the ten of us brought her whatever we could. We brought her fruit and jewelry, everything we could get our hands on. A week later all ten of us were assigned to the "Blue Effect".

The "Blue Effect" was in the city of Auschwitz, not in the camp. Every member of this kommando had to wear a blue kerchief on their heads at all times. This was where the clothes that were taken away from the people who were killed in the gas chamber were sorted. There was piles and piles of clothing taken from the millions of people who came to Auschwitz.

The "Blue Effect" was in a building called the Leather Factory. It was a two story high building. Our kommando worked on the second floor. Downstairs was a laundry for the SS. There were a number of other factory buildings around it.

First, all the victim's items and clothes were sent to a building called "Canada" where the "Canada Kommando" worked. It was called "Canada" because, like the real Canada, it was a land of plenty. The longest surviving inmates in Auschwitz worked there. It was the best place in the camp. It took a lot of bribery and good connections to get a job there. Then the clothing was brought to the "Blue Effect". Our job was to separate the different kinds of items. Coats to coats, socks to socks, like that. Then we further separated them according to the material they were made of. Last we would wrap the piles of clothing and pack them for shipment.

As we sorted the items we would check for hidden things. Since I found the money in the skirt I carefully felt every piece of clothing I touched. Once I found a gold ring with two small diamonds in it, in a sock. I still have that ring. The most useful item I took from the "Blue Effect" was a pair of shoes. They didn't fit perfectly, but at least I again had a pair of real shoes. Another thing I remember keeping was a small prayer book that I was able to hide in my pocket.

The head of our kommando was called the "Chef", which meant master or boss. He was a man who drank a lot. He wore a green SS uniform, and when he was drunk he was a terror. And he was drunk quite often. At times he would stagger among us drunk and would start beating one of us for no reason at all.

Sometimes for fun he would sit himself on a pile of clothing. He would make us line up and march past him as he hit us. Once he took a liking to one of the girls. He walked up to her, and in front of all of us, grabbed her. As he tried to kiss her he put his hand up her dress. She struggled with him until he became angry. He then started beating her. He beat her for so long that when he stopped she was almost dead.

At the end of the day's work he would tell us to get ready to leave. He would go outside as we put on our coats. We would stand around and wait for him to call us outside. Outside we would line up, be counted, and marched back to our camp.

Once, while we were waiting for him to call us, I sat down next to one of the tables. I leaned my head against the wall and fell asleep. While I was asleep he called us outside. Everyone went out without me. After counting the other women he came back looking for me.

I woke up hearing him come screaming into the room. He came over to me and started kicking me. I got up and ran out of the building with him running and cursing behind me. The other girls were lined up outside. I ran in and lined up among the other girls. By the time he came out of the building I was already standing in one of the rows. He didn't know where to find me. I'm sure he was drunk, and we all probably looked alike to him. He looked around for a minute. Once he even stared straight at me. After awhile he gave up and let us go back to our camp.

I only worked in the 105th Kommando for a short while. After a few weeks the "Blue Effect" was also liquidated. The pace of the evacuation was speeding up. Most of our kommando, with a thousand other women, was taken into the main section of Auschwitz and put into a compound. I got separated from Sala and Rose Etta. They were part of a group that was sent to another camp.

Our new compound was a group of brick buildings. One of the buildings was called Block 10. Block 10 was where the Germans performed experiments on prisoners. We had heard about Block 10 before. A lot of women that came to Birkenau were first in Block 10. In the toilets, where 20 or 30 of us could go into at the same time, the women from Block 10 would show us their scars. The women were mostly young Greek Jews, girls really, 16 to 17 years old. I remember them having large dark eyes. They were very beautiful. The scars they showed us were large cuts across their stomachs. The experiments left them sterile.

Block 1 housed the camp's women's band. I was only there once. It was during Christmas at the end of 1944. The band put on a play and a concert for the SS. They allowed any of the woman in the camp to come. The play was in German, and the SS seemed to enjoy it very much.

The group of women I was with were assigned to Blocks 2, 3, 4 and 5. This was in the last few months of 1944. I was assigned to a kommando called the Davu. The Davu's job was to rebuild some of the buildings and roads around the camp. The men worked as carpenters on the buildings. I was in a group of about 30 women working on repairing the roads. It wasn't a large kommando.

The work of repairing the roads involved setting new stones and clearing away the old ones. After a few days of working there, the German overseer came and watched us work. I had done this kind of work in Birkenau and knew how the stones needed to be set. I knew that the points of the stones were to be set on top. That smaller stones were to go between the larger ones, and then the cement was to go over the smaller stones. Building roads was some of the work we did on the 103rd Kommando.

After watching me work for awhile the "Chef", who was the German head of our kommando asked me, "How do you know how to do this work so well?"

I told him of my work in the 103rd Kommando. He told me to stop working and to teach the other women how to do it. I was to be the "Anwiser", which meant trainer.

After a few days of teaching the other girls how to lay the stones, I was made the Vorarbeiterin of our group. After that the "Chef" was hardly there. After he got us started in the morning, he would go away and return only once in awhile. When he left we would set someone up to watch for his return. We took it slowly until we heard the signal that he was coming. When we saw him coming we would signal by shouting, "Six." Then we would make ourselves look very busy. He always returned around lunchtime. I always made a big fuss about how hard my girls were working and tried to get extra soup for them and an extra sausage. Most of the time we would get it.

After the war, in Germany, I met a woman named Edga Hecht. Once we were talking about where we had been during the war. We learned that we were both in Auschwitz at the same time. Before Auschwitz she was in a camp called Plachofka, near Krakow. She mentioned about working in Auschwitz on the Davu. When I heard her say the Davu I said, "You worked in the Davu? I also worked there."

This was two years after the war and we looked quite different than we had looked in Auschwitz.

Edga asked, "What work did you do there?"

I said, "Don't you recognize me? I'm Mala. I was your Vorarbeiterin."

We were so thrilled to find each other. She took me around to all the other people she knew, telling them the stories about us looking out for the Overseer and the extra rations of soup. We became very close friends and are friends to this day. She led me down the aisle and under the Chuppa at my wedding in Wiesbaden in 1947.

One day on the Davu a friend of Alter's, from home, came to see me. His name was Mosha Lefkowitz. Today Mosha lives in Israel. He brought me some sausage. After that, every week or so, he would sent a package of food with a friend who worked near our section.

One morning, after working on the Davu for about 6 weeks, our barracks was inspected by a SS woman. Our barracks was a new one with two floors. The top floor was for sleeping, and on the bottom were long tables for eating. It had been recently constructed and was used as a showpiece for the Red Cross. So the SS frequently inspected it.

The SS woman stopped at my bed and inspected the sheet. She turned to me and said that she liked the way I made my bed. She appointed me a "Stubova", a section leader. She told me that I was not to go to work any more but to remain in the barracks. My job was to clean and straighten up when the other girls left for work in the morning. The girls made their own beds, but I was to straighten them out and fix the corners after they left.

My work also included going to the kitchen and bringing the food to our barracks, giving out the food when the girls returned from work, and returning the pots to the kitchen after they had eaten. My job was a privileged position since it was winter and the work, except for getting the food, was all indoors.

It was at this time, while I was a "Stubova", that the girls from the Union Metallwerke, were hanged. I had to witness the morning hanging since I didn't leave the camp for work and the evening one since my barracks was lined up to see it.

In October 1944, a short while after I was transferred to the main camp at Auschwitz, the uprising in Birkenau happened. The men who worked around the gas chambers and the crematoriums were called the "Sondernkommandos". Every few months the Germans would kill the members of the "Sondernkommando" in order not to leave witnesses alive and replace them with new inmates.

The "Sondernkommandos" had gotten a cache of weapons. When the Germans tried to send them into the gas chambers they rose up. They killed a few Germans, while blowing up one of the crematoriums, and tore down part of the fence around the camp. Some of the girls in Birkenau escaped through that hole in the fence.

But the uprising didn't last long. Soon the Germans put it down and caught the escapees. After torturing the "Sonderkommandos", the Germans learned that they had obtained the explosives for the primitive bomb from some of the girls who worked in the Union Metallwerke, in Auschwitz. The Union Metallwerke was the ammunitions factory in Auschwitz. Over 2000 men and women from the camp worked there in two shifts, one by day and the other by night. Six of the women workers smuggled out explosives, little by little, and gave it to some of the men in the "Sondernkommando".

The Germans took all of the women who worked in the Union Metallwerke into the "Sauna". There were over a thousand of them. Among them was a girl from my town named Hinga. She was one of the 30 girls who were taken at the same time as my sisters. Hinga and Rose Etta were the only survivors of those 30 girls.

The Germans threatened to send all the women from the Union Metallwerke to be gassed if the "guilty" ones didn't come forward. They were questioned and beaten till the Germans found four of the six girls who were involved in smuggling the explosives.

After the uprising was suppressed the Germans made us line up on the square. We were surrounded by a couple of hundred SS men.. They had their guns aimed at us in case we should start an uprising too. The Germans made a speech. I don't remember what they said. All I remember was looking at those two girls. We had to watch as they were hung.

At night the other two girls were hung for the day workers to watch. We heard that six men were also hung in front of the men's camp. That was the end of the uprising in Auschwitz-Birkenau.

When I hear people say that the Jews went to their deaths like sheep I get very upset. I saw many acts of courage and defiance by Jews against the Germans, but they always ended in death. Everybody did what they could to rescue themselves.

At the beginning we never imagined that this kind of horror will be possible to occur. By the time we realized what's happening, the Jews weren't organized to do anything against the Germans. Before the Germans killed, they lied a lot. They deceived us. As the Germans were sending people to their deaths they were telling them that they were going to be "resettled". As the Germans were about to gas the people they would tell them they were just going to have a "shower". People didn't want to believe that they were about to die -- so they believed the lies.

And who did the Germans march to their deaths? The old, the children, the sick, and the ones who lost the will to live because of what the Germans did to them. The young and the strong rose up against the Germans whenever they could. But the Germans were a mighty nation with an army that almost conquered all of Europe. What were we Jews? Without a country, without weapons, and without anyone to defend us? The Germans murdered and killed us and nobody came to our aid. It was a big miracle that any of us remained alive at all.

Around this time I had a visit from a man from my home town. His name was Baruch Trogud. In 1941, while I was still at home, he was arrested by the Germans for selling coal on the black market. His boss at the time was a German named Weis. Weis' family lived in our town. His parents owned the local water mill. Weis was only allowed to sell the coal to people with ration cards, and only a certain amount. But he did a big business on the black market. Weis was the one the Germans caught, but he put all the blame on Baruch, his worker. As a German he was given very favorable treatment, so they punished his worker instead of him.

At home we all thought the Germans had killed Baruch. Even his parents thought so. They were never able to get any information about him from the Germans. It turned out that he was sent to Auschwitz as a criminal. He wore a green triangle on his jacket. The Jews wore a yellow one. As a criminal inmate he received better treatment than the Jewish ones.

He had heard that some of the women sent from Birkenau to the Auschwitz main camp were from his home town. He bribed a Kapo to be included in a work detail that came into the women's section. The work detail came regularly into our section to clean out the sewers.

He came into our barracks and saw me. He called my name. I looked at him for a minute not knowing who he was. Then I recognized him. I called his name and ran up to him. We hugged. I told him how I thought he was dead, that everyone thought so. I was so happy to see him. He had brought me a small cake. He gave it to me and said, "I have some news that will make you even happier."

The news he brought me was about my husband Alter. Around the time I came to Birkenau from Majdanek, Alter also came to Auschwitz. Baruch had seen him and talked to him. Alter was now working in a coal mine not far from Auschwitz. Baruch said he would try to get word to him about me. Later he would try to smuggle a letter for me.

Baruch also saw a number of other people from our town. He told me what he knew about some of my cousins that were also in Auschwitz. I asked him if he knew anything about my younger brother Wolf. I had heard nothing about him since his escape from the camp in Posnan. Alter was with him in that camp. I asked him if Alter had said anything about my brother. He said he had heard nothing about Wolf. But I felt he wasn't telling me the truth. After the war I found out that he did indeed know but chose not to tell me.

We were only able to talk for a short while, 15 or 20 minutes. He had to get back to the work detail. He said he would be back as soon as he could, but I never saw Baruch again in Auschwitz. I did see him after the war in America. He did not go back to our home town after he was liberated. Today he lives in Miami. The evacuation took place soon after his visit.

My work as a "Stubova" lasted about 7 weeks until January 18, 1945. On the evening of the 17th we were each given a whole loaf of bread and a blanket and told that in the morning we were going to be evacuated from Auschwitz. Nobody would tell us where we were going only that we were leaving. There were all kinds of rumors, and we were all very much afraid. It was cold and there was deep snow outside. We had seen other columns of people march off into the snow and were never heard from again.

Everybody collected rags and wrapped up their feet for the walk through the snow. I also had a pair of socks that I took from the "Blue Effect". I collected some of my things. We were each given a loaf of bread and a wool blanket. All the rest of the things I had fit in my pockets.

It was hard to sleep that night as we waited for the morning.



© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2001.
All rights reserved.