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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 the morning, January 18, 1945, we were awakened and rushed out of our barracks. From all around us I could see people coming out and lining up in front of their barracks. We all looked the same with rags around our feet and blankets over our heads. Then barrack by barrack we were marched out of the camp. Thousands of people formed a long column. Every few feet on both sides of the column walked a German soldier with a gun.

It was a cold January day We couldn't walk very fast. Many of us were weak, but nobody wanted to go to the Rewier. We were sure that the sick in the Rewier would be killed. We were sure that the Germans would not leave them to be found by the Russians. But they weren't killed. They were the first of the inmates of Auschwitz to be liberated. Nine days after we left, the Russians arrived, on January 27, 1945.

The snow outside the camp was very deep. When I stepped out of where the column was walking the snow was up to my knees. The Germans ordered us always to go faster. Within a day or two, those that weren't going fast enough or had stopped altogether were shot. The people near the ones that had been shot were ordered to pull the body to the side of the road so it would not be in the way of the rest of the column.

Hundreds were killed. I could hear shooting going on constantly up and down the column. We walked between rows of dead on both sides of us. As the march dragged on the rows of dead seemed endless.

In the distance we could hear the dull thuds of the bombardments on the front and see the flashes on the horizon. The explosions and the flashes never stopped. I could feel them getting nearer. That sound of the Russian guns drove the Germans just as the sound of their shooting drove us.

The days were very cold and each day it seemed to get colder. The Germans also suffered from the cold and the walking. They took their suffering out on us. Some drank a lot to fight the cold. I saw many of them drunk and watched some just shoot into the column at random. They would curse us as if it was our doing that they were out in the cold.

We walked for days, and sometimes the nights too. I lost track of time. A couple of times during each day the column would stop. Not for us to rest but because of something that was happening in front of us. Sometimes we would be allowed to sit and sometimes not. I remember the Germans seeming very nervous during these stops. After awhile we would be ordered to move again. There were those who could not move. The Germans just shot them where they lay.

Most of the nights we were allowed to rest, but always in the open. We would sit in the snow and lean against each other and try to sleep. At night the Germans were afraid we would escape so we were put in groups and watched from all sides.

We walked through woods and on small country roads. We always walked around towns, never through them, even if it meant a longer walk. It seemed like the Germans were hiding us from the people along the way. In the woods we did walk past some houses. Sometimes people would come out to see us. Our guards discouraged their curiosity and would not let them talk to us or we, to them.

We must have been a horrible sight to the people who looked at us. I saw some stare at us out of curiosity and some look at us with pity. And some I saw close their curtains as we passed. I was told by some of the other marchers that some people who lived along the way did throw food and give out some blankets to the marchers.

At the start of the march I walked with Lutka, Reginka and Shindala. I saw my Greek friend Stella. We walked together for a while and then I lost her. I never saw her again.

A few days into the march we lost Lutka. She was able to hide in the attic of a barn. She was able to stay there until the Russians came a few days later. I didn't know what happened to her until I got home to Boleslawiec. There in the city hall I found a letter from her looking for information about me.

During the rest stops we were able to walk up and down the column. I walked around looking for Alter and my brother Wolf, or anyone who knew anything about them. I thought Wolf was still alive then and had come to Auschwitz with Alter.

After about 10 to 12 days, I don't remember exactly how many, of what seemed like aimlessly wandering around, we came to the labor camp at Gross Rosen. Gross Rosen was about 200 miles from Auschwitz. There the Germans were suppose to leave us but found that labor camp also in the process of evacuating. When we came into the camp I thought at last we'd be able to go indoors and maybe get some food. But soon after we got there we were ordered to leave again. There didn't seem any place for us but the snow.

That day I remember a terrible frost setting in. After we left Gross Rosen I felt like giving up. The thought of walking again through the woods in that cold and snow was too much for me. I was ready to lay down and accept my fate. That's when Shindala and Raginka saved my life, as I already explained.

We walked for the rest of the day. In the evening we were allowed to rest in a barn. The barn was very big, and hundreds of us rested there. Lying on the straw I regained my strength and my will to live. The next morning we were ordered out of the barn. We marched a short distance to where a train was waiting for us. We were loaded onto open rail wagons for the rest of our journey.

The train traveled very slowly. It stopped and started many times. The trip lasted a few days. I can't recall exactly how many because time wasn't our main concern. Food was. Time was figured from when we last ate. Hunger and cold were our only thoughts. Traveling in open wagons in winter all we did was huddle against the wind and cold.

When the train did stop we were allowed to get out of the wagons and relieve ourselves at the side of the tracks. Once when I was relieving myself at the side of the wagon the train started moving without warning. The Germans were shooting anyone who did not get back on the train. With my pants hardly pulled up I started running and tried to grab onto the ladder of the wagon. One of the girls in the wagon reached out and grabbed my arm. Then a few more hands grabbed mine and pulled me off my feet. As the train moved faster and faster my body dangled on the side of the wagon. Everybody in the wagon seemed to grab hold of me, and together they pulled me in. Without their help I never would have made it into the wagon.

After the war when I was living in Brooklyn, I was visiting a neighbor. The neighbor had a friend of hers visiting at the same time. The neighbor and her friend were also survivors. So we sat around and told stories of the war. I told them the story of being pulled into the train. The neighbor's friend's name was Ava Munlach. She clapped her hands and gave out a loud laugh. She said, "Oh, it was you. I'm the one who first grabbed your hand as you ran for the train. For years I thought about that and wondered what happened to you."

So, 8 years after it happened I got the chance to thank my rescuer.

During the trip we pulled into a train station. The train stopped there for the longest time. All around us were piles of rubble. There was hardly a building intact. Some people walked by, and we begged them for food. We hadn't eaten for days and that was all we thought about. The guards would threaten us to get us to stop pleading and would tell the onlookers to move. The people passing by would look at us in amazement. Some would cross themselves. Someone in the wagon shouted to a passerby, "Where are we?" "Berlin" came the reply.

We all fell silent as we looked around. It hardly looked like a city at all, let alone the capital of the Reich. There were mounds of rubble and just the skeletons of buildings as far as the eye could see.

Over the station's loudspeaker a man's voice kept saying over and over again, "Abfahren mit dem sou laden. Abfahren mit dem sou laden."

After awhile I realized he meant our train. What he kept saying was, "Away with the pig train."

The train finally came to its destination, the women's labor camp at Ravensbruck. The camp was very big and in great turmoil. People and trucks moving in and out of the camp in an endless stream. Transports were arriving from all over with inmates from camps in Poland. We were more crowded there than we were in Auschwitz,

The camp leaders at Ravensbruck (they were also inmates) were Christians from Czechoslovakia. The Germans there behaved better since the war seemed lost. Suddenly they weren't so bad to the Jews. Some would even tell us how good they had been. I was not used to this kind of behavior from the Germans.

We stayed in Ravensbruck for about 2 weeks. From there the people were dispatched to other labor camps in Germany. Most of the time we were left alone because there was nothing for us to do. Those that didn't have work also got very little food. One morning Shindala came into our barracks dragging a whole kettle of soup. We didn't ask how she got it. We all gathered around and shared that pot of soup. It was the first warm food we had since leaving Auschwitz.

I ran into a girl named Hadassa. Even though she was Jewish she had had a privileged position in Auschwitz. She was an assistant to a "Kapo" from the 103rd Kommando. But here in Ravensbruck she was in the same position as the rest of us.

In Auschwitz I had received many beatings from Hadassa. Not just me but all of us in the kommando. Once she caught me in the toilet. She beat me until I was black and blue. It was because she had seen me switch groups during work so I could do some trading.

I warned her that if she was around when we were set free we'd pay her back for all those beatings. She made sure she wasn't sent to the same camp as we were.

Years later in New York, Sala told me she had seen Hadassa. Sala was traveling on a bus and saw Hadassa walking on the street. Sala started yelling and banging on the window. She got off at the next stop and ran back to where she had seen her. But she was gone and Sala couldn't find her.

One morning I was included in a group of about 4000 women that were taken to the train. We had all come from Auschwitz together. We were put into closed wagons, 45 women to a wagon. When they loaded us there was no bullying or hitting, and we weren't crammed into the wagons. The treatment was almost gentle. There was a rumor that we were being sent to Sweden as part of a prisoner exchange.

Sweden was not our destination. Instead we were brought to a labor camp called Neustadt Glewe. It was on the river Elbe. The camp was in the woods, almost half way between Berlin and Hamburg. The workers in the camp worked in a nearby airplane factory that was hidden in the woods. It was a small camp, only about 4000 inmates were housed there.

When we first arrived, there were no barracks for us to stay in. We were put in a large empty building with straw spread out on the floor. We were to replace the 4000 women who were then working there. Those 4000 women were prisoners from the Polish uprising in Warsaw. We had to wait till they were removed. We were given our food ration for the day. Those not assigned to a work detail were given one slice of bread and a half a glass of soup. That's what we were supposed to live on.

The first evening in Neustadt, as I lay on the straw, someone reminded me that it was Friday and that the Sabbath was about to begin. I had never lost my faith in God. I still had in my pocket a small prayer book that I had found in Auschwitz. I took it out and started reciting the Friday evening prayer. Sitting next to me was a woman. I can't remember her name, but I remember she was from Sosnowiec. She started laughing at me. She said to the others, "Look, she still believes in prayer."

Then she started making fun of me. As soon as I was finished praying I got up and left the building. I did not want to listen to her anymore.

Shindala walked out of the building with me. She suggested we check out the camp. Since they were going to organize us into work details, Shindala suggested we find out about the kitchens and the laundry. We knew from experience that they were the best places to work. Shindala had a small gold ring on her. She was going to use it to get a job in one of those places.

As long as we stayed in the camp we were allowed to wander around. I saw a commotion in front of one of the barracks nearby so I wandered over. In front of the barracks I found one of the "Lageraeltestes" selecting women for work details.

I heard her select some of the women for work in the laundry. I walked up to her and stood in front of her. She looked at me and asked me what I wanted. I told her I wanted to work in the laundry. She said, "I have enough. I don't need anymore."

She lined up the women she had selected and marched them to the other side of the camp. The barracks on that side of the camp were for the SS. One of the buildings housed the SS kitchen and their laundry.

I followed them across the camp. When they got to the other side, they were divided up into groups for the different jobs, and shown to Drexler. Drexler was now one of the SS camp leaders. She was one of the worst Lagerführers in Auschwitz. She was the one that beat me when I was late for an Appel.

Some of the girls were assigned to the kitchens. Some to the laundry and some to cleaning the toilets. I walk up to Drexler and stood next to her. She looked at me and asked, "What do you want?"

I told her that I had worked in Auschwitz in the laundry and that the SS women there were very happy with my work. I told her that I wished to work in the laundry.

I knew that in the laundry I would have it the best. It would be warm in there, and the work wouldn't be that hard. And since it was in the same building as the kitchen I would be able to get some extra food.

Standing next to Drexler was my old "Blockaelteste" from Auschwitz, Etta Locks. Etta was one of the women picked by the Lagerführer for one of her details. She turned to her and saaid that it was true that my work in the laundry in Auschwitz was very good. Why she lied to help me I don't know, but the Lagerführer relented and told me to join the group assigned to the laundry.

I don't know what happened to Etta Locks at the end of the war. When the Russians came into the camp some of the Russian inmates pointed out the collaborators among the other inmates. Because of her work as a "Blockaelteste" in Auschwitz she was pointed out and taken into custody.

From a distance Shindala watched all of this. As I went to stand with the other women from the laundry I saw Shindala gesture to me as if saying what should she do. I motioned to her to do as I did. The Lagerführer wasn't hitting anyone, so she should try. Shindala came over and asked to also be assigned to the laundry. The Lagerführer just nodded okay, and told her to stand with me.

Drexler's behavior in this camp was a lot different than it was in Auschwitz. Since she knew that the end was near I think she thought about how she would be treated by the victors.

Our group and the other women who were assigned work in the kitchens and the toilets were housed together in one barracks. Our rations were now 2 quarts of soup and 2 pieces of bread a day. A few days later the other women, who came with me from Ravensbrück, were assigned work in the airplane factory. They were all housed together in a group of barracks at the other end of the camp.

Some of the other girls in the laundry with me were Shindala, Chesha Koplowitz and Sonia. Chesha was from Lodz. Sonia shared a bunk with me in Neustadt. Today Sonia lives in Arizona.

Our work in the laundry gave us access to extra food and the only hot water in the camp. The laundry and the kitchen were in the same building. The girls who worked in the kitchen were searched after work so they could not smuggle out any food. The girls from the laundry had to go to get wood to heat the large pots of water that we did our cleaning in. The wood pile was near the entrance to the kitchen. We arranged with the kitchen staff that when we went for wood they would slip us some food. We were not searched when we left work so we were able to bring the food back to our barracks. Then it was shared between the two groups.

Since it was still winter, only by coming to the laundry were the girls able to get some warm water. This way they were at least able to wash themselves, even if it was just their hands and faces and maybe their heads. All day in small groups the girls sneaked over to the laundry. They would come to the window and call for some water. We would make sure nobody was looking and hand them a pot of hot water and a little bit of soap.

Not far from our camp was a men's camp called Neuengamme. The other women would meet some of the men from that camp while they worked in the airplane factory. Every time inmates from the two camps met they would list the names of the other people in their camps. That was how I found out that a cousin and an in-law of mine were in Neuengamme. The Germans killed them before they were liberated. They were among the inmates that the Germans put on a ship and sunk in the river Elbe right before Neuengamme was liberated.

One day there was a rumor that our camp was going to be evacuated. After our last experience it caused a great deal of panic. It was late March, but where we were it was still very cold. On the day I heard the rumor I went and asked the German who was in charge of the laundry if it was true. He was an older man in his sixties. He was in the regular army, not the SS.

Most of the time he didn't bother with us but would constantly come and go from the laundry. The other girls stood behind me as I asked him if it was true that we were going to be evacuated. He got very agitated. He turned to me and said, "Be quiet. Where can they evacuate us to? From Berlin come the Russians, and from Hamburg come the British. We're surrounded. Where is there for us to go?"

He seemed so broken up by what he told me. I had to fight the urge to jump for joy at the news that we were surrounded. I didn't want him to see my happiness so I turned to the girls behind me and shouted at them in the same way he shouted at me, "Did you hear? It's terrible. We're surrounded. There's no place to evacuate us to."

Fortunately, he immediately walked out of the laundry because as soon as he did we all broke out in uncontrolled laughter. We kissed and hugged and told everyone who came to the kitchen that we were soon to be liberated. But liberation was still a month and a half away.

We still had "Zehl-Appels" in Neustadt. They used the numbers tattooed on our arms for the roll call. I remember standing on the "Appel". This was on the 22nd of April. As we stood there an airplane flew very low over the camp. I could see the face of the pilot as he looked at us. Everyone said it was a British plane, and we were being photographed.

The next day was Hitler's birthday. As a present a large group of planes flew over the nearby airplane factory and destroyed it. The whole woods were set on fire. All around us were explosions, and this continued for hours. But in all that time not even a splinter fell into our camp. That's how carefully they bombed the area. Even after the airplanes left there were still explosions as fuel and ammunition blew up.

I was in the laundry when the attack started. From the window the other girls and I watched the planes drop out of the sky. They flew in low and would release their bombs and then fly off again. From all around the camp the Germans fired anti-aircraft guns. A couple of times when we first saw a plane drop out of the sky we thought it was hit and was falling. All of us looking out of the window said at the same time, "Oh", very mournfully. Then when we saw the plane release its bombs and fly off we again in unison said, "Oh." But this time it was a very happy, "Oh."

All the work in the airplane factory stopped after the bombing. A few days later a group of our German guards came into the laundry. They each had civilian clothes in their hands that they wanted us to clean and press. While we were cleaning them the men would talk to us. They said how good they were to the Jews and to the other camp inmates. They talked about other Germans who were the mean ones, but they were all good.

They were also very afraid. You could hear the fear in their voices as they talked about the Russians. They talked about the great disaster that had befallen their country. Listening to them I wanted to grab one of them and shake him and say, "The great disaster that befell your country. You're the ones who started this. Don't you remember?" But I didn't.

When their clothes were ready they had us carefully fold them. Then they had us wrap them in paper so no one could see what they were carrying. With their packages under their arms they went to the door. They carefully peeked outside to make sure nobody was looking and left the laundry.



© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2001.
All rights reserved.