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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


The 1st of May started like so many other days. Around mid-day the girls and I were taking a break. We had just gotten a large piece of cheese from the kitchen, and I was cutting it up into equal parts for us to share. One of the girls who worked with us in the laundry, Cesha Koplowicz, walked in and said to me, "Mala, if I tell you some good news what would you give me?"

I said to her, "If it's really good news I'll give you my piece of cheese."

Cesha said, "The Germans have hung out a white flag."

I said, "That means they've surrendered, and the war is over."

We ran outside and looked around, but there was no white flag. We returned to the laundry. Cesha lost out on the piece of cheese, and I ate it.

An hour later we looked outside, and we saw a white flag hanging from the SS barracks. A few minutes later they took it back in. This went on all day. They didn't know what to do.

The camp commandant announced that he had gotten an order from Berlin to liquidate the camp and its inhabitants. But he said that he had no intention of hurting any of us or of destroying the camp. He was going to disregard the order.

The next morning we went to work as usual. As we were working a friend of mine named Noska Dadowich, she was from Paris, came into the laundry. She looked at us in amazement and asked, "You're still working? The Germans left during the night. There is nobody guarding the camp. Why are you working?"

We walked out of the laundry and looked at the gate and the guard towers. The sentries were gone. The guard towers were empty. The gate was locked, and the fence surrounding the camp was still electrified. So we were still trapped inside, but the SS were gone.

The moment we realized we were free our thoughts turned to food. Next to the laundry was a storage room. There the SS kept Red Cross packages that they hadn't distributed to the inmates. There was a locked door between the laundry and that store room. Above the door was a transom. We knew what was in that room and that there was food in those packages. Often we would talk about pushing Shindala through the transom to get at the packages. Shindala was the smallest among us.

Now that we had the chance, we rushed back into the laundry and forced open the transom. We lifted Shindala through the transom and lowered her to the floor of the storage room. She ran around the room and kept throwing the packages up to us through the transom.

A group of Russian women had the same idea. Just before Shindala could give us the last few packages they broke through a door on the other side of the store room. They looked around and saw that most of the packages were gone. They saw Shindala standing at the other door and our hands reaching for her through the transom. They started screaming and running at her. We got her back through the transom just before the Russian women got their hands on her.

They started banging on the door under the transom, threatening to break it down if we didn't give them the packages. I quickly filled a large pot of steaming hot water. I poked my head through the transom and threatened to pour the hot water on them if they didn't get away from the door. That scared them, and they left with the few packages that we didn't get.

Here we were, free. If we would have thought about it we would not have had to fight over food. There would now be enough for everyone. But after years of thinking about nothing else but getting and hiding food that's the first thing we did.

Others did it too. After the war a cousin of mine told me about the time his camp was liberated. A friend of his, who was an Orthodox Jew, left the camp as soon as the Germans abandoned it. His friend ran into the nearby town. An hour later he came walking back into the camp dragging half a pig. My cousin asked him why he was dragging a pig now that they were liberated. His friend stopped, thought a second, shrugged his shoulders and dropped the pig. Without thinking he too couldn't pass up some extra food.

Near our camp was a French prisoner-of-war camp. Their camp had also been abandoned by the Germans on the same day. Some of the French came to our camp, broke open the gate, and shut off the electricity to the fence.

At first I was afraid to leave the camp. Some of the other women did, but I feared the Germans might turn around and come back. If they caught anyone outside the camp I was afraid they would kill them. So instead of leaving the camp I went to check out the SS barracks. Some of the other girls came with me, and we decided to move into a section of the SS barracks.

Later in the day a group of us got up the courage to go outside of the camp. As we walked out the gate my heart was pounding. I walked over to the edge of the road and lay down in the grass. It felt so good. I had almost forgotten what grass smelled like. What it felt like in my hands. What it felt like to just lie in it.

Lying there outside of the camp, thoughts of my family came to me. I hadn't thought about them for awhile. Was my husband alive? My child? My parents, sisters and brothers? I didn't know. But I had seen how big the destruction was, and I feared that I was all that was left of all that I had known from before the war. I started to cry. I looked at the other girls, and some of them started crying too.

After awhile we got up and took a walk through the woods that surrounded the camp. It was spring, and it was a beautiful day.

We came to a road at the edge of the forest. It was the road that ran between Berlin and Hamburg. The road was full of fleeing Germans heading toward Hamburg. Full of people, some on horses, some in cars and on wagons. Many just walking. All were weighed down with bedding, children and other belongings. A line of moving people that stretched endlessly in both directions.

A group of SS men were stopped in front of us. I recognized them by their uniforms. They were standing around a car parked by the side of the road. Some of the men were on horseback. They were talking among themselves trying to decide which way to go. They were unarmed and their uniforms were a mess.

We went over to them and I asked, "Where are you all running to?"

One of them answered back, "Don't you know? From Berlin come the Russians, and from Hamburg, the British. We're running to the British."

I said, "Why? So what if the Russians come?"

He looked at me and said , "Don't you know?"

Then he made a motion with his index finger across his throat.

I told the girls that we should return to the camp. I said if these people saw a smile on our faces they might do us harm. So we returned to the camp and to the SS barracks.

That same day near our camp, the British and the Russian armies met. Also on that day the first Russian soldiers entered our camp.

The very first Russian soldiers I saw were two officers. They were tall and very handsome. Later in the day more Russians came to the camp. Some of them tried to get friendly with the women inmates. The young soldiers started behaving badly. One of the girls was molested by them. Most of the time I stayed near the barracks to avoid them.

The first thing the Russians did was round up and imprison anyone who was a "Kapo" or "Blockalteste" in any of the camps. Not just here in Neustadt but in any of our former camps too. The Russian woman prisoners went around the camp with the soldiers pointing them out. They also encouraged the other inmates to point them out as well. All the ones who had important jobs in Auschwitz were pointed out to the Russians and arrested.

On the way back home, to Poland, after we were liberated, we found this group of women that the Russians had arrested, in a prison camp. Some of them begged us to stop and tell the Russians that they weren't too bad to us. We just kept on going.

Another thing the Russians did when they first came into the camp was tell us that the inmates had 24 hours to take revenge on the Germans. I went with a group of women and a Russian soldier to a German's house outside of the camp. It was a poor house. The first one we came to in town. The rich houses were abandoned anyway.

We walked in and sitting by a table were two old people and a young child in a carriage. They were wearing pins that said that they were supporters of Rosa Luxemburg. Rosa Luxemburg was one of the leaders of the German Communist party in Germany after the First World War. Luxemburg ran against Hitler in the election that brought the Nazi party to power.

The Russian soldier took out his gun and asked which one of us wanted it. The old couple began to cry and beg in German. They said they never wanted Hitler and that they never hurt anyone. None of us could take his gun.

I started to cry too and ran out of the house. I couldn't kill an old person or a child. I knew that the Germans had killed our old people and our children, but I could not do it. None of us women could. I don't know what would have happened if we had found other Germans other than old people or children. We all just returned to the camp.

Other groups of girls also went with soldiers to other houses. But they only found old people and children too. Nobody did any shooting that I knew of.

In the evening a tall Russian officer walked into our room in the SS barracks. One of our girls, her name was Sonia, spoke Russian very well. He told her that he hadn't slept in days and would just like to sleep for a few hours. He asked us to wake him before the morning. He slept so hard that a few times we tried to wake him, but we couldn't.

He slept for 24 hours. When we finally woke him and told him the time, he quickly got up and ran out of the room. Before he left he said he would be back in a few hours, and would we please prepare a meal for him.

When he returned he was drunk. He burst through the door. He stood in the doorway a moment. Then he drew his pistol and waved it at us. We all ran screaming and hid where we could. After a few seconds he put his gun down and said, "Come out, I won't hurt you."

Sonia asked him why he threatened us. He said that he'd been talking to some of the Russian inmates from the camp. They told him that the Jews were the ones who ran the gas chambers and crematoriums. That the Jews had killed his fellow Russians.

Sonia told him it was true. That Jews did work at the gas chambers and crematoriums, but the Germans forced them to work there. That both Jews and Russians were killed in the gas chambers. In the end the Jews who worked there were also killed in the same way.

He said he already knew that but wanted to hear it from us. He said he didn't hold us responsible.

I got very angry at all of this. To be blamed now, for all that had happened was too much for me. I told the other girls that I was going home. I was not going to be a prisoner any longer.

Noska Dauvadobich lived in Paris before the war. She grew up in Boleslawiec and was a distant cousin of Alter's. We found each other in Auschwitz once, and again in Neustadt. She worked in the airplane factory before the bombing.

Noska now was organizing the group of French inmates. They were leaving the next day for home. She pleaded with me to go with her. France was free. It wasn't under the Russians. We had heard stories of what it was like in Poland. Everything was destroyed. There was no food. The Poles weren't welcoming returning Jews. There were new masters in Poland now, and we were seeing what they were like.

Noska suggested I stay in Paris until things got better in Poland before returning home, but I couldn't wait. Before I left home my father told me that when the war ended, no matter where I was, I was to return home. He told this to all of his children. I had to learn the fate of my family. Mostly I had to find my child.

Seven of us Jewish women got together and made plans to leave the next day for Poland. Sonia had gotten to know a Russian officer. He wanted her to remain with him. She too wanted to find out what had happened to her family and told him she must go.

The next morning the seven of us got together and were ready to set out for home. With me were Shindala, Rekinka, Sonia, Shasha, Esterka and Hanka. Esterka and Hanka were sisters.

We were ready to set out on foot. There was no other way to travel. The trains were not running yet. The group of French women were also ready to leave. The French army made a truck available to them. I went over and said good-bye to Noska. She asked me one more time to come with her. I said, "No," and we kissed each other good-bye. She handed me a note with an address and told me to write. For years after the war, we would send each other presents and greetings on the holidays.

As we were about to leave, Sonia's Russian officer came over to us leading a horse and wagon. He asked Sonia once again to say with him, but she said, "No." He said he was sorry she wouldn't stay, but he understood. He had gotten the wagon for us to make our trip easier. It was a four wheeled wagon pulled by one horse. We loaded it up with the few things we had and with some extra food. There was room in the wagon for all seven of us. We got in, and on the morning of the 4th of May we set out for home.



© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2001.
All rights reserved.