Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | Chapter 7
Chapter 8 | Chapter 9 | Chapter 10 | Chapter 11 | Chapter 12 | Chapter 13 | Chapter 14

My Mother's Journey
Through the Fire


I found myself next to a window. It was the best place to be in that freight car. The rest of the car was dark, even during the day, and pitch black during the night. Sometimes there were fights over places near the window.

Most of us were standing up the whole way. We were packed in so tight that you could remain standing even if you fell asleep. A few people fainted or dropped from exhaustion. But the floor was a dangerous place, and most of those that fell down never got up again.

After travelling for a short while, one of the young men told us that he was with the partisans. He moved over to a small opening in the corner of the freight car and looked out. He said, we should watch which way the train will turn.

"If the train turns onto the track to Treblinka we'll wait till night, break out of the cars, and make a run for it," he said. "Because we'll be going to certain death anyway. Should the train turn onto the track to Lublin it will mean we're going to a camp. Then everyone should remain in the cars."

We all stayed quiet in the car waiting for the word on the direction. After a few hours, after it was already night, the young man announced we were on the tracks to Lublin.

The train stopped and started frequently. We were given no food or drink during the trip. The pack of dried bread I had with me I shared, but it did not last long. We were never allowed out to relieve ourselves in proper places. The stench in the car soon became unbearable.

During the stops people in the cars would beg for food or water. They would hold out rings to passersby trying to exchange them for a few drops of water. Some Poles did run over with bottles of water in exchange for the rings.

Normally the trip to Lublin took no more than a few hours. This trip took over two days. We were packed in that cattle car the whole time. Finally we arrived at our destination and the doors were opened. The SS guards shouted, "Alles heraus," which meant everybody out. We were hurried out of the cars and into the nearby, wooden barracks.

For a whole week the trains from Warsaw would come. Each train would unload thousands of people from the ghetto. You could always tell who was from Warsaw just by looking at them. The people from there were always incredibly pale.

As we were being unloaded out of the cars in Lublin, we were helped by young men who were prisoners of war from the Polish army. They told us that families would be sent to the work camps at Povnatov and Trebniky and that we should get together, men and women, and sign up as married couples. Anyone who remained as a single person would be sent out of the camp and to a certain death.

A couple of young men suggested that I go with them and register as husband and wife. But I said, "No," to all of them. I didn't want to register as anyone's wife. I was already married and certain that my husband was still alive. Also, since my daughter wasn't with me anymore I didn't really care if I lived or died.

There was a man I knew, named Abraham. Before he came to Lublin, he lived in the same house where I did in Warsaw. He was one of the men who got out of the ghetto and into a work camp near Warsaw. A few weeks before we arrived his whole camp was brought to Lublin. He wanted to help me stay in the camp. He was going to bribe some of the officials to let me remain there. I didn't let him. I didn't want be saved that way. The only hope I still had in the world was that Alter was still alive. Taking up with another man meant the end of that hope.

After one week we were ordered out of the barracks. Alla also did not register as anyone's wife, and together we walked out of the camp. As I walked through the gate I took off the kerchief my father had given me when I left home. I threw it into a ditch by the side of the road. I said better a Pole should find it than a German take it away from me. SS soldiers guarded us as we walked out of the camp and along a road.

There was an open field, near Lublin. We walked there, I don't remember how long it took. We passed fields surrounded by fences topped with barbed wire. There were men working in these fields. One of the men called out to us and told us we were going to a camp called Majdanek.

Many of us were certain that we were going to die. Some of the people had poison with them and used it. The poison was called sancalya. In English, cyanide, I think. Some even gave it to their children. Also people started throwing away their valuables and tearing up their money. Most of the paper money the people carried was American dollars.

I remember the people in Warsaw always trying to exchange any currency they had for dollars or gold. Everyone was always looking for a way out of the country, and dollars were the best thing to travel with. They considered most other paper currency worthless. I remember walking along that road to Majdanek through ankle deep piles of torn dollars.

Seeing this, upset the Germans greatly. Not the poisoning, I'm sure, but the torn dollars. They brought a woman, who was also from Warsaw, to talk to us. I did not know her, but many of the others did. She had her child with her. She told us that we were not going to die but were going to work. There was even special places for mothers with children and extra food for them. I remember her saying, "All the children will get rolls and milk."

She said it over and over again, "Rolls and milk." This calmed the people down, and they continued to walk to Majdanek.

Before we got to the camp the older people were separated from us and led away. I saw my neighbor from Warsaw, Mrs. Bshostek, and her six children. The Germans sent Mrs. Bshostek and two of her younger children, her 10 and 12 year old daughters, off with the other old people. As they were being led away the oldest daughter and one of her sons left our group and ran after them. We all cried as we watched them walk off huddled together to what we were sure was to be their deaths.

On the way to Majdanek stood a building called the Sauna. It stood by itself. No other building stood around it, only fields. The Sauna looked different from the other buildings around Lublin. It was surrounded by a fence that was topped with barbed wire. At the door to the building stood a big box. It was about 4 feet wide and 6 feet long, and it was full of jewelry and other valuables.

We were told that we would have to give up all of our possessions and clothes but that we could keep our shoes. In the building when we were ordered to take off all our clothes Alla pulled out a bag full of gold pieces. She showed it to me and said, "Mala, what do you think I should do with this?"

I couldn't believe my eyes. I said, "Alla where did you get this?"

She said, "Mala, you're from the provinces. You trust everybody. Why did you think I went dressed the way I did? I had this bag of gold on me the whole time in Warsaw. The way I looked I figured nobody would check if I had any money."

She told me of her father who was a rich jeweler in Warsaw before the war. Before he was taken away he gave a bag of gold to his wife and to all of his children. She didn't want the Germans to get it so she asked me what I thought she should do with it.

I advised her to divide the gold into 4 piles and put them into the tips of our shoes. I thought since they were going to let us keep our shoes, that way we might save some of the gold.

Inside the building they took away our clothes and told us to take off our shoes. Then they sent a few hundred women at a time into a chamber. This chamber, they said, was the showers. It was dark inside. After a while I could see a little better because of a little light that came from some painted over windows. The walls and floor of the chamber were made of smooth gray concrete. There were concrete benches along side the walls. High up on the walls, against the ceiling, were the small windows that were closed. In the chamber, someone said, they could send in gas or water, whichever they wanted. I was sure this was my end and that I was in the gas chamber. But to my surprise only water came out of the shower heads.

In the early 1970s I was called to testify at the German consulate in New York. The Commandant and some Ukrainian guards from Majdanek had been caught and were being brought to trial. During questioning the German Consul asked me, "Were you ever in the crematorium?"

I answered, "I think if I had been in a crematorium I would not be here today."

The Consul asked me to describe how I came to Majdanek. I told him of the walk from Lublin and coming to the Sauna. He asked me to describe the Sauna inside and out, which I did. After I was done he said, "You were in a crematorium. That building in the field was Majdanek's crematorium."

Until then I did not know for sure that the chamber I was in was indeed a gas chamber.

When we came out of the showers we saw that our clothes were taken away but our shoes remained where we had left them. We were shown a pile of clean clothes. Rags really, and were told to get dressed but quickly. Woman had to wear dresses. Everyone had only one dress. We didn't have time to even straighten our clothes. Some of us didn't have enough time to even get fully dressed as we were chased out of the building. We just barely got our own shoes back as everyone was hurried into the camp at Majdanek.

In the camp we were given numbers that were to be sewn onto our clothes. 25 lashes was the punishment if the number fell off.

We were assigned to barracks. The barracks were wooden buildings called blocks. Each block had a few hundred women in it. We were on the 4th or 5th field in Majdanek, I don't remember which. The camp was divided into 5 fields. One field was for the women and the rest for the men.

I remember some men coming over to the fence between the fields and asking us where we were from. Majdanek was situated near Lublin, and if there were women from around Lublin among us. People were always trying to find, or learn the fate of, someone they knew.

I remember the food there as being better than in the other camps. I remember the soup that was given out once a day. The soup usually had a piece of sausage or potato in it. If you were among the first to get the soup there was enough to fill you up. We were each allowed only one bowl, never more. If you were among the people who worked far away from where the soup was given out, sometimes you didn't get any. Also because of Alla's gold, we were able to buy extra food on the camp's black market, so in Majdanek I did not go hungry.

At first I worked in the camp's vegetable garden. The SS who watched over us were very mean. One of the Germans was named Brigitta. For no reason at all she would start beating us, individually. The beatings were 50 lashes on our bare backs. Many people ended up in the hospital after such a beating.

We sometimes came into contact with some Poles who lived nearby and worked in the camp. We were able to trade with them for extra food as long as the Germans didn't find out. If the Germans found anything of value on us it was taken away. There was a rule against having any money or gold. If anyone was found with them they were beaten right away, sometimes even executed.

Once Alla gave me a 5 or 10 ruble gold piece. It was a gold piece from Russia from before the revolution. It had the Czar's image on one side and on the other it said 5 or 10 rubles. But we figured value in dollars, and these gold pieces were very valuable. They were 22k gold, which was more gold than other gold pieces the same size. I traded it for some long breads and some eggs. I had to do it, but the whole time I remember thinking how dangerous it was.

One time I was working on a building detail. I was wearing a sweater with two breast pockets. In one pocket I had a gold piece. In my hands I was carrying 3 or 4 bricks. Brigitta, the brute, came close to me and put her hand in the pocket that had nothing in it. She didn't find anything, but still she hit me in the face with her fist. She hit me so hard that my nose started bleeding. If she had found the gold piece in the other pocket she certainly would have beaten me more or even killed me. Any black market trading was severely punished.

Shindala Lacher, who I knew in Warsaw as a friend of Sala's, became my close friend in Majdanek. Many years after the war she testified against Brigitta in a war crimes trial.

Later, I was lucky to get work on a detail that was digging ditches for the sewers that ran between the barracks. I volunteered for this work because it put me near where the food was given out. The people who had to come far for food would often get very little or none at all. The people who got there last would fight over the soup and often spill the last of it. Watching it, I would laugh and cry at the same time, seeing people act like animals. But hunger made them act this way.

After a few days in Majdanek, Alla found some old school friends from Warsaw, from before the war. I didn't like her friends and thought they were just using her for her money. After awhile Alla spent most of her time with her friends.

Once when I was standing in line for food Alla handed me a small pack of gold. She said she was going to get washed and would get it back when she returned. One of the Polish prisoners, who was dishing out the soup, saw her hand me something. Her name was Zosia. When I got to the soup Zosia told me to stand aside and wait for her.

After the soup was all given out she told me to follow her into the barracks. There she told me to give her what Alla gave me.. I pretended to not know what she was talking about. She said, "If you don't give it to me I'll call over one of the SS guards, and he'll check to see what you have on you."

I had no choice but to give her the pack of gold..

When Alla returned I told her she hadn't been careful enough when she gave me the gold. I told her what had happened between Zosia and me. Alla told me to come with her. Together we approached Zosia. Alla told her to give it back or she would tell the SS about the gold. It was also against the rules for the Polish prisoners to have any gold. The two of them came to an agreement and decided to split the pack of gold. I did not spend much time with Alla after that.

Two weeks after I came to Majdanek, Sala and Genia arrived there too. They had lived through the worst of the uprising in the Warsaw ghetto and had a lot to tell. I was happy to see them. Yagha Gold had come to Lublin with them. From Lublin she tried to escape but was shot and killed.

In Majdanek I also found a good friend of mine from Warsaw. We both lived at Muranowska 38 and worked together in Werterfassung. Her name was Rutta Bucksner. I will always remember her. She was young and pretty, with dark hair. Her husband was just grabbed on a street in the ghetto and taken away. Rutta never knew where he was taken or what happened to him.

Rutta had a six year old daughter that lived with her in Warsaw. A neighbor watched her daughter while we were at work.

She was always very much afraid. She was envious of me that I didn't have my child with me anymore. Once, in Warsaw, I said to her, "Rutta, I'm sure you and your daughter will survive the war."

She looked at me and said, "I don't feel that we will. I feel that I will die with my child."

"Rutta don't talk like that," I said.

She and her daughter came to Lublin at the same time that I did. We didn't see each other there. In Lublin the Germans asked people about any skills they had. They were looking for people who knew how to make brushes. In Warsaw one of the big factories made brushes. Rutta said that she knew how and she was sent away to work. Her daughter was separated from her and sent to Majdanek. A few days after we got to Majdanek a friend saw Rutta's daughter at the barracks where the children were.

Two weeks later Rutta also came to Majdanek. She told us that the Germans tested the people to see if they really knew how to make brushes, and she had failed. So they sent her to Majdanek.

She could have gone and lived with her daughter. Instead she chose to live in the barracks where I was living. Every morning she would go and see her daughter. She would help her get dressed and washed. Then she would go to work with the women of our barracks. When she could she would bring her daughter some extra food. Rutta would visit her every day, but she was afraid to live with her.

A few weeks later, early in the morning, Rutta went to see her child. Suddenly the SS surrounded the barracks where the mothers and children were living. Rutta was caught in the barracks with her daughter. The SS took them all away to the gassed. The thing that Rutta feared would happen, happened.

I didn't stay long in Majdanek. But I still saw many tragedies. The women were beaten and killed. One girl I saw hanged. She had been caught trying to escape. Before she was hung the "Lagerführer", (camp leader) asked her, loud enough for all to hear, if she was sorry she tried to escape. She screamed out, "No. Because in this camp there is only death and to try to escape is to choose life."

The "Lagerführer" quickly put the rope around her neck and she was hung. Her body was left hanging for 24 hours as a warning to the rest of us.

Every Sunday morning there was a "selekcija"(selection), of those who will be, later, taken to the gas chambers because they were considered no longer fit enough to work. For the Germans if you were not fit to work you were not fit enough to live.

One of the minor reasons could be for "failing" a "selekcija" was to have blisters on your feet. A lot of the girls were taken to the gas chambers because they had blisters. Most of these people had been in the Warsaw ghetto for a long time. There they had very little sun and became very pale. Their feet blistered easily when they started spending so much time in the sun.

Once a young girl came over to me and asked to borrow my boots. She had blisters on her feet. She said to me, "You have very healthy feet. Please lend me your boots till after the "selekcija"."

The boots were high enough to cover up her blisters so they would not be seen while being looked over. When the Germans were taking the Jews out of my town, my father told all of his children to go and have a good pair of shoes made for themselves. He knew that if we were going to go to a work camp we would need a good pair of shoes. I got a pair of boots that laced up the front. That pair of boots I lent to the young girl. After the "selekcija" she returned the boots to me.

I also met a girl who was caught hiding in Germany with a Polish pass. She was caught because she never wrote or received any letters from anyone. This made the people, she was staying with, suspicious.

I stayed in Majdanek for about 10 weeks, until the middle of July. At that time people were saying that the Germans were going to take us to another "Arbeitslager" in Germany. We knew that they were going to take only the healthiest among us. Everyone wanted to be selected for this work camp.

I wanted to leave because of Alla. She spent now all of her time with her other friends. At times she treated me with obvious charity, and I didn't like it. Once she walked by me with her friends and threw me a piece of bread. They all laughed.

The first time I went through the selection for the work camp I was not chosen. You would know if you were picked when the doctor indicated to the scribe standing next to him to write down your number. Our numbers were on our clothes.

I ran around the building and tried to make myself look better. I pinched my cheeks to make them rosy. Some of the other women used a reddish stain, from paper that was used to darken coffee, to redden their cheeks. Then I got back into line and again went through the selection. The second time I succeeded.

Before I left Majdanek Alla came over to say good-bye. I saw her again, during the duration of the war, in Auschwitz. She arrived in Auschwitz a few weeks after I did. A few days later, she became ill, with malaria. The Germans sent her and a number of other malaria patients back to Majdanek, but I didn't know this. As soon as I heard she was taken away I considered her dead. I saw her one more time, after the war, in Warsaw. I will tell more about that -- later.

I thought, I was very lucky to be leaving Majdanek. The Germans gathered us together and marched us to the train tracks. We were loaded into freight cars.

When I was brought to Majdanek we were packed into the cars so tightly that one would not have fallen down even if they had fallen asleep. Then we were over 100 people to a car. In comparison to that trip, on this one we traveled in style. We were only 45 to 50 people in each freight car. Our car was all women. On top of each car sat an SS soldier with a gun.

After traveling awhile, word spread among us that our destination was Auschwitz. When I heard the word Auschwitz a lump formed in my throat. I remembered hearing the name Auschwitz when I was still at home. It was to Auschwitz where the Germans sent the officers of the Polish army. Those that returned home -- came back as ashes.


© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2001.
All rights reserved.