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My Mother's Journey
Through the Fire


When I arrived in Auschwitz I did not have to go through a selection. Our train load of people came as workers. We were led into the "Sauna" and showered. Then some woman cut off our hair. We looked at each other, at first, not knowing who the other person was . We looked so different. Then they tattooed a number and a triangle on my arm.

My number was 46981.

My arm swelled up around the tattoo. That happened to a lot of us. It was very painful, but in a few days the swelling went down, and the pain stopped.

First, our group was sent to lager "A". We were there for only a short while. Lager "A" was the quarantine section. It also included the hospital. The hospital was called the Rewier. Lager "B" was still being built. When it was done we were sent there. Lager "B" was the Arbeitslager, the work camp. All the working Kommandos (working groups) were housed in Lager "B".

Each lager consisted of many barracks. The barracks were called blocks. The head of each barracks was called the "Blockalteste", which meant block leader. In Auschwitz, many of the "Blockaltestes" were Jews from Slovakia. They were the first Jews that were sent to Auschwitz. They were the labor that built the camp. Tragically, very few of them survived. From among those that did survive the German picked the barracks' leaders and their helpers. Also they were the workers in the camp offices.

Each of the barracks housed between 600 to 700 women. The barracks were divided into 8 to 12 sections. Each section, called a shtouba, or (stube, in German). A woman assigned to it was called a "Stoubova", (stubedienst in German) which really meant a section-servant. One of the "Stoubova's" jobs was to go, daily, with her "Blockalteste" to the kitchen and to the bread counter, bring the food back for the people in the barracks and hand it out.

Also their job was to wake us up for work each morning, and to make sure everything in her section was clean and in order. Our first "Shtoubova" was named Susan. Each barracks also had 2 to 4 girls called "Wachters". They were the night watch. They made sure nothing was stolen during the night. Each "Blockaelteste" also had a secretary to help her out. The secretary, whose job was to write everything down, was called the "Schreiberin". So each barrack had a leader, a secretary, 8 to 12 "Stoubovas" and 2 to 4 "Wachters". Most of these were the girls and women, who had been in Auschwitz the longest and managed, somehow, to survive.

We slept on wooden planks. At first they were bare, but later we were able to add straw. The planks were in three tiers that ran the length of the barracks. They were separated every few feet by wooden posts. The space between the posts were called a "coya". In a "coya" slept 6 to 8 woman.

Two rows of coyas ran along the walls, and a third one ran in the middle of the barrack. The row against one of the walls was divided to make room for the door to the barracks. In front of the door was a space for giving out the food. Next to that was a small room for the "Blockalteste". There were windows on each side of the door, halfway between the door and the end of the barracks.

We were in the part of the Auschwitz complex, called, Birkenau or Auschwitz II. After the war Birkenau became known as a death camp and Auschwitz I, as the work camp.

My lager and my work were in Birkenau. At the beginning I picked leaves, called pokrziwa in Polish. In German they were called brenesel. They burned the skin when we picked them. They were added to the soup that was cooked in the camp. The plants grew on the bottom of ponds that were really just flooded meadows. Sometimes after a big rain, the water was up to our necks when we reached down to pick the leaves.

My first work group was called the 105th Kommando. We were about 150 women divided into three groups of 50. Each group had a Vorarbeiter, (foreman or forewoman) or "Kapo". They were our work leaders. Many of the "Kapos" ordinary criminals. They were known by the black triangles on their clothing. Ours was a German prostitute. She was in charge of our work details. Many of the other "Kapos" were street women from Germany.

Each "Kapo" had one or two Jewish helpers, and above each "Kapo" was an SS overseer. While we were at work, the SS overseer usually stayed in a -- nearby. We were watched over by the "Kapos" and their helpers.

One day, a group of SS men came to watch our kommando at work. They looked like very important SS personal. They wore black uniforms. The camp's SS, usually, wore gray or green uniforms.

One of them started yelling at our Kapo. He said that she was no better then the rest of us. He then pushed her into the water. Ordered her to work with us, and not just watch us.

I noticed something about Birkenau early on. Birkenau was a place where people just disappeared. Many friends disappeared, and when they were gone nobody spoke about them anymore.

I remember seeing a group of young men marching to work every day. They were beautiful young men. They were Russian officers, and they marched with such grace and dignity. Everyone stopped to watch as they went by, but then one day they too, just disappeared.

A friend of mine from Majdanek came to me, in the first few days we were in Birkenau, and told me she was pregnant. She had heard that pregnant woman could get extra food if they registered. She asked me to come with her and pretend to be pregnant, but I told her I didn't trust the Germans. I was sure it was a trick. She went by herself, and within a few days she also disappeared.

After about two months being in Birkenau I was sent to the 103rd Kommando. This was called Kommando "Strassen-bauen". There were 500 women in this kommando. "Strassen-bauen" meant road builders. All 500 women from Kommando "Strassen-bauen" were issued uniforms taken from captured Russian soldiers.

Everyone also had to wear something on their heads, a hat or a kerchief. This was a rule for everyone in the camp. You had to have your head covered all the time. There was a lot of building going on around the camp, especially along the rail line.

For the next 15 months our kommando worked in Birkenau, building a whole city for the SS. We cleared the fields, and built roads, parks and buildings. The buildings were used as hospitals for the wounded, brought in from the Russian front. Also we built a crematorium for the Germans that died in their

Thousands of us died on that kommando.

We were 500 women and 2000 men working on the roads and buildings. Among the men we worked with us were the Volksdeutsch, which meant Germans living in Poland and their descendants. They were the machinists and engineers that oversaw our work. It was with these Germans that we traded.

I started trading after I found the 46 dollars in a skirt. We 500 women were divided into 10 groups of 50. The 10 groups were assigned to different tasks. As one group carried stones another would carry kiss. Kiss was a mixture of sand and small stones.

Whenever we had something to trade we would signal to the Volksdeutschen. They had a small building where they would eat their lunch and store their tools. That's where we had to bring the items to trade and get paid for them. Usually we did this in a group of three women. The "Kapos" would often leave us in the care of their helpers. A few of the helpers were no better than the "Kapos", but most of them would help us if they could. Most of the Kapos' helpers were Jewish girls, and they would help by watching out for the "Kapos" and the SS men. The Volksdeutschen would watch out too, and when it was all clear, we would sneak over and do our trading.

If we were with the group carrying the kies going in one direction we would walk past the group carrying stones walking in the opposite direction. If it was clear, the three of us would quickly join the other group going the other way. In this way we maneuvered our way to the building the Volksdeutschen were in. Sometimes it would take an hour of walking back and forth to get there.

Salla taught me how to deal with these Germans. Before I found the money in the skirt, she had had a gold coin, worth about 20 dollars, that she had sold to them. Salla had borrowed the coin from Shindala.

After I found the money Shindala got to work in the "Blue Affect". "The Blue Affect" was the place, where the items that were taken away from the people who were sent into the gas chambers, were brought. There the items were packed up and sent to Germany. Shindala and the others who worked there would sneak out small items. The girls who worked on the "Ausser Kommandos", the outside kommandos, would take these items and trade them for items we could not get in the camp.

Sometimes a Volksdeutsch would ask us to bring out certain items. Once they asked for silk kerchiefs. I told Shindala to look for them. She brought me some, and I sold them to the Germans. We then divided whatever I got for those kerchiefs.

If we could not get what we wanted from the "Blue Affect" we would go to the women who worked in "Kanada". The warehouse, right near the gas chambers and crematoriums, where the confiscated items were stored first, was named by the prisoners: "Kanada". They would store the items there, before they were sent to the "Blue Affect".

Once on the way back to the camp, word got around that we were going to be searched at the entrance. Everybody started to remove any contraband they were hiding. The entire road, back to camp, was littered with valuables. Hundreds of cigarettes and pieces of food were thrown away. There were eggs and bread and scarves all over the ground. Anything one could want one could just pick up, but nobody did because anyone caught with them was severely beaten. For many, a year's worth of dealing had to be thrown away.

Lots of our trading also took place in the toilets. Mostly food was traded there. One young girl from Greece, named Stella, became my friend there. She was 16 or 17 years old, and terribly skinny. Whenever she had sausage she would trade it for a piece of bread. If by the end of the day I had any food left I sometimes gave it to her. If she still had her sausage I'd tell her to eat it too.

I tried not to take any food back to the barracks with me. If I didn't eat it I tried to trade it for cigarettes or money. Cigarettes or money I could carry in my pockets or in a rag and take to work with me. Food was too big and had to be hidden in the barracks. Any food hidden there, was usually stolen during the day. Lots of fights broke out when we returned from work and someone found their food was gone.

A short time after I found the money, Alla was sent back to Auschwitz. She had no more gold and couldn't get any extra food. Her old friends abandoned her as soon as the gold was gone. I lent her some money to help her start trading. I did owe her for her earlier kindness, and I didn't hold a grudge. I realized that my anger was what got me into Auschwitz to begin with. After 3 or 4 weeks Alla got sick and was taken to the Rewier. I didn't see her again in Birkenau and thought she was taken away after a selection.

In Birkenau our days started at 3 o'clock in the morning. Those who wanted to, could run and get washed. Tea, or sometimes soup, was then given out. We each had our own metal dish and spoon. We always had to carry them with us. By 4 A.M. we had to be out of our barracks and assembled on the Appel-Platz.

The "Zehl-Appel" was a roll call that was held in front of our barracks. There were approximately 60,000 women in Birkenau, at any given time, and had to be counted twice per day. If one person was missing, they started all over again. We would stand there for hours and hours, as we were counted.

On the "Appel" (short for Appel-Platz) everyone was assigned to a row with 9 others. The same ten had to stand together every day. This way if someone was missing they knew right away who it was. After our barracks was counted we didn't have to stand in rows anymore, but the same ten had to stay near each other until we were ordered back into our rows and marched to work. But until then, especially when it turned cold, we would stand huddled together for warmth.

On many days there was a fog in the morning since Auschwitz was in a valley near a river. We would be kept standing on the Appel until the fog lifted for fear that one of us would run away, especially the ones in the "Ausser-Kommandos". Sometimes we waited till 10 o'clock.

On nice days we would go out by the time it started getting light. We got to our work area as soon as it was light enough to work. This way the Germans did not miss out on a minute of the time we could be working.

Until the end of 1943 our Kommando was not allowed to wear shoes, or anything on our feet, to work. At the end of November we were given wooden clogs, but they offered no protection from the rain and cold. If one had some rags they could wrap them around their feet. But even with rags, by December, it was so cold that our feet froze as we waited on the Appel.

To fight the cold we had to keep shifting feet. As I stood on one foot I rubbed the other foot on my leg for warmth. When the foot I was standing on couldn't take it anymore I would switch feet and rub that one to warm it up. This went on for hours till we finally got to go to work.

Every day I would scan the sky for evidence that spring was coming. My feet were the first to feel the days getting warmer.

When we were finally marched off to work our "Blockaelteste", or her secretary, would lead us to the camp gate. There we were turned over to SS guards with their trained, vicious dogs. They in turn would lead us to our work.

Even on rainy days we worked: no matter how hard it rained. We worked in the mud and got soaked to the skin. When we returned to our camp we would stand on the Appel in the pouring rain till we were all counted. We would return to our barracks dripping wet. We took off our wet things, hung them up, and got into our bunks to sleep. By 3 o'clock in the morning, when we were awakened, our clothes were still wet. We had to put them on and go out into the night air. Again, we stood for hours on the Appel. This was how many of us got sick, and this was how many of us died.

In Birkenau I got sick from typhus. A lot of us got sick from typhus and from dysentery. With dysentery everything that you ate went right through you.

When I got sick with typhus, many others in the camp were sick with it too. There was a big epidemic of typhus at the time. At our barracks we laid around like fallen logs. The Rewier was full of people. Just feeling sick couldn't get you into the Rewier. You had to have a high fever at least. Outside the Rewier the dead were stacked like firewood.

I was so sick that I saw wheels turning before my eyes. I could not stand most of the time. But no matter how sick I was, I was more afraid to go to the Rewier. There, I was sure they would send me straight to the gas chamber.

Eventually, I got so sick that I thought I will die. At times, we were jealous of those who died naturally but we were very afraid of being sent to the gas chambers. I don't know why, but even when I hoped I would die, I was afraid of going to the gas chamber. A lot of the girls died in our barracks. Some took their lives by grabbing the high voltage, electric wire fence at the edge of the camp, but it was the ones that died in their sleep that we envied. I hoped that if I had to go to the Rewier I would be lucky enough to just die peacefully as I lay my head down to sleep.

The day after I got sick the "Blockaelteste" and her secretary took 25 to 30 of us over to the Rewier. At the Rewier we were turned away because they were too full and had no place to put us. Our "Blockaelteste" was told to take us to Block 25 in lager "A".

Nobody ever returned from lager "A"s Block 25. The only people who left Block 25 were taken right to the crematoriums. Walking to Block 25 I fell down. I didn't fall down from being ill but from fear. Here I felt I was looking death in the face, and I was scared.

For the longest time, in the camps, I acted the hero. Whenever others would despair I would talk them into having hope. I would always tell others not to be afraid, but on the way to Block 25 I lost all my nerve. Some of the other girls, who were as sick as I was, helped me get to my feet and I continued walking.

As we neared Block 25, the secretary from our barracks came running and calling the name of our "Blockaelteste". The secretary's name was Etichka. I can't remember her last name, but I do remember her as a very good person. Many times she saved my life. Our "Blockalteste's" name was Etta Locks.

When we heard Etichka calling we all stopped and turned around. She came up to us and said to the "Blockaelteste", "Etta turn around with them. I talked the people at the Rewier into letting our girls in. They will put them two or three in a bed if they have to. Only don't take them to Block 25."

We turned around and were led back to the Rewier. There they let us in. The Rewier looked like any other barracks. There was no medicine there, but the food was a little better. If anyone got better it was mostly from the rest they got there.

I stayed in the Rewier for a week. I couldn't keep down the food they gave me, and of course we got no medication, but still most of the girls in our group got better. I had some money left over so I had Salla buy me some fruit.

The first few days in the Rewier there was a very sick young woman in the bed next to me. She wasn't Jewish and had one of the older numbers on her arm. I believe she was a political prisoner. They took away our clothes so you couldn't tell what kind of prisoner one was unless you asked.

Once when she spoke to me I had to lean very close to hear her, but I didn't understand her language. She motioned to me, and to the girl in the bed on the other side of her, to help her sit up. We got her up, but she didn't have the strength to stay up, and soon fell back down on her back.

The woman knew she was going to die soon. She showed us a package she received from home. She kept it under her head like a pillow so no one would steal it. The non-Jewish inmates were allowed to receive such packages. She motioned for me and her other neighbor to take the package when she was dead. We sat there staring at her. I'm ashamed to say, waiting for her to die. We wanted that package.

A few hours later she stopped breathing. I took the package from behind her head and was going to share it with the other girl. As soon as I opened the box the other girls in the room descended on me like locust. Hands started grabbing for the box. As it was being ripped from my hands I reached in and grabbed the first thing I could. It was a large sweet onion. Over the next two days I ate that onion. I'm not sure, but I think eating that onion helped me get over the typhus. Over those two days I first started feeling better.

After about a week I was ordered to leave the Rewier. The nurses said that I was fit enough to return to work. Everyone leaving the Rewier had to go through a selection. I was sure that I wasn't well enough to pass a selection. I would not leave. Whenever someone said it was time to leave, I would begin to cry. The nurses would say to each other that I was lazy and didn't want to return to work. But the real reason I didn't want to leave was because I feared being sent to be gassed.

A day or two later all 25 or 30 of us were signed out of the hospital at the same time. We were sent to the "Sauna".

The "Sauna" was a big brick building. It had only one floor with lots of rooms and lots of corridors. The windows were covered with iron bars. This was the building where they made the selection for work or to be gassed.

We walked into a room that had benches along the wall. The benches were like in a stadium that went higher one row behind the other. The benches took up half the room. The walls were brick, and there were no windows in this room.

We were ordered to undress and sit on the benches. We sat there naked until ordered to line up to be examined by a doctor and a group of SS officers. With the SS was our "Blockaelteste" and her secretary.

As the doctor was about to examine us, in walked the head of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Commandant Rudolf Höss. With him was a woman named Mala Zimetbaum.

Mala Zimetbaum, God rest her soul, was known to us all. Everyone looked up to her, even the Germans. She was a Polish Jew, born in Krakow and grew up in Belgium. It was said that she spoke six languages and was very educated. Because she was so educated the Germans used her as an interpreter. She was taken around to all the offices. I read, after the war, that there was a plaque in her honor on the street where her family home was in Belgium.

Mala was allowed to keep her hair. We had to have ours cut every so often so it wouldn't get too long. She also was dressed better then we were.

She said to the camp commandant, "I can't get any work done because I don't have enough workers. These look like healthy women. They came from Kommando 103. You must send them back to Kommando 103."

The camp commandant looked at us and said, "Are you girls healthy enough to go back to work?"

As if in one voice we said, "Jawohl!" (Yes!)

We said it so loud that some of us almost fell over. I was so weak at the time that if a hair was out of place I would have fallen over.

The commandant stopped the selection and told us all to go back to work. That day Mala Zimetbaum saved my life.

Mala Zimetbaum died for Kiddush Hashem (martyrdom for the glorification and sanctification of God).

Going to work one day, this was in the spring of 1944, we heard that Mala escaped from Auschwitz. It was said that an SS man helped her and her Polish lover to escape. Both of them were dressed up in SS uniforms and sneaked out of the camp. We were very thrilled. A few days later we heard that Mala was caught. At first I didn't believe it. I said that if the Germans had her they would show her to us. I told the others that the Germans were telling us this because they didn't want us to try and escape too.

The next day, as we returned to the camp from work, Mala was standing on a platform at the entrance to the camp, near the "Sauna". The Germans had cut off all of her hair. She once had beautiful hair.

As we filed back into the camp we were ordered to line up in the square. They brought Mala to us. We could see that they were going to make an example of her. An SS man standing in front of Mala started talking to us. He said that we were here to work, and that the Germans had no intention of harming us.

As he was talking Mala gave out a yell and fell to the ground. Someone had given her a blade, and she had cut one of her wrists with it. The German leaned over her and said, "You dumb ass. Why did you do that?"

The German tried to stop the bleeding by grabbing her wrist. With her other hand Mala slapped the German in the face. She hit him so hard that I thought his head would come off.

The German started shouting at some of the girls in the front row. He ordered them to put Mala on a cart and take her to the crematoriums. An SS guard with a dog watched the girls as they pushed the cart towards the crematoriums.

Later that evening one of the girls who went along with the cart told us what had happened along the way. Mala told them why she had escaped. She said that she knew that she could have survived the war. That the Germans respected her. But she could not take it anymore. She could not stand idly by as the Germans killed the Jews by the hundreds of thousands.

She had seen the gassing of women and children. She wanted to get out and tell the world what was happening here. She didn't know if the world knew that the Germans were killing all the Jews. She tried to get to a radio station and broadcast a message to the world.

The German walking with them told her to be quiet. She turned to him and said, "Soon I'll be quiet, but the ones that live will not be quiet. They will tell the world what you Germans did here in Auschwitz."

Mala died on the way to the crematorium. The young men who worked there, the Sonderkommandos, were told of her coming. They prepared her, with honors, for the crematorium. The girls stood there crying as they burned her body. Mala's Polish lover, who was also caught, was hung in the men's camp.


© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2001.
All rights reserved.