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


The week I lay in the Rewier, sick with typhus, I learned that my two younger sisters were also here, in Auschwitz. For months both Yenta and Sara were near me in Birkenau, and I did not know about it.

As I lay in the hospital a woman laying in a bed near me looked over and asked, "Where do I know you from? Your face looks so familiar."

I started naming places. Warsaw. Majdanek. I didn't think to name my home town. "No," she said. She had never been to any of those places.

I did not recognize her, but I asked her where she had come from. She said she came from a camp in Inowroclaw. I said, "My two sisters are in that camp."

She asked me their names and I said, "Yenta and Sara Liss."

Her eyes widened and she said, "That's why you look so familiar. You and your sisters look so alike. But don't you know, they are here in Birkenau for 3 or 4 months already? We came together from Inowroclaw."

I, of course, didn't know that. As soon as she told me my sisters were there I jumped out of bed, but I was too weak to go very far, and the nurses made me lay back down.

This woman was from a town near my home called Wieruszow. At the same time as the Germans were rounding up Jews from our town they were also rounding them up in Wieruszow. She was sent to Inowroclaw at the same time as my sisters.

She got better a few days before I did and was released from the hospital. She told my sisters about me. That same day Yenta and a cousin of ours, Fedgda Rissel, came to see me. Fedgda Rissel was our first cousin. She was my mother's sister's daughter, and she was 5 years younger than I.

We hugged and kissed and cried. They both looked so thin. We told each other our stories. Everyone in the Rewier came to listen and to cry.

They were also in lager "B" but were not yet assigned to a kommando. My youngest sister, Sara, couldn't come to visit me in the Rewier. I was going to see her when I got better, but even when I was released from the hospital I wasn't well enough to go see her. After I was released from the hospital and saved by Mala Zimetbaum in the "Sauna", I was sent to the quarantine barracks.

I was in quarantine for about a week. One day while I was there I went outside and stood along the fence that surrounded the quarantine barracks. The quarantine barracks were next to the barracks where the bread was distributed. I stood looking at the girls lined up for bread, and there I saw my sister Sara.

I hardly recognized her. She had gotten so thin. She looked half as big as she did at home. I called her name, and she ran over. We kissed and held hands through the fence. All the other girls gathered around us as we tried to talk. We hadn't seen each other for over a year and a half. We had a lot to say to each other, but I could not stop crying. Every time she asked about our parents or about Nunyala I just started crying again.

In a short while she had to go. So much happened after that, that we never had a chance to talk much again.

By the time I got better my sister Yenta got sick. She had dysentery. I spent all I had to get her some extra bread. She was suppose to burn the bread to darken it some before eating it. It was said that burnt bread was good for dysentery, but later I learned that she was so hungry that she ate the bread as soon as I left. She could not even wait to burn it some. Every day she got weaker and weaker, and in a few days she died.

Sara lived for a few weeks after Yenta died. She took our sister's death very hard. Yenta was also my sister, and I grieved for her greatly, but Sara was very close to her and never got over her death.

Since they were taken from our home, they had been together in the camp before coming to Auschwitz. Sara worked as a maid to the wife of the Lagerführer. The Lagerführer was the head of the camp. He had five children, and every day he would send Sara to his house to help his wife. His children got very close to Sara. When the Germans ordered all the inmates from the camp sent to Auschwitz the Lagerführer told her that she wouldn't have to go. That he would hide her in his house so she could stay with his family.

Sara told him that she would stay if he would also hide her sister Yenta there too. But he could not hide two of them. One, he could get away with, but if caught hiding two Jews he would have been sent to the Eastern front. The Germans always feared being sent to the Eastern front. So Sara came to Auschwitz rather then be separated from her older sister.

Sara also got sick from dysentery. Again I ran around and got her bread and some soup. I would get up an hour before everyone else and run to the kitchens to get something warm for her. I would hide outside the kitchen and when nobody was looking I would run inside and dip my bowl into a large pot of hot soup. I then ran all the way to my sister's barracks, spilling half the soup along the way, just to bring something warm to my sister.

She got over the dysentery, but right away there was a selection for her barracks and she did not pass it. When I heard she was better I went to see her, but by the time I got to her barracks she had already been taken to be gassed.

This was around Christmas time, 1943. For Christmas the Germans gave everyone a whole loaf of bread. When I came into Sara's barracks to see her, a friend of hers gave me her bread. Sara asked her to give it to me and to say good-bye.

That's how I lost my two dear younger sisters in Auschwitz.

At the time my sisters and cousin Rissel were taken from our home, thirty other young women from our town were also taken. That was on the 15th of May, 1942. A number of them were in the same barracks as my sisters.

When I was sick in the Rewier I had told my sister Yenta that when I was well enough I'd come over to their barracks and see them all. But by the time I got well there were only a few of them still there. Some were in the Rewier. Most had already died. The only ones still there were Hinda Jusefowitz and Rose Etta Pinkus. Hinda survived the war, and today she lives in Cleveland, Ohio.

Rose Etta Pinkus was one of those girls who had a bad reputation at home, but my sisters told me she was very good to them in the other camp. She worked as a cook in Inowroclaw and was able to steal some extra food. She brought the food back to their barracks and shared it with my sisters and the other girls, never asking payment for any of it.

Rose Etta was one of the few in their barracks who was given a job. She worked in the one of the camp factories called the Weberei. (clothing mill.)

One day when I came back into my barrack after work, I found Rose Etta standing in middle of the barrack. Her face was black as coal, and she was crying. I asked her what was wrong. She said that she was sent to our barracks as punishment. For doing a poor job in the Weberei she now had to work in the "Ausser Kommando".

I told her not to cry. I was doing very well with my dealings and told her I'd take care of her. She had been good to my sisters, and I was going to repay her kindness. I told the "Blockalteste" to put her near me, and she did. For the rest of the time in Auschwitz I looked after her as if she were my sister. She helped me with my trading and I shared my extra food with her. If not for me, Rose Etta would have died in Auschwitz.

As it turned out, Rose Etta survived the war but came to a bad end anyway. She was killed in our home town after the liberation by the "Armja Krajowa", the Polish Home Army.

One of the people who helped me and Rose Etta survive was Wolf Rosenblatt. He was the grandson of our town's Shoichet (ritual slaughterer.) Today Wolf lives in Israel.

Wolf worked in one of the first kommandos that built Auschwitz. We never saw him in the camp, but whenever he could, he sent us some food. He would send it over with a man who worked with us on the "Ausser Kommando".

That winter I bribed my way into a job in the Weberei, where Rose Etta had worked. It was not the best indoor kommando, but it was the best I could do since it was already winter. The Weberei was a clothing mill, but our work was to rip rags into strips. We each had a quota of rags to rip and this took all day.

I worked there for 2 or 3 weeks, but it was a terrible job. The dust from tearing the rags made it hard to breath. Also since I couldn't do any trading there I could not get anything extra to eat. So, on purpose, I didn't fill my quota, and as punishment I was sent back to the "Ausser Kommando".

Not one lager was any good. Not one place under the Germans was good, but Birkenau was the worst. Most of my time there, I lived in lager "B", Block 27. The back section of lager "B" were Blocks 25, 26 and 27. Block 27 was nearest to the fence.

In Block 27 I shared a small section, what we called a coya, with 8 or 9 other women. The coya was 3 planks of wood, one on top of the other, that we slept on. The plank I slept on was next to the window. The window was painted over, but I had scratched away a little of the paint in the corner of the window so I could see out. The window looked out on the railroad tracks where the transports came into Birkenau. This section of tracks was called the Rampa, (ramp, where deportees were unloaded and selected.) Beyond the tracks I could see some woods. Past the woods I could see the smoke rising from the crematoriums.

Whenever the transports arrived, a whistle would sound, and we were rushed inside our barracks and kept there. This was called a "blocksperre". The transports came into the camp only a few hundred feet from our barracks. Looking out at the transports was not allowed, but I did.

Out of the window I could see the people being unloaded from the trains. I saw them lined up and made to file past some Germans for a selection. I saw as one group would be taken in the direction of the crematoriums. It was always the larger group.

By the end of 1943 the crematoriums burned day and night. From my bed I could hear the screams from the gas chamber. It was indescribable. I cannot put it into words.

The air hung heavy with the smoke emanating from the five chimneys. Next to the crematoriums fires were always burning. It was said that they were also burning the corpses in large pits next to the crematoriums when the capacity of the crematoriums could not handle the enormous number of corpses. In silhouette I could see people walking in front of the fires. It was a vision of hell.

Toward the evening the sky took on the same color as the fires. Everything took on that color, the sky, the buildings, even the ground. Just before the sunset the red in the sky would deepen to the color of blood.

I imagined the sky bleeding. I imagined the heavens suffering with us. To this day a red sunset reminds me of the bleeding sky of Auschwitz.

I would lie in my bunk and cry. I would ask God why we deserved this? Of all the people in the world why was this our lot? Of all the nations why were we being destroyed?

This was Birkenau. By day we went to work from lager "B". It was an Arbeitslager, and everyone had to go out to work. Often, when we returned from work we would be stopped at the entrance to the camp. Waiting for us would be the "Blockalteste", her secretary, and some Germans We would be led to the "Sauna" for a "selection".

In the "Sauna" we had to get completely undressed. We had to go through a doorway into a room where a German doctor would examine us. Standing next to the doctor was Etichka, the secretary from our block. If you didn't pass the selection he would indicate to the secretary to record your number. Someone whose number was recorded wasn't taken right away. The next day, or the day after that, your number would be called out, and you would be taken away. You would know where you were going. You would know it was the end, but by then most people had already lost the will to live. They would go with a sense of resignation to the lorries that took them to the gas chamber.

At every selection almost half of us would not pass. Each time over 200 women were sent to the gas chamber. Then more women would be added to our kommando bringing us back to 500.

We feared these selections more than anything else. Once, when we came to the "Sauna", we saw trucks outside. We had never seen them there before. We looked at each other and I could see we were all frightened. Someone said that on this day's selection we were all going to be taken. Nobody was to remain from our barracks. It created such a panic that everyone started to run and hide.

I ran into a storage room that was full of bundles of clothing waiting to be deloused. I squeezed myself between some of the bundles, and two or three other girls tried to squeeze themselves next to me. Wherever one person ran others would follow. Like frightened children we would run and try to hide. I grabbed some dirty clothes that were nearby. I saw that the clothes were full of lice, but I was so frightened of the selection that I covered myself with the clothes anyway.

One girl ran and hid in the chimney. Two other girls tried to get in behind her and pushed her up the chimney. The Germans chased after all of us and dragged us out of our hiding places. When the three girls were pulled out of the chimney they were as black as chimney sweeps. The Germans laughed as hard as they could after looking at those three girls.

The Lagerführer then came in and shouted at us and said, "What is going on here? Aren't you healthy enough to work?"

Then we saw there was going to be a selection after all. We started to calm down. We saw that there was still a chance to live. A fifty percent chance to live was better than none. We lined up for the selection.

At that time a lot of us had lice. The Germans were beginning to delouse us and our barracks. At that selection we looked like we had leprosy.

The rumor about all of us going to the gas chamber started because of the lice infestation. To combat the infestation the Germans took a whole barracks of women and sent them to the gas chamber without a selection. They deloused that group's barracks. Then they deloused the women from the next barracks. Those women were moved into the deloused barracks and their old barracks were then deloused. This went on throughout the camp. My group was two barracks away from the group that went to the gas chamber.

This was in the winter at the end of 1943. At that selection the Lagerführer stood there, with a few other Germans, watching the selection. As I passed the doctor I saw him mention to Etichka to record my number.

During a selection a lot of girls would try to get past the doctor as fast as they could. Sometimes the whole row of us would get out of order when someone tried to run past the doctor. Just as Etichka started to write down my number the girl behind me started to run past me. The doctor, saw her running, grabbed her and pushed her back into line. During the commotion I looked at Etichka, and she motioned, with her head for me to quickly leave. She was also a Jewish child and would look for opportunities to help us. I stepped around the doctor as he was pushing the other girl and left the room. Etichka did not write down my number.

There were selections often in Auschwitz. Sometimes we would know about them the day before. If in the evening we heard that the next day there was going to be a selection many of us cried all night.

One night before a selection I dreamed of my grandparents. In the dream they started naming relatives of mine that I had never met, but knew by name. My Grandfather said to me in my dream, "Don't be afraid because your whole family is praying for you. You'll pass the selection."

And it happened that way. The next day's selection I did pass. After that the same dream came to me before another selection. I did not fear that selection because of the dream.

In Auschwitz I would often dream about my home. It's interesting that in that hell many of my dreams were quite pleasant. I would tell everyone that I lived for those dreams. The time I was awake was the real nightmare.

There was an open field between the fence and our barracks. Sometimes the Germans left groups of people there, who just got off a transport, over night. One night I heard that the people in the field were from the Lodz ghetto. This was at the end of the summer in 1944. The Lodz ghetto was being emptied then. I crawled out of my barracks and crawled over to the group. I had to crawl so as not to be seen by the guard. I moved among them asking if anyone was from Boleslawiec. One lady answered that she was from a town nearby and had family in Boleslawiec. I knew her family well, their name was Kasril.

She said she was cold. So I crawled back to my barracks and brought her a blanket. She must have been very tired from the transport so we did not talk. There was nothing to tell them because they all knew about Auschwitz by this time. I returned to my barracks, and by the morning the lady and the rest of the people in the field were gone.

Another time, around September 1944, I heard about another group that had arrived from the Lodz ghetto. I heard, it was a group of women and that they were at the "Sauna". I went over and walked around the edge of the area making sure no Germans saw me. I called to a group of women standing outside the door, asking if anyone was from Wielun or Boleslawiec. A girl, wrapped in a blanket, called out that she was. She turned out to be my cousin Jizka Krzepizka. With her was her younger sister Yenta. They had been sent to work, as seamstresses, in the Lodz ghetto during the last round up of Jews from our home town.

We were only able to talk for a minute or two. They had to go into the "Sauna", and I had to leave quickly. Jizka and Yenta did not remain in Auschwitz, but were sent on to Stuttgart where they worked until the liberation.

So much happened in Auschwitz. I remember a mother and daughter who lived together in the same barracks. They were from Lodz. When they came to take the mother away, because she did not pass a selection, her daughter grabbed on to her and would not let go. I saw them pulled apart by the soldiers who came for the mother. As the mother was led away the daughter had to be held down. They called each other's name over and over. All of us who watched couldn't help but cry.

Another woman was there in our barracks with her two daughters. They all worked together on the 103rd Kommado. At one point, we were working in the gravel quarry, called the "kiesgruben". I was digging out the small stones, and this woman and her two daughters were carrying what we called a "tragga", which was like a wheel barrel without the wheels. Instead it had 4 handles and was carried by 4 people between the quarry and where the road was being built. When it was full of stones it was very heavy.

Returning from delivering a load of stones the woman and her daughters stopped by me and set their "tragga" down for me to fill it. While it was being filled they had a chance to rest. As I was filling it, one of the daughters asked if I would trade places with her mother. Digging the stones was easier work then carrying the loaded "tragga". I looked at the woman. She reminded me of my mother. I could not refuse.

Another time a group of us was working in the quarry. This was before I found the money in the skirt. A German in a barracks next to the quarry was watching us. He called over a few of his friends. As they watched he threw a tomato into our group. We all jumped at the tomato at once and crushed it. No one got any of it, but the Germans had a good laugh. It was a comedy to them.

Before I found the money I was always hungry. Once I hid outside a barrack, where the Germans lived. I waited for them to throw out their garbage which they did every day after supper. After they threw it out, I picked through it and found cabbage leaves and some potato peels. I ate anything that looked like it could be eaten. A lot of us would do this every day. There was unrelenting hunger there.

Once I was standing outside of our barracks with a woman named Frana. She lived in the same section of the barracks as I did. I never learned her last name. Most of us did not know each others' last names. I do remember that she was from Lodz. We knew that she had not passed the last selection. She knew that in the morning they would come for her. I asked her if there was anything that she wanted. She said, "Mala, if you have some extra food I would like to have it. I would like feel less hungry when they come for me in the morning."

I had some bread and some margarine. I gave it to her, and she ate it. Eating calmed her down, and in the morning she went without a fuss.

I remember the time I was late getting to the "Zehl-Appel". During the "Appel" everyone in the camp was suppose to line up in front of their barracks. This was on a Sunday. Many Sundays were called "Arbeits-Sonntags", which meant working Sundays. We worked on those days till 1 P.M., and then we had a roll call. Each barracks would line up and be counted. All our numbers would be checked against a list. The whole camp stayed on the Appel until all the barracks were counted.

After work on that day I went to the Rewier to trade among the sick. I was living in lager "B", and the Rewier was in lager "A". Only a fence and a gate separated the two camps. I had forgotten that there was to be a "Zehl-Appel" that day.

While I was in the Rewier I stopped to talk to some of the sick girls who were staying there. As I was sitting there talking to someone, a nurse walked in and saw me. At the top of her voice she said to me, "You are here? You "Schmuckstück", They've been searching for you for over two hours."

We were often called "Schmuckstück" by the more privileged of the inmates. In German it meant a small jewelry item with little value. Sometimes they called us "musulmen", which was worse. A "Musulman" meant you were emaciated to the bones, -- you were "ready" to be gassed.

During that particular roll call, I was missing. For over two hours all the girls of lager "B" were kept standing on the "Appel-Platz" as the "Blockaelteste" went looking for me. When I heard this from the nurse, I grabbed my things and ran out of the Rewier.

The distance between the Rewier in lager "A" and my barracks in lager "B" was a 10 minute walk. I ran through the gate separating the two lagers. Everyone lined up on the "Appel" watched me as I ran. I had to run past a group of SS. As I approached, an SS woman, named Drexler, stepped in front of me and hit me in the face. She hit me so hard that I was knocked to the ground. On my hands and knees I tried to get around her, but she grabbed hold of me and continued to beat me. She was hitting me with all her strength. After a few seconds I got out of her grasp and ran as fast as I could over to my group.

When I got to my group, my "Blockaelteste", Etta started to hit me. After Etta hit me a few times Etichka said to her, "Let her go already. See how she looks. Her whole head and face are bleeding. Leave her alone."

Etta let me go and I ran into my row so they could finish the Appel. As soon as it was over I ran into my barracks. I ran into the corner of the barracks. I was too afraid to move and didn't even go out to eat. I stayed there, in the corner, for the rest of the day. By the morning I felt that everything had calmed down, and I went back to work with everyone else.


© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2001.
All rights reserved.