March 11, 1938, Vienna, Austria.
Nazi Germany annexes Austria. The real Democrats and the opposing Austrians seem to have disappeared. The annexation is well received, and enthusiastically applauded by the population. A tornado hit the Jewish population. I was thirteen years-old at the time. A tornado is a natural phenomenon; nothing can stop its inexorable destruction. In many ways it can be compared to the Nazi behaviour. The desire to persecute Jews, to destroy Judaism; once started, nothing could stop its terrifying destruction. Relentless, limitless humiliations Jews had to endure under the nazi leadership, are mostly well known: affecting all levels of daily life: professional, educational, religious.
November 7, 1938.
Hershel Greenspan, young Jew of polish origin, assassinated Von Rath, a German diplomat, in Paris.
November 10, 1938.
In retaliation, the nazi vengeance broke loose; hatred without restraint, against the Jewish population, degenerating into a full fledged pogrom: Worthy the Tsarist Cossack practice told to me over and over, by my Grandmother of Russian origin. I was very close to her. There was, never-the-less, a difference. We were in the center of a European civilization of high standing. Vienna, known for its good humour, high culture, enjoyment of life: we were taken by surprise to find out that our neighbours, teachers, classmates, were all participating in this outrageous manifestation of hatred. The happenings of this November 10, 1938, entered history by the terrifying name of "Crystal Nacht". It is a total rupture in the way we think of our culture, our education. It is the beginning of a deep breach in our civilization.
Eight months passed since the annexation. We could not hope for a return to normalcy. We had to turn the page. On November 25, sadly, we were obliged to bid farewell to our grandmother, 74 years old, in poor health. Mother often children, left alone in the care of an old Jewish couple, who had no possibility to emigrate. Unable to obtain an entrance visa to any country, near or far, my parents decided on illegal immigration. It would be impossible to imagine such an undertaking with my Grandmother. On November 27, my Birthday, and wearing our best clothes, allowed to possess $12.00 per person, and very few personal belongings, my parents turned the key to our apartment and the back to their Viennese past. We took the train past Cologne to Aix-Ia-Chapelle, the closest town to the Belgian border. A "walk" through a forest should allow us to enter Belgium. But, German custom officers with their dogs, caught up with us rapidly. We had to undergo a serious search, longer and more serious, as they found in my coat pocket my stamp collection, I did not want to part with it, and I therefore did not ask my parents' permission. This was not very smart, but it had no value, as it was only a child's collection. After looking through our papers, they found everything in order, and we were released. Again, we bravely tried our march across the woods — and we were successful; we reached the first Belgian village closest to the border, where we took the train to Brussels. Belgium was fairly tolerant towards illegal immigrants. During our train ride towards Brussels, my Mother distributed light refreshments. I refused to eat, as the food was not kosher. I had promised my Grandmother to observe Kashrut; she was orthodox. It was not allowed under the Nazis, and being in a free country, I felt I had to keep my promise. Belgium seemed like a paradise; we were understandably relieved. Shortly after having obtained our temporary permits of residency, I was admitted to a technical school with high standards, which was especially designed for young refugees. The instructions I received helped me in the most crucial moments in camp.
September 3, 1939. War is declared.
May 10, 1940.
Germany invades Belgium. We leave this country in a hurry. After 8 days travel, the train with thousand refugees, takes us from Brussels to Revel; a small town in the south-east of France, where we were well received by the local population.
The war was so dramatic for France that we did not realize at the time how precarious our own security was. At the end of 1940, Jewish refugees living in Revel were taken to a so-called family-camp. How disappointed we were when, facing the entrance gate, women were separated from men. This camp was in AGDE. There were many similar camps in the free Zone, and in occupied France. The camp grounds were surrounded by barbed wire, permanently watched by French guards. We could leave the camp for important reasons, which had to be authorized by the Camp Commander.
My Father suffered from a very serious disease, and was admitted to the Hospital in Béziers, shortly after our arrival. My sister, a year and a half older than I, intelligent, courageous, so gentle, volunteered her assistance at the infirmary. She contracted hepatitis and had to be hospitalized in Montpellier. After all the efforts and tribulations to remain united as a family, we were separated.
This situation, cried and shouted, and were deeply moved. A few days later, the famous, well-known pastorale letter, by the Archbishop of Toulouse, Monseigneur Saliège, raising a vehement protestation, was read in almost all the churches of his diocese. Nevertheless, these marches continued for several more times, but at night. After a long, worrisome train-ride (Toulouse-Paris), about 750 miles, (900 km), we arrived in Paris, early morning. In buses (RA TP), a Parisian Policeman watched over us; he suggested that we hand him our valuables and money, because where we were going, he said, the Germans would take everything. We finally arrived at DRANCY, in a nearby suburb of Paris. This camp was considered a transit camp, in a way "the waiting room for death". We could feel by the atmosphere that reigned, that we were entering a world of terror. Different ages, sexes, being mixed, sleeping on straw on the ground, absence of sanitation indescribable promiscuity, terrified us. It was at Drancy, that I was reading two inscriptions edged on the wall by a person who preceded me; I consider the first one a premonition: "One enters, one cries, it is life; one cries, one leaves, it is death".
The second: "When there is nothing left to hope for, that is when one should not despair".
In the camps, more than once, did I think of these inscriptions. The second one inspired me often, when I had to face precisely, despairing situations.
September 4, 1942.
Eight days after our arrest, we left by the" TRANSPORT Nr 28". A thousand people, women, men, old people, children of all ages, fit or not, 70 to 80 in box carts, doors locked and chained (on the box-carts was an inscription: "20 men-8 horses"). There were two buckets, one with drinking water, the other for physiological needs; little food and very few personal belongings. A sinister trip towards the unknown "to Pitchipois" we said later. We did not know, that this would be the last trip for the majority.
After a few day's travel, the train came to a stop. We were in a critical state which is difficult to describe. We were in plain country, near Koslo; the doors to the box carts opened, in an uproar, mixed with the barking of dogs, yelling of the SS. They ordered the men between the ages of 18 and 40,to step down. Even though I was younger, I did not want to stay back with children or the aged. I prepared myself to join the group. My mother was holding me back, and did not want me to leave. This was one of my rare disobedience. I insisted, and she let me go. Hugging me tenderly, she surrounded my neck with her black scarf. I was able to keep it for six months. We had to hurry. All the SS orders had to be obeyed rushing.
For once, I did the right thing. We were about 250 men being taken to the camp "TARNOVITZ", in Upper Silesia, where there were already a few hundred other prisoners. It was a small Forced Labor Camp, annexed to Auschwitz. There were many similar camps in that region. We came mostly from France, Belgium and Holland, and a small number from Poland. In one part of the camp one barrack was set aside for thirty young women. Their presence reassured me, thinking that my mother and sister would be in a similar camp setting. Only one year later did I learn of their real fate. (The train I left so hastily was directly taken to the gas chambers of Auschwitz.)
We barely arrived, when one of the young girls my age questioned me through the fence which separated us; we exchanged words about our origins and our families. Before leaving, she asked me to come every evening to the fence after returning from our long and hard day at work, and she would give me a bowl of soup, as she was working in the kitchen. This bowl, well-filled with soup, thicker than the one which was normally distributed, was often stiffly-frozen by the intense cold, which prevailed at this time of year in this bare and gloomy region. Rachel, small, pale, feeble, unforgettable, was sent to me by my guardian angel. Not one single day did she forget; helping me to adapt to the meager camp diet during my stay at Tornowitz, which lasted six months, my first winter. We were being used to repair railway tracks; carrying on our bare shoulders, rails and ties, under the beatings of a particularly sadistic supervisor. In the cold, with bare chests, we were unable to get warm in spite of our tireless activity.
After six months we were transported to SCHOPPINITZ, another camp more dreadful than the first, situated at the extreme of a triangle, formed by two railway tracks. One, connecting the East to the West; I have seen countless trains bringing Ukrainians to work in Germany. We begged them for food, and were sometimes successful. The others went towards the East very grim, filled with Jews, like the ones that took us here. We could hear their cries, and we could see them through small openings in screens of the freight cars. Another time, a train filled with German Soldiers, going towards the Russian Front, escorted by SS, stopped in front of us, and one of those brutes fired with his machine-gun into our midst, killing, in front of me, several of my comrads, including our nurse, despite his Red Cross arm-band. Our work was very hard, unloading coal, sand and sacs with cement, weighing 120lbs (50 kg), which we had to carry on our bare necks (more or less the weight of a prisoner). When exhausted, they beat us. When we lost our balance, while going down the wooden unstable boards leading from the freight cars, sometimes the sacs, made out of multiple layers of paper, tore, the cement spread out on the ground, impregnating our clothes. Naturally forbidden, we put this wrapping paper under our jackets, to protect us from the rain.
My stay in Schoppinitz came to an end in Nov. 1943. Curious and worried, we wanted to know our next assignment. In learning that it would be "Birkenau", we were relieved. The fear of the camp "Auschwitz" became an obsession, as we were constantly threatened that we would be sent there. What a terror when the train stopped shortly after our departure in the station of Auschwitz. The worst was still to come, after arriving at the Camp. In rows of five, scrutinized by SS, they made us run for several tens of miles. The slower ones, the weak or sick, were eliminated; we never saw them again. Reunited in a shed, we were received by a CAPO (Camp Police) giving a talk. Beating his whip against his boots, he assured us that what we have lived through before coming here was a Paradise, compared to the Quarantine of Birkenau, where we now were.
The Main Camp of Auschwitz was divided into several smaller camps, one of which was the one we were in. Our street clothes were removed, in very bad condition anyhow. Naked, they shaved us from head to toes, tattooed a number on the left inner forearm, and told us, that from now on, we had to refer to our number, not our name. We became numbers; mine was 160610, which was particular, but it was written regularly, not too large, which was not always the case. They took us under cold showers, chased us outside, without letting us dry ourselves. Close together, one against the other, we tried to get dry and warm. In freezing cold, we waited to receive our clothes. Made out of a terribly bad material, striped in artificial cotton, bad smelling by disinfecting, most probably recently, used, we received pants, too long or too short, a vest, a horrible hat, too big or too small, and clogs with wooden soles. Dressed, they took us to barracks, to spend our first night. There I met a prisoner who had arrived before me. I asked him about the horrible smell, and about the flames that came out of a nearby chimney. Cruelly he explained that if my parents were deported with me, they would have entered by the door, and would come out by the chimney. His answer made me think that he was a fool, more so, as he was so thin, that one could see his bones. His eyes stood out of their orbits and he was apparently indifferent to what he had told me. It seemed to me unbelievable, but a few seconds later, his explanation was confirmed. I was shocked, and overtaken by a profound sadness. We were here in an "extermination camp". The deportees were gassed in so-called showers, and burned in the ovens of the crematorium. The race we were submitted to at our arrival, was called "selection". This could take various forms, but the goal was always the same: the elimination of the weak. This was the most dramatic day of my life in the camps. I did not think that I could survive under these conditions, but I had to make it; was it not now, that I should not despair?
We spent the first night, sleeping by six on a narrow bedstead, pressed one against the other. Early morning, awoken by the always hurled orders, we received a hot drink, which we call "Coffee", in order to appease us. Leaving the barracks, I seized on infonnation: metallurgists needed: I present myself. In one of the barracks, an officer interviewed the applicants; I was not the only one to try my luck. I pretended being a "turner", and in spite my answers, which did not leave any doubt of my incompetence, I was never the less chosen to be part of a group of fifty specialists. My destiny started to change. Indeed, I knew how to handle a caliper, thanks to my Belgian school, which I mentioned earlier. The group left immediately for the workcamp. From now on, I belonged to the commando "Siemens", a large German corporation. At their request, we received a supplementary bowl of soup. But this costs us dearly! The supervisor of our block was a veritable torturer; he did not accept our privilege. Under the excuse to keep us "fit", he made us exercise in the evening coming back from work or in the middle of the night. After four months, during which we worked daily at the renovation of an old brickyard into a metalrefinery, only twenty prisoners remained of our group of fifty. The rest had all died of exhaustion. Five months later, April 1944, our camp was being integrated with BOBREK. We formed a small camp of 250 deportees, situated near the factory. Bobrek was about eight miles from Birkenau. We were now far away from the gas chambers, crematorium, the frequent selections, the long roll calls we were submitted to mornings and evenings outside the barracks. We were finally rid our horrible block-supervisor, the orchestra which played when we left early mornings and played when we came back after a day of work. Twenty months after my deportation, I was finally working in a place which was sheltered from cold and rain, without constant threatening assaults. Food was better, workdays shortened, no more distance to cover to go to work. The presence of about forty women was comforting and encouraging. We imagined the possibility of an end; we started having some premonitions. We heard of the liberation of Paris!
January 18, 1945.
We heard more intense bombardments of the neighboring towns; the siren sounded even in our camp; we had no shelter, but we were certain of changes in the near future. The "Death March" started: Late in the evening, in an intense cold, roads covered deeply with snow, we joined the endless columns of deportees (between 60,000 and 70.000 people), dragging itself towards the center of Germany. After about forty-five miles (70 km), we finally arrived at the camp of GLEIWITZ Those who fell from exhaustion were instantly killed by SS escorts; that is, why this march carries its name.
To this day, it is commemorated by its survivors.
Arriving in Gleiwitz I immediately started looking for the brother of a young girl in my camp from Bobreck. She was originally from Belgium, and wanted him to know of her presence. I checked all the barracks where the deportees were piled together. During this time, I lost contact with my companions, and I was unable to find a sheltered place to spend the night. Exhausted, I could not stand any longer, I lay down in the open, as did so many others. Awakening frozen, I realized the danger of staying any longer on the ground at such a low temperature, with only a thin blanket as protection. Actually, the men next to me froze to death. For a short moment I envied them for the gentleness of their sad ending, which happened during their sleep. Running to get warmer, I put these thoughts aside. I finally found my companions in this mad crowd. In the evening, beat by truncheons and yelling, we were thrown into an uncovered wagon, which was used to transport coal; we were again all reunited. Squeezed together, we could neither sit nor stand, an indescribable trip was starting, which was taking us to the interior of Germany. I was well aware, that, if there was a chance to escape, it had to be explored as fast as possible. Every second took us further away from Polish territory and the German-Russian front. One of my companions had promised to join me at my attempt to escape. At one moment, the train slowed down, and was next to one which was stopped. Laboriously, I cleared my access towards the edge of the wagon, and I jumped. I hid underneath the stopped train. A few minutes later, my friend joined me. The night was black; we were surrounded by fields deeply covered with snow, by a cold of less than 15 degrees F (-25 degrees C), we walked as rapidly as we could. Marching along the outskirts of a forest. We shared our fear and our bread, swallowing snow to ease our thirst. After two days a Polish woman found us near exhaustion, at the extreme of our endurance. She helped us with food and shelter. A few days later, coming out of a cellar where we had taken refuge, we found ourselves facing a Russian patrol. They took us further inland; we were now marching in the direction of Cracow. Covered with our thin, tom blankets, begging for food, and sleeping in barns, we reached Cracow a few days later. After a three-month stay, under false identity, I embarked upon my return to France, not without apprehension. Travelling through Russia for fifteen days, I boarded a British Military Vessel in Odessa on the shores of the Black Sea, to finally land, liberated in Marseille, the First of May, 1945.
Paris, June 15, 1997.
P.S.1. I returned immediately to REVEL, hoping to get some information regarding my father. I learned that after a few months stay at the camp of NOE, he was sent to the hospital in REVEL, where, despairing, he died, grief-stricken, in September 1943, one year after our deportation.
P.S.2. The period after my return was the object of an interview, and can be found together with 11 other testimonies, in a book titled "THE DAY AFTER", written by Karine HABIF.
1) From transport Nr 28, only 16 people out of 1000 returned to France in 1945.
2) Policemen and constables, as well as a good number of French contributed to the rescue of Jews. So far 1600 received the title of "Righteous Gentiles" awarded by Yad Vashem.