5. Those Who Stayed Behind

The National Socialist regime had from the start been concerned to reduce to a minimum the influence and presence of Jews. From 1933, Nazi Germany marginalised its Jewish population and systematically excluded them from most spheres of social, educational, professional and economic life. In Austria this process happened at a faster pace, following the ‘Anschluss’ in March 1938. After the violent November pogrom in 1938, the remaining Jewish population was desperate to find ways to emigrate. The outbreak of war in September 1939, however, greatly reduced the possibilities of emigration. It forced the Nazis to consider other means of ridding Germany of Jews, as well as enabling them, under cover of wartime conditions, to embark on more radical measures, such as the deportation of Jews from cities like Vienna to a ‘Jewish reservation’ in Nisko, Poland, in October 1939. The Nazis also began to separate Jews in big cities from the rest of the population, by concentrating them in certain quarters; this facilitated the coming mass deportations to the East.

 

In October 1941, the regime banned any further Jewish emigration. This marked a key turning point, when Nazi policy moved to the outright extermination of Germany’s Jews. Within a very short time, work started at the first death camps, Belzec and Chelmno in occupied Poland; gassings at Chelmno began in December 1941. From that point on, the fate of the Jews of Germany merged with that of Jews in the rest of occupied Europe during the Holocaust.

 

Though Jews had been imprisoned and killed by the Nazis ever since 1933, the systematic extermination of Europe’s Jews only began after the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941; the precise date remains to be ascertained. Behind the lines of the advancing German forces, units known as Einsatzkommandos were sent in to kill Jews; the largest massacres were the killing of some 33,000 Jews of Kiev at Babi Yar over two days in September 1941 and the killing of some 50,000 Jews in Odessa later that year by German and Romanian troops. The mass shooting of Jews spread to Poland, where some 42,000 Jews were killed in Aktion Erntefest (Operation Harvest Festival) in November 1943, and to other lands in the East. The numbers killed were enormous; it has been calculated that they were at least equal to those killed in the gas chambers.

 

As many as two million Jews were killed at the death camps of Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka, situated in remote areas of Poland away from public view. These were extermination camps pure and simple, employing methods first tested in Germany in Aktion T4, the programme of mass murder by involuntary euthanasia; transports of Jews were brought in by train and killed, leaving only very few survivors. Auschwitz not only contained the largest of the extermination camps, Auschwitz II-Birkenau, where at least a million Jews were killed, but it also, like Majdanek, contained a work camp, where it was possible for Jews like Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel to survive to bear witness.  

 

The Nazis had established concentration camps from 1933, on the model of the camp at Dachau, outside Munich. These included such notorious sites as Sachsenhausen, outside Berlin, Buchenwald, outside Weimar in central Germany, and Mauthausen, near Linz in Austria. Though they were originally intended for political enemies of the Nazis, many Jews were also detained and murdered there over the years. To the principal camps was added a large number of sub-camps; by 1945, a vast network of camps, often labour camps, had spread across Germany and beyond. But the concentration camps, for all their horrors, should be distinguished from the extermination camps. Many German Jews were killed in concentration camps; some were sent to the ghetto/concentration camp at Theresienstadt (Terezín) in Bohemia, which the Nazis tried to present as a model camp; some were deported and killed in mass shootings, at sites like Maly Trostinec, near Minsk in Belarus. But the greatest number of Germany’s Jews died in the extermination camps.

 

The aim of the Holocaust was to kill the entire Jewish population of Europe. From Norway to Rhodes in the Dodecanese Islands, from Brittany to Transylvania, Jews were deported to the death camps; not even the communities in Albania or the Channel Islands escaped the fury of the Nazis. In the occupied areas of the East, Poland, the Baltic States and the western Soviet Union, the Germans could act without hindrance, carrying out mass shootings followed by deportations to the extermination camps. Where they met with military resistance, as in occupied Serbia, they proceeded with extreme violence in which the local Jewish population was caught up. In western Europe, the Nazis set up transit camps, like Drancy, a suburb of Paris, Westerbork in Holland, Fort Breendonk in Mechelen (Malines) in Belgium or Fossoli in Italy, where Jews were detained before being transported to the East. The Vichy French authorities provided a notable example of the collaboration of a state apparatus with the Nazis. The Jews of Denmark, however, were mostly saved, by being shipped to safety in Sweden.

 

In central, eastern and south-eastern Europe, the Germans could rely on the cooperation of puppet regimes like that in Slovakia, eager to be rid of its Jews, or Croatia, bent on eliminating minorities that were not Catholic Croats. In Greece, which was under military administration, the Germans proceeded to deport Jews without hindrance. The Bulgarian government was successful in protecting its Jewish citizens from deportation, though that protection did not extend to Jews in the areas of Greece occupied by Bulgaria in 1941. The Romanian government carried out massacres of Jews independently of its German allies, though it also collaborated with them in the territories it occupied in the Soviet Union; its record in areas like Bessarabia or Bukovina was appalling. The last mass deportation of a nation’s Jews occurred in Hungary, following the German occupation of that country in March 1944; by then, the machinery of deportation organised by Adolf Eichmann was working with maximum efficiency, transporting several hundred thousand people to the death camps. Following international pressure, the deportations from Hungary were halted in July 1944.  

 

In the face of the advance of the Red Army, the death camps were mostly destroyed in haste by the Germans; their surviving inmates were taken on death marches towards the west or transported to camps like Bergen-Belsen.

And we went into Belsen, and my father was separated from us, and I was with my mother. And I do remember various things about the so-called washing arrangements. Showers which I don’t remember really using more than about once or twice. I certainly remember the food… what there was of it. It was dreadful. It was water, a turnip boiled in water, and that was known as a soup. And this one piece of turnip, and a piece of black bread - very hard. And that was the day’s ration. My parents gave me theirs. It wasn’t enough to keep body and soul together, but I took theirs because I was hungry and I didn’t know any different. And… they starved to death. My father in December ‘44 and my mother in January ‘45.

Well we got in the morning [in Bergen-Belsen] a crust of… stale… bread. And this had to last until the evening. And and some liquid which they called coffee. Coloured- A coloured substance. And then in the evening, they gave something which they called a kind of soup or vegetables with turnips and water. And that was the eve- dinner. And that didn’t even always arrive, and, because sometimes there were bombings or so going on so they left that… out of …our hands.

So what - what was significant was that we had very little food. …Occasionally my father would get something on, on, on the black market. I remember he once got a kid, a small, you know, it was quite small, but you had no refrigeration. That was unheard of. So it was a bit on the off-side by the time we got it. But what you did was, you got from the chemist… super-permanganate. Super-permanganate is a red crystal. It’s K2MNO4. It’s manganese but it has four atoms of oxygen, and if you dissolve it in water, you liberate the oxygen. And that would get over, in a way, the …the signs of, of, of the thing not being as fresh as it, as it should be. You know, you tried all sorts of things. We also had some coffee. Green coffee, which we’d taken along from Berlin. Now it was difficult to roast. We had a gas cooker, and we had a little gadget to roast them in, which was a cylinder which you could open, put your coffee in, shut it. You rotated it over the gas fire, and when the skin of the bean started to float out of that little container you knew you were ready. It was an excellent thing, but it was dangerous because it smelt lovely. And everybody, you know if you had an open window everybody would know you were roasting coffee. And that was highly dangerous. You know, you were not supposed to have it. You know, things like that that impinged on your mind.

Our youth had been taken from us. We didn’t go- We were not allowed to go to public meetings, to watch football, go to a concert, go to any meeting. We were not allowed to- into swimming pools or gym halls or any, any, any mixing with - with others. With the population at large. And so we were on our own. We – all we could think of was our own misery.

My father went into a concentration camp... and I only heard that after - many years of after the war obviously - when the soup came around... and they have got a bit - there was a bit of meat in it - he would drink the soup because he had to, but he would not eat the meat. Sounds strange, but that's how frum he was.

And that’s how they [her father and brother]- that’s how… their lives went. And he, this German officer [her father was working for] was going with her all over looking for them. As if the earth opened. Nowhere to be found. They were nowhere to be found! So, until today, we tried through the Red Cross. We tried through everyone. We don’t know whether… they were taken to Belzec [present-day Poland] because that particular selection, everybody - Belzec. So the trains were going all the time to Belz... Whether they were taken to Belzec… or whether they were shot somewhere- either way. Apparently, apparently… people said, neighbours said that the Gestapo who was standing on the courtyard there, wanted to take the boy away. Wanted the boy to, to, to run, to go. But he didn’t want to leave my father. He didn’t want to. So he stayed with him. He was six years of age.

And I thought- “Whatever happens. If they shoot me, they shoot me. What can I do? What can I do?” I walked. And I come to a soldier standing guard. He doesn't see me. I walk past. The other one on the other side. Now I passed him. Now he’s going to shoot me from the back. I was convinced that he is going- one or the other is going to shoot me from the back. But they didn’t! Nothing! They didn’t see me. Isn’t that amazing?

And there we were [in the flat of a German lady, Irmgard Wieth]. I didn’t understand or speak a word of German at the time. My mother did. Very- she was very fluent in German. And so there we were. And she started- she had to share her… rations. Because we had nothing to eat. She was going to work and come back at six o’clock or so in the evening. And we had to sit and not move… the whole day long. Not- no toilet, nothing. Sit there, because… this was the house which was completely requisitioned for high SS Gestapo. That’s all. Plus… one family which was the- who was the head of the Ukrainian police. And he was immediately underneath us. Immediately. So we mustn’t move because everybody knew that

..the mother superior [Mother Iosefa] took us in. Very lovely. And she said to my mother, “You will stay with me.” She spoke- spoke Polish to her. My mother could not learn one word of Ukrainian. She spoke German, she spoke English- some, she spoke some French. Ukrainian she could not: impossible. She couldn't learn it. It was like a psychological- you know. “And you Lili, you’ll be Lydia, Litka…” and so on. “You will stay…” and there was the orphanage just with the- attached to it. And that’s how it was. And we stayed there until the Russians came again in 1944. And we felt, I mean, I felt quite safe there

Well, we had a great surprise when we arrived. The tone was much harsher, the SS and staff, it was always ‘Quicker! Quicker!’, ‘Schneller! Schneller!’, everything at the double. And you got your number, you got your-. First, you were adorned with red oil-paint, marked across the jacket, to mark you as a prisoner, and across your back, and generous stripes along the trousers, and later you got your uniform, the usual uniform, but then that saved them the paint. Instead of that, you got your number... to sew on

I was what they called in our language a Moselmann, that means one who couldn’t die yet, you know, one of those skeletons who hung between heaven and earth. Wasn’t quite dead yet. And again, by one of the miracles, I was allowed to be ill. Otherwise, people who were ill were killed or sent to the ovens. And I, again, one of the many miracles was that officially I was allowed to be ill. Certificated. And there the Russians came, one day, I mean I was lying there on that cot, half dead, and there the Russians came in. Unbelievable! It was Easter ‘45. Wait a minute, ja, ‘45. And another miracle was that although I was an enemy alien as a German Jew, they took me to their Russian army hospital and nursed me back to life.

And on the third morning I woke up in the dark, and what woke me up? The train stopped and it was quiet. I lay there and I realised that we must have arrived somewhere [Auschwitz] because it was very quiet and we could hear the soldiers going about and it got a bit lighter and a bit lighter and as I sat there, my father was opposite me, and the light came down, now he still had a beard, he had cut a little bit but he still had a beard, and as it got lighter I kept looking, there was something different about my father. I looked again, I can't see, and as it got lighter, he had a white streak, he got grey overnight. Now after he survived, we survived, and we started talking and I told to him “Do you remember that last night that you got white?” He said, “Did I?” I mean there were no mirrors or anything. And I said, “Yes.” And then when he turned the other side, just the two streaks, he got white. He said, “I will tell you why, when they took the water, the buckets down, there was an old German”, and my father’s German was fluent, not Yiddish, German, and he said to the man, “Tell me. Where are they taking us? What is going to happen to us?” And father said, he looked at me, and he told me. So he sat there the whole night knowing what is going to happen to us and he got grey.

It’s so peculiar. I had one Aufseherin [female guard] and she had a pair of earrings, was always shaking in her ear. And whenever I see – first of all I would never buy earrings that shake – you know what I mean? Because that woman always reminds me, poor woman I’m sure she’s dead a long time ago but you know the way she patsched [slapped] you and the thing in her face you know shaking. And every time I see somebody wearing earrings like this so I just keep away from it. Maybe it’s the personal things I suppose you remember.

Let’s see, we had to stand in a row. And it’s so peculiar, you’re a young girl and I said, ‘I must have it [gestures to the tattoo] somehow hidden’. I didn’t want it here because it will show so it has to be so, inside it. Even then, you think you are a young girl so…

And as I said, there were citizens that we knew they were anti-Semitic but nothing really strange happened, but by 1943 we had to give up all silver. There were orders, we had to give up all silver, all furs, carpets, everything, and they came systematically, and the police always said, we get orders, and we have to do that. And I do believe, that some of them, they had no idea, no idea. And one day I went into, I had a boyfriend, and I went up to their house, and her, she was sitting by the fire, and she was chopping up her Persian lamb coat into little bits and putting it in the fire, because she knew that they were going to take it, and they took away everything, even poor people had their silver candle sticks or things like that, so all those things went, and the fur collars or whatever you had, that went.

22nd June 1941. The Red Army was taken by surprise and they fled. Lithuania was occupied by the German Wehrmacht. On the first day of the hostilities, there was a chance for us to escape. We could have packed our luggage and tried to escape. We had to make that big decision what to do: stay put or escape and survive under Russian control. On that day, 14 members of our immediate family gathered to take that fatal decision and decided to stay put. It would be easier to survive under the Nazis than escape to Russia and finish up in a slave labour camp. Well, out of the 14 members I was the only one to survive, because they all perished.

And we were free [liberated from Kaufering concentration camp]. That is how it happened. Unbelievable. Oh, you felt euphoric. I mean to begin with, you really felt euphoric. It took a couple of days until you realised what had happened, and as the days went past you saw that there were very few of us alive, and it didn’t feel very good. Altogether it was a strange existence. It didn’t happen overnight.

In Flossenbürg, the people in charge were the air force personnel. They only called us out to go to work and nothing else. It was less than five minutes to walk to the workshop. We were 12 hours a day 7 days a week. There was no time off at all, because the work was [the] aluminium part, that built an aeroplane. Eventually they built the aeroplane further away, the Luftwaffe themselves.

[Being in hiding in a loft space] It turned out that at the end of the day we were 28 people instead of 4, which was a tremendous thing; it was a small area. A four-year-old child starts crying or makes the slightest noise, everybody gets endangered. If I wanted to cry or be upset so I cried in a cushion; I never raised my voice. I had to learn to speak only quietly. For quite a while afterwards I had no voice. …We were there for six weeks.

It was September 1st 1939 - a beautiful day. Suddenly, I saw three planes flying overhead. I was aware of political tensions. I said: ‘Oh, they’re German planes.’ And everybody said: ‘Nonsense.’ And then the bombs dropped on Lvov and life changed entirely. The 3rd of September news came that Britain and France declared war on Germany. We said: ‘Oh well. The war is won now. It’s OK now.’ But of course it wasn’t.

[About his time in Siberia] We were families together. But the people who were single who were sent to Siberia, they were treated very badly. Like real prisoners. I mean we couldn’t go anywhere; it was in the middle of the forest. We had no transport, no paper, no radio, we didn’t know the world existed, or anything like this. We couldn’t see at night, because of the lack of vitamins. One of the Russians said “If you get hold of a piece of liver and eat it, your sight is going to be restored.” And eventually we got hold of one, and it came back.

After liberation – so what do you do? Where do you go? How do you go? So we went to every station - railway station - wherever the train went we just climbed on it on top of the oil tanker. Doesn’t matter if it’s south or east or north, doesn’t matter. Got no idea, so we just went and then had to walk to the station. And my sister kept telling me ‘Come on. Come on!’ And I couldn’t, because I had TB – an active TB – which we didn’t know! Didn’t know (mimics being out of breath) because they were after us. Anyway, so eventually we arrived to Újfehértó after four weeks. I don’t know where we ate or where we slept. It’s just incredible, really. We arrived in Hungary, in Újfehértó - of course nothing there. Empty. A few youngsters came back and they already moved into their house and there was some food already. And my sister took me straight away to a doctor and I went to a sanatorium in Debrecen – a TB sanatorium.

My parents were preparing us for going into hiding. They wouldn’t take families of 4 – we had to be separated. They tried to explain that we couldn’t go together and that after the war we’d be together again. They’d try to see me occasionally. I had to help look after my brother who was 3 years younger, who couldn’t understand the situation at all.

We were Jewish in every way because of my mother’s strong leaning towards it, but nobody realised we were Jewish. They just said ‘oh, there is the English’ - So we were classed as English and orthodox. They didn’t know. Even through all the years in Germany, the prisons and camps we were in, none of them ever realise we were Jewish. So we went through all the war, not denying our religion but not coming forward with it neither.

We did get some food and we were told it was a Red Cross parcel. And if I could say to them ‘thank you’ because those parcels saved our lives. We used to get one a month. My Mum didn’t smoke, she didn’t drink tea and Bella used to weasel her way around and get us bits of food in exchange for the things we didn’t want. And that…throughout the war, for three and a half years we went doing that.

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