Return to the Witnesses | The Cybrary of the Holocaust Survivors Lucille E.-Interview Helen L.-Interview…
Lucille E. Interview
Survivor: Lucille E.
Interviewers: Ellen S., Maria J. B., Brian P.
Producer/Director: John G.
August 14, 1990
Copyright 1990 Holocaust Oral History Project
San Francisco, California
Tape 2 of 2
I: Would you tell us about your visits as a child to Poland and what your feelings were as a Jew?
E: The first time I came to Poland that I really recall, walking on my own, was when I was 4 years old. We came to Poland, we got out of the train, we traveled I think for three days in a first class compartment. And the porter came at night making up the beds, I thought it was great fun. We arrive at the railroad station and a relative picked us up and took the suitcases outside the station. There was a buggy and a horse and a driver. I refused to get into that horse, I absolutely didn’t, I threw a tantrum, I wanted a taxi. I would not get into a buggy with a horse. The horse was alive, the horse moved, and I wanted a taxi like I was used to. Coming to my grandmother’s house, it was a nice house, not as nice as what I was used to but it was nice.
I: This was your mother’s mother.
E: Yes. She had a store, she spoke Yiddish to me, she wore a wig, she was very religious. And she would always give me a candy but I had to hide it, I wasn’t supposed to eat so much candy. There was a lot of ground around the house and the ground was cultivated by the peasants. They had a lot of huge yellow cucumbers which were then pickled and sold. A little bit down the road I had an aunt who cultivated poppies, I mean acres and acres of red poppies and the poppy seeds were dried and used as poppy seeds, not opium. The front of my grandmother’s store faced out on one of the main streets, the larger streets. The street was not paved, it was raining and it was summertime. The peasants with their horse drawn wagons would come and bring chickens, the chickens were alive, the feet were tied but the chickens were alive so with the tied feet they couldn’t take off. When the unpaved road of the main street was mud and wet, the peasants would take off their shoes, they didn’t wear stockings, socks, and they would walk barefoot and I would stand their and look. The mud would ooze out through the toes, you know in between the toes, and I thought that was very strange, people without shoes. I’d never seen that before.
I remember going to my uncle’s store, who lived in the center of town of the ring, and he had a hardware, houseware store. I remember my father scolding him that nothing had prices. The buckets didn’t have a price, the brooms didn’t have, nothing had a price. My father had lived in Germany already too long and his mind was too orderly to comprehend that you went in and bartered, you bargained. You didn’t just pick up a bucket and say, oh it’s five dollars. I pay you five dollars. That wasn’t done. I know that my uncle had three sons who were ten or fifteen years older than I. They were at the university and they had trouble as Jews, they were standing in the last row for lectures, for instruction. So my father and my uncle pooled their money because they had much more money in Germany and they sent the boys to study in Paris. One was a lawyer, one was an architect, and one was an engineer. No, one was a doctor, I take it back. The architect fell off a building in Israel and was killed, very young. And the doctor went east with the Russian Army, I don’t know what became of him. He might have remained in Russia, he might not have, but I don’t know. But nobody of that family, my mother had one, two, three, four sisters there, nobody survived.
I: How many children in her family?
I: Would you repeat the name of the town again, please.
E: Sambor. S A M B O R. It’s not far from Tarnopol.
I: So this was, at the outbreak of war this was the portion that went under German, uh, Russian control?
E: First under German control and then under Russian control. First the Germans had it. And then the Russians occupied it when they liberated Poland.
I: So during the division of Poland in 1939, it was under…
E: It was still under German rule. Because I remember one of my uncles writing a postcard that he had to do forced labor and that the aunts were no longer in Sambor. And that already was fairly late so it was under German occupation. Because the postcard had a German stamp.
I: Did you hear anything, once the war commenced, was there any communication with your family, between let’s say your mother’s family or your father’s family?
E: Yes, there was still, as along as we could, we wrote. Which I would say was probably until early 1941 or so. The letters were really in very careful language, they were phrased. My mother would write to her brother and said, how does Uncle Ivan feel? That means, are the Russians there or how are the Russians? I once wrote a postcard and I signed my name, Cecelia L.W.W., a German abbreviation for widow. So when my uncle got the postcard he wrote back that I can see that only you are left. You know there were little things you tried to cover up. And you got some communication but…
I: Up until what time were you getting any kind of communication from any family members?
E: Probably 1941 summer and then I got one postcard around Summer 1944, early. One single one.
I: Do you remember who it was from?
E: Yes, my uncle.
I: Do you remember what he said?
E: Well he wrote that this aunt and this aunt and that aunt don’t live here or are not here. He was a really sick man, he had some spinal trouble, he couldn’t stand straight. He was working he said.
I: In the town?
E: In forced labor. There were considerable amount of Jews in Sambor. He did not really give any details. It was an open card, it happened to slip through. Which was unusual what he did.
I: In the Lodz ghetto, people were receiving…
E: In the beginning we received some mail. We could send out three or four postcards during the first two years. And then it ceased completely.
I: But in 1944 you did receive….
E: That one postcard came in, it was just unreal.
I: Was it dated from ’44?
E: Yes, yes, it had a current date, it only traveled a week.
I: Where did you go to get your mail, did you got to a post office or did somebody?
E: There was a post office, there were several post offices, like a little substation. I even remember seeing the letter carrier in the very beginning, which later on disappeared. I don’t whether somebody called me or said to pick up a postcard or whether somebody just dropped it by the house. That I don’t remember.
I: Do you know anything of the history of Sambor since both of your parents were from there, how long the Jewish community was established there and how big a Jewish community it was?
E: It was a large Jewish community. I believe before the war or during the ’20’s and ’30’s, the town had 10,000 inhabitants, I think it’s 10,000. There’s always been some dispute between 10 and a hundred but I don’t know for sure. It had a community I know that, people who ran for political office would make a stop there. It had a Jewish community, it had a Jewish cemetery, it had a Jewish synagogue. The amount of Jews, I’m just not able to tell you how many.
I: Do you remember how many generations your family was there for?
E: My family was there for three generations; my mother was born there, my grandmother was born there, her mother before her was born nearby. So there is a story that my father’s family came from Spain over Holland into Poland, but again since they’re not Sephardic Jews, I’m not sure this is true. It could be I don’t know.
I: When was the last time you saw Sambor? As a child I mean.
I: Did you celebrate holidays there?
E: Sometimes, if it happened to…
I: Was this a whole extended family kind of celebration?
E: Yeah, there were a lot of cousins, a lot of aunts and uncles.
I: Do you remember your holidays there and what they were like?
E: Well they were very traditional. I remember before Yom Kippur, my grandmother having a chicken, she’d go _ I don’t know, there’s a Yiddish expression for it I don’t know what it is in Hebrew _ I remember going down to the river and emptying out the pockets. There very traditional things that you don’t do or did not do in the Western countries, you sort of skipped by them.
I: Have you researched the fate of some, was the town deported?
E: Yes, the town was deported to various camps, most of them were killed even before they hit Auschwitz. You know in small-sub camps like Hannenmoor, whatever they, they had these vans that were gas equipped. There was really no, I had not run across a group of people that really stayed in Sambor very late and survived. I tried to go back but there was a problem crossing the border into the Soviet Union, into that area with an American passport from Poland. The next time I probably tackle that in a different way. I tried but it didn’t work.
I: That town now is in Poland?
E: No, no, it’s in the Soviet Union. They call it the Ukraine but the language spoken there is Russian.
I: It was my understanding that the Ukraine was under Russian domination until 1941, June of 1941.
E: There is a slight difference, geographically, between the Ukraine and Galacia. Galacia like to call itself the Ukraine, because it’s adjacent, but it’s not really the Ukraine. Because some of it was German occupied.
I: One final question before I move on. When you came to Lodz, you had a suitcase with you. Do you remember the clothes you had and brought with you? Did they last you for all the five years you were there?
E: No they didn’t. Yes they did in a way because the Jewish tailors in Poland were very ingenious. They could take something that had gotten two sizes too small, turn it inside out, make it two sizes larger, and get you a new jacket. Essentially yes, I wore pretty much the old clothing.
I: And what were the articles of clothing. Can you remember?
E: I had a winter coat which was too light, so I wore two winter coats, one on top of the other. I had shoes which were useless because in winter, they just did not do well in snow. I had frostbite, I almost lost the toes. I had a jacket, a skirt, some blouses, and a couple of dresses, and my mother had a leather hatbox. One of those round hatboxes out of the ’20’s. And eventually I took it to the shoemaker and had a pair of boots made. I paid him by giving him the leftovers of leather. That was his payment and he made the boots. I haven’t worn a pair of boots since, even though the fashion here is for knee high boots, I wouldn’t buy a pair of boots. I have worn boots thank you.
I: What about your feet, your stockings, you didn’t have pants…
E: No, nobody had pants in those days. We had stockings and you repaired them, and you repaired them they were full of these mending spots. New stockings, I don’t remember ever getting new stockings. For money you could have gotten anything. For money or for food. But I didn’t have either.
I: How did you bathe?
E: We didn’t. You had a little bowl, like a little schüssel, like a little bowl, and you put a some water in it and you hoped that there was no ice on top of it. Because at night it formed a crust of ice and you brought it up from the pump, you know which you pumped. You sort of took the bowl and washed yourself to the waist and then when you’re through with that, you wash the rest of yourself.
I: Did you brush teeth?
E: Yes, but there was no toothpaste. There was an old broken down toothbrush because they don’t last very long. The teeth started decaying and I lost fillings. I once went to a dentist who had a drill which was foot operated, with a foot pedal _ I think her daughter lives in Los Angeles _ she tried to repair it but there wasn’t really much she could do. If I were to visualize now to live four or five years without a shower or bath, it is absolutely inconceivable. But we did.
I: Was there a problem with lice?
E: Yes, yes, and they carried typhoid. If you wore a sweater, let’s say a week or two weeks, if you turned it inside out the seams, you know the sleeve seams, the should seams, you would see little white spots. And those were the eggs of lice. And we had a lot of trouble, a lot of illness, I had typhoid and typhus.
I: Which is two different diseases?
E: Yes, one is intestinal and the other one is carried by lice. Spots. Sort of measly like.
I: Would you, let’s talk about the deportation. You have described your meeting Dr. S., at the station, with his entire family. Including your friend, his daughter. You boarded these cattle cars that were sealed. Could you explain what happened after that? The trip?
E: The trip was stuffy, it was August, it was hot. There was a bucket on the train but I have vague recollections, whether they let us empty it or not. Here we had this loaf of bread which we couldn’t eat. And we speculated a great deal. Dr. S. was a great optimist and he believed things were going to get better. He was a Zionist and he had a sense of humor. After three or four days the cattle cars came to a stop. It was early in the morning, probably, the watch said probably it was three or four in the morning. It was dark.
I: Did you stand the whole way?
E: No, we sort of crouched in corners, there wasn’t much room but we sort of crouched together. When the door opened, the first thing we saw was huge spotlights, from the platform onto the train. We saw the SS and the dogs.
I: It was night time?
E: It was four in the morning, three in the morning. A lot of screaming, alot of commands. They hurried us out of the trains. We were barely out when they said to drop the luggage. The suitcase or whatever we had. My friend dropped hers. I did not. One of the SS came towards me, with I don’t know, either a gun or a whip. And she tore it out of my hand and dropped it. I didn’t want to give up my passport and my papers and my birth certificate. You know, I can’t live without it. Almost immediately they separated the men from the women. It took minutes, seconds. We didn’t even say good-bye to Oscar or to Erwin, I mean they were just on the other side. And then they tried to separate the women again. The young ones from the old ones, the children from the…
I: There were still children at this point?
E: Oh yes, you know little children, two, three, four, six, you know, any age. Not a great deal, but some. I remember a man in a striped uniform with a hat, with an armband that read Kapo, standing next to us. And my friend asked him in German, where are we? He said, Auschwitz. She said, what’s Auschwitz? And he said, you’ve never heard of Auschwitz? And she said, no. He said, it can’t be. When he asked where do you come from, we said from Lodz. He said, do you know Luba? Do you know anybody named Luba, I’m looking for my sister. But I work as sort of a policeman, Kapo, for the Germans. We said, no we don’t know anybody and we left. From that, after that separation, you know the young ones from the old ones, we went into a room, into a barracks. They asked to take off all jewelry, all watches, all clothing. And whoever didn’t took a terrible beating or worse. And there we stood naked, shivering in the heat., and then the took us to another barracks. Something happened in front of us, we didn’t know quite what. The people in front of us sort of moved, moved ahead.
I: Were you all basically in a line?
E: No, it wasn’t really a line, it was a line and a line and a line, if was almost like a grouping. When we were in the front line we saw that the Kapos were shaving the hair, all body hair. And if you looked at the women, once the hair was shaven it was just, it was a sight that was so terrible that it really didn’t, at that moment, compare to anything we had seen. You saw those bowling balls with protruding ears and those frightened eyes and it was like, something out of a nightmare. They yanked Ellie out of line and they cut her, she had long black hair, they cut her hair and before I knew it I was next. The SS woman who gave the order to the Kapo, who was essentially a prisoner, to shave my hair, was short and blonde and squat. And fat, the uniform didn’t fit and she wore glasses. I hated her, I don’t think I’ve ever hated anybody as much. I don’t know whether she saw or whether she felt, but she slapped me very hard and I just reeled over to one side. After the hair was gone, they pushed us through sort of a swinging door and the top part of the swinging door was glass. And in one second I saw a reflection that was I. Ears, an oval head, and eyes. It was nobody I knew. It was horrifying, that sight. There was some cold showers, we were sort of rushed through them, if you got a drop of water, yes, if you didn’t you didn’t. At the other end an SS woman started laughing and she said, the gas chambers are overworked tonight, or today. We’ll get you tomorrow. There’s plenty of time. We had never heard of gas chambers. We didn’t know what it was.
We were thrown a garment at random, just a piece of cloth, whether it was an apron, a dress, just one piece, no underwear, no stockings, nothing. You put that thing on, mine was black and it had sort of a red trim on the top, very strange, very large. It was sort of like cotton. And we were lined up again in groups of five. The fifth in our group, which was my friend Ellie and I, and her mother and her aunt, and the fifth woman was a little woman named Alice, from Vienna. She got some wooden clogs. Nobody one else had them, she had wooden shoes, you know these Dutch shoes? And they started marching us, we didn’t know that the camp was called Birkenau, start marching us to the barracks. And we passed an orchestra, with the conductor in an impeccable uniform with white gloves, conducting Beethoven, I think it was Beethoven. These people with shaven heads and striped uniforms, playing music. And on the other side we saw three chimneys with black smoke. Somebody whispered in back of us, “The crematorium.” We didn’t know what it was, why, what for, nothing. But we learned.
We were crammed into the barracks and the center of the barracks had a walkway, and on either side were sort of chessboard squares. Five people were allocated to a square. You could barely seat five people in a square. But we wondered what we were going to do at night, because you can’t sit forever. So Ellie sat down against the back wall, she spread her legs, and the next person would sit against her until all five of us were in that position. And then we would lie down so everybody would lie on somebody’s stomach. But you couldn’t turn, you couldn’t move. Soup came in sometime in the evening, but no plates, no spoons, nothing. Some people scooped it into their hands and it was running through their fingers. Somebody said to Alice, take off your shoes. Alice took off the wooden clogs, and Ellie took one and Alice took one and they stood in line. They filled them up with soup and they ate the soup like animals, out of the shoes. Then they gave them to us and we did the same. And then Alice put the shoes back on. That was the end.
The Kapo in this barracks was a young woman, Jewish, I don’t know whether she was from Hungary or from Poland. She yelled a great deal and she ran around with a reed or stick, and anything in her way she would beat. And she took her orders from the Germans.
I: But she was Jewish.
E: She was Jewish, yes, but she had a supervisory position. And at night she had a little cubicle at the end of the barracks. And there was a rumor that one of the SS came at night and spent the night with her, every night. But it was a rumor, because the barracks were dark at night, we did not know. In 1946 the rumor turned out to be true, she was in New York with that man. I met her at Altman’s.
In the morning they would round us up and we would stand for a spell and they would count us and recount us for hours and hours. It was freezing cold, at five in the morning or whatever, and by noon it was boiling hot, my whole scalp was full of blisters from the sun, the ears. And this went on for a few weeks, maybe two or three weeks I’m not sure of the exact amount of days, and then we were told, she told us, that tomorrow morning Dr. Mengele will inspect. Procedure is, you take off your dress, you carry it over your left arm, and you walk past that committee of three, Mengele and two others, as fast as you can. And he’ll indicate right or left. So Ellie and I decided that I go first, she follows me. We go very fast, we don’t look right we don’t look left, just almost run. I almost fell but I made it. And he motioned me to one side and Ellie to the same side.
I: Did you know what this meant?
E: No. They said selection. We later on found out it was either the hospital or to the gas chamber, or to a work camp. We were then marched to a new barracks, we were given shoes regardless of size, just shoes. And we were given a coat that had a big yellow stripe across the front; but underneath the stripe, the fabric had been cut away. So if you wanted to run away and take off the yellow stripe, there would be no fabric. Then we were loaded into cattle cars and we were in those cattle cars I think for three or four days, again stop and go, stop and go. It was very hot, it was Indian summer. The top of the cattle cars had a small, small opening, you know with barbed wire. It was so hot we took all our clothing off, we couldn’t stand it. I climbed on Ellie’s back and I looked out and I said Ellie, this looks like the vicinity of Hamburg. She got very angry and she said, sit down, you’re out of your mind. I sat down and we traveled another day or two. We arrived in the evening at a siding and the doors were opened from the outside. The SS who were waiting for us, or the Commandant of this group of SS, said, You are at Konzentrationslage Neuengamme, Arbeitslager Zassel, Stadtet deseraufe, Hamburg. So Ellie looked at me, and she said, well your were right. Do you know anybody here? Not a soul.
I: How long were you in Auschwitz?
E: A couple of weeks. So she said, what good does it do you, what good does it do you if you are here? What are you going to do with it? Nothing. It’s the same thing as if you were in Poland. And she was right. We worked for the first three weeks cleaning up shipyards that had been bombed at night by the Americans. And it was hard work. We got a lot of cuts and infections. I had a cut on the left hand and one of the German’s corpsman, medical corpsman, lanced it and said if you scream, heaven help you. So I didn’t scream, I fainted.
And then they transferred us to another camp, about twenty miles away. There we worked on construction, temporary housing type things. The treatment was harsh, the beatings were frequent, two people died of beatings. Food was in very short supply. On the second day there, one of the SS came into the barracks and said, “Rumor has it that one person here is from Hamburg. Who?” So since everybody knew I was the only one, I had no way of hiding. He said, you work in the office, you speak the language, you write the language. What’s your name? Where did you live? Where did you go to school?
I worked in the office which was not cold in winter, which was an advantage. But if the SS were in a foul mood or the commandment whose private quarters were adjacent to the office, when he came through we had to stand up. But whenever he was in a foul mood he would beat us. We were running around with bloody bruised legs, with swollen eyes and bruised faces. There was one other young woman who worked in the office.
I: Were you with any of your friends?
E: Yes, with Dr. S.’s daughter. She was my closest friend.
I: She went straight through with you.
E: Yes. People envied us, our friends envied us, you sit in the office. You’re not out in the cold. We didn’t have more food, we had the same amount of food unless we stole something. That was very risky and very difficult. We did it twice. But, and if we could spare something we gave something away. Ellie got very pale, she coughed a great deal, and she envied me a great deal. She was very angry that I was in the office and she was not. But there was nothing I could do. I couldn’t say, tell the Germans, take her to the office, in fact I didn’t even dare speak to them. When I showed her the bruises she said forget it, that’s nothing. So it’s relative, if you hurt, you hurt differently than the other person.
There was one very low ranking SS guard who patrolled the perimeter or rather the entrance of the camp. It had barbed wires and towers, but it only had 500 inmates. One day he called and he said, pick up the rubber shear. I picked it up and he started to talking and he said, I hear you’re from Hamburg. And I said yes. And he said, what was your name? Who was your father? He said, I don’t like this duty anymore than you do. I was a Communist before the war. He lived in a very poor section of town, he lived in Altona, and we talked for a little while. Both of us were afraid. I said I have a proposition. You find me a place to hide, you look the other way and get me some food. And I will sign over one of my father’s houses, I am the sole heir, to you. Well he came back the next week and he dropped a box of paper clips and made me pick them up so he could talk. And he said, I checked you out. The houses are there, your father was the owner, and I am very tempted. I am a very poor man, I’ll never be a rich man. He was a lowly civil servant. And this is very tempting. I said, alright, let me know. Well, the weeks passed. We saw him but he didn’t stop, he didn’t talk. And one day he disappeared, he never came back. And then the kommandant came into the office and he yelled, remove Wachmeister Smith from the roster. He has a bleeding ulcer, he has been replaced. So the man actually had a bleeding ulcer, and he had himself replaced, either legitimately or otherwise. But I never heard from him again until 1947. And he dug me up through the very efficient German system and wrote me a letter. Remember what you promised me? And in 1947 I had a very short temper and I tore up the letter. I wish I hadn’t. And threw it away.
We stayed in this camp until the end of March 1945. Then they suddenly put us in trucks. We got off the trucks and they made us walk. We really didn’t walk very well at that time. I leaned on Ellie, Ellie leaned on Sabina. And we came through a gate _ it looked similar to Auschwitz, watchtowers _ and I looked on the right and the left. There were huge mountains of shoes, just shoes, any color, any size, maybe ten feet tall, mountains of shoes, no feet, no legs, shoes. They counted us into a barracks, somebody got the information that this was Bergen-Belsen. And that night the woman screamed continually, no bunks, and she gave birth to maybe a half pound, a pound, large infant. The infant died immediately. She didn’t even know she was pregnant. In Bergen Belsen there was no water, there was hardly any food. There were open, open, not even ditches, open huge pits with bodies, naked bodies. Most of them were decaying in green.. There was a tremendous amount of typhoid. There was no work to be done, I mean no work details, nothing. We were there approximately I would guess two weeks, give or take. And then one morning we saw the SS on the other side of the wire and they had white armbands n their left sleeve. It didn’t mean much to us. Everything was the same, maybe less food, but they didn’t come into the camp _ they as a rule they didn’t_ and by lunch time we heard enormous noises. And then we saw tanks rolling in the main avenue. That was it.
I started working for the English that afternoon. (crying pause)
I: Did you have any idea what was going on?
E: No. None. Nothing in and nothing out. The British didn’t know. They had no idea what they were finding and they were looking for interpreters because they had trouble with this multitude of languages. I could manage a couple of them, not all of them, but at least for the Hungarian Jews I could speak Yiddish. With the Polish Jews, either Polish or Yiddish. With the Russians, I sort of spoke some Polish or Russian, but they were not Jewish, the Russian prisoners. And they had no idea what they had found. They found people, that night they dispersed food stuffs from the German warehouses and there were two pound cans of pork and fat. And being hungry you open them and you eat; by the morning you are dead. That’s how we lost Ellie’s mother. Ellie got very sick and she couldn’t even eat, by then she had tuberculosis, she lost a lung in the meantime. And for some reason I had the common sense to ask the major for whom I worked for some biscuits and I didn’t eat the pork. I just ate dry biscuits, the first day the second day, we went from barrack to barrack. And he wanted to talk to the people and to know where they’re from. And half of them couldn’t even talk to them, you know, it was too late.
There was a man who had a knife in his hand, he must have weighed almost seventy pounds. And he was slicing away at a corpse and eating the raw flesh. It was unreal. Because you walked around, you could see it, I think the first order was to bring water and food and bury the dead. And to have some hospitals opened. While they made many mistakes, they also did a lot of good. I mean they tried. I worked for them as an interpreter until they had to rush me out of Germany in December 1945. Sometimes a translator, once I was asked to translate when they had caught a German who never was in the Army, who never was an SS, after much interrogation it turned out he was SS. He was stationed in Oranienburg, and towards the end of the interrogation the major took his gun out of his holster, released the safety and put it in front of me. I picked it up but I couldn’t shoot. I couldn’t. And then I asked him if he was interested in the 42 SS from the camp near Hamburg. I had memorized their names and addresses from just doing the paperwork. And he said, yes, let’s pick them up.
We picked them up except for two. They were found in Southern Germany. They stood trial, I think October 1945. They were convicted, various sentences, some pleaded with me for intervention and mercy. They were so good, why couldn’t I understand that? And two of them were sentenced to death, the two commanders, and then some of the families made threats. We are going to get her. I was a witness at the trial. I don’t remember anything. I remember going in, I remember being asked whether I would speak English or German, I said English please, and I don’t remember anything. Nothing. Blank.
I: This was the 42 SS at what camp?
E: Erzassel. And then threats started coming a few weeks later. The English War Crimes division wrote a letter to the American Embassy in Paris and said help her to get out. They drove me and three other young women first to Holland, the Dutch didn’t want to let civilians in out of Germany. So we turned the car around, drove through a riverbed, the Dutch shooting after us, and entered Holland illegally. Then we went to Belgium, same day, and we got to Brussels. And the captain who was in charge, was the captain and the driver of the car, knew some people in Belgium, in Brussels, and we spent the night there. Although the lady did not want to have prisoners in her house so we had to stay in the hallway. The next morning the three girls remained in Brussels and we crossed the French border. The French border was, compared to Holland, Belgium, almost elegant. I had a so called visa from a young officer in Bergen-Belsen, whose name was rather famous, his father used to be a cabinet minister. And he was just a young officer, in the French Army, stationed in Bergen-Belsen. He made out a entry permit for me. And the French, when they saw his name which was Francois P., they said of course. Not this government, but the government before that, he was also a minister. But I’ve never seen him again.
We drove as far as Lille. In Lille we parked the car, we were terribly hungry and the three of us went into a small restaurant. And we had a terrible chicken dinner and some wine and an awful dessert that was sticky. And someone in the corner was playing the accordion. Captain A. and I had one foxtrot. I always thought he was very nice but I knew he was engaged to be married so I wasn’t going to waste my time. We went, came outside, and the car was stolen. It was a British Army car with the insignia, everything on it, number, serial number, gone. The little luggage I had was gone. So we walked to the railroad station, he bought a third class ticket for me. To Paris, and he said, when you get to Paris, get to the Jewish youth hostel. Don’t get lost, you have enough French, otherwise use any other kind of language. And he put me into the compartment, I rolled down the window. We talked for awhile, we shook hands, and I asked him, why did you do this? What made you take these chances? He said, he was a Jew, he lived in Berlin, he left in ’36. He got out in time. And we see each other every year.
I arrived at Paris at 4 in the morning. Eventually I found the youth hostel, I knew some people there who had been at Bergen Belsen. Then I started the Catch 22 with the American Embassy. We’ll give you a visa if you bring us passage. But there was no passage, there were only empty troop ships, or regimental ships going back. It cost $600 to get a ticket, my uncle in Palestine sent the $600. He also sent a certificate and I had entry into Palestine. I got the visa in February ’46. My family in Israel made the mistake to send a cousin who was in the English army and he put the pressure on to go to Palestine. And they also decided who I was going to marry.
I: You had two uncles in Palestine?
E: My mother had a brother in Israel, there was lots of family at that time. They all had gotten together and made the decisions for me. That didn’t work anymore. I was 21 years old and the decisions were going to be mine. I was not going to be told by aunts and uncles, now you do this, now you do that. So I decided to go to America and my cousin sat on the train with me, all the way to Bordeaux arguing, it didn’t help. I went on a Merchant Marine ship to New York, took twenty two days, and I left him behind. Even back home, the family was very angry. At first they didn’t write but then they changed their mind. They thought I had made a great mistake. But I don’t think I made a mistake. I mean I wouldn’t have minded living in Israel, on the contrary. But what I did mind is being told what to do. That I couldn’t take.
I: Did you know who you were supposed to marry, at all?
E: Yes, I, very good looking, very stupid.
I: When was your first contact with them, how did they find out that you had survived?
E: Three days after liberation I asked the major whether he would post a letter over his name. I would write the letter, he would mail it, over his army number, into Palestine. And he did and I had an answer a week later. Because I knew the address, it was important.
I: I’d like to go back a little if I could. When you were working in the office, did you take it upon yourself to memorize…
E: No, but if you, not consciously, but if you have a roster of forty names. I also had a roster of five hundred Jewish prisoners. But if you have a roster of forty two names, with addresses, and you keep writing it and rewriting it over a period of six months, it sticks. It was just there, just like you memorize a phone number you use over and over.
I: Who was the, the commander, head of the office, who would be in a foul mood…
E: Well there were three of them, we started out with one and then he was transferred…
I: And what was his name?
E: At this point I’m really not sure of the names. I mean they’re available in the German records. But fifty years, I don’t retain them, I didn’t want to retain them. When he was replaced with the second one, who was a very high ranking Army officer before the war and then turned into SS. So he had an education and he had some, what should I say, some basic background. But he was trained to behave a certain way and he behaved accordingly. And the third one used to be a gardener in Southern Germany, stuck into an SS uniform. He could barely read or write. And he was vicious. He had little brown squinty eyes and he was the nastiest of them all. He was vicious. His son wrote me, that his father had been convicted and so on and so forth, would I please write a letter and intervene. I threw it away. I should have saved these but in those days, you didn’t think that way.
I: Did you know anything about the medical experiments that were going on there?
E: I heard about it in Auschwitz, there were rumors. There were rumors about twins and some of the other things, but I didn’t see and I didn’t hear, these were just whispered rumors.
I: Neither at Auschwitz or Neuengamme, you didn’t hear anything about these?
E: No, no, there were just rumors that this was done.
I: You said you saw, the people were beaten frequently. Were you beaten yourself? Was this in the office? In front of people?
E: Yes, yes. Well, if you committed a grave offense, like there was Mrs. Kron and she used to be the wife of one of ghetto police chiefs. So she was not used to any kind of deprivation or any kind of hardship. When she came to the work camp, she couldn’t work fast enough and she couldn’t work fast enough. And she had a fifteen year old daughter. And she was very conspicuous, and the one thing were not to be was conspicuous. She had large feet and her blonde hair of course was gone. She had a very grotesque face that rested on sort of a funny neck and a strange figure _ very uncoordinated. One time she walked out of line, she didn’t keep up the proper speed, and the commandant flew into rage, and she had to kneel in the middle and we had to stand around her. And he beat her mercilessly. There was just nothing left but flesh and bone. Just horrible.
I: In front of her daughter?
I: And the daughter could not break ranks, the daughter could not respond, if she responded she would receive the same kind of punishment?
E: The same thing. We couldn’t even pick her up. We had to wait, it was a little later, But I don’t think she survived.
I: And her daughter?
E: Her daughter lives in Albany, New York. I’ve never seen her again but I know people who have talked to her.
I: I’d like to go back to your entrance into camp. Were you aware of any selection going on as soon as you got off the train and you were separated, the men on one side and you…
E: No, we just naively assumed that there was a separation between male and female. And the second selection between young and old, we assumed that the older ones would probably be treated a little more considerately or better or whatever.
I: So, in effect, there were selections going on but you weren’t aware that these..
E: The implications, no.
I: Was Mengele present upon your arrival?
E: If he was, I wouldn’t have known. Upon departure, in that selection we were told, and by then we knew of him. Since we had to walk past him at a three feet distance you couldn’t miss it.
I: Could you describe him?
E: Not really. Because all I saw was a uniform. And I made it a point not to look right and not to look left, and he was on my right. And I didn’t look. I had a glance but not to draw you a composite picture, to take to the police station for identification, no.
I: It was dangerous to look at him.
E: It was. It was dangerous to look at any SS because they considered that provocation. So you didn’t look.
I: You kept your face to the ground?
I: Were there, at that point of time, were you aware of many transports coming in during your stay in Auschwitz?
E: Not really, we were aware that the ghetto was being liquidated. The ghetto had 150,000 people, give or take, it varied. A transport had probably, roughly, a thousand at a time. So, we knew they would be coming in but we were not mixed together. We got no word from outside, nothing.
I: But were the chimneys always smoking?
E: During the time I was there, they worked overtime.
I: Could you describe the chimneys and the smoke and the smell?
E: Well first of all I wasn’t in front of them, I was at a distance. So all you could see is like a factory type chimney, sticking up into the sky. And the smoke was black, very smelly and very black. I was close enough away to walk there yet far enough away not to actually see the building, it was obstructed by other buildings.
I: How far apart were, you entered Auschwitz, the camp of Auschwitz.
E: Actually Birkenau, which is part of Auschwitz.
I: How were they separated, actually?
E: I didn’t know, I found out in May. Auschwitz are all brick buildings, more or less prison like. About 5 kilometers from there is a camp that is nothing but barracks, surrounded by wire, the chimneys, and that’s it. But, you know, miles of it, as far as the eye can reach.
I: A city?
E: Yes, so they are totally two different entities in terms. I think they housed permanent prisoners, political prisoners, they housed in the stone type buildings. The Jews, which they either destroyed or sent to work camps or they housed in those barracks, which probably had to be built because there were just, millions of them.
I: Can you remember your awareness, at what point in time did you become aware what the purpose of this concentration camp was for?
E: A couple of days. And then you only had one choice; you could either hope, or you could stop caring, or you could walk to the wire and electrocute. Those were the three choices. And most of us just vegetated, we didn’t want to think, we didn’t want to talk, nothing.
I: And for what would you be hoping?
E: A miracle. We didn’t hope for a God, because there was no God, obviously. But for a miracle, some unreal miracle. I had hoped for a slice of bread or for meeting (….), I had hoped for a miracle that maybe the English will fall out of the sky or something. I don’t know.
I: Were you aware at this time in Auschwitz, of the progress of the Allies against the Germans at all? Did you have any conception whatsoever?
E: No. I didn’t even when I was back in Hamburg, back in the camp. I had no idea how close it was. I didn’t know that Holland and Belgium had been liberated. I didn’t know that Poland had been liberated. See people, I once was at a camp that mainly housed men, I was taken along to do some translating. I was sitting on the back of a truck, tied to the rails. And there was a young man scrubbing the floor and he was in uniform. He looked horrible. I was actually in Neuengamme and he talked to me in a language I couldn’t identify. He couldn’t understand me. He smiled, he had no teeth. He kept saying, “Krieg kaput.” War finished. I’d heard that for five years, I wasn’t about to believe that one. The SS who saw him, you know fairly close scrubbing the floor, hit him and pushed him away and scolded him in vile language to bring clean water and to scrub better. He took the bucket and he came back, I hoped he would come back, ten minutes later with clean water. In his hand was a little ball of brown paper and he sort of gave it a push next to my foot. And I watched and watched, I looked right and left. He smiled and I smiled. When I thought I was safe I picked up the little piece of paper, stuck it in my pocket. And later on I found out it was dry bread that had been half eaten and crumbled.
I: And this was in Neuengamme?
I: Did you ever find out his name?
E: There were thousands of people, thousands.
I: Did you ever, you said you kind of, did you give up or you weren’t among those who would walk to the wires?
E: I had contemplated it. But then, I said, well let’s wait a little.
I: Did you and Ellie, your friend, did you cheer each other up, did you talk to each other, did you make it a point to stay together throughout the day?
E: We made it a point to stay together. In fact at one point when we had numbers and names, they said to line up alphabetically. Her name started with an S. So I just changed mine to an S and she was very upset with me. She said, what if they ask? Well, I’ll just say I married your brother someplace and joined the line. I knew there were no records to really prove it. It was still a chance I took. And that way we stayed together.
I: So during the day, you tried to work together and stay together?
E: We worked together as much as we could.
I: So at Auschwitz?
E: In Auschwitz we stayed completely together. In Dessauer Ufer we stayed completely together.
I: You were with her mother as well?
E: Her mother and her aunt. In Sasel, I was in the office and she was not. But we saw each other every night.
I: Now her father was Oscar S., who was quite an elderly fellow wasn’t he?
E: He wasn’t that elderly, no. You must be thinking of Oscar R..
I: I looked up that date and it said 1883, I believe, that he was born?
E: Eighty three? It could be, no 83, it could have been ’93. No ’83, definitely not. He was about the age of my father, give or take, he was in his fifties. No, he wasn’t that old.
I: So at any rate, his wife must have been in rather good shape to have made it all the way to Bergen-Belsen with you.
E: Yes, she was, she was, she became a very nervous woman, a very angry woman. Very difficult. And she could have lived. She could have lived.
I: She could have lived, how do you mean that?
E: If she hadn’t eaten the three pounds of pork and lard, she would have made it another three, four days, and would have gotten some other food. She could have made it. But whatever somebody couldn’t eat, she still took and ate. Not only her own ration but everybody else’s too. That, she just couldn’t do it.
I: During this time particularly, were you ever blaming, what were the things that you thought about sometimes?
E: I blamed my parents for not going out of Germany when the going was still possible.
I: Did you think about it a lot, or was it something that..
E: No, there was no point to it. It was too late. We could have all lived had we left, we could have all left at a given time. We didn’t.
I: When your father obtained visa, which he turned down because it was only a three day visa, was that for him alone?
E: No for all of us, for all four of us.
I: And at that point in time that could have been the change, the turning point for you?
E: We could have gotten to, in the early thirties, to Palestine.
I: So during the worse period of this, of going from Auschwitz to the camps, the things you thought about, did you ruminate about your past, did you wonder what might have been?
E: No, the past was very far away, very distant. There was no point wasting energy on it. It would not come back, it would never be back, it was.
I: Did you know that? Did you make a conscious decision?
E: I knew that. Yes. I didn’t know whether there would be a tomorrow or a future, but I knew the past was gone. There was no retrieving it.
I: What do you think sustained you?
E: Age. Youth. I don’t know, a little bit of luck, some good friends. That’s about it.
I: When you arrived in America, what happened to you?
E: I had a classmate who went to high school with me and left for England in ’39. And who stayed at our house prior to leaving. And she helped me. Her family took me in for two weeks. And she got me a job in a factory sewing gloves, which I hated. And I found a furnished room.
I: Where was this?
E: In New York.
I: In the city?
E: No, in Sunnyside, in Queens. I made thirty dollars a week and I paid $5 on taxes, $8 on rent, the rest on clothing. Very little on food. The rest on clothing. I could live on a candy bar but I needed clothing desperately.
I: Did you share with your experiences, and what was the reaction?
E: No, nobody knew. It was nobody’s business.
I: This was something you did not want to talk about.
E: No, nobody asked me, nobody really cared, and I didn’t care to volunteer.
I: I want to go back, just for a second, to the day of liberation. It’s been written that the British soldiers had no idea. Did the other women around you, did they believe it? When did you know it was for real?
E: Nobody believed it. First of all they didn’t let us out of the camp. They came in through the gate and they asked somebody to please speak English to them. There were several of us who could. And then they asked questions and then they told us that the Germans are gone, finished. And then it sort of sank in. But it wasn’t sort of a screaming, jubilant occasion. It wasn’t. It was subdued.
I: It sounds like you were functioning and on your feet.
E: Sort of. I had two badly damaged kidneys. I was fighting, at the date of liberation, typhus.
I: Was that from dehydration?
E: No, I don’t think so. I had kidney trouble already in the ghetto. I don’t know what it’s from. It’s from the war, but not exactly what caused it. I was on my feet, but that’s about all you could say. My brain was working, my body was not functioning. And I had a terrible, terrible trouble with what you, I don’t know what you call it in English, the skin infections that go into huge boils that you have to lance. They are caused in wars and from malnutrition. You get them all over, on your neck and on your head and your legs. It’s very painful and very, they leave horrible scars. These are the things, compared to others, I was pretty much okay. You know, it’s relative.
I: Where did you learn English?
E: I learned English in the third or fourth grade. I was really poor at it. The English teacher who was “English” English called my parents to school and said, that kid is hopeless, get her a tutor. Three times a week privately and they did. After a year I was straight A in English, no trouble at all, I just had trouble catching up.
I: Did your parents speak English?
E: None at all. They spoke French, Polish, Russian. No English.
I: How did you keep up your English?
E: Well I went to school until ’41 and I used my English. I also had French and Latin, but not as much as English. And once I had occasion in ’45, I just decided to talk, it was more English than American. I’m great at improvising. If I miss a word, I’ll talk around it, in any language, whether it’s Polish or Hebrew or whatever it is, I’ll talk around it.
I: You worked with the British Army at one point, did they make you a soldier?
E: No, a civilian employee.
I: You were a civilian employee. At that point, how long was it before you were taken out of Bergen-Belsen?
E: I could have gone earlier. I thought I would get papers directly to Bergen-Belsen, get out of there, I didn’t realize that you, there really was no way of getting out of there. Because nothing went out of Germany. But I was waiting for my family to do something, I had two cousins in the army, so I assumed that somebody would take some action. They took me out in December, November, December ’45, mainly because they were afraid somebody would kill me.
I: During that time, where did you live between the time of liberation and this time?
E: Not far from Bergen Belsen was some permanent army housing. Brick type housing, it was sort of like you would imagine a college dormitory. Individual rooms, then a huge bathroom at the end, and no kitchens. And they relocated us into that particular building. One of those buildings, there were hundreds of them.
I: Did they have hot water?
E: Yes, they did have hot water. They had toilets, but down the hall. And they put about six or eight people in one room.
I: After what you had been through, what was that like? Was it a substantial improvement or..
E: No, it was clean. It was very clean. There was food, not necessarily the food you wanted to eat, but very starchy food. You had freedom. If you had a pass you could get out of camp, which I did. I made friends with several English, men and women, in the English Army.
I: How quickly did you regain your strength and health?
E: My health I didn’t regain for about fifteen years. Needed a lot of work, including my teeth. Strength, superficially, was back within a few months. I was bloated, I was about 150 pounds.
I: This was water.
E: You know, the kidneys didn’t function, the food wasn’t right. But I did what I wanted to do, I worked. I did not want to go to doctors or to a hospital. And I guess on a scale of one to ten, I probably came out six or seven or eight, or something like that.
I: Now why didn’t you want to go to the doctors, or a hospital?
E: Because there was this old fear, still from the ghetto, if you were in the hospital you were deported or something bad would happen. We could not imagine that a British Army hospital would be just what it was, a hospital. We thought, you know maybe they’ll stack you up, one on top of the other, and you’ll just vegetate. So there was a great deal of mistrust there.
I: So while you’re speaking of distrust and actually it would become an emotional reaction to your experience, am I correct in saying that when you came to America and you didn’t share this that you were still not trusting?
E: No, I was very trusting. This was a country without prejudice, without discrimination, the country of the free, I trusted everybody.
I: And is that true, did you find that?
E: No. I went for on a job interview in Manhattan and I found out a Jew couldn’t get a job, not in that particular office. So I was just devastated, I had not expected that.
I: Did you think of going to Palestine at that point?
E: No, not at that point. No, the family was too old fashioned, too European. Too strong, both in numbers and opinions, and I really did not want to do battle.
I: You mentioned how they had all arranged everything for you. And you said you weren’t going to do that. How much of that came from the fact you were twenty one?
E: It had nothing to do with twenty one, nothing at all. I could have been seventeen, it wouldn’t have made a difference.
I: After what you had been through?
E: I’d lived on my own for five years. I’d been through hell and back. While they were well meaning and kind people, I could not have somebody control me to that extent. I been controlled for too long. I couldn’t.
I: So you were living in New York and you were working in a factory. And then what?
E: And then I met my husband at a party?
I: Now how did that come about?
E: Somebody invited me for dinner and he was there. When he heard my name he said, you were in the ghetto. Because somebody told him. I said yes. And he said, did you meet the (E.’s)? And I said, yes, I knew them very well. One day we walked from Riga Park to Woodside, takes about four hours, and I told him the story. Just once, not a second time. We went out a great deal, we went to concerts. Then he said, go to school, learn to type. And I went to school and learned to type. And I took some college courses at Hunters College at night. But I still couldn’t type, I couldn’t learn to type. I can still type, a hundred words a minute with four fingers. Then I got a job at an office, downtown Manhattan, they just wanted to sure I knew English. I said, I’ll outspell you anytime. I talked to the president of the company that used to make those electric trains, Lionel, that used to whistle, probably your father played with them. I worked there and they had a great many Jews in the office, practically all Jews, the president was Jewish. I became very friendly with the office manager and she said, learn the dictaphone. So I learned the dictaphone. And I had a very good job until 1949, when a friend of my husband’s came from California to New York and said, come to San Francisco. I have a small factory. You work for me. So we packed up the car, we sold the two room apartment, and we moved to California.
I: When did you get back?
E: Forty-nine, at the end of 1949, and we moved to California. In California, I worked for Westinghouse, and then I had the children and I worked only a little bit, part time. Then I went back to school, California College of Arts and Crafts. I did a lot of painting, a lot of artistry, I loved it. And when the kids were old enough to be to three o’clock in school, I went to Golden Gate College and got an insurance license and credentials and I got a job. I worked at that job, no between two jobs, for twenty years. And I retired in ’85, ’86.
I: And what was your husband’s profession?
E: He was a businessman, he was in marketing. He had gone to school and studied economics at the University of Brussels. Then he made the mistake and he went back to Germany. He was arrested and the family got him out with a forged visa to Cuba. And he was on one of the three boats, one was turned back, the Voyage of the Damned, well he was on the one that landed the week before. He was a farmer in Cuba for two years and then he came to New York and he was drafted right away. He was four years in the Army, overseas, in intelligence, because he speaks six languages so he was in intelligence.
I: You said that you didn’t tell your children until they were much older.
E: When they took off for college, I told them where I was and when I was there. But no details.
I: Have they ever heard?
E: They’ve read them. The ones I’ve got on paper, they’ve read them. And they really don’t, what should I say, they can’t cope really with the past. The younger one was on a bike trip in Germany when he was in graduate school, and he was in Munich. And the leader took him to Dachau. I said, did you find your grandfather’s name? He said, yes, but he wouldn’t talk. The older one has been to Germany three times. Once to Berlin, once to Kiel, and once I think to Constance on conferences, he’s an economist. And he said, I can’t relate to those people. They have to speak English because the language in economics is English, the only language that is spoken. He says I can’t cope with them, they obviously know I’m a Jew by that name, but nobody would dare and say something. And he goes in and out, a day, two days, out.
I: You’ve mentioned that you’ve traveled. But you’ve been back to…
E: Yes, not to Germany. I was in Germany back right after the war because I lived there.
I: But since, to America…
E: I’ve been to Switzerland, France, Belgium, Holland, you name it. Scandinavia.
I: You’ve been to Holland too?
E: This May, took me fifty years to go back and it wasn’t easy.
I: Was it harder than you expected or easier than you expected?
E: It was neither harder nor easier. It was painful. The cemetery was painful. The ghetto was painful. The Jewish community, or what exists of it, of the temples, of the synagogues, was pitiful. It was so….it was not even a remnant. The poverty among the Jews is painful. Anti-semitism is well and alive.
I: Was there a great deal of anti-semitism as a child do you remember?
E: Yes, yes, this was one of the reasons my father said that Germany or France are much more civilized. And they don’t have the pogroms that we have. I want my kids to grow up there. They happened to be wrong but it was a good idea.
I: Do you remember, did your father ever talk about the pogroms?
E: My mother did, once, when I was quite young told me. She was the youngest of eight children. She was very beautiful, smart, black hair, brown eyes, white skin, and there was a warning in town. The Cossacks are coming or there’s going to be a pogrom. So grandmother hid that youngest child, the youngest daughter, I guess the other one was hidden someplace else, I don’t know. They hid the little one, must have been seven, in the kitchen stove, in the old fashioned kitchen stove. She told me that story. Now I couldn’t imagine what a pogrom was. I also didn’t know what Cossacks were. I also didn’t know what it means to kill Jews. I listened to this and then I said to my mother, it must have been summer. And she said why? You couldn’t have hid in the stove otherwise. So I had no concept, none. That came much later. I didn’t know about killing or persecuting.
I: What was your reaction to all the changes that occurred in Germany, like the Nuremberg Laws?
E: In a way it was frightening, because you were exposed to it on a day to day basis. The kids were harassed very much in streetcars, on street corners, yet it probably wasn’t as frightening to me until 1939 as to some others. Because I still hid behind this foreign national. It gave you a false security, it gave you some larger food rations. But we were very aware of what was going on. We did not wear a star until Poland lost the war. The other Jews did, we did not have to. So it was a, you were just fooling yourself, you were kidding yourself.
I: Were you subject to all the laws that the German Jews were subject to?
E: No, no, we did not have to hand in any silver. We did not have to hand in the gold, no, the Nuremberg Laws did not apply to us until 1939.
I: And, I believe it was in 1939, all of the Jews in Germany had to change their names to Sara and Israel.
E: No, no, that did not apply to us either, because we did not have German papers. So, but the moment Poland lost the war in September 1939, you know, it was no difference, it was the same story. A Jew was a Jew.
I: Now you started off in a Jewish school. Many German Jewish children were in public schools and then were forced out.
E: We had an influx, gradually, of Jewish children. The later it got, you know it started in ’34, ’33, the later it got the small towns, the small I wouldn’t even say villages, small towns, very small towns, they had to take the children out immediately, you know if they had four or five Jewish kids. The bigger towns, medium sized towns, took a little longer. But eventually all kids had to get out of non-Jewish schools. They were either with their parents or without their parents, shipped into the larger cities to attend Jewish schools.
I: Were there, were new Jewish schools created?
E: No, nothing. They were closed, not created.
I: You mentioned your graduation. What was that like, can you remember?
E: No, it wasn’t like anything. You finish today and tomorrow you didn’t go back. That was it.
I: There was no ceremony.
E: There were very few of us in ’41 and shortly thereafter there was a law passed that the schools had to be closed permanently. So between that time and between the time they had deported all the Jews, the kids had no education whatsoever. No school.
I: As a high school student, children in this school, did you all talk about what was going on?
E: No, we only talked about going someplace. Going to Palestine, going to Bolivia, even going to Madagascar. It was just a matter of going someplace, wherever a door would be open. That was all that mattered and the children were excited by it, it’s exciting to go on a trip, to go someplace.
I: I’m going to jump ahead for a second. There’s something you mentioned, as an aside, the woman who was the Kapo at Auschwitz. You said you ran into her at Altman’s.
E: Yes, I was at Altman’s, let’s see it must have been 1947, in New York. And it was cold, it was fall. I needed a pair of gloves that did, from California you don’t take gloves. And I went into Altman’s on Fifth Avenue, I was alone I didn’t go with friends. I went to the glove counter to get tied on gloves. And I couldn’t decide whether to get red ones or black ones. There was a lady next to me, much taller than I, very black hair, even, naturally died and sort of cut almost like a man’s cut. Very short. Very striking. Well dressed. She was trying on gloves and she smiled. And I don’t know why or what but I turned and I looked at her. And she looked at me. And I said, Maya. That wasn’t a question, it was a statement. And she said, yes, how do you know? I said, Auschwitz. And she turned white. She said, oh I can explain, I had to, it was really bad, and I didn’t kill anybody. She just beat us, she didn’t kill us. And it just sort of burst out of her, that she really wasn’t bad.
I: In English, or in Polish?
E: No, in English, we spoke in English. And I said, what about the SS that came at night to visit you? She didn’t deny it. When I looked at her hands and she wore a wedding band. I said, you’re married? She said, Yes. I said, whom did you marry? I’m not normally that fresh or that nosy. And she didn’t answer. She didn’t answer. I said, not the SS? And she said, yes. He followed me from camp to camp, in occupied Germany, I couldn’t get rid of him, he even followed me to New York. And then I decided, that there was no point running away from him, he’s really quite a decent sort. And we both have our past. I looked at her and I said, do you have children? She said, no. I said, I pity them. I hope you never have them. And I turned and I walked.
I: And did it stick with you for the rest of the day, what did you think?
E: Oh, the rest of the day. My girlfriend, I went back to my boyfriend’s house in Manhattan, and she said, what’s the matter with you? I said, I just saw a nightmare walking through in Altman’s. She said, put it out of your mind. It won’t help. You can call up the FBI and report them if you want them. And I said no.
I: You also ran into that Head of the Department of Labor on the street and you didn’t want to do anything. Why was that?
E: A Jew is a Jew. To point a finger at another Jews is very hard for me. Some of us are guilty, some of us are very guilty. Some of us are clean, some of us are not so clean. I got off that train, maybe somebody would have went in my place? I don’t know. I couldn’t point a finger at another Jew. I might detest them, I might not like them, but unless he really killed another human being, I would not point a finger. I can’t.
I: Did this woman, and this man, did they have reason to fear you? Were there things that you could have used truly to deport them?
E: He, definitely. She, to some extent.
I: Then why did the Jobs Commissioner run, from shame?
E: Well he drew up some lists for deportations, they came out of his office. He was very arrogant. He was very unpleasant. Very unsympathetic. And you don’t open a door for a sixteen year old and yell like a German. You just don’t do that. He was born in Hannover, he went to school in Hannover until he was about 18, and then he was pushed over the border in ’38 to Poland. And he just thought the world was his. And it turned out this way. His wife lived next door to us in the ghetto, she was married to a policeman. She divorced him. She married him. He came to New York, he changed his name.
I: Do you know what his name was?
E: In the ghetto? That’s a matter of record. Bernard F.. His sister was Dora F.. That’s in the books. That’s in the record. He came to New York, he has a very good job as an importer, an exporter, I’m not sure. He lives out in a very affluent neighborhood. He has two children. He stays away from the Jewish community. He does not give interviews and if he does, his wife runs interference. She is a lot smarter than he is.
I: Is wife a survivor?
I: Do you think she knows the truth about him?
E: Oh yes, she knew, she married him in the ghetto. It was practical to marry him. I mean, he had all the worldly needs that you needed at that time. Food and housing and clothing. She was very well off.
I: So you (loitered him news, gave him the news).
E: Oh yes, Lucjan D. set up an interview with him and he came. The moment he asked the question and F. started to answer, his wife ran interference to the point that you couldn’t even talk. So Lucjan gave up and he’s pretty determined.
I: So what happened to Dora?
E: Dora died. She married one of the (J.) brothers, the younger one, who also was ghetto administration, and she died after the war. Probably New York, I’m not entirely sure. But she was nasty, she was very sure of herself, very good looking, she could not stand another woman in her presence. Once when I applied for a job in the offices because I spoke German, she couldn’t get me out there fast enough. She was not pleasant. But she was smart, she had a brain.
I: What was her job in the ghetto?
E: She was a right hand to (O.), both in language and in execution. Because she could run interference with the Germans, she could translate for him, and..
I: Do you think her looks had anything to do with it?
E: She was not a raving beauty. She was good looking, but nothing exceptional. No, I don’t think so. I just think she was very very bright, very smart, and she had the ability to juggle the two languages that were needed at that point. And she was at the ghetto at the start. When it was first founded, whatever you want to call it.
I: For the record, not that I’ve run across any, but were there any Gentiles that helped any of the Jews in the ghetto?
E: There were no Gentiles in the ghetto.
I: Who helped in any kind of way? Was there any mention of help?
E: You couldn’t get near the barbed wire. If you came too close to the barbed wire they shot.
I: What about your family when it was in Germany, between the time when your father was deported and you were deported, was there any help from outside Gentile business friends at all?
E: No, none. There were two, three instances that you might construe as help. My father had a lawyer, who took care of the real estate and things of that sort. When they blocked our account and gave us $100 a month to live on, whatever it was, he would sort of put in a bill for a plumber or something, to smuggle some money out for us. It was our money, but we couldn’t get it. That was the sum total of help we got from him. The man who packed our belongings and shipped them in huge, huge crates, sort of containers, to Israel, to Palestine, I wrote him a postcard from the ghetto. We left him also some money to set a stone on my father’s grave or the ashes or whatever it is. And he sent twenty marks to the ghetto. After the war, when I was in New York, he reminded me of it. And I sent more than twenty dollars worth of food to him.
And when we worked in the shipyards, cleaning up, and I had this enormous infection on the left hand. The man who ran the canteen used to have a shop not far from the area where my father had the wine cellars. He said he remembered, I don’t know, it was a working class neighborhood, it was not a residential neighborhood _ on the first of May you saw red flags only, not a national flag, until Hitler of course_ he said he remembered my father. My father once gave him a bottle of wine, I’m not sure. He took me into the kitchen for three days and he made me eat everything that I could just possibly swallow. Which was difficult because you couldn’t eat. He didn’t let me take anything out, because it was dangerous. And he gave me an old, torn leather jacket. I never saw him again, I don’t have his name. I think these are the only instances that I could tell you that even remotely resembled help.
I: Well, in the same vein through the rest of your intern in the ghetto and in the concentration camps, see any acts of compassion whatsoever by SS?
E: There was, in return for favors. The camp at Sasel had a Jewish camp leader, she was the head of the Jewish group. She had one of the corporals of the SS from another camp come every week to visit and bring food. But she paid for it in return.
I: How did she pay?
E: They locked themselves up in some storage room. Sex. They were occasionally some people, when we marched, that would drop an apple or something.
I: Was it dangerous for them to do so?
E: Probably. Probably. But the Germans are not known for courage, danger or no danger, that is not their strong point. There was, I would say, I can’t say there was no compassion at all, but there was so little it was pitiful.
I: At the end of the war, I think, were you embittered?
E: I was angry, I was terribly angry.
I: How did you deal with your anger?
E: I worked for the English, and let them tell me when to be angry and not to be angry. That was easier. I was angry, I was terribly impatient. I walked into the police headquarters in Hamburg and asked them for a duplicate of a birth certificate. That’s city hall; they said come back tomorrow. I said, you’re out of your mind. Not only do I want it today, I want it now. I give you five minutes. Luckily I didn’t go alone, I went with an officer. I said, slam the gun on the table. And he did and I had my birth certificate.
I: You had a chance to work out some of your anger?
E: Some of my anger I worked. I still don’t like the Germans. I see them in an elevator in France, or I see them in Italy in a restaurant, in their noisy, ugly way, and I still don’t like them. Especially my generation.
I: Have you been invited back by Hamburg? Will you go?
E: I did go for two days. Because my son was in Paris and he said, I want to see. So he came in, he lasted one day, I didn’t last that long, and we flew out into Paris. I couldn’t. I couldn’t. I couldn’t stomach the people, the places I could cope with. I could not cope with today’s bureaucracy. I could also not cope with Hamburg’s Jews. I went to the synagogue and I could not cope with them. They are, they’re different. there a lot of Iranian Jews there, some German Jews. On a national basis, they’re assimilated. Not on a religious basis. They have made their peace. I don’t know whether they have ever heard about not forgetting. I’m not talking about forgiving, this is unforgivable, but about not forgetting. The girl who worked in the office with me in the camps lived for thirty years in Hamburg. She married a Jewish boy from Poland, she lived in Hamburg, and had a child there.
There is something wrong with the people. When they picked us up at the airport, they picked us up with the Secret Service. Now I wanted to know whether I needed to be protected from the Germans or the Germans from me. That never was quite clear. But I do not like a guard, I don’t like a guard anyplace, I take my chances. The hotel was sort of a Holiday Inn type hotel. I figure if you invite somebody, you either put them up at the Fairmont or not at all. The mayor of the city is the brother of the conductor of the (V.). He was the conductor, a well known conductor. He’s well educated, his father was a German officer. He was killed in the overthrow attempt at Hitler. But he did not put in an appearance. Jews were not important enough. His substitute made a statement to the effect that the past is past, and what happened happened, and we can only sincerely trust that it won’t repeat itself. I found that unacceptable and I said so right then and there. I made more enemies than I made friends, in one day.
I: You stood up? After he spoke?
E: Yes, I stood up afterwards. I refused to be filmed. Whenever the newsreel came near, I turned my back, I did not want to be on television. I sat between two gentlemen at the luncheon. Not that I could eat, I couldn’t. One of them was a friend of Adenauer, he was instrumental in the peace treaty, or the financial arrangements between Germany and Israel. He knew Ben Gurion, he knew everybody, anybody worth while knowing. He must have been in his seventies. He also went to school with a friend of mine in Berkeley. And he threw names around rather liberally. He died a couple of years ago. My question to him was, what did you do from 1933 to 1945. And he didn’t want to answer and I didn’t let go. He said, I sold sewing machines. And I said, and that from a Social Democrat or a Communist in your youth? Do you find that acceptable, I find that totally unacceptable. So that killed the conversation on the right side. On the left side was a young man, and he was in city government, a councilmen or something like that. His claim to fame was that his father was a high ranking officer and he now married his Jewish girlfriend. He was probably fortyish, probably ten years younger than I was at the time, maybe a little older. He lived in the suburb where one of the camps was. He was aware of it. He sent me a brochure that the teachers of the local high school had put together, from the interviewing they had done of the local population. It was full of errors, full of flaws, even the diagram of the camp was flawed. I made corrections and I sent them back and I said, if somebody does research, why don’t they talk to some Jews instead of some Germans? I never heard from them again.
I: You said about forgiveness. What is your stand on forgiving?
E: Forgiving whom?
I: Well, the Germans, your parents.
E: My parents I’ve never accused of anything.
I: You never felt resentment to them.
E: No, no, they did the best they knew how to do. There is no feeling of any kind of resentment. The Germans, I try to keep an open mind towards the young ones although it’s difficult to do. I’ve met four of them recently in Berkeley. And the lack of knowledge and the lack of reading they have done on this subject is appalling. The older ones, there is no forgiving, no forgetting, not for me. But I don’t hate, you can’t live a life and keep on hating. But no forgiving, no forgetting.
I: You said you were angry. Did you carry, how long do you think you really carried a lot of anger with you?
E: I think it ceased the moment I hit New York. I got away from “them”, in quotation marks. And there was no time. I was just too busy, to adjust, to work, to learn, to you know there was no time. To be either angry or anything else.
I: And you still keep in touch with Colonel A. in England?
E: Of course, of course.
I: Is your husband jealous?
E: No. They come here. He’s married. They come here, we go there. His daughter stays with us when she comes.
I: And Ellie?
E: Ellie lives in a kibbutz in Israel. Ellie has no recollection of the past. If you ask her, do you remember our friend, such and such, or do you remember the street going this way? Her answer is no, nothing. But I think it’s a defense mechanism, I think she doesn’t want to. Because once in a while something slips inadvertently. Ellie’s brother in England who defected from Prague after the war, he remembers. But he was very shallow, very fun loving, was a cute kid. He’s still the same Erwin. We see each other we say hello for old time’s sakes but there’s no, no substance. We have nothing in common.
I: And you kept in touch with S. until he died?
E: Well, we saw him ten times. We went to Israel for the first time in ’63, with the children. He wrote to me in Yiddish, I wrote back in English. He wrote about once a month. We phone about twice, three times a year. The last time in January, I think it was, for his birthday. We also have different memories. Some of the things he remembers I don’t and vice versa. He swears that he took me to the shoes factory in the ghetto. And he got me a pair of shoes. I swear equally much that I never got a pair of shoes. He also swears that he got to Auschwitz in October or November of ’44 and he saw me in a rag, pushing a wagon. I never pushed a wagon in Auschwitz and I wasn’t there in November of ’44. So the mind after fifty years is strange. We decided when I was there April a year ago, that we’ll let it rest. I believe what I believe, he believes what he believes.
I: Did he end up with his wife?
E: No. She was killed in Mauthausen. He remarried a school teacher after the war, very nice woman, but she has Alzheimer’s, she is very sick. We were there with them April a year ago, we took a walk in the garden. And he said something and he used to speak in a very low voice. I said, say it louder or walk on my right side, not on my left side. And he said, you still don’t hear? I said, no, I still don’t hear. Couldn’t they fix it? I said, No, they couldn’t fix it. But he said, what actually happened? You were at the Gestapo and the beat you. Why did they beat you? I said I was denounced. And he said, denounced? For what? I said, a radio, I never had a radio, who would do such a thing. And I looked at him a long time and I said, either I tell him now or I never tell him, I’ll go with it to my grave. And I said, Ana, which was his first wife. He said, she did? I said, yes. And he looked at me for a long time and he said, she could do things like that. But I ask you for a favor. Forgive her. I didn’t answer. Because she’s dead. Whether I forgive her or not is immaterial to her and to me, maybe I should . I don’t know.
I: I understand that you are writing a book. What do you hope to achieve by writing your memoirs?
E: Just to tell. The stories are all pretty much alike yet they’re all different. Just to tell them one more story, I think. I don’t write it for my kids, certainly not for my husband.
I: Will your children read it?
E: Yes, one of them in fact corrected one chapter. At least he attempted, it’s not his field, but he attempted and we disagreed but it was an interesting experiment. I’ve given some chapters to some people whose opinion I would value. Such as Elie Wiesel, (Lucien D., Cynthia O.) and the reaction has been very good. So I hope. I also have a friend who is a professor of creative writing and literature. And she does some editing which helps a great deal. Not the content, just the mechanical parts. So maybe, I don’t know, we’ll see.
I: Well, I think that should do it. I think if your book is anything like your interview, it will be a wonderful book and a great addition to literature. Thank you.
Photos: This is my mother and I in 1925 in Hamburg Germany.
2. This is my sister, Karin, in 1936, her first school day in Hamburg, Germany. 6 years old. On the first school day European custom is when you’re picked up from school, you get your picture taken and a huge tube full of sweets to make it a sweet school year.
3. This is I in Hamburg Germany, 1930, first school day. Israelische Madchenschule Carolinenstrasse.
4. This is 1926, with my parents in Poland. It is not at the beach, sand and bucket in photographers studio. About a year old.
5. This was in Germany 1929, I was about 4 years old.
6. This is my father in 1939 in Hamburg just before the outbreak of the war. Old? Born in ’92, so he was 47 years old.
7. This is my sister in Hamburg in 1939.
8: My picture in Hamburg in 1939
9: 1933 in Bad Schwartau in Germany, just before Hitler came to power.
Return to Survivors | Witnesses