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The Journey – A Personal Story-Auschwitz

by Noel Hershfield, Aug 29, 2019

This is a letter written to a friend of ours by her mother:
 
On October 21, 1941, my parents, uncle and I found ourselves travelling on a train to an unknown destination. We are dressed in our finest clothes and each had only one small suitcase.
 
I did not travel often with my parents. My father was a busy lawyer during the day, and his evenings were usually spent playing cards, at his favorite café. My mother was addicted to bridge, and spent her evenings and afternoons at bridge clubs. A cook and a governess looked after me. Each spring my mother would move the house to our country home, where we stayed until the end of August. I would commute to school, called a gymnasium in those days, by train. Our villa was about 20 km from Prague. The only vacation trips I remember as a child, were on the famous Orient Express, when we traveled to a Lakeside resort in Austria, always accompanied by my governess.
 
This was a different trip, not planned by us, but decreed by the Czech Jewish authorities in collaboration with the Gestapo! We were in a group of a thousand people, mostly professionals including lawyers, doctors, directors, engineers and other professionals. All of these people were ordered to relocate. They left behind their houses, apartments, and all worldly goods except one suitcase, that could contain nothing but their clothes.
 
I was 20 years old at the time, and my parents were in their early 50s and 60s, and my uncle, was an older widower. Therefore, with one stroke, I lost my youth as I knew it.
 
Our lives had already changed earlier on March 15, 1939. Nazi Germany occupied Czechoslovakia and immediately Jews began losing their liberties. My father was expelled from the Czech law society. I was two months away from graduating from my college after eight years, and was told to leave. Sometime later in 1939 and early 1940, we were not permitted to go to certain cafés, restaurants and, most cinemas. In the late 1940s we started wearing yellow stars an 8 PM curfew imposed.
 
Our departure, on that October day was a nightmare. We marched through the streets of Prague, wearing yellow stars with “Jude” printed on it. Very few locals watched us, some sympathized, but many of them were happy to see us go.

None of us knew that we were destined to become part of a group of 5200 Jews deported from Prague, during the period from October 10 to November 3, 1941. Of those 5200 people, only 276 survived.

I was one of them.
 
We arrived in Poland at the Littmanshtop Ghetto, which was the German name for Lodz. I remember that we were housed in rundown buildings, with no facilities and were given daily rations of soup, one piece of bread , and black coffee with saccharine. For the next four years this was to become my daily nourishment.
 
Overnight, we all changed into desperate, frightened, hungry, people but the amazing thing was that we kept a certain decorum. We addressed people formally by their professional titles.

Lodz was a large city, but the area known as the ghetto was rundown, shabby, with no running water, and enclosed by barbed wire and guarded by the SS and the Jewish police. Eventually,we were taken to one room on a very desolate street. In the courtyards, the trees were full of thousands of white maggots and a well for water. I was able to start working in an office because I spoke fluent German. The language of the ghetto was Yiddish and Polish, neither of which I knew on arrival. But I learned Polish quickly and soon became fluent.
 
Thus, began our lives from 1941, until the liquidation of the ghetto in 1944. Our lives and everyone’s lives changed tragically during our stay. My father was deported in late 1942 after a courtyard round up by the SS. I assume he died in Treblinka. My uncle soon followed. In the end it was just my mother and myself. My mother used to suffer terribly from gallbladder attacks and ulcers. All of these ailments vanished due to the meager diet.


Unfortunately, early in 1944 we both contracted tuberculosis. I was also terribly ill with typhoid as well and was taken to a hospital by horse cart. My head was shaved. I looked so awful when I come out of the hospital that I got some ammonium and bleached my new hair blond. This one simple act probably saved my life! In Auschwitz I was unlike all other women, being tall and blond. I was also spared another head shaving as my hair was still short when I arrived there.
 
Sometime after my release from the hospital we were asked to voluntarily evacuate the ghetto. As a reward, we were going to receive a loaf of bread and were promised that we were going to move to a better place. Thousands of Jews hid in the cellars and on the roofs. Every day there was an SS “aktion” in the courtyard. The ones that hid almost certainly perished.
 
The rest were marched to the trains that were waiting for us. I carried one small suitcase since most of our lovely costly bags had been bartered for bread during the three years in the ghetto. During another long journey we sat on the floor ate our bread and passed a bucket for personal use until we finally arrived at our destination which was – Auschwitz.
 
When we disembarked from the trains, we were greeted by the SS and lined up. We were also surrounded by guard dogs and Dr. Mengele. He was standing in front and in a split-second my mother was sent to the left and I to the right- never to see each other again.
 
The three years in the ghetto were hard and physically dangerous. Tuberculosis, typhoid, typhus and dysentery and bedbugs were always present. Impossible to retain any feelings of dignity under these conditions.
 
Auschwitz was HELL on earth. It was easy to lose one’s soul and spirit and faith in God and accept death as the only way out. With smoke belching from the chimneys and the total lack of human dignity was universal there, and all the other killing fields.
 
We ate once a day from a bowl of soup shared by five women, and received a piece of bread and the black coffee laced with bromide .The latrines could only be used in the morning and the evening. In between there are constant roll calls where we are counted in rows of five. If the number did not check we were counted and recounted. Daily selections took place and we had to walk naked before the SS men to be inspected.


We were then moved to Dresden which was slightly better than Auschwitz, but not much! The SS and their helpers were strict, but there we were treated better.
 
After the bombing of Dresden by Allied planes and the advance of Russian troops, the entire camp was evacuated. By then we were 500 women and we were put in open cattle cars and for weeks we traveled to an unknown destination. In April 1945 we arrived at Mauthausen in which was the camp for political prisoners. They were there in their droves. Communists from all over Europe including Spain ,Poland, France, Czechoslovakia, and from the rest of collaborating Europeans. Anyone who opposed the Nazi ideology were sent there.
 
It was a well-organized camp with a committee of prisoners. In the midst of this were hundreds of Jews from Poland , Hungary and Greece. Most of the group some Hungary and Greece did not speak German and nobody could communicate with them. Some were ill and many were dying daily. The crematoria are no longer working and the bodies piled up. Soon there were mountains of rotting bodies.
 
And then out of the blue, one day in early May, the American soldiers arrived. Like a puff of smoke the guards were gone. It was unbelievable after years of such an organized system, it all collapsed overnight. I knew nothing of the wars progress except that Roosevelt died. The Americans were friendly and gave us a chocolate , candy, cheese and sardines. After years of near starvation all of this produced diarrhea. I spoke some English and was asked what I did before the war. I told them I was a model. They were laughing as they took my picture. I did not realize how terrible I looked to them. I also could not visualize freedom and being able to do what I wanted. After years of being told what to do , I had lost the imagination of real life that soon came back in focus.
 
There were so many prominent Czech prisoners in our train which was decorated with Czechoslovak flags . There were hundreds of Czechs there welcoming and greeting their loved ones. There was nobody waiting for me. Suddenly, freedom meant nothing to me as the days passed. I came to the realization that all my family had perished. I was 24 years old and all alone, bereft of any emotional support or material possessions.
 
I had to start living again.
 
I am a very introspective  person. Looking back at my four years, split into three years in the Lodz ghetto to Auschwitz Birkenau and the remainder in Freeburg Saxony and finally Mauthausen. I have to ask the question “why did I survive”?. Physically, I was never strong. I suffered from many bacterial illnesses while in the ghetto along with tuberculosis. These days when questioned, survivors have a tendency to declare that their will to live is what saved them. That may be true but in my case, I think it was a luck of the draw.
 
Twice while in the ghetto I was rounded up by the SS to be sent to an extermination camp, likely Treblinka. The first time, when my father was also deported, I was pulled away by horse driven cart by a Jewish policeman who knew me and took me to safety.
 
The second time, the SS took all the patients from the hospital. Among them was a woman who lived in our ward. She was helped to escape and hide. They came to our room and took me in her place. We were transported to the now defunct hospital and given a last meal before deportation. My boyfriend at the time was a Polish Jew, whose aunt worked in the office of the President of the ghetto. Moments before we were to leave, he picked up an uncle of mine and substituted him for me. All the SS wanted was a correct body count. The woman who came close to perishing also survived the war.
 
In the Memorial publication of victims and survivors of the Holocaust published by the Prague Jewish Committee, my name is there with an asterisk beside it. The asterisk indicated that I did not survive.
 
After returning to Prague my mother married quickly. He was a major in the Czech army. She also became immediately pregnant and delivered her first child on September 1946. They all immigrated to London in 1948 and even changed their name. They emigrated again in 1951, this time to Montréal where my sister worked as a seamstress. On the flight to Venezuela to visit her sister she met a Dutch geologist. They fell in love and proceeded to break up two families, as they both divorced their then-current spouses and got married in the summer of 1953.

The daughter takes over from here.
 
I was born in May 1954 in Maracaibo Venezuela. A year later the oil company transferred my father to Calgary. My mother hated Calgary and she felt it was a provincial backwater, uncultured, a real Cowtown. She remained there for the rest of her life. In 1972 my father died of a heart attack at the young age of 60. My mother inherited his company and although she was not a geologist, she was a very astute woman and in association with another Calgary geologist she built the company up.
 
She became the first woman to have her own membership in the Petroleum Club of Calgary which was known for the fact that they did not accept women and a limited number of Jews. She held her own in that field dominated by men. In 1988 she married again to a man whom she met on a cruise! She did love cruises when they were elegant, exclusive, and expensive. Well into her 80s she was always the best dressed woman in the room. She was intelligent and engaged and continued to run the company until her death in June 2011. She missed her 90th birthday by less than three months.

 
At this time my mother told me the story. I knew nothing. Perhaps there were whispers and awkward silences during my childhood which I ignored. My mother sent me to a Unitarian school, and also Sunday school for a few years but I decided to quit. My father was also not religious. They viewed all religions as evil. It was in Caracas on the heels of my father’s death, that my mother decided I needed to know she was Jewish and I had been born in Auschwitz. I was stunned, I remember very little of the story she told me at that time. I just remember how incredibly sad she was and I broke down and cried a lot. Over the years that followed she never shared many more stories. I never asked too much as it was too painful for me and I can see how painful it was for her to recall those years.
 
She continued to deny her heritage and never told any of her friends that she was Jewish. She feared their reaction: either pity that she never wanted, or more likely the not-so-subtle anti-Semitic remarks sometimes that so many people she knew possessed. There are only a few people in my mother’s life, mainly from Montréal who shared her history. I noticed a huge difference in her when she was with those people, she relaxed and didn’t have to be on guard and she didn’t have to pretend she was happier. She was accepted and she was understood.
 
I am married to a man from Montréal who had his genetic code investigated after I told him that I was Jewish and he found out that he, by DNA analysis, was also half Jewish.
 
This is where her narrative ends.
 
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