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Angie

 
A Heroic Act of Resistance: “Born in Auschwitz: The Story of Angela Orosz-Richt & Vera Bein”

By Penny Jones Square, March 8, 2020

Angela Orosz-Richt (“Angie”) recounted the astounding story of her mother Vera Bein’s survival before a crowd of 400 people at Shaarey Zedek Synagogue, which included a remarkably large  number of young people. Vera’s story is a powerful testimony to the existence of Jewish resistance within the “order of terror”1 that was Auschwitz—manifest in her defiance of “the Nazi logic of destruction.”2 The privilege of hearing Vera’s heroic story of survival was made possible by the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg and the March of the Living with Congregation Shaarey Zedek.  Carrie Shenkarow the March of the Living Chair at the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg introduced Angie, whom she first met in 2018 when Shenkarow accompanied a group of Winnipeg March of the Living participants to Auschwitz. 

 

The diminutive but dynamic seventy-six-year-old Angie was born in Camp C in Auschwitz-Birkenau in December 1944—five weeks before the liberation of the death camp on January 27, 1945. She told their story—which she insisted was “her mother’s story,” she herself “is just a product”—with passionate intensity and surprisingly with humour. For theirs is a story not of the horrors of victimhood but rather of the triumph of survival, of the resilience that enabled radical acts of resistance, including the heroic resolve simply to live in the face of unfathomable degradation, suffering, and death. Indeed, Angie attributed their victory over death to her mother’s determination, persistence, and optimism, as well as to her courage and strength, together with some miracles.

 

Angie began her presentation by recollecting her participation, “exactly a month ago,” in the commemoration of the 75th Anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz held at the Memorial and Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau, on January 27. At seventy-six, Angie was the youngest of the two hundred survivors in attendance, most of whom were in their nineties, and all of whom worried about who would tell their story and who would remember them after they were gone. Hence the urgency of Angie’s telling her mother’s story.

 

“To tell my mother’s story is a privilege,” Angie said, and “an essential part of Holocaust education,” to which she is committed as a volunteer at the Montreal Holocaust Museum and with the March of the Living. (Angie has also served as a witness at war crimes trials, testifying against former SS Auschwitz guards Oscar Groening and Reinhold Hanning.) She believes Holocaust education “has to be a priority” and “must begin at an early age,” given the resurgence of antisemitism worldwide. Therefore, Angie implored her audience to assume the duty to remember to ensure the Holocaust does not happen again. Her telling of her mother’s story serves to advance Holocaust education, but so too does our hearing it, for as Eli Wiesel stated, “When you listen to a witness, you become a witness.”

 

Vera was born in Budapest, Hungary in 1919 to a cultured and educated family. She married Angie’s father in 1943. Germany invaded Hungary on March 19, 1944, “gladly helped” by the Hungarian militia. In April 1944, on Passover, Jews were herded into cattle cars and segregated in a ghetto until May 22 when they were again herded into cattle cars and shipped to Auschwitz, a hellish three-day journey to hell. Vera was three months pregnant when she arrived on the platform at the Gates of Death, to be greeted by SS, barking dogs, beatings, and the Angel of Death himself, Dr. Mengele. The terror she felt then remained with her all her life. Already separated from her husband, she would never see him again, and later she learned he was, as Angie put it, “murdered by exhaustion.”

 

Vera experienced her first “miracle” at the Gates of Death. Though she had told Mengele she was pregnant hoping he might be compassionate—which would normally have meant being sent immediately to the left to be murdered in the gas chamber—she was sent to the right because she was healthy and strong enough for hard labour. She was then shaved and tattooed—the “symbols of dehumanization” that identified Jews as less than human, their existence reduced to a number. She was sent to Camp A to sort through clothing for possessions of value until, at five months pregnant, she was sent to work outside the camp doing heavy physical labour. Later, she had kitchen duty, and here she was able to eat potato peels, which she said saved her life. She was then sent to Barrack C and here, at seven months pregnant, Vera “became a human guinea pig” in sterilization experiments performed by Mengele’s team of “doctors”—the occasion for another miracle, for she survived the toxic chemicals injected into her uterus and was then somehow forgotten about by the “doctors.”

 

Because she was so tiny, her pregnancy went miraculously unnoticed. When Vera was eight months pregnant, a sympathetic Hungarian female doctor under Mengele offered to perform an abortion, but Vera refused having had a dream in which her mother begged her to trust in God and not to have one. When Vera went into labour, she climbed to a top bunk in the barracks and with the help of a bunk mate, she gave birth to Angie, who weighed one kilo and was so weak she was unable to cry—another “miracle” that helped save their lives. Three hours later, Vera had to stand in the freezing cold for roll call, terrified the whole time for her baby, whom she had to leave alone in the top bunk where rats were a constant threat.

 

Five weeks later, on the day of the liberation of Auschwitz, another child was born, Gyorgi Faludi. As his mother had no milk, Vera nursed him as well as her own daughter. And here was yet another miracle: starving on a 300–400 calorie-a-day diet, Vera was able to nurse both babies. After months in a DP camp, Vera returned to Hungary to live with her mother. At one year, Angie weighed only three kilos and was a very sick baby; she “hardly looked human.” Vera’s mother told her to let Angie die, but Vera was convinced she would live. The same optimism and persistence that carried her through Auschwitz made her determined to save her daughter. She finally enlisted the help of a doctor who with a blood transfusion from mother to daughter put Angie on the path to recovery.  Though she would suffer ill health throughout her childhood and grow to be only five feet tall, Angie is clearly a small but energetic and happy force to be reckoned with, all due, as she said, to her mother’s love, perseverance, and optimism. 

 

Vera eventually re-married and had “a beautiful marriage,” although she could not have any more children because of the injections she received in Auschwitz. Yet, however blessed her new life was (and she did feel blessed and instilled in Angie the gift of gratitude for life), Angie said, “A peaceful death was not possible for her.” “No amount of morphine could help her” escape the terror of her past in Auschwitz. Tragically, she died crying, “Mengele is taking me.” Angie admitted her mother “was always frightened the Holocaust could happen again; she was always in fear despite her positivity.”  And her fear is valid, for, as Primo Levi warned: “It happened, therefore it can happen again: this is the core of what we have to say. It can happen, and it can happen everywhere.” Therefore, Angie’s mission is to promote Holocaust education by telling her mother’s extraordinary story and thereby making witnesses of us all to ensure it never happens again.

 

Jessica Cogan, Israel and Overseas chair of the Jewish Federation thanked Angie at the end of her talk and announced that Winnipeg would be sending 24 students on the March of the Living this year.( Editor's note: Due to the continued global spread of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) and the associated directives issued by Israel’s Ministry of Health, the International March of the Living has made the decision to cancel the April 2020 March of the Living trip)

  1. Sofsky, Wolfgang. The Order of Terror: The Concentration Camp. Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1999.
  2. Fackenheim, EmiL. To Mend the World: Foundations of Post-Holocaust Jewish Thought. Bloomington, IN: Indianna University Press, 1994.
 
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