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Nazi officer's Mistress Risked her Life to Save Jews

Irene Gut Opdyke, Polish rescuer of Jews, 1922-2003

Irene Gut Opdyke, who has died at 81, saved Jews during the Holocaust by becoming the mistress of Major Eduard Rugemer, a 70-year-old German officer.

In Nazi-occupied Poland Irene Gut, as she then was, hid 12 Jews, including a pregnant woman, in the basement of the villa where she was employed as a housekeeper. When Rugemer was away, the Jews would sneak upstairs and help her with the housework.

But on one occasion, the German officer returned home early. "He got white and shaky," she later remembered, and he ran to phone the head of the Gestapo.

She pleaded with him and agreed to become his mistress in exchange for letting the Jews remain in the basement. 

A good Catholic girl, she was upset at becoming a mistress and confessed to a priest. "I was expecting him to say 'Well, you had no choice, a human life is more important'," she recalled years later, "but instead he told me that I had to turn everyone out, that my mortal soul is more important than anything else. Well, I could not agree with this ..."

Forty years later, the Israel Holocaust Commission named her one of the "Righteous Among the Nations" - a title given to those who risked their lives by saving Jews during the Holocaust - and she was presented with the Israel Medal of Honour, the country's highest tribute, in a ceremony at Jerusalem's Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial.

She was born one of five girls into a Catholic family in a small village in eastern Poland. The family moved from Kozienice to Chelm and then to Radom, where she enrolled as a nursing student.

In 1939, when the German army invaded Poland, Gut volunteered to join a Polish army unit and went with it into hiding in the Ukrainian forest. But she was taken prisoner by Russian soldiers, who raped her and left her in the snow to die. She escaped and was briefly reunited with her parents and four sisters at Radom, in Nazi-occupied Poland.

But while praying at a church, she was arrested in a round-up of Polish citizens, loaded in a truck with other prisoners and sent to work in a munitions factory, where she fell ill.

Rugemer felt pity for her and gave her a position in the kitchen of a hotel for Nazis. It was at the hotel, which was next to the Jewish ghetto in Radom, that she saw the treatment of the Jews by the Nazis. She also began helping the Jews by putting leftovers in boxes and leaving them just inside the ghetto fence. She knew she was risking her life.

In April 1942, she witnessed a gruesome event which would transform her. Walking down the street, she saw a Nazi officer tossing an infant into the air like a clay pigeon and shooting him. This shocked her to the core. "To see children murdered! And I was raised in the Catholic faith ... I turned against my Lord, against God. I asked God: help me to help. I was ready to give my life to be able to help."

It was soon after this event that she was made a housekeeper at Rugemer's villa, where she successfully hid her 12 Jews. In addition to looking after them, Gut - aided by an old priest and another Catholic girl and using a horse and buggy - smuggled others to the nearby forest to escape.

It was deeply upsetting for her to leave the Jews on their own in the forest. "I felt like the wicked woman in a children's story," she said, "abandoning them to the wolves." But she always returned to bring food and blankets, obtained by raiding the German Warenhaus.

In early 1944, Gut Opdyke and her Jewish friends left the villa and fled to the forest, where they stayed until the Russians gained control of Poland.

After the war, and by then helped by the Jews, she was smuggled away from the Russians into Germany and from there, in 1948, emigrated to the United States, where she would remain until her death.

A tiny, soft-spoken, white-haired lady with blue eyes and usually clad in a red dress, she spent the last 30 years of her life travelling the country to tell her story to schoolchildren.

"I wanted to teach them to reach out to each other regardless of nationality, religion, colour or creed. We belong to one family, and I tell them to learn to love each other, help each other."

In 1997, she was taken to Israel to meet the Jews she had helped during the war. Two years later, her book In My Hands: Memories of a Holocaust Rescuer was published and sold over a million copies; a play based on the book and a movie are expected to start production soon. The Vatican has given her a special commendation and her story is part of a permanent exhibit in the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC.

She met her husband, William Opdyke, after the war when, as a worker for the United Nations, he had interviewed her at a camp for displaced persons. They ran into each other again in New York City, and married in 1956.

But disappointed with the attitude of the Catholic Church during the war, the couple decided to get married at a Presbyterian church.

They later lived in Yorba Linda in California, where Gut Opdyke ran her own business. 

She is survived by a daughter.

  • 1922-2003

Antonia Lyon-Smith had affair with Nazi officer Karl Gagel

MI5 records released today have revealed details of British teenager Antonia Lyon-Smith, who was involved in a romance with Nazi Gestapo officer Karl Gagel during the Second World War

Miss Lyon-Smith, trapped in Brittany as a 15-year-old when the Germans invaded in 1940, was revealed as a mistress of Gagel.

They met when the brigadier’s daughter was arrested in Paris for writing a letter for a resistance member in 1943 but secured work as a housekeeper for another Nazi officer.

She ‘did little but make tea, sew and listen to radio’ and went with Gagel on shopping trips, a Nazi source told MI5.

She did not mention her romance with Gagel to MI5 officers later, leading Major John Gwyer to conclude she had probably betrayed the resistance.

The MI5 officer wrote in 1946 after interviewing her: ‘She certainly became Karl Gagel’s mistress and almost certainly disclosed to the Germans all her knowledge of the Spaak organisation [Belgian resistance  movement], which I believe to have been considerably greater than she admits.

‘If this were so and could be proved, a case would lie against her.’ 

She denied this, and was never prosecuted.

In her memoirs, released in 1982, Ms Lyon-Smith revealed Gagel was one of four men she was engaged to during the war – but married none.

Sex, Rape, and Survival: Jewish Women and the Holocaust

Myrna Goldenberg Ph.D.

Ida E. King Distinguished Visiting Scholar
           of Holocaust Studies,
The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey

Now Professor Emerita and Independent Scholar

Every rape is a grave violation of physical and mental integrity. Every rape has the potential to profoundly debilitate, to render the woman homeless in her own body and destroy her sense of security in the world. Every rape is an expression of male domination and misogyny, a vehicle of terrorizing and subordinating women. Like torture, rape takes many forms, occurs in many contexts, and has different repercussions for different  victims. Every rape is multidimensional, but not incomparable.

Rhonda Copelon, “Surfacing Gender: Reconceptualizing Crimes Against Women in Time of War”

“I was raped,” she said matter of factly. In the fourth hour of our interview, Marie S., a young French woman whose entire family of six siblings and both parents was murdered, simply and quietly, said that she was raped by a Wehrmacht soldier. After two years of hard labor and several months in Block 25, Marie had been assigned to Birkenau’s Kanada commando, when it had been expanded in the spring of 1944, to “handle” the belongings of the Hungarian Jews. This older soldier, as she described him, had been on his way back from the Russian front and had stopped off in Auschwitz for a few days. He had been watching Marie, who was nineteen at the time, and sometimes followed her. One day in September, her friends warned her that he was after her, so she fled to her bunk, where he caught her and raped her.

Marie had been a virgin, innocent, modest, protected before she was picked up and deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau.  She had “never even kissed a boy…never saw my father undressed.”  This rape was her first encounter with sex, but obviously not her first encounter with violence. “It was the deepest defilement,” she said and one of her loneliest moments. Her friends told her to get washed and forget it.  She had been resilient enough to recover from all the other physical debasements because she had experienced them collectively, as part of a group that had suffered the same humiliations. She suffered the rape alone and was traumatized for decades.  Yet, it was not the most horrific Nazi violation she endured, not nearly as horrific as the murder of her large family (Interview November 1996). 

Like many other women, Jews and non-Jews, Helen L. feared liberation because of the Russian soldiers who,

the minute they saw a female, whether you were young or old, whether you were 8, 80, 18, or 28, they didn’t care. They raped you whether you were pretty, ugly, fat, skinny, it didn’t matter. It was a female. And so with us [Helen and her sister Toby] it was a matter of, can we outsmart them in that department. Our survival as far as eating or sleeping was almost secondary.

Helen and her older sister Toby were Hungarian women who were deported to Lodz and then to Auschwitz, Stuthof, and a succession of labor camps until they were forced to join a Death March.  Totally exhausted after a few weeks on the March, they chose to die by lying in the snow where they expected to fall asleep and subsequently freeze to death. They assumed that such a death would be easy. But they were soon found by Nazi soldiers and concocted a story about being good Nazi children who had been orphaned by the advancing Russian Army. They were then invited to join the soldiers as washerwomen. Apparently, each battalion was allowed two washerwomen. As such, Helen and Toby were protected and never assaulted. During a Russian advance, they ran from the Nazis to the Russian soldiers who, of course, wanted to sleep with them.  Somehow they talked their way out of it (Holocaust Oral History Project, 13 February  1989).  Other women tell harrowing stories of trying to escape rape by the Russians who had liberated their areas or camps: “the Russians were animals. They were wild animals and we were afraid of them. We put chairs and tables against our doors not to be invaded by them. They [had] invaded the barracks the night before…(Gurewitsch 97).

Born in Bialystock and deported to Majdanek and later to Blishjen, a work camp, Helen Schwartz needed shoes:

The man who usually made shoes for us would not give any to me unless I would have intercourse with him. At Blishjen, if a man had extra food, he would ask girl for sexual pleasures and pay her in food. This was common, but not for me. This shoemaker could not understand that I wanted only shoes and nothing more.  …Some of the girls were so desperate that they used their body to pay for the bare necessities that they needed. (Schwartz III and IV) 

Sex for survival or bartered sex was not uncommon: the practice was “linked to networks of power” and a strategy “to improve…material circumstances” (Hutton 107). A male survivor of the Lodz ghetto reported on prostitution for a piece of bread: “for a slice of bread they [young girls] would go into a yard or somewhere. Possibly the mother was working, so the daughter would use the opportunity” (Niewyk 304-05).  Nehama Tec, in non-judgmental language and tone, describes the sexual expectations of male partisans in return for protection. She further corroborates the assertion that women’s responses to “sexual advances were motivated by the promise of food” (Tec305-335, 146).   Undoubtedly, bartering sex for food was a life saving though degrading tactic.

These vignettes speak to the larger issue of sex in the service of violence and survival during the Holocaust. Sexual coercion, whether in the form of rape or bartered sex, was one more humiliation, one more degradation, one more indignity that many Jewish women experienced. Traumatic and horrible, to be sure, but not on the same scale as the horrors of the murder of their families and friends.

Although we have little documentation about rape, forced sexual slavery, sex for survival/ bartering for food or other necessities from which to draw conclusions, we do have isolated reports. For example, Vera Laska observed that rape and forced prostitution of Jewish women in camp brothels were rare because, if caught, the SS would risk severe punishment or transfer to the Russian front.  “Most SS,” she said, “cherished their camp job which was a sinecure with power.”[*]  One exception she cited was the case of a Ravensbrueck SS doctor Rolf Rosenthal who performed an abortion on his nurse/ mistress Gerta Quernheim.  Rosenthal was sentenced to death but committed suicide before the sentence could be carried out (Laska 265; Tillion 73).  A report from the Russian section of Auschwitz says that SS guards raped young, pretty, and healthy girls “until they were half dead. From there they went to the ovens.” Father Joseph Tyl testified that a “certain SS guard” who was a “pervert who killed people for pleasure …was also a sex maniac who satisfied his lust with young Jewish girls, whom he murdered immediately afterwards” (Aroneanu 30, 34).  A very early interview in a DP camp, 1946, revealed that German civilians and soldiers, including SS, committed rape:

…all of this [gynecological examinations] was perpetrated not just by the SS but German foremen [civilians] as well. There was a German foreman by the name of Krause, the most terrible in the factory. When Krause would go by, even the machinery would run differently. Sometimes he would get drunk, pick a few  women and rape them, and later they were shot so that there be no “race pollution.” There was a well known SS [officer who] did the same thing.(Niewyk 221)

Felicia Karay also reported “known cases of individual and collective rapes of Jewish women” by “German commanders [who] were reluctant to deprive themselves of any of life’s pleasures” even in forced labor camps. She cites “dozens of testimonies” about officer Fritz Bartenschlager who chose “escort girls,” including five whom he took to a party in his apartment where he ordered them to serve his guests in the nude. They were raped by these same guests. A few months later, at another party/orgy that  included high ranking officers, such as the SS commander of Radom, the guests raped and then murdered three other Jewish women (Karay 290-91).

Though we might expect otherwise because rape was a serious racial purity issue, rape happened, but was and, to some extent, still is—ignored or neglected. Ruth Seifert argues that rape and other abuses are another expression of male dominance: suppressing the mention of rape reinforces the marginalization and diminution of women’s importance (66-68). Indeed, a quick survey of the indexes of Holocaust history books suggests that rape and sexuality are not a significant part of the history. One exception is The Holocaust Chronicle, which mentions the rape of two Jewish teenagers in Warsaw in a Jewish cemetery by two German non commissioned officers on February 18, 1940; and, on August 25, 1943, SS troops at the Janowska labor camps forced 24 Jewish girls at an all night SS orgy, and finally that “victims of sexual abuse have largely kept silent” (191,474, 484).

Women’s silence about their victimization is influenced primarily by cultural norms, the need to protect oneself from painful memories, and a desire to restore one’s sense of control over one’s person.  Joan Ringelheim recognized women’s ambivalence to disclose sexual abuse as “split memory,” or the difficulty of reconciling one’s personal memory with the public, traditional versions of Holocaust history. Ringelheim wrote about Pauline who was abused while she was in hiding and about Susan who was unsuspecting in her willingness to accept bread by a Polish inmate in Birkenau who expected sex for this bread. He raped her when she did not submit to him willingly. Both women were reluctant to relate these incidents and thereby challenge the master narrative of the Holocaust that doesn’t include women’s sexual victimization. Moreover, said Ringelheim, interviewers may be protecting themselves and avoiding discomfort by not asking questions that would encourage the transmission of these stories (Ringelheim 18-33).

Recently, in woman to woman interviews, we began to learn about rape in the ghettos and the camps, by both German and Jewish men. We are also learning more  about sex for survival, for lack of a better term, which refers to trading sexual favors in order to survive. Sex for survival is not consensual sex, but one can argue that it is technically not violent. Far more frequently than they are part of memoirs or interviews, rape and “sex for survival” are subjects of film and fiction. In the absence of sufficient documentation, we may very cautiously consider some of the fictional accounts as imaginary accounts or aesthetic interpretations of historical occurrences. For example, see the House of Dolls, The Kommandant’s Mistress, and White Hotel. We see, in these and other works, narratives that reflect the commodification, hence dehumanization, of women. (For obvious reasons, Holocaust films are, more often than not, sexsational.)

In a groundbreaking work, Roger Smith analyzes the history and context of rape in genocide and demonstrated the fact that rape is ubiquitous in warfare. Its purposes include exercising control or dominance, rewarding soldiers, “destroying a group’s identity by decimating cultural and social bonds,” “expulsion of entire ethnic groups” (as in Bosnia-Herzegovina), imposing terror and humiliation, and, most recently, as an instrument of war by proving the dominance of the men rapists in the victor group over the men of the defeated group in that they were not able to protect their women (Card 18).  Smith found that the only two instances in which rape was neither taken for granted nor used as a strategy of war were the Holocaust and the Cambodian genocide (13-15).   Although rape was not a policy of Nazi Germany, its close cousins, sexual abuse and humiliation were part of policy.  In fact, domination, degradation, and commodification were just as prevalent in the sexual abuse of Jewish women as it has been and still is in other cases of genocide. Thus, an inherent cruel irony underlies the discussion of the rape of Jewish women by Germans and, moreover, it takes no stretch of the imagination to consider that a pervasive and persistent culture of patriarchy “permitted” Jewish men to demand sex for food in ghettos and camps.  Just as rape has extensive physical and psychological repercussions for the woman, so does sexual abuse in the form of sex for survival, though perhaps not as much.  And just as rape by a friend or relative results in a profound sense of betrayal, so did abuse by a fellow Jew constitute an act of betrayal in the minds of Jewish women. While their need for food was stronger and more elemental than their need to protect their dignity, they were nevertheless victimized and exploited by Jewish men.  To be fair, at the same time, we must recognize that women’s lack of awareness about their rights prior to the human rights and women’s rights movements contributed to their acceptance of a certain amount of exploitation.  Clearly, in the ghettos and camps, women’s status—or lack of status—“compounded their vulnerability to violence” (Human Rights Global Watch Report).

In Nazi Germany, though, rape and other forms of sexual violence were not crimes, not from the German point of view nor, at that time, from an international perspective.  From a Nazi perspective, the crime was rassenschande, not rape. Ironically, any sexual involvement with a Jew was rassenschande, or “race mixing.” Paragraph 2 of the Nuremberg Law, 1935, reads, “Extramarital intercourse between Jews and subjects of the state of German or related blood is forbidden” (Hochstadt 44). For the Nazi, Jewish women were subhuman, thereby not subject to victimization of a punishable crime. Thus, the act of rape was inconsequential; the act of rassenschande, however, was a grave crime of race defilement and the perpetrator faced punishment. Marion Kaplan reports that ultimately the “judiciary viewed ‘race defilement’ as seriously as ‘high treason.’” By 1939, the average sentence was 4 to 5 years. Not surprisingly, Jewish men received harsher treatment than Aryans (Kaplan 80). Raul Hilberg explains that the courts gave no leniency in these cases and did not allow for mitigating circumstances. He cites the case of Lehmann Katzenberger and Irene Seiler, dramatized years later in the film, Judgment at Nuremberg. Katzenberger, in his late sixties, was executed (45-46).  Indeed, by 1945, rassenschande was one of the 43 crimes punishable by death in the Reich (Botwinick 104). However, the only rape case reported in a Croatian concentration camp in 1941 and 1942 resulted in sentencing the rapist, a German guard, to six months in prison for “desecration of the race” (Lengel-Krizman 15).

What conclusions can we draw?

Rape of Jewish women by German men was insignificant in the eyes of Germany’s judicial system. Jews, men and women, were “life unworthy of living” so that no violent act against them was problematic from a Nazi point of view. Rape was never state policy as it later became in the former Yugoslavia, when it became an official weapon of war. Indeed, genocidal rape was not declared a category of crime until after Bosnia. Rape, as a weapon of war, was repeated in Rwanda, largely unpunished. More recently, news reports from and about Darfur include descriptions of women who are raped as punishment for their Blackness and then are branded so that they carry the insult to their bodies and souls publicly and irrevocably. According to the Human Rights Watch, “rape, nonetheless, has long been mischaracterized and dismissed by military and political leaders—those in a position to stop it—as a private crime, a sexual act, the ignoble act of the occasional soldier; worse still, it has been accepted precisely because it is so commonplace” 

Nevertheless, Jewish women were raped by Jewish and non-Jewish men in ghettos and camps though evidence to substantiate such occurrences is usually anecdotal. What has been substantiated by sheer repetition in and concurrence of testimony is the bartering of sex in ghettos, camps, and resistance groups – for food, clothing, shelter, and protection. Sex exchanges, or sex for survival, at the latrines in Birkenau cannot be judged by us, the scholars, or by anyone, two generations removed.  However, such sex smacks of sadism.  Again, we turn to the concept of gender and genocide and find that women are almost always victimized in war and genocide because of their gender.  In the Holocaust, Jews were victimized because they were Jews.  But, also in the Holocaust, Jewish men exploited the vulnerability of Jewish women—perhaps not unforgivably but certainly unethically and unjustifiably and in violation of a woman’s right to dignity.  Perhaps such exploitation was an extension of the dominance of men in “normal society.” If so, the abundance of such occurrences speaks to a deep need to re-humanize society so that it protects men and women equally and its most vulnerable members, especially. Sexual abuse, including rape, in the contexts of both war and peace, is a violation of human rights and needs to be addressed as such.  Furthermore, the shift from traditional warfare that, for the most part, excluded women, to warfare that targets civilians demands a reassessment of the conventions of war and a reinforcement of human rights, a process that began with the Nuremberg Tribunal (Philipose 46-62).  At the same time, the congruence of the conventions of war and the laws protecting human rights suggests that women and men need to be protective of each other and that dominance of one sex over another diminishes the strength and spirit of both.

Ravensbrueck Trial records indicate that there was a total of 35,000 women in  the brothel system and that women assigned in such brothels may have had to “accommodate” as many as 7 to 8 men a day. 

Hermann Goering's Great-Niece

'I had myself sterilised so I would not pass on the blood of a monster'

Descendants of the leaders of the Nazi regime have spoken on camera for the first time about the feelings of pain and revulsion they have for their ancestors.

They include Bettina Goering, great niece of Adolf Hitler's second in command Hermann Goering, who says she has had herself sterilised so she would 'not pass on the blood of a monster'.

Adolf Eichmann's son Ricardo says he simply cannot find a way to explain why his father became the chief architect of the Holocaust.

While Hitler himself had no offspring, many others at the heart of the Reich had families and some of the children can remember being patted on the head by the Fuhrer.

One is Hitler's godson Niklas Frank, whose father Hans was Nazi governor of occupied Poland responsible for the death camps in which six million Jewish people were killed.

He says in the documentary Hitler's Children, by Israeli director Chanoch Zeevi, that he 'despises' his father's past and describes him as 'a slime-hole of a Hitler fanatic'.

The film also shows Monika Hertwig, daughter of Amon Goeth - the death camp commandant played in the movie Schindler's List by Ralph Fiennes --meeting a man who tells her how her father shot women and babies 'for sport'.

Zeevi said he found 'fascinating similarities' between the emotions of those related to Holocaust perpetrators and those of survivors, some of whom meet the children of their tormentors in the programme.

Uncle Adolf: Hitler pictured having his ear tugged by his god-daughter Edda Goering, daughter of Field Marshall Hermann Goering in 1939

Frank lectures about his infamous father to young people in the former East Germany in a bid to prevent them from straying into the far-right scene that preys on the young unemployed and desperate.

'I have never managed in my life to get rid of the memory of him,' he said.  'I live with this deep shame about what he did.'

Bettina Goering lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she practices herbal medicine. 

'Either side of me live Jewish neighbours,' she says, 'and they are always quarrelling.  It's left to me to sort them out!'

The defendants at the Nuremberg Nazi war crimes trials. Pictured in the front row are: Hermann Goering, Rudolf Hess, Joachim Von Ribbentrop, Wilhelm Keitel and Ernst Kaltenbrunner

Bettina told the programme both she and her brother were voluntarily sterilised.

'I had my tubes tied at the age of 30 because I feared I would create another monster.  I look like him for a start - the eyes, the cheekbone, the profile. I look more like him than his own daughter,' she said.

The 53-year-old Goering said her father Heinz was adopted by his infamous uncle after his own father died and became a fighter pilot for the Luftwaffe. 

Heinz was shot down over the Soviet Union and returned from captivity in 1952 to find that his two brothers had killed themselves because of their shame and the family's fortunes were gone.

Hermann Goering was sentenced to death along with 11 others at the Nuremberg trials in 1946, but he committed suicide by swallowing a poison pill in his cell the night before his scheduled execution.

Goering said her father, who died in 1981, never spoke about the Holocaust, or about his notorious uncle. 'But my grandmother was less evasive - she adored him,' she said.

Children of Hitler: Adolf Hitler is pictured doing a Nazi salute on a balcony in Berlin in 1939. With him are (left to right) Ribbenntrop, Count Ciano, and Hermann Goering

'As head of the Red Cross in Nazi Germany she hobnobbed with the regime's other top leaders and had many pictures of herself alongside Hitler.

'We would be watching a documentary on TV together about the Holocaust and she would yell 'it's all lies, it didn't happen,'' she added.

'The hardest part is admitting that I could have liked him. I was so shocked by that,' she said. 'Now I am accepting myself more for who I am, whatever that encompasses - the good, the bad and the ugly.'

'The film is due to be completed later this year.

Read more:

Hitler Ordered Death Of Wisconsin Woman Who Led Nazi Resistance

MADISON, Wis. -- The story of Wisconsin woman who helped lead the Nazi resistance in Germany is coming to light after the opening of KGB and CIA files.

For nine years, Mildred Fish-Harnack and her husband Arvid led Berlin's underground resistance to Adolf Hitler. After their capture, Arvid was sentenced to death and Mildred to six years in prison. The trials were considered state secrets and often family members weren't told. The defense argued that Mildred Fish-Harnack simply acted on the orders of her husband. German judges were impressed; Mildred held a prestigious job at Berlin University and pioneered the study of American literature. They felt that she served the cause by translating great German works into English. But Hitler disagreed.

On Dec. 21, 1942, Hitler signed Arvid's death sentence. The next day, Arvid and members of the Red Orchestra were paraded into a building on the grounds of Plotzensee Prison, a sprawling 60-acre complex with 20-foot high security walls and newly installed meat hooks hanging overhead. Each of the accused were hung with a short rope, a Nazi torture tactic to prolong the agony of their victims. But when it came to Mildred Harnack's six-year prison sentence, German experts said that Hitler refused to sign her sentence, calling her a meddling American.

"Hitler and Goering were very angry," said Johannes Tuchel, director of the German Memorial Resistance Center. A retrial was extremely embarrassing to the prosecutor Manfred Roeder, also known as "Hitler's Bloodhound." The Harnack family courageously tried to intervene. Tuchel said Roeder refused their questions and screamed, "I urgently warn the Harnack family not to undertake anything whatsoever in favor of this woman. She no longer belongs to your family." "The two women got another trial in January 1943, and they were sentenced to death on direct orders of Hitler," Tuchel said.

According to the German Resistance Memorial Center, no record of her second trial has ever been recovered. "We have the orders from Hitler that there has to be a second trial. But, unfortunately, of the second trial we have no direct information," Tuchel said.

On Jan. 16, 1942, Mildred was sentenced to death and transferred to Plotzensee Prison. On her final day in prison, Mildred gave up a book titled "The History of the Ancient World" by Michael Rostovzeff, a former University of Wisconsin professor. She gave it to her prison guard and wrote inside, "To Miss Klang in memory of Feb. 16, 1943. In the room where you can see the beautiful trees through the window."

One of the last people to see her alive, Pastor Harald Poelchau, said he remembers how at age 40, Mildred was so starved and broken after five months of Nazi interrogations that she could no longer stand upright. In their last meeting, he smuggled in a picture of Mildred's mother. Mildred spent her final days finishing the work she first discovered at the University of Wisconsin.

"Mildred Harnack had a volume of Goethe poems with her when she was arrested, and during her time of incarceration, she translated some poems," said Andreas Sander, curator of Topography of Terror in Berlin. Poelchau secretly carried a book out of Mildred's prison cell. Inside were her translation notes for the Goethe poem "Vermachtnis the Legacy."

The translations would become Mildred's legacy.

"She was an academic of the first rank. Had she lived longer, she would have contributed much more," said Art Heitzer, a Mildred Fish-Harnack expert in Milwaukee.

But instead Mildred Fish-Harnack's hair was cut to expose her neck. With her hands cuffed behind her back, two guards led her into a courtyard where the Nazi tools of death were housed. It was the same place her husband had been hanged 57 days earlier. Inside the red brick building, she faced the Bradenburg guillotine.

On Feb. 16, 1943, Mildred Fish-Harnack was executed at 6:57 p.m. The Nazis noted that it only took her seven seconds to die. She was the only American woman in history to be executed on direct orders from Hitler. Her last words were: "Ich habe Deutschland auch so geliebt," or "I have loved Germany so much."

Behind a little red chapel in a quiet cemetery in the Zehlendorf neighborhood of Berlin is the Harnacks' headstone. The Nazis prohibited public executions of the Red Orchestra, and the deaths went unpublished to prevent the enemy from knowing their fate.

"There were mixed reports whether Mildred was alive or dead for a period of time," Hetizer said.It was only by luck that Mildred was buried there. After execution, her headless body was put in a wooden crate and sent to an anatomical institute for dissection. But, as it turned out, a professor that Mildred knew recognized her remains and secretly cremated her. He kept her ashes in an urn and, after the war, returned them to the Harnack family.

On the night before their trial, Arvid already knew his fate. He wrote a farewell letter to Mildred, and his thoughts were on Wisconsin. "Do you remember picnic point, when we became engaged? Before that our first serious conversation in the restaurant on State Street? That conversation became my guiding star, and has remained so. You are in my heart. You shall be in there forever. My greatest wish is for you to be happy when you think of me. I am when I think of you," he wrote. It's not known if Mildred was ever permitted to read that letter. Arvid Harnack's brother claims that Mildred was forced to watch her husband's execution.

Arvid's body is not buried at Zehlendorf Cemetery. The Nazi's took his ashes and threw them in the rivers around Berlin with the saying, "No myths; no remembrance; no martyrs."

Mildred and Arvid weren't the only UW students involved in the Red Orchestra. Greta Lork Kuckhoff was a UW grad student from Germany when she met the Harnack's in Madison in the 1920s.

"So the UW played kind of a unique role. I don't think there is any other university in the United States that they can claim to have several members of the German resistance, who met and studied on their campus, which is true in Wisconsin," Heitzer said.

Greta was actually hired to translate into English "Mein Kampf," Hitler's autobiography and political ideology. She used it as a cover for her underground resistance work.

Her husband was executed and she was sent to prison. Soviet troops freed Greta Kuckhoff in 1945, and she became a banking executive in East Germany.

Greta fought to bring Mildred and Arvid's prosecutor to justice for "crimes against humanity" because Roeder used torture to get information. She was unsuccessful and he died a free man.

Experts said that women played key roles in the Red Orchestra group. The Red Orchestra trials resulted in 19 death sentences for women, including Mildred Fish-Harnack.. The women had the most dangerous jobs of organizing meetings and transporting secret documents.

No German court has ever reopened the case to see if what happened constituted murder.In Eastern Europe, Mildred Fish-Harnack is enshrined as a hero, but in her home state of Wisconsin she is nearly forgotten. After the war, both sides used Mildred Fish-Harnack's name for political gain and to perpetuate the Cold War.


The Execution of Women by the Nazis

It is estimated that more than 4,000 women of various ages were hanged by Nazi forces between 1939 and 1945. Many more were shot or guillotined and many were tortured before minimal or non-existent trials. They could be sentenced to death by People’s Courts and executed within prisons, by the commandants of concentration camps or by military commanders in the field and summarily executed, usually in public. Some of these “field” executions were documented and photographed. A lot of the photographs were private snaps taken by individual soldiers and discovered after they had been captured or killed

A gallows was used when the Nazis wanted to make a particular example of the prisoner and these were usually crude and simple structures that did not have a trapdoor or drop. They typically consisted of just a post with a short beam projecting from the top cross braced to the upright. Trees or balconies were also used as was any other structure that was available, e.g. the roof beams of a barn.

Prisoners were never hooded and rarely blindfolded. Their hands were normally tied behind their backs with cord but their legs usually left free. They were given little or no drop, partially to prolong the pleasure of the soldiers and because their cruel and slow deaths would act as a stronger deterrent to the local people who were often made to witness the event. Typically a thin rope was used, fashioned into a simple slip knot. It was not unusual for prisoners to kick and struggle after suspension and to lose control of their bladders and bowels. The bodies could be left hanging for several days as a grim reminder to others. In cold weather, they were sometimes left hanging for a week while in summer they would be taken down sooner, perhaps two to three hours after the hanging.

Some of these women were:


Masha Bruskina

Masha Bruskina was a Russian teenage female partisan. She was a 17 year old Jewish high school graduate and was the first teenage girl to be publicly hanged by the Nazis in Belorussia (Byelarus), since the German invasion of Soviet Union on the 22nd of June 1941. Her execution and that of the two men hanged with her took place on the 26th of October 1941 in the city of Minsk. In the photos of her, you will see that she has blond hair, but her natural colour was dark. She dyed her hair when she started to work for the underground. Witnesses to her  hanging, testified that Masha struggled hard and lost control of her bladder and bowels. After hanging for 3 days, she and the men were taken down and only when her body was traditionally washed before her burial by local people and members of her family, did her dark hair show up. She worked as a nurse in a military hospital and was a member of an underground cell which aided Soviet officers hospitalised there to escape and join the partisans. The members of this cell were informed on and quickly rounded up. Masha and two of her male comrades, Volodya Sherbateivich and Krill Trous, were sentenced to death. They were led through the streets with Masha wearing a large placard proclaiming that they were partisans and hanged one at a time, Masha first, by the 707 Infanteriedivision, who meticulously filmed the proceedings.


Maria Kislyak

Maria Kislyak was born in March 1925, in the village of Lednoe in the Kharkov region of the Ukraine. The village had been occupied by the Germans during 1943. Maria and her school friend, Fedor Rudenko, who were both Komsomol members, hatched a plan to murder a German officer as an act of revenge for the cruelty inflicted by the Nazis on the local people. The plan was for 18 year old Maria, who was very pretty, to make friends with a German Lieutenant. She suggested to this man that they went for a walk in the countryside to which he naturally agreed. Outside the village, Fedor was waiting for them and came up behind the soldier and hit him over the head with an iron crowbar. Maria was arrested the next day and violently beaten during her interrogations but maintained her innocence throughout. As they could not prove anything, they finally let her go.

Several months later, Maria and her friends murdered another officer in the same way. This time the Germans arrested nearly 100 inhabitants as hostages and declared that they would execute them all if the murderers didn’t come forward. The following day Maria and her friends gave themselves up to the Gestapo and confessed to the murder. Maria claimed that she was the leader of the group. On June the 18th, 1943, Maria, Fedor Rudenko and their comrade Vasiliy Bugrimenko (both 19) were publicly hanged on the branch of an ash tree.

Three nooses dangled from the branch each with a box under it. The prisoners were made to step up onto the boxes, the executioner noosed them and then boxes were kicked out from under their feet leaving them to slowly strangle to death.

1978: Antonina Makarova, Nazi executioner

On this date in 1978, a young Soviet girl’s desperate collaboration with the Wehrmacht caught up with a 55-year-old mother.

A village girl and the first in her family to go to school, young Antonina Parfenova was dubbed “Makarova” (after her father, Makar) by a teacher when the girl forgot or was too shy to say her surname. This childhood switcheroo would follow her into adulthood and ultimately buy her half a lifetime and a family to mourn her.

At 19, she had moved to Moscow when the German onslaught against the Soviet Union erupted, and likemany young people in similar straits, she volunteered to help fight the Nazis. But as the front swept past her, she found herself in enemy territory, and was nabbed by the SS and persuaded to become the Germans’ executioner of Russians at Lokot, a village near the Ukrainian and Belarussian borders for which a short-lived Nazi-controlled “republic” was named.

A 2005 Pravda article (with a somewhat prurient concern over the young woman’s sexual incontinence) delves into her activities:

Usually Antonina Makarova was ordered to execute a group of 27 people, the number of partisans which a local prison could house. Death sentences were carried out on the edge of a pit half a kilometer from the prison. She never knew people whom she executed and they had no notion who the executioner was either. Antonina executed the first group of partisans being absolutely drunk and the girl could hardly realize what she was doing. She often kept clothes of those whom she killed if the things were good; she carefully washed them and heaped them in her room.

In the evenings after work Antonina loved to dress up and enjoy her time dancing with German officers together with other girls who came there as prostitutes. Antonina boasted she used to live in Moscow that is why other girls kept aloof from her.

At dawn, Antonina often came to the prison and peered into the faces of people whom she was to execute in the morning. The woman just did her job when executing people and believed that the war would write her crimes off.*

“Antonina Makarova” was implicated in some 1,500 executions, and formally charged in around 200 cases with identifiable victims. The KGB turned up scores of women of the right age with the right name, but none of them fit the bill: the real Makarova’s passport said “Parfenova.”

Not until 1976 did the case break, when a relative applying for a travel visa named her in a routine list of relatives. Now named Antonina Ginsburg — she had married a veteran and taken his name — she was living quietly in Belarus, but hardly in hiding: the pair attended parades and town functions in the honor accorded World War II survivors.

Viktor Ginsburg would be in for a bit of a shock.

Even 35 years after her spell with the Germans ended, the wounds of the Great Patriotic War were raw enough to spell her death in very quick order in Briansk, the capital of Lokot’s district. She was the last World War II traitor of any note executed in the Soviet Union, and according to this page, the only Soviet woman ever judicially executed by shooting. (I’d take that claim cautiously without more corroboration.)

The Pravda article cited above is about the only original English source readily available online; Russian speakers (or people prepared to grapple with an online translator’s inelegance) can read much more at her Russian Wikipedia page as well as herehere and here.

Update: Courtesy of Executed Today’s own Sonechka, a translation from this Russian story of Makarova’s daughter’s heartbreaking remembrance of a woman she only knew as a mother:

Pain, pain, pain … She spoiled the life of four generations … You would like to know whether I would take her back if she returned? I would. She is my mother after all… I really don’t know how to remember her — as if she’s alive or dead. According to the tacit law, women were not shot. Maybe she’s alive somewhere? And if not, tell me — I’ll finally light a candle for her soul.

(Candles in Orthodox churches are lit for “zdravie” — literally “good health, well being” — or “upokoi” — “peace of a soul.” The former is intended for living beings, the latter for dead ones.)

* This, at least, is what she told her interrogators.

Female Nazi War Criminals.

Female Nazi war criminals.

Many of the staff from the Nazi concentration camps were arrested and tried for murder and acts of brutality against their prisoners after the War. Some 3,600 women worked in the concentration camps and around 60 stood trial for before War Crimes Tribunals between 1945 and 1949. Of these 21 were executed and their cases are detailed below. (In total, 5,025 men and women were convicted of war crimes in the American, British and French zones and over 500 of these were sentenced to death with the majority executed.)

It was decided that those sentenced to die should suffer death by hanging for both sexes, although no standard execution protocol was agreed. Each country carried out executions in accordance with its normal procedure. This led to the use of British style measured drop hanging in private, for those executed in the British sector, short drop hanging in public or private for those in the Polish and Russian sectors and standard drop hanging in semi-private for those executed by the Americans at Nuremberg, Dachau and Landsberg. Some of the American hangings were televised and shown on the news. No women were executed in the US Sector.

Executions under British jurisdiction.

A total of 190 men and 10 women were hanged at Hameln Prison (near Hanover) in Germany under British jurisdiction. The executions were carried out by Albert Pierrepoint who was flown in specially on each occasion. Generally he was assisted by Regimental Sergeant Major O'Neil who was a member of the Control Commission there. The hangings took place in a purpose built execution room at the end of one of the prison's wings. The gallows having been specially constructed by the Royal Engineers to allow the execution of prisoners in pairs. 

Belsen Concentration Camp staff.

Bergen-Belsen was started as late as April 1943 in Lower Saxony near the city of Celle as a transit centre. It was turned into a concentration camp by its second commandant, SS-Hauptsturmführer Josef Kramer, and was used to house those prisoners who had become too weak to work as forced labour in German factories. It was liberated by the British army on April 15th, 1945. The British soldiers found 10,000 unburied corpses and 40,000 sick and dying prisoners of whom a staggering 28,000 subsequently died after liberation. 

As a result of these atrocities, 45 former members of staff from Bergen-Belsen, including some inmates who had taken part in acts of brutality against other prisoners, were charged with either being responsible for the murder of Allied nationals or the suffering of those in Bergen-Belsen in Germany (first count) or Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, (see below for details of this camp) (second count). Some defendants were charged with both counts. 

The accused comprised of 16 men and 16 women, including Josef Kramer, Belsen's commandant, plus 12 former prisoners (7 men and 5 women).

The Belsen Trial as it was known was conducted by the British Military Tribunal at No. 30 Lindentrasse, Lüneburg, in Germany from September 17th to November 17th, 1945 under court President Major-General H.M.P. Berney-Ficklin, sitting with 5 other officers. The prosecution was in the hands of a team of 4 military lawyers and each prisoner was represented by counsel. All the prisoners were tried together and sat in the large dock, each wearing a number on their chest. 

On the afternoon of November 16th the verdicts were delivered. Thirty one prisoners were convicted on one or both counts and 14 acquitted of all charges. Irma Grese and Elisabeth Volkenrath were found guilty on both counts, Juana Bormann guilty only on the second charge. The following day the sentences were read out to the prisoners. Eleven of them were sentenced to death and 19 others to various terms of imprisonment. 

The death sentences were pronounced as follows by Major-General Berney-Ficklin:
"No. 1) Kramer, 2) Klein, 3) Weingartner, 5) Hoessler, 16) Francioh, 22) Pichen, 25) Stofel, 27) Dorr. The sentence of this Court on each one of you whom I have just named is that you suffer death by being hanged".

He then passed sentence on the women as follows "No. 6) Borman, 7) Volkenrath, 9) Grese. The sentence of this court is that you suffer death by being hanged." 

The sentence was translated for them into German as "Tode durch den strang," literally death by the rope. All the prisoners were returned to Lüneburg prison. Nine of the eleven condemned appealed to the convening officer, Field-Marshal Montgomery, who rejected their appeals for clemency. Elizabeth Volkenrath and Juanna Borman decided not to appeal. On Saturday the 8th of December the appeals of the others were rejected and the condemned were transferred to Hameln jail the following day to await execution, being housed in a row of tiny cells along a corridor with the execution chamber at its end. The 11 from Belsen had been joined by two other men, Georg Otto Sandrock and Ludwig Schweinberger, sentenced for the murder of Pilot Officer Gerald Hood, a British prisoner of war at Almelo, Holland, on the 21st of March 1945.

The executions were set for Friday, December the 13th, 1945 and were to be carried out at half hour intervals starting at 9.34 a.m. with Irma Grese, who at 21, was the youngest of the condemned prisoners, followed by Elisabeth Volkenrath at 10.03 a.m. and Juana Bormann at 10.38 a.m. The men, including Joseph Kramer, were hanged in pairs afterwards, all 13 executions being completed by 1.00 p.m. In view of the proximity of the condemned cells to the gallows, each one of them must have heard the preceding hangings. I have read contemporary newspaper reports stating that Elizabeth Volkenrath was executed first, with Irma Grese second but this does not accord with Albert Pierrepoint’s recollection of the events.

For a detailed account of Irma Grese's case and here for Juana Borman’s
Elisabeth Volkenrath was 26 years old. She was convicted of numerous murders and made selections for the gas chamber. She was described as the most hated woman in the camp. Juana Borman was known as “the woman with the dogs” and took sadistic pleasure in setting her wolfhounds on prisoners to tear them to pieces.

The afternoon before execution each prisoner was weighed so the correct drop could be calculated for them. Irma Grese smiled at Pierrepoint when he asked her age. Elisabeth Volkenrath was steady but looked nervous and Juana Borman limped down the corridor looking old and haggard. 

Ravensbrück concentration camp.

Ravensbrück concentration camp near Furstenberg in Germany was the only major Nazi concentration camp for women and also served as a training base for female SS supervisors. Some 3,500 women underwent training there. They then worked in Ravensbrück or were sent to other camps. The camp was established in 1938 and liberated on April 30th, 1945 by the Russian Army. The estimated number of victims there were 92,000! 

Sixteen members of the staff of were arrested and were tried between December 5th 1946 and February 3rd 1947 by a court in the British zone on charges of murder and brutality. All were found guilty on Monday, the 3rd of February 1947, except one, who died during the trial. Eleven were sentenced to hang, including five women, head nurse Elisabeth Marschall, Aufseherin Greta Bösel, Oberaufseherin Dorothea Binz and Kapos Carmen Mory and Vera Salvequart. 

41 year old Mory cut her wrists during the night of April 9th with a razor blade she had concealed in her shoe and thus escaped the noose. She was buried within the prison grounds. Swiss born Mory was unusual in that she had worked as a spy for the French, the Nazis and finally the British before and during the War and had been sentenced to death by each in turn but always managed to dodge her execution, by good fortune on the first two occasions. She was a prisoner in Ravensbrück, having been reprieved by the Nazis, and here she made the most of her situation by becoming a Kapo and spying on other prisoners and assisting the staff. Due to a shortage of personnel, the SS frequently used German prisoners (Kapo’s) to supervise other non German inmates.

On the 2nd of May 1947, Albert Pierrepoint hanged the remaining three women, one at a time starting with Elisabeth Marschall who was nearly 61 years old, followed by 39 year old Greta Bösel at 9.55 a.m. and then by 27 year old Dorothea Binz. 

Elisabeth Marschall had been born on the 24th of May 1886 and became a nurse in 1909. She rose to the rank of Oberschwester (Head Nurse) in the Revier (hospital) barracks at Ravensbrück. Here she maltreated sick prisoners and also took part in horrific experiments. She also made selections for the gas chambers.

Greta Bösel was born on May 9th, 1908 in Elberfeld, Germany and was a trained nurse. She went to work in Ravensbrück in August 1944. Her job was to supervise female working teams. She is supposed to have said: "Let them rot if they can't work." During her trial, she made contradictory statements about her role in selecting prisoners for the death camps.

Dorothea Binz had been born on the 16th of March 1920 in the town of Dulstarlake and had never married. She had joined the staff of Ravensbrück in April 1939 and worked as an Aufseherin in the women's camp before being promoted to Oberaufseherin. She was arrested in Hamburg in May 1945 and came to trial at the first Ravensbrück trial. 

The third woman, 28 year old Czechoslovakian born Vera Salvequart had not been an SS guard, but rather a prisoner herself in Ravensbrück. She was born on the 26th of November 1919 in Wonotsch and had trained as a nurse. She had also served several periods in prison. She claimed to have stolen plans for the V2 rocket and passed these to Britain. She was sent to KZ Ravensbrück in December 1944 and as a Kapo worked as a nurse in the camp's hospital wing. Here she was said to have administered poison in form of a white powder to some of the patients although most survived. 

Vera Salvequart petitioned the King for a reprieve in view of her passing secrets to the British. She was granted a stay while this was considered but the Royal prerogative of mercy was withheld and on the 26th of June 1947 she followed the other 3 to the gallows, her body being buried with the rest in the grounds of Hameln prison. 

The third Ravensbrück trial, the so called "Uckermark trial", was held between April 14th and April 26th 1948 to hear the cases of five women officials from the Uckermark concentration camp and extermination complex. This was a satellite camp that housed girls aged 16 – 21. Two of the women were acquitted, two received prison terms but Ruth Closius was condemned to death. Ruth Closius, (married name Neudeck) was born in July 1920. She had belonged to the SS guard staff of Ravensbrück and had worked there in various capacities from the 3rd of July 1944, including work in the punishment barracks in late 1944. She was promoted to Oberaufseherin (senior supervisor), at Uckermark in early 1945 and worked there until the camp was liberated. She was convicted of the torture and murder of men, women and children and of selecting prisoners for the gas chambers. She was hanged on the 29th of July 1948.

The seventh series of Ravensbrück trials was held between July 2nd and July 21st, 1948 to hear the cases of Aufseherin accused of maltreatment of prisoners and making selections for the gas chambers. Two of the six were acquitted, two given prison terms and two sentenced to death. These were 60 year old Emma Zimmer, nee Menzel, and 36 year old Ida Bertha Schreiber (or Schreiter) who were hanged on the20th of September 1948. No other women were executed as result of the other Ravensbrück trials although others received death sentences which were later commuted to prison terms.

The bodies of the first 93 executed up to 1947 were originally buried at Hameln but transferred to Wehl cemetery in 1954. The bodies from the later 127 executions were interred directly at Wehl.

Auschwitz Concentration Camp.

Auschwitz was established in May 1940, on the orders of Heinrich Himmler, on the outskirts of the town of Oswiecim in Poland. The Germans called the town Auschwitz and this became the name of the camp. It was expanded into three main camps, Auschwitz I, Birkenau, Auschwitz II - Monowitz and had some 40 satellite camps. Initially, Auschwitz was used to house Polish political prisoners, Soviet prisoners of war and gypsies. From June 1942, it was used as an extermination camp for European Jews who were killed in the gas chambers at - Birkenau. It is thought that around one million people died in this camp. It was liberated by the Red Army on January 27, 1945.

The trial of the staff who had been captured took place at Krakow in Poland in the autumn of 1947 and concluded on the 22nd of December of that year. Twenty one defendants, including ex-commandant Liebehenschel, and two women, Maria Mandel, head of the women's camp and Therese Rosi Brandel, were condemned to death by the Supreme People's Court in Krakow. 

SS-Oberaufseherin Maria Mandel, a 36 year old blonde, was born at Munzkirchen in Austria in January 1912 and joined the SS in 1938. From October 1938 to May 1939, she was Aufseherin at KZ Lichtenburg and then from May 1939 to October 1942 she was Aufseherin in KZ Ravensbrück. She then transferred as an Oberaufseherin to KZ Auschwitz where she worked until the 30th of November 1944. She was moved on to KZ Mühldorf where she continued until May 1945. Her arrest came on August 10th, 1945. She was reported to be highly intelligent and dedicated to her work. The prisoners, however, referred to her as "the beast" as she was noted for her brutality and enjoyment in selecting women and children for the gas chambers. She also had a passion for classical music and encouraged the women's orchestra in Auschwitz. The orchestra were kept busy playing at roll calls, to accompany official speeches, to welcome transports and at hangings. 

Therese Rosi Brandel been born in Bavaria in February 1902 and began training at Ravensbrück in 1940. She worked as an SS Aufseherin in KZ Ravensbrück before transferring to Auschwitz in 1942 and then to the KZ Muehldorf (a satellite camp of Dachau). She beat her prisoners and made selections for the gas chambers. In 1943, she received the war service medal for her work there. She was arrested on the 29th of August 1945 in the Bavarian mountains. Click here for photo of her.

On January 24th, 1948, all twenty one prisoners were executed in groups of five or six within the Montelupich prison in Krakow. The hangings commenced at 7:09 a.m. with Maria Mandel and four male prisoners, Artur Liebehenschel, Hans Aumeier, Maximilian Grabner and Carl Möckel. Each prisoner in turn was made to mount a simple step up. When they were noosed, this was removed leaving them suspended, slowly strangling to death. The four men were hanged one at a time, followed by Maria Mandel. It is reported that it was 15 minutes before they could be declared dead. 

A second group of five prisoners, all men, were hanged at 7.43 a.m. with a further five men following them at 8.16 a.m. The final group comprising of five men and the other condemned woman, Therese Brandl, went to the gallows at 8.48 a.m. Again, they were hanged one by one and were certified dead 15 minutes later. 

After execution, the 21 bodies were all taken to the Medical School at the University of Krakow for autopsy and as specimens for the students to practice anatomy on.
A further woman to be hanged at Krakow was 46 year old Elizabeth Lupka. (Click here for photo of her) She was born on the 27th of October 1902 in the town of Damner and married in 1934. The marriage was childless and soon ended in divorce. From 1937 to 1942, she worked in Berlin in the aircraft industry before becoming an SS Aufseherin in the KZ Ravensbrück. From March 1943 until January 1945, she worked in the KZ Auschwitz Birkenau. She beat her prisoners (women and children) and participated in the selections for the gas chambers. She was arrested on the 6th of June 1945 and brought to trial on the 6th of July 1948 at the district court in Krakow where she was convicted of war crimes and sentenced to death by hanging. She was executed on the 8th of January 1949 at 7.05 a.m. in the Montelupich prison in Krakow. Her body was also taken to the Medical School at the University of Krakow for use as an anatomical specimen by the medical students. 

Margot Drexler (also given as Dreschel) was another SS Aufseherin in Auschwitz who was particularly feared by the women inmates, whom she beat and starved to death. She had last worked at the Ravensbruck subcamp of Neustadt-Glewe. After the war, she tried to escape but was caught in Pirma-Bautzen in Czechoslovakia in the Russian zone in May 1945 and hanged in May or June of that year in Bautzen. Maria Mandel told her trial that Drexler had made selections for the gas chambers. 

Stutthof Concentration Camp.

Stutthof concentration camp, 34 km. from Danzig , was the first concentration camp created by the Nazis outside Germany, in September 1939. From June 1944, Stutthof became a death camp as part of Hitler's programme of exterminating European Jews. It expanded rapidly over its 5 year life and had many satellite camps. This expansion required a commensurate increase in staff and local people with Nazi sympathies were recruited. 

Altogether some 110,000 men, women and children were sent to Stutthof. It is estimated that as many as 65,000 of these were put to death in the gas chamber or by hanging or shooting, while many died of disease and ill treatment.

The camp was liberated by the Russians on May 10th, 1945 and the Commandant, Johann Pauls, and some of his staff were put on trial by the Polish Special Law Court at Danzig between April 25th and May 31st, 1946. All were represented by counsel. Eleven of the defendants, five women and six men, were found guilty of war crimes and sentenced to death. These were Johann Pauls, SS-Aufseherins Jenny Wanda Barkmann, Elisabeth Becker, Wanda Klaff, Ewa Paradies, Gerda Steinhoff and five other men who had been Kapo's in the camp. Click here for photo of them in the dock.

They had all pleaded "not guilty" to the general charge of war crimes and the women did not seem to take the trial too seriously until the end. After the sentence, they appealed for clemency but these appeals were rejected by the Polish president.
Thus all 11 were publicly hanged before a large crowd, estimated at several thousand, at 5.00 p.m. on July 4th, 1946 at Biskupia Gorka hill near Danzig. A row of simple gallows had been set up in a large open area, four double ones with a triple gallows in the middle. A fleet of open trucks brought the prisoners to the execution ground, their hands and legs tied with cords. The trucks were backed under the gallows and the condemned made to stand on the tailboards or on the chairs on which they had sat. A simple cord noose was put round their necks and when the preparations were complete, each truck was driven forward leaving them suspended. They were not hooded and given only a short drop, and as can be seen from the photos, some of them struggled for some time after suspension. It is alleged that one man and two women (un-named) struggled and fought with their guards prior to being hanged, although the others seemed to accept their fate calmly. The whole event was recorded by official press photographers, hence the clarity of the pictures. Click here for photo.

Twenty four year old Jenny Wanda Barkmann was thought to be from Hamburg and was nicknamed "The Beautiful Spectre" by the camp inmates who considered her to be a ruthless killer. She was arrested in May 1945 at a railway station near Danzig trying to escape. At her trial she is reported to have flirted with her male guards and wore a different hairstyle each day. She is reported to have said after being condemned: "Life is a pleasure and pleasure as a rule is a short distance".

Elizabeth Becker was not quite 23 years old and had been born locally on the 20th of July 1923 at Nowy Staw near Danzig. She had married in 1936 and had been a member of the NSDAP and the BDM from 1938 to 1940. She worked in agriculture from 1941 to 1944 in Nowy Staw and joined the staff of Stutthof in September 1944 becoming an SS Aufseherin in SK-III Stutthof (the women’s camp) where she made selections for the gas chambers. After she was condemned, she submitted an appeal for commutation of her death sentence to the Polish president. The court recommended the commutation and substitution of a 15 year term of imprisonment because she had committed far fewer and less dreadful crimes than the others. The president, Boleslaw Bierut, however, rejected this request and she was executed with the rest of the women. 

Wanda Klaff (nee Kalacinski) was of German origin but had been born in Danzig on the 6th of March 1922. When she left school in 1938 she initially worked in a jam factory, leaving in 1942 to get married to one Willy Gapes and becoming a housewife. In 1944 Wanda joined the staff at Stutthof satellite camp at Praust, moving later to Russoschin sub-camp. She contracted typhoid and was hospitalised in Danzig where she was arrested on the June the 11th, 1945. It would appear form the photos that Wanda, unlike the other four, was hanged by a woman, rather than a male former camp inmate.

Gerda Steinhoff was 24 and also from Danzig. She worked on a farm in Tygenhagen and later in a baker's shop in Danzig until 1944. She married in January 1944 and had one child. She went to work for the SS at Stutthof in October 1944 and was quickly promoted to Oberaufseherin at KZ Danzig (a satellite of Stutthof). In January 1945, she moved to KZ Bydgoszcz (another satellite camp) where she remained until it was liberated. She received the “Iron Cross” for her wartime efforts. She was arrested by Polish police on the 25th of May 1945.

Ewa Paradies was born at Lauenburg, (now Lebork) in Poland on the 17th of December 1920 and had various jobs after leaving school in 1935. She joined the staff of Stutthof SK-III in August 1944 and was trained as an Aufseherin, being transferred to the Bromberg-Ost subcamp of Stutthof in October 1944 and returning to Stutthof in January 1945. She was arrested in May 1945 at Lauenburg....

In conclusion.

One can only wonder, looking back from 50 years later what turned these women into virtual monsters. Was it their total belief in the rightness of Hitler's policies or did they possess a latent sadism or perhaps a mixture of both? It is terrifying the acts that people can commit when they are out of control and have no fear of the consequences. I suspect that these women thought that Germany would win the war and that they would rise in the regime. Typically, they viewed their prisoners as "dreck," the German for rubbish and as sub-humans. Therefore, the prisoners' lives and feelings were completely irrelevant, and it was just a simple matter of controlling them through fear and brutal repression. One wonders too whether they just became inured to the continuous acts of cruelty. Many of the people tried for war crimes insisted that they were just carrying out orders from above but this doesn't really ring true, either now or to the judges at their tribunals, when one looks at the acts of sadism that they visited on their prisoners. 

It is easy to have sympathy with the young women from Stutthof, whose unnecessarily cruel executions were so well documented, but one must remember what they did. As a young soldier said to Pierrepoint on the eve of the hangings of the Belsen women, "if you had been in Belsen under this lot, you wouldn't be able to feel sorry for them." (Pierrepoint had expressed some sympathy for the prisoners.)
Had it not been for the war, one suspects that these women would most probably have lived normal lives with jobs, husbands and children.

It is notable that in many cases it was quite junior people who were caught, tried and in some cases executed. A lot of the more senior ones were able to escape justice. However, the Commandants of many of the concentration camps were caught and in most cases given the death penalty.

BY Galveston's Congregation Beth Jacob

Women Record Their Accounts of the Holocaust

Melita Maschmann 

Bund Deutscher Madel Member

Melita Maschmann 

“On the night of November 9 1938, the “Crystal Night” a shadow fell on our joy. Of the riots of that night I saw nothing. But in the morning I saw the wreckage of the little shops and restaurants in an alley near Berlin’s Alexanderplatz, where the inhabitants were Jews.


I was horrified at the violence that must have raged there. But didn’t we hear all the time that international Jewry was inciting the world against Germany? And now the Jews had had a frightful warning.


I expelled this episode from my mind as quickly as I could. It meant sorrow for innocent people – for what had these little men, whose little shops were destroyed, to do with international Jewish capitalism?


It was simpler not to dwell upon these things, but to plunge oneself quickly back into one’s own work.”

  • November 9 1938

Irena Sendlerowa


Click photo for larger image

Irena Sendlerowa , also known as Irena Sendler was born on 15 February 1910 in Warsaw, is a former social worker in Poland. During World War Two she was an activist in the Polish Underground and she helped save approximately 2500 Jewish children from the Warsaw ghetto by smuggling them out of the ghetto, and providing them with hiding places and false papers.  

As a member of Zegota, a secret organisation set up by the Polish government in exile in London, to rescue Polish Jews, she organised a small group of social workers to smuggle Jewish children to safety.  

She worked in the Warsaw health department and had permission to enter the ghetto, which had been created in November 1940 to segregate the Jewish population.  

She and her team smuggled the children out by various means, such as hiding them in ambulances, or guiding them through the sewer pipes, wheeling them out on a trolley in suitcases or boxes, or taking them out through the back door entrance in the Court House on Leszno Street.

She noted the names of the children on cigarette papers, twice for security, and sealed them in two glass jars, which she buried in a colleague’s garden.

The Warsaw Ghetto

After the war the jars were dug up and the lists handed to Jewish representatives. Attempts were then made to reunite the children with their families, but most of them had perished in the death camps, particularly Treblinka, which was used to exterminate the Jews of Warsaw. 

Irena was arrested in October 1943 and was taken to the Gestapo Headquarters on the Aleja Szucha, where she was held before being driven away to be executed.

But Zegota managed to bribe the Gestapo for her release and she was knocked unconscious and left by the roadside. During the war Irena was sentenced to death by the Right Wing Polish Underground for rescuing Jewish Children.  

Irena Sendlerowa receiving the In the Service of Health medal from Poland's Minister of Health. Warsaw, October 1958

On the 15 March 2007 Irena Sendlerowa was named a national hero by Poland’s parliament, and was nominated for this years Nobel peace prize.

Irena who now lives in a Warsaw nursing home, insisted she did nothing special. In an interview she said “I was brought up to believe that a person must be rescued when drowning, regardless of religion and nationality. The term ‘hero’ irritates me greatly – the opposite is true – I continue to have pangs of conscience that I did so little.”  

Elzbieta Ficowska was smuggled out of the ghetto by Mrs Sendlerowa in a toolbox on a lorry, when she was just five months old, said: 

“In the face of today’s indifference, the example of Irena Sendlerowa is very important. Irena Sendlerowa is like a third mother to me and many rescued children” referring also to her real mother and her Polish foster mother.

*Irena Sendlerowa died on the 12 May 2008 in a Warsaw Nursing Home.

Read more about Irena Sendlerowas activity with Zegota [here]



Saartje (Selma) Engel nee Wijnberg

Selma Engel

Chaim Engel

Saartje (Selma) Wijnberg was born on the 15 May 1922 in Groningen, Netherlands. After a period in hiding she was captured by the Germans, and after a spell in prison in Amsterdam, she was deported to Vught and then Westerbork Transit Camp. 

On 6 April 1943 she was deported to the death camp Sobibor in Poland, with 2019 other Jewish men, women and children. They arrived in Sobibor on 9 April 1943, selected by the SS to work, she worked in the Sorting Barracks, and the Waldkommando (Forest Brigade). 

She found true love in the death camp with the Polish Jew Chaim Engel, and she escaped with Chaim during the uprising on the 14 October 1943. 

Her story is important as she is one of only two Dutch survivors of the Sobibor death camp, the other one was Ursula Stern.After being liberated by the advancing Red Army on 23 June 1944, she settled with Chaim for a short time, in Holland, before emigrating to the USA.  

Chaim Engel died on 4 July 2003 in New Haven, USA. 

Treblinka Survivor

Treblinka Survivor – Testimony – Selected Extracts

 Federenko Trial Fort Lauderdale, USA 1978   

[photos added to enhance the text]



Q: Where were you born?


Sonia Lewkowicz:  I was born in the city of Dombrowa , near Grodno, Poland.


A country scene in Dombrowa, Poland

Q: And when were you born?


On the 11th of March 1922


Q: And when did you finish school?


It was already during the war in June 1924, correction 1941


Q: In December 1942 were you taken in a transport to Treblinka Camp?




Q: You were twenty years old when this happened?


That is right


Q: Tell the Court what happened, when the train you were riding in pulled into the Treblinka camp?


When the train stopped, we were chased from the cars to a big square where we were separated, women and children on one side, the men on the other side.


We went to the barrack where we had to undress.


Q: And did you undress?


Road sign near the Treblinka Camp



Q: Who else was in the barrack where you were forced to undress?


There were other women and children, Germans, Ukrainians, and Jewish prisoners, men, with some kind of a blue band on their sleeves.


Q: Tell us what happened to you?


I wouldn’t undress completely. One of those Jewish prisoners, Jewish men, who suggested that I should say that I am a laundress. Then he ran to the SS –man, told him probably I am a laundress, and pushed me into him, and he said to this officer that I am a qualified laundress, he pulled me aside.


Q: One of the Jewish prisoners with an arm band that said you were to say you were a laundress?




Q: Was that in order to save your life?


The station outside of Treblinka



Q: Were you really a qualified laundress?




Q: So when you made the statement to the SS man that you were a laundress, were you pulled out of line?




Q: Was anybody else – were any other women pulled out of the line at the same time you were?




Q: How many others?


Another woman – one other woman.


Q: Do you remember her name?


Yes. Sonja Berman


Q: Were you given clothes to wear?




Model of the Treblinka Camp

Q: In which camp was this hut where you were undressed?


In the first camp


Q: And which camp were the gas chambers located?


In the second camp


Q: Was there a pathway leading from the hut where you were undressed to the gas chambers?




Q: What was that path called?


The Himmelweg


The Interpreter: That means street to heaven, road to heaven


Q: Were you given a work assignment in Camp One?




Q: Where were you assigned to work in Camp One?


As a laundress


Q: Incidentally, besides you and Sonja Berman, who were pulled out of line, what happened to all the rest of the people in the barracks, the women who undressed?


They disappeared


Q: You mean you never saw them again?


Treblinka SS staff -Bredow, Mentz, Moller and Hirtreiter



Q: You said you were assigned to work as a laundress in Camp One?




Q: How many female Jewish prisoners were there in Camp One?




Q: Were you all housed in one room?


Yes. We lived in one room


Q: How many laundries were there in Camp One ?


Three of them


Q: What were the three laundries, how can you distinguish them?


There was one laundry for the Germans, a separate laundry for the Ukrainians and the third one for the Jewish prisoners


Q: And in which laundry were you assigned to work while you were in Camp One?


In the laundry for the Ukrainians


Q: Mrs Lewkowicz did there come a time when you were transferred to Camp Two?




The Zoo & Garden area at Treblinka

Q: Do you remember when that was?


Yes. 5th of March 1943


Q: What work were you assigned to do in Camp Two?


For the first few days, I worked in the kitchen in Camp Two and then I was moved to the laundry, which was opened there, a new laundry.


Q: When was it that you left Treblinka?


I escaped during the uprising the 2nd August 1943


Q: So from early March until early August 1943, you were in Camp Two, correct?




Q: Now Camp Two you testified is where the gas chambers were: correct?


That’s correct.


Q: Were the crematorium also located in Camp Two?




Q: Which camp was larger in terms of size, physical size? Camp One or Camp Two?


The first Camp was bigger


Fyodor Federenko

Q: Did everybody in Camp Two know that people were being put to death there?




Q: Was there ever occasion when you were hanging laundry when you personally heard the screams of people who were in the process of being put to death?


Once I’ve heard screams and cries from the gas chambers


Q: Was this Ukrainian Zugwachmann who you identified in photograph seventeen (Federenko) did you ever see him in Camp Two?




Q: Did you ever see this Ukrainian Zugwachmann who is in photograph seventeen in the area where the crematorium was located?




Q: Please tell the Court what you saw him do in the vicinity of the crematorium


Once when I was bringing the laundry to be dried out on this courtyard, where all the laundry would hang, I have seen him, how he shot a Jewish prisoner, and the prisoner fell down.


Q: Did he shoot the Jewish prisoner with a pistol or rifle?


With …. he would shoot this prisoner with the revolver


Q: About how far away were you so that you could see?


I was not far away, it was close


Q: Could you see the face of this Ukrainian Zugwachmann who shot the prisoner?




Q: And is the Ukrainian Zugwachmann, in the photograph seventeen, the one you saw shoot this prisoner you just described?




The Court: We will take a recess


Cross Examination


The Deutches Haus in Dombrowa

Q: Mrs Lewkowicz, you stated that you were taken to Treblinka in December 1942. Where were you immediately prior to being taken to Treblinka?


I lived in Dombrowa until the second of November 1942 and then we were transported to the city of Kielbasin near to Grogy, where all the Jews from the area were transported, and then to Treblinka in December 1942.


Q: Was the Jewish population gathered together in Dombrowa , was it guarded in Dombrowa?




Q: Would Dombrowa be considered a ghetto?




Q: Who guarded the Jewish population in Dombrowa?




Q: Did they have anyone else, any other nationalities assisting them?




Q: For what period of time did the Germans guard the Jewish population in Dombrowa before sending them on to the next city?


From May 1942, until November 1942, and then we were transported to Kielbasin, which was actually not a city, but sort of a temporary camp.


Q: Was your family from Dombrowa transferred to Kielbasin with you?




Jews being deported from Kielbasin near Grodno

Q: And you remained at Kielbasin from November 1942 until December 1942: Is that correct?


That’s correct


Q: Did your family accompany you?




Q: Did any guards accompany the train to Treblinka?




Q: And what nationality were these guards?




Q: Up until this time, had you seen any Ukrainians at all as guards?




Q: When you arrived at Treblinka and the doors to the transports were opened, please describe what is the first thing you saw?


It’s hard to describe for me because I was so shocked and there were shouts and cries and the Germans would shout and I didn’t know where I am, what’s going on.


Q: Did you see anyone other than Germans meeting the transports at Treblinka when you first arrived?


It is very hard for me to describe it. I have the feeling that there were some soldiers in the other uniforms, but I really don’t remember. I couldn’t distinguish the difference.


Q: Did the train or the transport stop anywhere between Kielbasin and Treblinka?


Oh yes


Q: How long a trip was it between Kielbasin and Treblinka?


Remnants of Camp 1 at Treblinka

Twenty-four hours


Q: Did you see Mr Federenko meeting your transport at Treblinka?


I didn’t see anyone


Q: When did you first come to realise that there was another nationality of guards at Treblinka, other than German?


I don’t remember it exactly. I only have the feeling….. I think that either someone told me or I discovered it myself. On the assembly during the assemblies, that the Ukrainians were there


Q: The daily assemblies?




Q: When is the first time that you claim to have seen Mr Federenko at Treblinka ?


I don’t know. I don’t remember


Q: Can you recall how soon it was after your arrival at Treblinka?


Yes. At the beginning, I really didn’t know anyone. After a while, those faces started to mean something to me, and I could recognise one face from the other, but when was it exactly, I really don’t remember.


Q: Can you recall where you first saw Mr Federenko what portion of the camp and what the circumstances were?



Ukrainian guard in black uniform

Q: Who chased you from the cars to the square?


I don’t remember now


Q: Was anybody beaten or shot during that chase from the transports to the square?


Prisoners were beaten, but I was not personally beaten. I was running together with the others to the square.


Q: Did you see these prisoners beaten during this chase?


Probably, I’ve seen it, but now I don’t recall, under what circumstances, I don’t know exactly how it looked like.


Q: Do you recall who beat these prisoners?




Q: What colour uniforms were the Germans wearing?


Greenish gray, a combination of green and gray


Q: And what colour uniforms were these other guards that you mentioned wearing?


I never paid any attention to that.


Q: Well during your entire stay at Treblinka did you ever notice what colour the other uniforms were?


I recall later on, that the Ukrainians would have black uniforms on the assemblies


Q: Did they have any colour uniforms other than black?


I really don’t know


Q: When you refused to fully undress, did you refuse to any of the guards?


I really don’t know. I was the one who did not undress entirely. Maybe that saved my life because it caught the attention. No one forced me. No one used force in order to undress me entirely.


Q: Do you know what member of this team was, that told you to say you were a laundress?


Yes. It was one of the prisoners wearing the blue bands


Otto Stadie

Q: What was his name?


Viktor Samborski


Q: Did you see him at later times in the camp, or work with him later?


We didn’t work together but I’ve seen him a few times.


Q: Do you know who the German was that pulled you out of line after you told him you were a laundress?




Q: Did you see him later in the camp at later occasions?




Q: What was his name?




Q: Did he hold some particular rank or title that you came into contact with him, or saw him later in the camp?


Yes he was a Stabsscharfuhrer


Emmy Bonhoeffer

Sister-in-law of German Resistance martyr Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer


“Standing in line for vegetables or something like that I told my neighbour standing next to me that now they start to kill the Jews in the concentration camps and they even make soap out of them.


Post war photo of Emmy Bonhoeffer

And they said Frau Bonhoeffer, “if you don’t stop telling such horror stories you will end up in a concentration camp too and nobody of us can help you. It’s not true what you’re telling, you shouldn’t believe those things, you have them from the foreign broadcasts and they tell those things to make enemies for us.”


Going home I told that to my husband and he was not at all applauding to me and the very contrary he said, “My dear, sorry to say but you are absolutely idiotic what you are doing. Please understand the dictatorship is like a snake.


If you put a foot on its tail, as you do, it will bite you. You have to strike the head and you can’t do that, neither you or I can do that. The only single way is to convince the military who have the arms to do it, to convince them that they have to act, that they have to make a coup d’etat.”

Hertha Beese

Berlin Housewife and Social Democrat


In the flat underneath ours lived a Jewish family. The only reason they had not yet been persecuted and taken away was that the father was Italian and belonged to Mussolini’s party.


Household ID card for Jews in Berlin

But when we ourselves faced more and more difficulties the wife began to feel insecure and was scared that they might take her away despite the Italian connection and she therefore left.


So that there flat became empty and I begged that it should not be handed over to the landlord since we still hoped there would be a total collapse and we would be rid of our difficulties.


I looked after the empty flat and one night, it must have been around midnight, the doorbell rang. I opened and there stood in front of me a Jewish couple. This was how I began to help persecuted Jews. All of a sudden I had entered an invisible circle of people who smuggled Jews about.


As soon as one hiding place had been detected they were quickly passed on. They would always move about by night. I have never found out who it was who sent them to me in the first place. Some decent people


The problems started with the feeding of the Jewish people since they neither had food-rationing cards nor very often any money. So we in turn had to make use of friends who exchanged their smoking cards for the odd potato or bread, or a friend would come and leave a bit of food.


But all this was so illegal that names, sources or contacts had to remain unknown.”

Toshia Bialer

Warsaw eyewitness – Moving into the Warsaw Ghetto – October 1940


“Try to picture one-third of a large city’s population moving through the streets in an endless stream, pushing, wheeling, dragging all their belongings from every part of the city to one small section, crowding one another more and more as they converged.


No cars, no horses, no help of any sort was available to us by order of the occupying authorities. Pushcarts were about the only method of conveyance we had, and these were piled high with household goods, furnishing much amusement to the German onlookers who delighted in overturning the carts and seeing us scrambling for our effects. Many of the goods were confiscated arbitrarily without any explanation.


In the ghetto, as some of us had begun to call it, half ironically and in jest, there was appalling chaos. Thousands of people were rushing around at the last minute trying to find a place to stay.


Thousands of Jews moving into the Warsaw Ghetto

Everything was already filled up but still they kept coming and somehow more room was found. The narrow crooked streets of the most dilapidated section of Warsaw were crowded with pushcarts, their owners going from house to house asking the inevitable question: Have you room?


The sidewalks were covered with their belongings. Children wandered, lost and crying, parents ran hither and yon seeking them, their cries drowned in the tremendous hubbub of half a million uprooted people.”

Rita Boas- Koupmann

Dutch –Jewish Teenager survivor of Auschwitz – Birkenau

“I think the alarm started when Jewish people had their card with a “J” on it. That was the first time they marked you, you had your identity card you had to carry with you and what was special was the “J” in it and you were marked because anybody could ask for the card.”


Riva Losanskaya

Jewish survivor from the Einsatzgruppen murder action in Butrimonys Lithuania

On the 9 September 1941 740 Jewish men, women and children were murdered at Butrimonys – Einsatzgruppen Report.

“I thought they would kill everyone, and if anyone survived they would be cursed. But I still had a glimmer of hope, until the very last moment, of course we were frightened and not heroes, but I still had some hope that I might escape.

One woman said to me, “You’ll manage to escape.”  I asked her, “Don’t you want to escape with me?” She replied, “What about my child?”


We were going in that direction, along this road, and saw a deep ditch – grass has grown over where it was. But in one place there was an open area covered in sand. When I saw it, it struck me that I could get away.”  




Dina Mironovna Pronichev


“We had two children: a boy and a girl. Before the war I worked as an actress at the Kiev Children’s Theatre. On the second day of the way my husband joined the Soviet Army, and I was left with two children and my old sick mother.


Hitler’s troops seized Kiev on the 19 September 1941, and from the very first day they started plundering and killing Jews. Terrible stories about the treatment of Jews were circulating in the city. We lived in terror.


When I saw announcements posted in the streets, ordering “all of the Jews of the city of Kiev to gather at Babi Yar. I felt trouble was coming. I started shivering. I say that nothing good was awaiting us there. That is why I dressed my children, three and five years old, packed their stuff in a small bag and took them to my Russian mother-in-law. Then following the order, my sick mother and I went along the road to Babi Yar.


Jews were walking in hundreds and thousands. Besides me there was an old Jew with a long white beard. He had on a tallis (prayer shawl) and tfilin (phylacteries). He was mumbling. He prayed exactly as my father did when I was a child. A woman was walking ahead of me. She was carrying two children and a third one was walking alongside, holding her skirt.


Sick women and elderly were riding in carts among piled up bags and suitcases. Small children were crying. Old people, having trouble walking, sighed and trudged on in their mournful journey.


Russian husbands were walking with their Jewish wives. Russian wives were walking with their Jewish husbands. When we approached Babi Yar I heard shooting and inhuman shouting. I started to grasp what was going on, but did not say anything to my mother.


When we entered through the gates, we were ordered to turn in our papers and valuables and undress. A German came over to my mother and tore a gold ring off her finger. Only then mother said, “Dinochka, you are Pronicheva, you are Russian. You should survive. Rush to your children. You should live for them.”


But I could not flee, we were surrounded by fascists with sub-machine guns, Ukrainian policemen, and ferocious dogs who were ready to tear a human being to pieces. And then I could not leave my mother alone. I embraced her, burst into tears, but was unable to leave her. Mother pushed me away and yelled, “Hurry!”


Jews marched to the ravine at Babi Yar

 I went to a table at which a fat officer was seated, showing him my passport and said quietly, “I am Russian.” He was contemplating my passport when a policeman came over and barked, “Don’t believe her, she’s a Kike. We know her….” The German told me to step aside and wait.


I saw groups of men, women, children and elderly undress. They were taken to an open pit and shot by soldiers. Then another group would come. I saw this horror with my own eyes. Even though I was not standing close to the pit, I could hear awful shrieks of terrified people, weak voices of children, crying, “Mother, mother….”


I saw all that and was unable to understand how people could kill others because they are Jewish. And I concluded that the fascists were not humans, they were – beasts.  


I saw a young completely naked woman feed her naked baby with the breast, when a policeman came to her, took the baby, and thrust it into the pit. The mother rushed after the child. A fascist shot her dead, and she fell into the pit. Had someone told me this, I would not believe it. It is impossible to believe.


The German who had ordered me to wait, took me to his superior, gave him my passport and said, “This woman says she is Russian, but a policeman says she is Jewish.” The officer studied my passport for a while and then said, “Dina is not a Russian name. You are Jewish. Take her.”


A policeman told me to undress and pushed me to the edge of the pit where another group was waiting for its fate. But before the shooting started, I driven by terror, fell into the pit. I fell on dead bodies. At first, I could not understand anything: Where was I? How did I get there?”


I thought I had gone mad. But when people started falling on me, I came to my senses and understood everything. I started checking my arms, legs, abdomen, head, it turned out I was not even wounded. I pretended to be dead.


Under me and above me there lay the killed and wounded. Some of them breathed, others moaned. Suddenly I heard a child cry, “Mommy!” It seemed like it was my little daughter. I burst into tears. The execution went on, and people kept falling, I was pushing corpses away in fear of being buried alive. But I did this in a way so that the policemen would not notice.


Einsatzgruppen & German Police, force groups of Jews to hand over their possessions and undress before being shot in the ravine at Babi Yar

All of a sudden everything was quiet. It was getting dark. Germans with sub-machine guns were killing those who had been wounded. I felt someone was standing above me, pretended to be dead, no matter how hard it was. Then I felt we were being covered with earth. I closed my eyes to protect them.


When it became completely dark and quiet – deadly quiet in literal sense – I opened my eyes and having made sure no one was around and watching me, I dug myself out of sand that was covering me. I saw the ditch filling with thousands of killed. I got scared. Here and there earth was moving – half alive people were breathing.


I looked at myself and got scared. The undershirt that was covering my body was all bloody. I tried to get up and could not. Then I said to myself, “Dina, get up, leave, run from here, our children are waiting for you.” I got up and ran.


Suddenly I heard a shot and understood that they noticed me. I fell on the ground and waited. All was quiet. Without getting up, I started moving toward the high hill that surrounded the pit.


Suddenly I felt something was stirring behind me. First I got scared and decided to wait for a while. I turned quietly and asked, “Who are you?”

A delicate, scared child’s voice answered, “Don’t be afraid, it’s me. My first name is Fina, my last name is Shneiderman. I am eleven years old. Take me with you, I am very afraid of the dark.” I moved closer to the boy, embraced him and started crying. The boy said, “Don’t cry.”


We both started to move quietly. We reached the edge of the pit, got some rest and continued climbing, helping each other. We had already reached the top of the pit, stood up to run away, when a shot was fired. We fell on the ground instinctively. For some time we were quiet, being afraid to speak. Having calmed down, I moved closer to Fimochka, touched him and asked in a whisper, “How are you doing, Fimochka?”


There was no answer. In the dark I could feel his legs and arms. He did not stir. No signs of life. I got up a bit and looked in his face. He was lying with his eyes closed. I tried to open them but understood that the boy was dead. Probably, the shot we heard had taken his life.


I caressed his cold face, said goodbye to him, got on my feet and ran. Having made sure that I was far from the terrible place called Babi Yar, I decided to approach a house that could just about be seen in the dark. Shivering, I came to a window and knocked. In a few minutes a sleepy woman lifted up a curtain and asked, “Who is it? What do you want?” I answered her, “I escaped from Babi Yar.”


Jewish corpses packed into the ravine at Babi Yar

And then I heard her angry voice, “Go away. I don’t have anything to do with you.” I left. I ran, because the day was breaking and I knew that they should not see me there. But there was no place to go, so I approached a second house and knocked. The door opened, and an elderly woman appeared on the porch. When she saw me in the undershirt, she crossed herself and recoiled.


“Who are you?” Where have you come from?” she asked. I replied, “Don’t be afraid, dear. I am not a devil. I’m human.” And then I lied for the first time in my life. “I’m Ukrainian. I saw my friend to Babi Yar and barely escaped.”   The old lady took my hand and let me in. Then she told me to wash myself, gave me a clean shirt, a blouse, a skirt, and old shoes. I looked at myself and got a shock: a real Ukrainian!


My hostess gave me a glass of hot milk with homemade bread and told me to get some rest. I ate with gust, went over to the old lady, embraced her, kissed her, and burst into tears. My saviour also cried. But having wiped her tears with an apron, she said, “Daughter, I know who you really are. But we are all alike for God. We have one God. Because I have helped you, my two sons will come back from the war alive.


But my place is not safe for you. Police hounds search here every day. They are looking for Jews. These beasts pay money for Jews. Now, go get some sleep. I’ll give you some provisions and try to get to our people. May God help you.” 


I felt relieved because there were good people on earth who were ready to help others. The old lady made my bed and left. I slept for a while but could not sleep long. The images of the previous day were passing in front of my eyes. I believe I heard shots, shouting and children crying somewhere….


Who knows where my children are?  Did my mother-in-law manage to save them? I did not have time to think. I was aware that the old lady could suffer because of me. And I decided to go. I looked in a mirror and was terrified to see my hair gray. This is from last night, I thought.


I put some soot on the face to seem older, wrapped my head in a kerchief, as was done by old Ukrainian women, and said good-bye to my dear hostess and set out for the Daritsa. My friend Natalia, with whom I had played in the theatre, lived there.  


At first glance Natasha did not recognise me. When she did, she got scared. She told me take off my clothes and get some rest. But I felt something un-natural in her attitude toward me. There was some alienation.


Post war photo of the Stangl house outside the Sobibor death camp

Once we had eaten, she said to me, “Dina, I should tell you the truth. You can’t stay here for a long time. My husband Andrei deserted from the Red Army. He hates the Soviet power and the Jews who invented it. I’m afraid he’ll inform on you. You’d better leave.”  And I left.”  

Theresa Stangl

Wife of Franz Paul Stangl – Commandant of Sobibor Death Camp

“But I was very glad when Paul told me he had arranged for us to move to the fish-hatchery – it would be better for all of us, and I was glad to get the children away from that house. No, while we were in Chelm, Paul was on leave, it was when we moved to the fish-hatchery that he had to go back to work.

And one day while he was at work – I still thought constructing, or working at an army supply base – Ludwig came with several other men, to buy fish or something. They brought schnapps and sat in the garden drinking.

Ludwig came up to me – I was in the garden too, with the children – and started to tell me about his wife and kids, he went on and on. I was pretty fed up, especially as he stank of alcohol and became more and more maudlin.

But I thought, here he is, so lonely – I must at least listen. And then he suddenly said, “Fuchterlich, - dreadful, its just dreadful, you have no idea how dreadful it is.”   I asked him, “What is dreadful?” “Don’t you know? he asked. “Don’t you know what is being done out there?”

“No. What?” “The Jews are being done away with. Done away with I asked, How? What do you mean?”  With gas, he said. Fantastic numbers”

He went on about how awful it was and then he said, in that same maudlin way he had, “But we are doing it for our Fuhrer. For him we sacrifice ourselves to do this – we obey his orders.”  And then he said, too, “Can you imagine what would happen if the Jews ever got hold of us.”

Jenny Schaner

A native of Austria, she was arrested by the Gestapo in October 1941 and deported to Auschwitz in July 1942.  


 “We had to put down all our bags. Men were sent to one side, women to the other, on the right side, stood SS men with loaded carbines.

The arrivals were locked up for the night in a block without water and without toilets; the next morning they saw the miserable people who populated the compound through a small window. “We thought they were Russian prisoners of war, later we found out that they were women.”

That same morning the new prisoners were “acclimatised,” we had to strip completely, our heads were shaved, and then we were given striped dresses and wooden clogs. We couldn’t walk in them, and after twenty-four hours my feet were blistered. They went out to work past Camp Commandant Schwarz.


Jenny Schaner

We had to build a pond. That was terrible. Young SS men were running around hitting the women over the head with shovels. We couldn’t understand the whole thing. We didn’t know what was happening to us. I did this for ten days.


The Dutch women suffered particularly, that they found it more difficult to bear up. One of them turned to the work-detail leader and begged him, “For God’s sake, sir, I cannot work like this, I am pregnant.” And the SS man answered, “What you swine, you pig!” Then he knocked her down and she was carried away on a stretcher.


I was so desperate that I told a female guard that I could not do this much longer and asked whether there wasn’t any office work; I was a stenographer – typist. “Perhaps,” she said and told me not to go out to work the next morning. I then stayed in the block and was taken out of the work detail. First she worked in the admissions office where she saw much misery.


One day an SS man asked her, “Do you have strong nerves?” She said yes and came to the Political Section, to the “registry” where the death lists were kept. Personal data, day of death, and cause of death had to be entered, with great precision. If there was a typing error, they might become terribly angry.


In the death books were entered the names of those who had died in the camp as a result of sickness or on the electrified barbed wire, or had been shot, or hanged by the execution squad. Not “processed” were those who had been sent directly from the ramp into the gas ovens. The individual death reports were signed by doctors.


Most of the recorded causes of death were fictitious. Thus, for example, we were never allowed to enter “shot while escaping” in the book. I had to write “heart failure.” And “cardiac weakness” was the cause listed instead of “malnutrition.” 


The three prisoners wrote for fourteen to sixteen hours a day. Personal data and causes of death filled line after line, page after page, and still it wasn’t possible “to include all the daily deaths.” The families got letters saying that despite the best possible medical care, it was not possible to save the life of the prisoner:


Hella Fellenbaum Weiss

“We express our heartfelt condolences at this great loss. Upon request you may get the urn against a payment of 15 marks.” The urn of course, did contain the ashes of someone, but not those of a particular person.


One day approximately fifty children one day were brought to the camp by truck. The oldest were five years old. I still remember a little girl, she might have been four. A little girl went up to Quackernack (an SS man) and said something to him.


The boy whose hand she held was perhaps a year older, he may have sensed something….. With her little brother at her side she stood there and lifted her little head and asked something….. Quackernack kicked her. She lay sprawling.


All the children were crying. We too were crying. We were horrified. Then they took their baggage up again and followed Quackernack. I don’t know where he took them.”

Eugenia Samuel

Polish eye-witness who lived near the Treblinka death camp


“I will never forget what I saw not till my dying day. Those little children, those people, what did they ever do to anyone? What did they ever do?” It was a terrible thing.


The decomposing human corpses caused such a stench, it was just terrible., you couldn’t go out in the yard, no way could you open a window or go outside.”


Hella Fellenbaum – Weiss

Re-counts her deportation to Sobibor from Wlodawa in November 1942


“We left Wlodawa for Sobibor in carts. One might wonder why so few of us tried to escape, since we knew the fate awaiting us. True, my brothers and I were still children, but why didn’t the adults revolt?



Our cart was guarded by an armed Ukrainian who was watching us. German soldiers with machine guns rode alongside us on horseback. At the border of a wood, my young brother gave a farewell sign, left the cart and started to run, followed by my older brother. My little brother fell; the other escaped. I learned later that he too, was murdered.


I am confused about the time of our arrival at Sobibor, I can only remember that we crossed a forest and then I saw an inscription on a poster: “Sonderkommando Sobibor.”  As in a dream, I heard a German ask, “Who can knit?” I stepped forward. The German asked me to leave the crowd and took me to a barrack with two other girls.

My mother had taught me how to knit socks. I knitted for the SS and Ukrainians; I also ironed shirts. Carpenters made me a stool on which I stood when the SS came to visit us, it was vital that I should look taller and older than my age.”  



More Survivors


Feigele Peltel

In hiding on the Aryan, watching the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising April 1943


“On the balcony of the second floor a woman stood wringing her hands. She disappeared into the building but returned a moment later, carrying a child and dragging a featherbed, which she flung to the pavement to break her fall. Clutching her child, she started to climb over the railing. A spray of bullets caught her midway – the child dropped to the street – the woman’s body dangled lifeless from the railing.


By now the flames had enveloped the upper floor, their rise matched by the increased frequency and intensity of the explosions. Jews were jumping out of windows, some of them caught by bullets in mid-air, others shot on the ground.


Two Jews opened fire from the third floor, then retreated. A knot of people stood crowded in a third-storey window, lowering a rope to the ground. One man, then another, climbed out of the window and slid down a rope. The Germans opened fire, and both fell to the pavement. The cough of the machine gun mixed with screams of agony.


Dawn came quiet and ghastly to the ghetto, revealing the burnt shells of the buildings, the charred, blood-stained bodies of the victims. Suddenly one of those bodies began to move, slowly, painfully crawling on its belly until it disappeared into the smoking ruins. Others began to show signs of life, the enemy was on the alert, a spray of machine gun fire- and all was lifeless again.”


False identification card that was used by Feigele Peltel

Bertha Sokolovskaya

A Twenty-one year old witnessed the deportation from the Bialystok ghetto on the 16 August 1943


“I went home. At that time I had with me my very sick mother whom I managed to hide with great difficulties during the first raid. I couldn’t tell her anything. She began collecting some clothes and was terribly agitated because the hinge of the cupboard came off and she was worried how she could leave without closing it.


The scale of the tragedy did not reach my mother’s consciousness. It was still daytime and she said, “Go to the Judenrat, maybe you’ll be able to find out something,” and suddenly she added, “My darling little girl, perhaps you will be saved.”


I went to the Judenrat where the Sonderkommando already were bossing the whole show. Smart, elegant Barasz was trying to ingratiate himself, but I saw for myself that they were no longer speaking to him, they were just ordering him about and kicking him.


I went into the building of the Judenrat where all its members were gathered. Everybody was in a great state of agitation. We all finally understood that the end had come. I left the Judenrat and went – no, it’s more accurate to say – I joined the group of young people, and we found a bunker, where we hid for several days and where preparations were being made for an uprising. We had bottles filled with molten lead.


When we were discovered and turned out, we were put against the wall. We thought that we will be shot, but instead we were driven into the general stream of people on the road heading towards Boyary, the eastern railway station on the outskirts of the town, and to the goods trains.


It was horrifying. The stream of people were shepherded by barking dogs and were kicked with rifles by the Germans and by the Ukrainian Gestapo dressed in black uniforms. The Ukrainians, ordered by their masters in white gloves, did all their dirty work.


Alice Lok Cahana

People who had a right to live walked on the pavement, maybe I am wrong, but I think they were indifferent to us. Our march was long and tortuous. Finally we reached our destination, the large square. After having been sorted out, the goods trains were leaving. Panic- stricken, we hung on to each other. We were hit with rifles, we were pushed and shoved like cattle.


I saw my aunts and a cousin. They told me that my mother had already left and that she hoped I managed to hide somewhere. The Ukrainians were beating us and were stealing from us. We were lying on the ground, above us a star-studded sky on a warm August night. Every now and then cries of prayers and screams of “Hear O Israel” were heard.


In the morning they began to separate families. The Ukrainian women kept on laughing sadistically saying, “Kiss good-bye, you’ll never see each other again.”  The men separated from the women. I cannot describe the horrific heartrending screams of anguish and weeping.”


Alice Lok Cahana

Hungarian Jewess talks about the deportation from Sarvar, in cattle trains and her arrival in Auschwitz – Birkenau in 1944


“The scene of going out of Egypt came to my mind. When we saw the cattle trains, I told my sister it’s a mistake they have cattle trains here – they don’t mean we should go in cattle trains.


Deportation of Hungarian Jews from Soltvadkert to Sarvar and then to Auschwitz

So we found ourselves in the cattle train – they are closing the door on us and are leaving a bucket for sanitary use and a bucket for water. I told Edith I will never use a sanitary bucket in front of these people, no matter what happens to me. The two of us went into a corner of the cattle train.


On arrival at Auschwitz- Birkenau Ramp:


When we arrived I told Edith nothing can be so bad like the cattle trains. I am sure they will want us to work and for the children they will give better food.  So they are saying right now the children should separate, “Go in another group – Go line up with the children.”


And I went to that group with the children and I was very tall for my age. Suddenly a German soldier asked me, “Do you have children?” I said no I am just fifteen in German and then he put me to another group.”


Ibi Mann

Jewish prisoner excavated from Auschwitz- Birkenau in the Death Marches in January 1945.


Fleeing the advance of the Soviet army, the Germans forcibly evacuate prisoners of the Stutthof

“If anyone even dared to bend down to get muddy snow off their shoes, they were shot. That was the end.

We weren’t allowed to bend over, we could only walk quickly, quickly, quickly. On both sides of the road there were ditches, big ditches and the ditches were full of bodies.”


Sonia Reznik Rosenfeld

A Jewish survivor of the Pruszcz, sub-camp of Stutthof, recalled the moment of her liberation.


As the horrible scene in the barracks met the eyes of the officer he stood transfixed and speechless. Then our redeemer, standing at a distance lest he be infected by our lice, asked us who we were? We told him we were Jews. To this he answered, “You are free! Go where your hearts desire. Our Red Army has freed you from murderous hands.”


Everyone lay motionless, no-one could utter a word. It is impossible to be freed when one already has one leg underground. As I could speak Russian better than anyone there, I told the officer that we were half-dead people, and I asked him where we would go, and how we would get there as none of us had a home any more for Hitler’s hordes had shot everyone’s family.


The officer sighed, and with eyes full of pity he said, “Don’t be disheartened, unhappy women, as long as your pulses throb within you, you will yet be people like everyone else. Remain in your places and we will take you to our military hospital. There you will convalesce and each one of you will be able to go on your way.”  


Toni Brichta

My mother Toni and her brother Fritz Wasservogel were born on 22.06.1892 in the Kreutzberg district of Berlin. Possibly because they were twins both were very small. They were about ten years old when their father died in 1902 at the age of 52.


Toni Brichta

Because he had had no life insurance and probably very few savings the children were sent to orphanages although they kept in very close contact with their mother to whom they were devoted. They were also very close to one another.


Fritz went to a Jewish orphanage; I believe it was called the Auerbach, where he received a classical education and where he became fluent in Latin and Greek. I was told that he could translate fluently from one into the other. He was also very good at sports and chess.


Toni, my mother, was sent to a Protestant orphanage where she received a liberal education, became fluent in English and French to interpreter standard and also learned shorthand and typing at a time when girls only gradually entered office work.


This entry into commerce was helped by WW1 when men, who as clerks had carried out such work, had been called up. I have a photo of her with her female colleagues  but cannot tell whether that was taken at the offices of the Berlin branch of the Allianz or at the Victoria of Berlin Life offices, she worked for both. I would just like to add that at her Protestant orphanage she was indoctrinated with anti-Catholicism which made a change from anti-Semitism.


It is likely that both of her parents were fully assimilated, thought of themselves as Germans of the Jewish persuasion, were fully aware of their Jewish descent but were not religious. It is also possible that if there was a Jewish orphanage for girls it was an orthodox one and she would not have fitted into it and that a Protestant one was considered a more suitable alternative.


My Mother's Journey 
Through the Fire

As Told to 
Louis Brandsdorfer, 
June 17,1987

I write this on the day of the funeral of my stepfather Maylech Spiegel. He was 85 years old when he died. He married my mother 14 years ago, a few years after my father died. Maylech, like my parents, was a survivor and his death was another reminder of how time was running out for the witnesses of the Holocaust.

I grew up in Brooklyn, New York. The community I lived in was populated with Holocaust survivors. Whenever they got together they would talk about the war. There seemed a need for many of the survivors to tell their stories, but the uniqueness of their experience did not dawn on me until I grew up and left New York. Outside of the city I found a very limited knowledge of the Holocaust.

In 1970 my father died. With him died the details of his personal experience in the war. As much as he told me I could not reconstruct in detail his story. I decided not to let my mother's story be lost too.

Over a period of time, I sat with my mother, recorded her stories of the war and organized this book. I also read everything I could find on the war and the Holocaust. I also found other children of survivors doing the same things, and for the same reasons.

My family, like the families of other survivors, was small. But it had once been large. Had it not been for the war I might have known 2 sets of grandparents, over a dozen sets of aunts and uncles, and countless cousins. Of my mother's family only she and one sister survived the war. On my father's side only my father and 2 of his brothers.

In getting my mother to talk about the war I asked her a lot of questions about her childhood and about her family. The more she talked about her home the more she remembered about her parents, brothers and sisters. And in her talking about them I felt I got to know them a least for a little while.

So this book took on a second purpose. It became a way of remembering those that did not survive. A way of keeping their memories alive. It was what the victims wanted. It was the same thing the survivors themselves wanted. It was one of the reason they told their stories so often.

Elie Wiesel said in explaining his passion to remember the Holocaust, "I feel that, having survived, I owe something to the dead. That was their obsession, to be remembered. Anyone who does not remember betrays them again."

I was also taken with a quote from Joseph Gottfarstein's book, "Judaism" that I found in Azriel Eisenberg's book, "Witness to the Holocaust." The quote was from the last Musar talk Rabbi Nahum Yanchiker, the Headmaster of the Slabodka Musar-Yeshiva near Kovno Lithuania, gave his students. Musar means an exercise in moral discipline.

As the Rabbi spoke the door of the Yeshiva was opened and someone yelled, "The Germans are coming."

The Rabbi stood up and told his students to flee and save themselves. He warned them about the dangers ahead and told them to always remember their people and their Yeshiva. His last words to his students were these,

"And do as our holy Sages had done -- pour forth your words and cast them into letters. This will be the greatest retribution which you can wreak upon these wicked ones. Despite the raging wrath of our foes the holy souls of your brothers and sisters will remain alive. These evil ones schemed to blot out their names from the face of the earth; but a man can not destroy letters. For words have wings; they mount up to the heavenly heights and they endure for eternity."

Louis Brandsdorfer

There is so much to tell of my experiences in the Second World War. Where do I start? I recently had a telephone conversation with a friend from concentration camp. Her name is Shindala. During the war her last name was Lacher. Today it is Springer. She called me and said, "Mala, I was just thinking about the time you saved my life." I laughed and said, "You know I was recently thinking about the time you saved mine." I didn't remember doing anything that could have saved Shindala's life so I asked her to tell me about it.

She reminded me of the time we were working at the 103rd kommando in Birkenau, in Auschwitz. The 103rd kommando was called an Ausser Kommando, which meant an outside command. She needed a couple of cigarettes to bribe a certain Kapo. Kapo meant overseer, a prisoner in authority. This Kapo was in charge of the laundry, and for a couple of cigarettes the Kapo would give her a job in the laundry.

In the laundry the work was easier. It was warm and they got a little more soup than we did on the 103rd kommando. At the time I was dealing on the camp's black market and my dealings were going very well. She asked me to lend her some cigarettes. I told her I would lend her all that I could.

The cigarettes I lent her, I remember, were German cigarettes called Yosma. With them she bribed the Kapo and got a job in the laundry. Later she paid me back the cigarettes. She felt that getting that job actually saved her life.

Then she asked me to tell her how it was that she saved my life.

So I reminded her of an incident that happened during the march from Auschwitz. In January 1945, when the Russians were nearing Auschwitz, the Germans evacuated us with the rest of the camp. For days we were force to march through deep snow. At times the snow was up to our knees. On my shoulders I carried a blanket and some bread. I got very tired and was feeling sick. Both sides of the road were lined with dead people the Germans had shot when they could not walk any more.

I got very angry thinking about those poor people. They had suffered and survived so much. For them to die, now, when the war is ending, seemed so unfair and tragic to me. I was so tired I just wanted to lie down and let the Germans shoot me too.

Shindala saw that I was about to give up. She took me under one arm and Reginka Storch, a friend from Warsaw, took hold of my other arm. Shindala said to me, "Mala listen. Hear the guns? In the distance you can see the fires from the front. Those are Russian guns. In any minute the Germans will run away and leave us here. Come get yourself together."

She took the bundle from my shoulders and threw it away. "We have suffered so much," she said and started pointing to the people who had been shot and were now lying by the side of the road, "And now you want to give up and end up like these others?"

Shindala and Reginka started to drag me along. After about 10 minutes I started to cry and started walking, and about 2 hours later the Germans led us into a barn and let us rest.

The next day they loaded us into wagons for the rest of the journey. If it hadn't been for Shindala I would have been shot and left to die by the side of the road.

I mentioned dealing on the black market in Auschwitz. It's very interesting how it worked and how I got involved in it.

Dealing, trading, or in Yiddish, "handling", was a way of life for my family. It was the way my husband earned his living. It was the way many Jews, especially in eastern Europe, lived. Many professions and guilds were closed to Jews. So they became dealers and traders.

In the camps, and even in the Warsaw ghetto, I knew that I would have to deal to survive. The amount of food we received was just enough to let us starve slowly to death. Without extra food I would have died. All the people who lived through the concentration camps had to deal in some way to survive. We called it, "black marketing", and since it was against the law it was a way to fight the Germans. For most of us it was the only way.

Dealing in the traditional sense meant trading at a profit. In Auschwitz it meant that and more. It meant trading goods or services to improve your situation and your chances of survival.

Many years after the war I met a lady who had also survived Auschwitz. She was there as a political prisoner. The Germans did not know that she was Jewish. The conditions in the camp for her were horrible, but she knew that for the other Jews they were even worse.

Non-Jews did not have to go through the selections. Selections were inspections that were periodically conducted to see if one was still fit to work and to continue living. Violations of the rules brought non-Jews severe punishment. For Jews those same violations brought death. Non-Jews were allowed to receive packages from home, and many also received Red Cross packages. Those packages were the main source of supplementary food in the camp. Jews were not allowed to receive any Red Cross packages, and of course by the time I was in Auschwitz we did not have anyone at home to send us anything.

When she heard how long I had survived in Auschwitz, she asked, "How did you survive? How did you live through that hell? For a Jew to survive Auschwitz was a miracle."

I told her, "Handling, that's how I survived."

Even in relatively good times Jews looked to deal to improve their lot. I remember a story my father told me. When he was a young man, living in Wielun, he was called up to serve in the Russian army. This was in 1903 and at that time Poland was not an independent country. The Wielun region, like the rest of Poland was part of Russia. Poles and the Jews of Poland felt no loyalty towards Russia. Russia was seen as a foreign occupier. But five years of military service was mandatory for all young men with severe punishment dealt out to anyone caught trying to avoid their military service.

The post my father was stationed to was in central Siberia. When he got there he was asked if he had any skills. He said he was a tailor because he was learning that trade before he was called up. At the post there were five tailors. The head tailor's five years of service were almost up, and one of the other tailors was to be assigned his position. Since the post was soon to be short a tailor my father was assigned to that group.

During my father's training he learned that the head tailor was selling cloth in the nearby villages. The head tailor would order enough material to make a certain number of uniforms. He would order enough to make them all a large size. When they were actually made they were all of different sizes. Since the head tailor also kept the records, the difference did not show up. The material was of heavy wool and of very good quality. In Siberia that cloth was valuable. In fact the head tailor was getting rich from that extra cloth.

My father realized that the position of head tailor would not become vacant again for a long time. He decided that, if he wanted to become the head tailor, now was the time to go after it. My father knew that he would have to do something in order to get appointed to that position since he was really the least experienced of all the tailors there. He decided that the only way to do it was to befriend the camp commandant. The commandant would be the one appointing the new head tailor.

On my father's next day off he went into town and bought the most expensive set of wine goblets he could find. He had them engraved with the commandant's name. When he returned to the post he went and stood outside the commandant's house.

That evening the commandant and his wife returned home and saw my father standing outside holding a package under his arm. The commandant asked him what he wanted. My father told him that he had written home and told his family how good a commanding officer he had. His family sent this package as a gift to the commandant. He told him that the gift was from Warsaw. Items from Warsaw were considered of high quality all over Russia. When the commandant's wife heard that the gift was from Warsaw she ask to see it.

My father was shown into the house. He unwrapped the goblets and set them on the table. The wife's eyes widened when she saw the goblets. The commandant said to my father, "They are beautiful, but I cannot accept them. It is against the law for me to accept a gift from a man under my command."

The commandant's wife took her husband aside and whispered in his ear. When he returned he asked my father how much he wanted for the goblets. My father said he did not want anything for them. He said that his family was rich, which wasn't true, and that the gift was from them. It wasn't his to sell. Since the commandant's name was inscribed on the goblets there was nothing else he could do with them. He begged the commandant to take the goblets. When he begged he made sure the commandant's wife heard him.

Finally the commandant relented and accepted the goblets. He told my father to thank his family and asked him not to tell anyone about this since he did not want to encourage that sort of thing. As my father was leaving the commandant told him if he needed anything to feel free to ask him.

A month went by. It was getting near the time for the head tailor to leave. My father went to the commandant and told him that he would like the appointment as head tailor. The commandant told him he was concerned that my father did not have enough experience. My father assured him that he could do the job. The commandant told him he would see what he could do, but made him no promises.

The day the head tailor left the other tailors were lined up to be addressed by the commandant. As he addressed them he announced that my father was to be the new head tailor. Everyone except my father was surprised.

The rest of his time in the army my father had a thriving business in pieces of cloth. His position as head tailor also allowed him to remain at the post during the Russian Japanese war. The war started in 1904, less then a year after his appointment. All the other tailors were transferred to the infantry and sent east to the war. My father's best friend in the army was another Orthodox Jew. His name was Aaron. After the army the two of them returned to Wielun and Aaron married my father's oldest sister. My father had enough money saved to buy a couple of sewing machines and to go into business. The lesson my father said was, "Anyone can be bribed, even a king. All you have to know is his price and how to approach him."

In every camp I came into I checked on how I could get into dealing. I came to Auschwitz in July 1943 from Majdanek.

When I came to Auschwitz I had nothing of value with me. The way to start dealing was to save a piece of bread from one's food. The whole summer I tried to save one piece of bread. But I could not save any. Each day we had to get up at 3:00 A.M. It was still the middle of the night. We were chased out of our barracks. By 4:00 we were lined up for the "Zehl-Appel", which meant, roll call or head count, but we called the space in front of our barracks where the head count was held the Appel. We were given some tea and marched to work. At noon we got some watered down soup. In the evening we marched back to the camp. We were lined up and kept waiting on the Appel till the SS counted us. This roll call took up to two hours. Then we got a piece of foul bread. Once a week we got a half inch thick slice of sausage. I was so hungry by then that I could not give up that piece of bread or that sausage.

I needed that piece of bread so I could start dealing. I knew that only by dealing would I survive. But I was afraid that if I didn't eat that piece of bread I would not live to the next day. The whole summer of 1943 in Auschwitz, I tried to figure out a way to get an extra piece of bread.

A piece of bread could be traded in the camp for an onion or an apple. In the hospital, called the Rewier, an onion or an apple could be traded among the sick for 2 or 3 pieces of bread. That's how I hoped to get started dealing. But I could not get that one piece of bread.

In September, between the High Holy days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, a great piece of luck happened to me. One of the greatest pieces of luck in the whole world. While I was dreaming of just one piece of bread I got 46 loaves of bread.

Tradition says that each person is judged in heaven, between the High Holy days, whether to live or die in the coming year. This must have been my judgment in heaven.

This is what happened: That whole summer the work group I was in was dressed in uniforms taken from Russian prisoners of war. There were 500 women in that group. In September we were ordered to exchange the uniforms for women's clothing. We were brought a pile of clothes to change into.

I was handed a blouse and skirt. They were both navy blue in color. As I was seeing if it fit I felt something fat in the lining of the skirt. I pulled apart the seam and pulled out 20 American dollars.

Standing next to me was one of my friends. Her maiden name was Salla Butter. Today her name is Salla Hyman and she lives in Brooklyn. She grabbed me and started kissing me and said, "Mala, that $20 is worth 20 loaves of bread."

In the skirt there was even more money. I pulled out another $26. It created a lot of excitement among us. We took $10, Salla knew where we could go and start dealing.

The 103rd kommando's job was to build the roads in and around the camp.

We were 500 women in that kommando. We were split into groups of 50. One group split rocks. One group cleared the stones from the field. One group loaded lorries and pushed them along tracks. One group set the paving stones. This way we worked as a team in the fields. 2000 men worked there too. They built the buildings that were used as barracks and a hospital for the SS.

Among the 2000 men that were working on the barracks were Volksdeutsch. Volksdeutsch were Poles of German descent. They were the machine operators. They told us to smuggle out of the camp dollars or gold. Sometimes they would ask for other things. Once they asked for silk kerchiefs. They paid us mostly with cigarettes, and sometimes with food, like eggs and butter, but those were hard to smuggle back into the camp. The easiest things to bring back into camp were cigarettes. Cigarettes in the camp were the most expensive things. They were just like money.

Four cigarettes were equal to a dollar or a small bread. The non-Jewish women received packages from home. Those that smoked would trade things from those packages for cigarettes. So when we came back into the camp with cigarettes we were able to buy almost anything we wanted. That's how my handling worked in Auschwitz.

For most of the time I was in Auschwitz I was in the 103rd kommando. We helped build a whole city for the SS on the fields of Birkenau. When we finished the buildings in the summer of 1944, the Germans brought their wounded from the eastern front. It cost us a lot of blood to build that city. Every day 30 to 35 of the women among us died or got sick. And every day the SS replaced them with new ones so there would still be 500 in the kommando. Still when we were finished I was glad to see the Allied airplanes come and destroy the buildings.

In 1944 we heard that the war was going badly for Germany. But it was only rumors, we didn't know what was really happening. But when I saw the planes bomb the buildings I had a feeling I just might survive the war after all.

Once when a group of us were watching the planes bomb outside the camp a German matron saw me jump up and laugh. In my excitement I wasn't careful to look if anyone was watching us. She came over and hit me hard across the head. As she pointed to the crematorium she said, "You dummy, the chimney is the only way you'll leave this camp. You won't live to see the end of the war." But even she could not stop my happiness, for I felt in my heart that I would survive.

Hertha Feiner

She was a divorced Jewish mother who sent her two daughters, Inge and Marion Anmus (aged fourteen and twelve), to a private boarding school in Switzerland with the help and cooperation of her non-Jewish former husband, because she loved her children too much to keep them by her side while she remained in the Third Reich. In the meantime, she made frantic and unsuccessful attempts to emigrate from Germany.  She finally died by her own hand while on a mass transport to the extermination camp at Auschwitz.  Against this background, we cannot help but admire the maternal tenderness of her letters to her children which have recently been published under the title, Vor der Deportation: Briefe an die Töchter, Januar 1939-Dezember 1942. The letters reveal a deep desire on the part of Hertha Feiner to be an intimate part of the exiled daughters' lives:

Genießt nur alles in vollen Zügen, vor allem die herrliche Natur, die viel wichtiger and besser ist und macht, als alles von Menschenhand Geschaffene. Und in der Natur gelten wir alle dasselbe, ob arm, ob reich, ob Jude, ob Christ, und da braucht sich keiner des anderen zu schämen. (Feiner, 31) [Enjoy everything to its fullest extent, especially the masterly nature, that is much more important and better than everything created by human hands. And in the eyes of nature we are all the same, whether poor or rich, whether Jew or Christian, and no one needs to feel ashamed before anybody else.]

Hertha Feiner tries to convey to her children the notion that the equality between Christians and Jews is a right grounded in nature. She is concerned that her daughters do well in the non-Jewish environment to which she has sent them, because she has done it to save their lives. For her, the anthropological equality between Christians and Jews is grounded in the laws of nature and she wants her children to have reverence for them.

She urges her children to share all aspects of their lives with her: "Schreibt nur ehrlich alles, auch wenn's mal nicht nach Eurem Geschmack ist, aber ich muß das Bewußtsein haben, daß Ihr mir alles mitteilt."(Feiner, 32) [Write about everything honestly, even if you do not like it, for I must have the perception that you are sharing everything with me.] She goes to great lengths to explain to her children that her decision to send them out of the country does not constitute an abdication of her motherly prerogatives. She wants to be concerned and involved with her children even while in the throes of social circumstances which threaten her own life.

Hertha goes to great lengths to reassure her children that there is nothing wrong with their living in a non-Jewish milieu as long as they strive to be upright human beings:

Meine Gedanken sind, trotzdem ich hier sehr beschäftigt bin, oft bei Euch. Am Weihnachtsabend ging ich her zu den Kindern . . ., die Kinder sangen hebräische and jiddische Lieder, und ich wußte, Ihr singt nun Weihnachtslieder, das war ein sehr eigenartiges Gefühl fur mich, aber es ist doch gleich, was man singt, and was man feiert, es kommt nur darauf an, daß alles, was wir tun and denken, anständig ist, und wenn ich hier dies singe, und Ihr dort jenes, ist das Band darum um keine Spur loser. (Feiner, 45) [Despite the fact that I am very preoccupied with things here, my thoughts are often with you. On Christmas, I went to the schoolchildren. The children sang Hebrew and Yiddish songs, and I knew, you were singing Christmas songs; that was a strange feeling for me, but it does not matter, what one sings and what one celebrates, it is only important that we are decent in all that we think and do, and if I am singing one thing, and you another, that does not loosen the bond between us one iota.]

She tries to reassure her children that religio-cultural compromises are nothing to be ashamed of, survival is more important than the avoidance of dislocations in religious identity. She assures her children that it will not be forever:

Ich glaube, die Zeit arbeitet für uns. Keiner weiß, was morgen sein wird. Lernt, arbeitet and habt Euer Ziel im Auge, so mache ich es auch. Der Vati weiß genau so wenig wie ich and Ihr, was werden wird. Ich möchte, daß Ihr so lange wie möglich dort in der Schule bleibt, weil ich das Gefühl habe, daß Ihr dort glücklich seid, and das Ihr viel and Nützliches lernt. Und dann muß es unser Ziel sein and bleiben, sobald wie möglich wieder zusammenzukommen. Die Liebe, die wir für uns haben, wird uns schon den rechten Weg weisen. (Feiner, 49) 

[I believe that time is on our side. No one knows what tomorrow will bring. Study, work, and keep your goals in sight and I will do the same. Papa knows as little as you and I what the future will bring. I would like you to stay in the school as long as possible, because I have the feeling, that you are happy there,and that you are learning many useful things. And then it must be our goal, to come back together as soon as possible. The love that we have for one another will show us the correct way.]

Security for her children is the top priority for Hertha, although she has long range hopes for a reunion with them. In the meantime, she is glad that they seem to be happy in the school that is their place of exile.

Only very rarely does Hertha refer to her own agonies, such as in this letter of March 1940:

Nun möchte ich Dich bitten, einen sehr dringenden Brief an Onkel Paul zu schreiben and zwar sofort, ob er eine Hilfe für mich ausfindig machen könnte. Ich babe beim amerikanischen Konsulat um eine Registriernummer gebeten; wenn ich sie bekomme, muß ich sicherlich auch noch 10 Tage warten, ein Affidavit habe ich auch nicht, and weiß wirklich nicht, was ich machen soll; ich muß aber so schnell wie möglich auswandern. Ingelein, nimm mal Deinen ganzen Verstand zur Hilfe and schreibe so dringend wie nur irgend möglich; hast Du mich verstanden? (Feiner, 51) [I would like to ask you to write a very urgentletter to Uncle Paul immediately whether he can find a way to help me. I asked the American consulate for a registration number, if I receive it I still must wait ten days, I do not have an affidavit either and do not know what to do, but I must emigrate so quickly as possible. Ingelein, gather your wits about you, and write as desperately as possible; do you understand me?]

Hertha generally tries to understate the dangers confronting her:


Es ist hier nichts Besonderes passiert, und Ihr braucht um mich keine Sorgen zu machen, aber ich glaube nicht, daß ich in Deutschland bleiben kann. Ihr wißt, wie ich zu Euch stehe, and ich will natürlich nicht ohne Euch in einem anderen Erdteil wandern. Also abwarten! Wir können nichts anderes tun, als uns gesund erhalten und lernen, lernen! (Feiner, 53) [Nothing particular has happened here and you do not need to worry about me but I do not believe that I can remain in Germany. You know how I feel about you, and of course I do not want to go to another part of the world without you. Wait and see! We cannot do anything, except stay healthy, and study! study!]
In none of her letters does Hertha Feiner directly refer to the dangers confronting Jews in Germany, although her position as a teacher and Jewish community leader made her well aware of them. She instead asserts, I cannot make it as nice for you here as they can there. She wants to protect her children from any knowledge of the perils confronting her which encouraged her to send her children into exile in the first place.

The Holocaust survivor and eminent psychologist Bruno Bettelheim once remarked that Anne Frank and her sister Margot would have survived the Holocaust if their parents could have sent them into exile before they themselves went into hiding. Hertha Feiner followed precisely that course of action and her children are still with us today. Her legacy to us is a series of eloquent letters which document the unselfish decisions she made on behalf of her children during a time of unfathomable crisis. After all was said and done, she kept her daughters alive. Can we do any less than support the efforts of Inge and Marion Anmus to keep the memory of their mother alive?



Born in Kovno, Lithuania, 1902

By Elly Gotz  

Sonja Gotz's life very nearly ended exactly 50 years ago. Sitting in a hidden room in the Kovno Ghetto with her family, she was equipped and ready to inject them all, and herself, with poison, if their hideout was discovered.

After waiting for several days, the family left the hideout and joined the remaining Jews of Kovno into the train that took them to concentration camps in Germany. She was one of the few who survived the Holocaust, and one of the very, very few who found her husband and only son alive as well.

Born in Kovno, Lithuania, in 1902, she experienced her first refugee status in 1916, when all Kovno Jews were removed deep into Russia - the Czar regarded them as a possible ally of Germany in the first world war and wanted the Jews away from the border with Germany.

Returned to Lithuania in 1918, Sonja finished high school and was trained as a paediatric nurse. She worked in a hospital and later in an orphanage established by the Jewish community for war orphans. There she met Julius, who worked as a volunteer in the orphanage, and married him in 1926.

When Elly was born she decided to give up nursing and work from home. To do that she took a course in cutting/designing at the ORT Institute in Kovno and opened a dressmaking workshop in their apartment, to augment the family income, while Julius worked at the Jewish bank.

She was a very attractive woman, had a presence that always evoked respect. She loved music and opera, had a good voice herself. She had a point of view on many life issues that was based on a worldly and liberal outlook derived from literature and art. She was fluent in Yiddish, Russian and German, read a great deal, was familiar with the great writers of world literature.

Then her world fell apart - in 1941 Germany invaded the Soviet Union and Lithuania was in the path of destruction. In the first days of the war Jews were ordered to walk in the gutter on the streets. Sonja's proud bearing prompted a nazi officer to bark at her: "Don't walk so proud, Jewess!"

Locked up with all the Jews in the Kovno Ghetto, she went back to nursing and became a surgical nurse in the Ghetto hospital. She survived the first "Selection", when half the population of the Ghetto was removed and killed a few days later outside town. Incidentally, the Nazi officer in charge of that operation was Helmut Rauka, who lived after the war in Canada, right here in Willowdale, Toronto, before he was discovered and extradited to Germany for trial.

In 1944 Sonja was taken to Germany. While the men were sent to Dachau concentration camp, the women were taken to the Stutthoff concentration camp. There Sonja was the chief nurse in the small camp hospital. She showed great courage, staying in the operating room and doing her job while bombs were falling around the hospital. Half the staff were killed by a direct hit on the shed they were hiding in, while the operating room remained intact. She always cared about her appearance, which made her wash her few clothes every night after a 12 hour shift and she always looked clean, as reported later by surviving inmates who worked with her.

When the war came close to its end, the few surviving women of the camp were placed on a barge to be drowned in the sea. An Allied bomb broke the barge in half. One half sank immediately, the other half was on fire. Sonja was wounded and unconscious on the burning barge, when a German navy hospital ship pulled alongside and announced that the war was over. They lifted the remaining women onto the ship and took Sonja with them, since she was still alive. They operated on her onboard ship and saved her life.

After the war the family was luckily reunited and moved, first to Norway, then to Rhodesia in Africa, before coming to Canada in 1964.

Sonja learned a new language - English. She opened a factory for women's clothes in Rhodesia. She loved to experience new things. Travelled, whenever possible. Elly persuaded her once to try skiing, with somewhat unfavourable results... She had a dramatic bent and participated in theatre productions. She was a good story teller - an event took on life when she told about it. Her letters to friends and relatives were admired and retained. In another time she might have been a writer.

Sonja lived to see three grand children and four great grand children. She was full of life till recently, though at the end she hated the frailty and dependence and she did not wish for this state to continue.

She Died August 12, 1994

Elly and Esme Gotz
Ruven and Deborah Gotz : Anita, Ilana, Ethan 
Julia Gotz 
Avril and Martin Kurr : Sarah

This eulogy is published here with the permission of Elly Gotz.

A Mother and her Last Letter

ntroduction by Sally Wasserman (Sheindle)

This is to remember and to honour the memory of a Holocaust victim.   She had a name, Toby Broda Goldblum.

The night before the liquidation of the Dabrowa ghetto, Toby wrote a letter to her sister in Toronto, Canada.

The following morning, when it was Toby's turn for deportation, she made up a small parcel of family photos, the name and address of her sister in Toronto, and the letter she wrote the night before.  She then tied this parcel around her eight year old daughter's waist.

She said good bye to her and sent her away to an elderly Polish couple.

Sheindle survived the Holocaust due to the courage and kindness of the Righteous Gentiles, Ewa and Mikolaj Turkin.   They saved Sheindle's life and by doing so the late Toby Goldblum had a grandson, Bernard Abraham, a granddaughter Hannah Rachel and two great-grandsons Dustin and Ryan.

Sheindle arrived in Toronto in 1947 and gave her Aunt Ange the letter her mother wrote to her in the Dabrowa ghetto.  Ange Kraicer still lives in Toronto.  She is 93 years old.

Toby Goldblum's original letter, written in Yiddish, has been donated by her daughter, Sheindle, to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C.   The letter was translated into English by Morris Rosen, originally from Dabrowa, Poland, now living in Baltimore, USA.

Pictured below is a postcard sent by Toby Goldblum to her best friend who was in a slave labour camp.  The card is postmarked October 4, 1942. This document represents a rare surviving piece of communication between relatives or friends during the Holocaust and World War II. It is important to note that the postcard is written in German rather than Yiddish or Polish. It was mandated by the German authorities that all communications in Poland must be written solely in German. This allowed them to effectively censor the information getting to the outside world.





I am that mother, who strokes her child, who reassures him, wipes his tears, deadens his anguish and his terror before disappearing with him in the black abyss of the hellish chimney. I am that mother, who in the attic, our refuge, rocks her child to sleep, erases his nightmares and shudders for him at each noise from the night.

The Gestapo is knocking at our door! I am that mother who, in her cattle car going to the beyond, writes with care to her son, in a language she does not know well: he is hidden with friends. "Eat well. Don't catch a cold. Have fun. Be good and think of Mommy and Daddy."

I am that mother, who dies slowly every day, every hour, and whose battered, gaunt tortured body is thrown in cinders toward an indifferent sky, but come to life again in my child who lives.

I am all the mothers, who will never know the sweetness of getting old, of seeing with pride their child grow, of admiring his natural talent, his qualities, of crying at his wedding and leaning over a cradle as they become grandmothers.

I am not forgetting those wonderful women, who at risk of their lives, hid, protected and raised other people's children.

I think of the nuns, who welcomed in their convents - as if they were sacred depositories - Jewish children, small and mournful groups. We called them my sister and our mother; they were just that by their sweet kindness and the love they were showing us. I am not forgetting the woman, who in the midst of her own, cherished the child hit by misfortune. Worried when we were ill, erasing our worries and pains with a motherly word or gesture.

We were privileged children, always the youngest who had to be coddled more, loved better, because we were orphans.

Already 50 years........

This editorial is a tribute to the agony of women who, forced by barbaric forces, brought, themselves, their child to the executioner.

To the heroism of other women who entrusted often unknown hands with the fate of their young.

In the name of my mother, in the name of all missing mothers, I thank with love, with gratitude, all the women who protected, raised and loved innocent children.

(Special to the The Jewish Bulletin of Vancouver, by Alex Buckman.)

This tribute was written, in French, by my cousin, Jean Zeydmann, born in 1930 in Belgium. Jean and I never knew either of our grandparents: now we are each proud grandfathers of two little boys. Jean's mother - my mother's sister - and my own mother died together in Birkenau in 1943. At that time Jean was thirteen and I was four years old. In 1945 Jean and I went to live in Belgium. He, to live with our mothers' sister and I to live with my father's sister. - Alex Buckman -

Alex Buckman is a member of the Child Survivor Group of Vancouver. This article, by Jean Zeydmann was translated by David Reed.

This article was published with the verbal permission of Alex Buckman.


Jennie Lifschitz

By Rachel Mines
Outlook Magazine (Vancouver, B.C.), Sept./Oct. 2010

In his 1996 article “From Montreal to Auschwitz: Harry Cohen was the only Canadian to die in the Holocaust,” journalist Gil Kezwer describes the life and fate of Harry Cohen, “believed to be the only Canadian citizen to die in the Nazi genocide of the Jews” (Montreal Gazette, April 16, 1996). Born in Poland, Mr. Cohen emigrated to Montreal in 1919. On his return to Poland on business in 1939, he was trapped by the outbreak of war. He was hidden by a Christian family but discovered in 1942 by the Nazis and deported, most likely to Auschwitz, where he died. 

The tragic story of Harry Cohen provides a small but important link between Canada and the events of the Holocaust. But Harry Cohen was not, in fact,  the only Canadian victim. Another is my mother, Jennie Lifschitz, who may have been the only Canadian-born survivor of the Holocaust. Jennie did not like to speak much about her tragic past, and it was only after her death in 2005 that my family and I began to piece together her remarkable story. 

Jennie Lifschitz was born in Montreal on July 8, 1924. Her birth certificate records her parents as “Abraham Lifschitz, merchant … and … Paola Bloomberg, housewife.” Jennie’s parents and their first child, Rubin, had immigrated in the early 1920s from Libau, now Liepaja, Latvia. Their second child, Dora, was born in Montreal in 1922.

Abraham and Paola’s marriage did not last long. A few months after Jennie’s birth, her parents separated, and Paola returned to Libau, taking the three children with her. Six years later, in January 1931, the two older children returned to their father in Montreal. For some reason, perhaps because Abraham wanted a caretaker for his elderly widowed mother in Libau, Jennie remained and grew up there.

On June 17, 1940, as a result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, the USSR annexed Libau. Although the takeover had a great impact on the Jewish community— a year later, 550 Libau citizens, including 200 Jews, were deported to Siberia – it did not seem to have affected Jennie much. A lively 16-year-old, she welcomed the chance to sneak out of her grandmother Malka’s house, where she lived after her mother’s remarriage, and go dancing with the Red Army soldiers. 

But the Nazi occupation of June 29, 1941, was clearly a disaster of a very different order. Anti-Jewish measures were put into place immediately. On July 5, Jews were ordered to wear yellow stars. Jewish men were assigned to work details, curfews were imposed, property confiscated, and beatings and mass arrests became the norm. On July 24, Jennie’s uncle Hessel was arrested on the street, taken with a group of other men to the fish factory near the canal, and shot. On the night of December 13, Jennie’s remaining family in Libau—all but she and her 14-year-old cousin, Bella—were arrested and taken to the beach at Skede, north of Libau, where they were shot and buried in mass graves.

On July 1, 1942, Jennie and Bella, among a total of 832 Jews—the sole remnants of a pre-war population of over 7200—were moved into nine houses surrounded by a barbed-wire fence. Jennie was lucky in that the labour she was compelled to do—keeping house for SS officers—was relatively light and allowed her access to scraps of food, which she stole and, risking death if caught, smuggled back into the ghetto. The Libau Ghetto was liquidated on October 8, 1943, and residents transported to Kaiserwald concentration camp in nearby Riga, Latvia’s capital. 

In Kaiserwald, inmates worked a 12-hour day, often at hard labour, with minimal, poor-quality food. Beatings and various forms of maltreatment were routine. Hunger and lice were endemic.

Jennie spent about six months in Kaiserwald before being transferred on March 17, 1944, to a satellite camp to work on the German railway. At 18, she became a crane operator, moving heavy equipment, under constant threat of beatings or death for the smallest infraction of the rules. Somehow, she maintained her sense of humour. She once told me that she and some other women were ordered to strip the interior of a railway car. They smuggled out seat fabric with which they made themselves red plush underwear.

By the summer of 1944, the German army was in retreat, and Soviet forces were approaching. Nazi authorities began planning the evacuation of Kaiserwald and the transfer of prisoners to other camps. On August 6, 1944, Kaiserwald and its satellite camps were evacuated, and Jennie was transferred by ship to Stutthof camp near Danzig (now Gdansk), where she arrived on August 9.

Stutthof was a barracks camp surrounded by watchtowers and a double row of electrified barbed wire. According to the Holocaust Education and Archive Research Team, new arrivals through the main gate, or “Death Gate,” would be told, “From now on, you are no longer a person, just a number. All your rights have been left outside the gate—you are left with only one, and that you are free to do: leave through that chimney.” Jennie became prisoner 56-164. 

Two weeks later, it looked as though Jennie’s luck had finally run out. Along with other prisoners, she was selected to be killed. She was in a line-up for the gas chamber when an SS officer called out that railway workers were needed. Jennie was spared, and on August 26, 1944, was transferred to Stolp-Pomerania, where she did slave labour until the camp’s liquidation in the face of the advancing Soviets.

On March 6, 1945, Jennie and other prisoners were loaded into a railway car —perhaps one she herself had maintained—and transferred to Burgraben camp. She arrived amidst chaos. She later recalled, “On arrival in Burgraben, we found one barrack with dead and dying Jewish people. There were no guards and we had no food. … The Soviet front was very close, and when the SS came to return us to Stutthof, they were in such a hurry that they left some prisoners in the fields. I was later told by someone who had been left behind that the Red Army liberated the camp about fifteen minutes after our departure.” 
Jennie was returned to Stutthof on March 22, but, with the camp’s liquidation underway, was evacuated to the Hela Peninsula a month later. She recalled, “We stayed for two days. … On arrival … we were left in a field guarded by the SS. No food was provided. There was much confusion and panic … and there were many wounded and dead people.” 

From Hela, Jennie was evacuated by barge on April 24. Prisoners, including Jews, Norwegians, and Poles, were at sea ten days: “We were confined to barges, without food or water. … About 32 Jews survived from the barge I was on. … On 3 May, 1945, we arrived in Neustadt, Schlesweig-Holstein, where we were liberated by the British Army.” By this time, Jennie had contracted typhus. She survived with the help of a small tin of vitamin paste, a gift from a Norwegian sailor.

After liberation, Jennie recuperated in Neustadt Holstein, where a DP (Displaced Persons) camp was established in a former submarine training school. Eventually, the question of emigration arose. As Jennie lacked identification and spoke no English, her claim to be Canadian was not believed. Eventually she met a soldier from Montreal who recognized the surname Lifschitz and realized he knew Jennie’s father. As Jennie later recounted, “I was deported … as a Canadian. Yes, it sounds funny, but … they sent me out of Germany and no other country wanted me except Canada so I was sent on a troop ship to Montreal.”

As a passenger on the troop ship Aquitania, Jennie returned to the country of her birth on March 2, 1946. Rejoining her father and siblings in Montreal, she assisted her father in his store and restaurant business, eventually opening a lunch counter of her own. In March 1947, she had her first child, a daughter, whom she named Paula after her mother. 

In February 1954, Jennie, her husband Sender, a fellow survivor, and Paula moved to Vancouver. With her earnings from her businesses in Montreal, Jennie bought a house on Nelson Street in the West End: a neighbourhood that at that time bore an uncanny resemblance to Libau, with its park, beaches, and European-flavoured “Robsonstrasse.” Jennie rented rooms and ran the house as a business. Sender found a job in a shoe factory. In 1956, Jennie opened a restaurant, the Ideal Lunch. Sender left the shoe factory, where he had been earning only $52 a week, and joined his wife in the restaurant.

Like Harry Cohen, Jennie was not protected during the Holocaust by her Canadian citizenship. On the contrary, her nationality worked against her efforts to obtain compensation from the German government. According to Jennie, “After the war ended … I made application for indemnification from “BEG” (the German Federal Indemnification Law), but was denied because of my Canadian citizenship,” presumably because Germany and Canada had not signed an agreement to compensate Canadian Holocaust survivors. 

In 1955, Jennie applied to the Canada War Claims Commission, established to compensate Canadian soldiers and civilians who had lost property or been maltreated as prisoners of war during WWII in Europe and Asia. 

Jennie Mines (nee Lifschitz) is Case No. 2452 in the Report of the War Claims Commission. In his report, Deputy Commissioner H. V. Bird affirms Jennie’s Canadian nationality, quoting a Department of Citizenship and Immigration document: “since there is no indication in our records that she has at any time lost or relinquished her status, she is a natural-born Canadian citizen under the provisions of … the Canadian Citizenship Act.” Furthermore, Bird goes on to confirm that Jennie “possessed Canadian national status … at the time of the act causing the loss or damage complained of.” Jennie’s claims for maltreatment and injury were corroborated by witness affidavits, medical letters, and identity cards supplied by Allied authorities. The Commission awarded her $1,045 for maltreatment (later amended to $1,038) and $1,120 for personal injury. Years later, in her application for benefits under the Claims Conference Article 2 fund, Jennie explained, “To the best of my knowledge, the Canadian government has provided no specific programs whatsoever with respect to indemnifying Holocaust survivors. With respect to the Canada War Claims Commission … it is my understanding that I received indemnification not as a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust per se, but as a Canadian prisoner of war.”

Jennie used the money she received from the Canada War Claims Commission to pay off the mortgage on her house “about three and a half years after it was bought.” Her daughter Rachel was born shortly after. With their young family, the rooming house, and the restaurant, Jennie and Sender seemed successful. Sadly, after the birth of their son Michael in 1959, their marriage became troubled, and after years of difficulties, the strain eventually became too much. In 1967 Jennie left the family home. The restaurant was sold, and the couple lived separately until their divorce in 1981. In August 1982, Sender died. In 1984, Jennie married Jack Phillips, a longtime family friend. Their 20-year marriage was happy.
In 2001, Jennie applied for compensation for her wartime suffering under the Claims Conference Foundation “Remembrance, Responsibility, and the Future,” also known as the German Slave Labor Fund. She received two lump-sum payments totalling just over $10,000. In May 2003, she applied for compensation from the Claims Conference Article 2 fund, but here things did not go so smoothly. The problem was Jennie’s Canadian citizenship, as, unlike the United States (the “Princz Agreement”), Canada did not have an agreement with Germany to compensate Holocaust survivors who were Canadian nationals at the time of their persecution. Jennie’s claim had to go to a special arbitration, and it was not until October 29, 2004 that her claim was approved.

Sadly, the compensation, a monthly pension of $270, came too late for Jennie to enjoy it. The same month the claim was approved, Jennie entered the hospital for major surgery. The operation was not a success, and Jennie died on August 9, 2005, aged 81.

Jennie’s wartime suffering left her Canadian family a legacy of guilt and remorse. It is impossible to know if her marriage to Sender would have been a success had they not been survivors, but certainly the Holocaust left its mark on their children, who, like others of the Second Generation, have had to come to terms with their parents’ suffering, dislocations, and losses. 

But possibly the hardest-hit was Jennie’s father, Abraham, who, as a result of either decision or negligence, had abandoned his wife and Canadian-born younger daughter to the Nazis. He could not have foreseen the outcome of allowing them to return to Europe in 1924 and remain there, but he was plagued with guilt for the rest of his life. Having lost both legs to diabetes, he viewed his suffering as just retribution for his actions. One of his nieces, who still lives in Montreal, quotes his words: “my mother-in-law, Malka, put a curse on me … and that’s why I’m dying in pieces.” 

RACHEL MINES was born and lives in Vancouver, and teaches English at Langara College

Women of Valor

Historical Background

Throughout the centuries, the most virulent manifestations of European anti-Semitism were usually aimed at men rather than women. Unlike Jewish females, Jewish males were distinguishable from the rest of the population by circumcision, and were viewed as being "maimed in both spirit and body." Anti-Semitic literature, painting, sculpture, cartoons, religious as well as secular, were therefore particularly vehement in their negative depictions of men. Jewish women, by contrast, were much more sympathetically portrayed as exotic beauties, wise, charming, compassionate, and frequently the objects of love for handsome young Christians. This coincided with a popular image of the vivacious, gracious, Jewish intellectual hostesses who presided over many of the nineteenth-century cultural Salons of Vienna. That image, in turn, gradually gave way to the early twentieth century's version of the young Jewish female as social reformer andrevolutionary, with Rosa Luxemburg as the real life prototype.

In European anti-Semitic material in the interwar years, there is a steady increase in the number of Jewish women appearing alongside Jewish men, most noticeably in cartoon caricatures. Rosa Luxemburg herself, although she was a victim rather than a perpetrator of violence, was to become a popular symbol of the evils thought to be threatening German society and womanhood. She and other women activists, Jewish and non Jewish alike, were remembered with fear and loathing as examples of what National Socialism was pledged to prevent.

While the status of the Aryan woman in Nazi Germany was distinctly second class, Jewish women were not just inferior to men, but the entire Aryan race. There as elsewhere the traditional preferred status of Jewish women was on the way to disappearing. The name "Sara" was to be added to that of each Jewish female residing in Nazi Germany. In the anti-Jewish legislation known as the Nuremberg Laws which took effect September 1, 1935, certain statutes were especially pertinent to women, like the Law for the Protection of German Blood, which prohibited marriages and extra-marital intercourse between Jews and Germans, and the law forbidding the employment of German maids under the age of forty-five in Jewish households.

But Jewish women were still exempt from the worst brutalities. During Kristallnacht (Night of the Broken Glass), the first of the Nazis' organized pogroms, whcih occurred on November 9-10, 1938 and involved outbreaks of anti-Semitic violence throughout Germany and Austria, close to one hundred Jewish men were murdered, while many others were beaten and about 30,000 were arrested and deported to the concentration camps of Dachau, Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen. Jewish women, however, were spared both deportation and death, though a number were beaten and raped.

With the outbreak of World War II and throughout the various phases of the Holocaust, Jewish women lost all vestiges of their traditional preferred status. The Einsatzgruppen (mobile killing units which functioned with the aid of local collaborators) massacred hundreds of thousands of Jews, men and women alike, in eastern Poland, the Baltic states and a number of Russian republics. Though the women were often separated from the men on their final journey, their treatment was the same: like the men they were ordered to undress, led in groups of ten to the edge of a trench and shot by firing squads of Germans with the assistance of local collaborators.

In Ejszyszki (currently part of Lithuania), in September 1941, the names of young, pretty Jewish unmarried women were announced from a list supplied by local Poles. Prior to being killed they were led to the nearby bushes and raped by German soldiers. In Libau (Liepaja), Latvia, on December 15 and 17, 1941, mothers were ordered to hold their babies against their shoulders to make them easier targets, and were then murdered themselves.

Women of Valor: Partisans and Resistance Fighters


Zenia Malecki

Zenia Malecki was born in Vilna in 1921, the only child of traditional, middle-class parents. She attended secular Jewish schools and studied painting at the university. Her artistic talent was useful during the Russian occupation, when she was assigned to paint murals in public buildings. Although there were refugees from German-occupied Poland in Vilna since 1939, the Jews of Vilna didn't anticipate the fury of German occupation. The Germans occupied Vilna on June 24, 1941, and two ghetto areas were established as of September 6, 1941.

Evelyn Kahn

Evelyn Kahn was born in 1933 in Vilna. She lived in the nearby town of Ejszyszki, an only child in a family of adults who pampered her and showered her with attention. She was particularly close to her father, who shared with her his appreciation for the beauties of nature, music and culture.

At first Evelyn was shielded by her parents from the dangers of war, but when the Germans occupied Zdiecol, where she was living in 1941, her father was taken in the first round-up of men to which the professionals were ordered to report.1The security of Evelyn's childhood was shattered with the loss of her father and the tightening noose of German occupation.

Within a short time Evelyn witnessed death at close range, and her mother became head of the family.

Katherine Szenes

Katherine Szenes was born in 1896 in Janoshaza, a small town in Western Hungary. She was educated in Janoshaza and in Vienna, and married Bela Szenes, a successful playwright, in 1919. They lived a comfortable life of affluence. Two children, Giora and Hannah, were born in 1920 and 1921. Although their parents were assimilated Jews, Hannah and Giora participated in Zionist activities, and they were personally affected by the anti-Semitism and discrimination which pervaded Hungary of the 1930's.

Hannah emigrated to Palestine in September 1939, and her brother followed shortly thereafter. She joined kibbutz S'dot Yam1 in order to fulfull her Zionist ideals. As news of the fate of the Jews of Europe reached her, she became concerned with fulfilling what she saw as her duty to do her part for the rescue of European Jewry. Fear for her mother's fate motivated her to enlist in a special Palestinian-Jewish parachutists unit of the British Army, whose mission was to parachute into Yugoslavia, rescue Allied prisoners of war (particularly pilots), and organize Jewish resistance. In her diary entry of January 8, 1943, Hannah wrote: "I feel I must be (in Hungary) during these days in order to help organize youth emigrations, and also to get my mother out".2 In March 1944 Hannah Szenes parachuted into Yugoslavia. She crossed the Hungarian border on June 7, but her mission ended in tragedy when she was arrested by German troops.

Susan Beer

Susan Eisdorfer grew up in Topolcany, Czechoslovakia, in a traditionally Jewish home. Her father was a physician, forbidden to practice medicine under Nazi law. In an effort to escape an order to report to a labour camp in 1942, she succeeded in crossing the border to Hungary, considered safer because it was not yet under German occupation. In Hungary, however, she lived illegally, in constant fear of detection and imprisonment. After the Germans occupied Hungary she was more vulnerable than ever, and tried to return to Slovakia, but was arrested and taken to Gestapo headquarters in Budapest. There she encountered Hannah Szenes, a fellow prisoner.

Someone Special

In the morning, when they opened up the grills in our cell doors, I saw that in a cell across the way there was one solitary woman. She had dark circles under her eyes. She smiled. We saw her exercising, standing on her head, doing all sorts of vigorous exercises. Her front teeth were missing. I asked her, "Did they beat your teeth out of you?" She was such a gentle person.

She would pass little slips of paper through the grill of her cell, hoping that someone would pick them up. She was always cheerful, even though she knew they were going to kill her.

In the yard she would walk behind me and carefully get closer to me when the guards didn't see. Her mother walked in the same group, but far away. The guards watched that the mother shouldn't get too close to the daughter.

She told me that she was a parachutist. That she really came to save her mother and maybe some other Jews. She parachuted down on the Yugoslav border with two other men. Someone betrayed her. She was caught and brought to the prison. She constantly showed me, with a smile, that she knew she's going to be hung. She did not really hope to live.

I saw her about ten times, in June 1944. I heard from others that she made gifts. When someone had a birthday she would put the gift up to a window and show it.

She was 23 years old at the time. I felt she was someone special. I didn't know exactly what she was, but I never forgot her. There was something special about her. She didn't behave like the others. She wasn't scared, thinking of herself. She was beyond that. She had an aura about her. To me she was very exotic; she was close to my age, and she came from Palestine. In that prison it was good to hear something like this, something beyond our misery.

Excerpts of the interview by:
Bonnie Gurewitsch, 5/25/82

Anna Heilman

Anna Heilman was born in 1928 in Warsaw. During the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising she was living with her parents on the Aryan side, going back and forth from the ghetto as a courier for HaShomer HaTzair, the Zionist organization active in resistance to the Nazis. Eventually, she was forced to choose between remaining permanently in the ghetto and participating in the uprising or remaining with her family on the Aryan side. She opted to remain with her family. In May 1942 she was arrested with her family and taken to Majdanek. From there, she was transferred to Auschwitz.

Rose Grunapfel Meth

Rose Meth was born in 1925 into a prominent Hasidic family in Zator, Poland, a small town between Oswiecim and Cracow. She was the fourth of six children. In pre-war years, Rose's father welcomed the President of Poland on a state visit to Zator, as representative of the Jewish community. When the Nazis occupied Poland in September 1939, the family tried to escape eastward, but the effort was futile. Rose and her sisters were taken to clean German armyy lodgings; her father was forced to scrub the German carriages. As a result of this his shoes were ruined. The purchase of a new pair of shoes for her father was a "crime" for which Rose was imprisoned for six months.

From the Zator ghetto, where she lived after serving her sentence, Rose and other young people were sent to the Wadowice ghetto to sew uniforms for the Wehrmacht. They were hoping that their labour would protect their families in Zator, when they learned of the liquidation of the Zator ghetto and the deportation of the Jews to their deaths in Belzec, July 1942. In August 1943 the Wadowice ghetto was liquidated. Rose and her three sisters were deported with the Wadowice Jews to Auschwitz.

Gisi Fleischmann: 1897-1944

Gisi was the leader of the Women's International Zionist Organization and of its "Working Group". As head of the Aliya section of the officially established Jewish Centre in Slovakia in 1940, Gisi Fleischmann used the activities of the Aliya section as a cover for other Zionist activities, with the aim of facilitating the emigration of Jews to Palestine. After the deportation of Slovakian Jewry began in March 1942, the Working Group tried to stop it by bribing Adolf Eichmann's representative in Slovakia, Dieter Wisliceny. During the period from October 1942 to the fall of 1944, when there were no deportations, the Working Group tried to implement the Europa Plan, in which the deportations would stop in exchange for goods and currency which would be transmitted to the Germans by Jews in free countries. Gisi Fleischmann tried to negotiate this plan with various Nazi officials, while at the same time continuing her efforts to rescue Jews by getting them out of occupied territory. The contacts of the Working Group with Zionist groups in Hungary, Switzerland and the United States served as ad-hoc leadeership and assistance to besieged Jews, and as a source of information about conditions in occupied territory.

In coordination with the Relief and Rescue Committee in Budapest, the Working Group concentrated its efforts in 1943 on providing escape routes for survivors of the Polish ghettos, particularly from Bochnia and the vicinity of Cracow. An "Underground Railroad" assisted the refugees in crossing the Carpathian mountains and smuggling over the Hungarian border. In Budapest the refugees were housed and were further assisted on their way to Palestine.

At the outbreak of the war, Gisi Fleischmann sent her own children to Palestine. On September 28, 1944, she and most members of the Working Group were arrested by the SS. At the beginning of October 1944 she was deported to Auschwitz in one of the last transports of the war, labelled "RU", "Ruckkehr unerwunscht", "return undesirable". She was gassed upon arrival.

A family photo: At rear, Dr. Isidor (Gustav) Fischer, brother of Gisi Fleischmann. In the foreground, from R to L: Gisi Fleischmann; her daughter; her husband, Joseph Fleischmann; another of Fleischmann's daughters.



Chava Rosenfarb was born on Feb. 9, 1923 in Lodz, Poland, the elder of two daughters of Abraham Rosenfarb, a restaurant waiter, and his wife Simma. Her parents belonged to the Jewish Socialist Bund, a left-leaning political movement with an enormous following among working-class Jews in Poland. While Bundist ideology encouraged agitation for equal rights for Jews in Poland, but it also incorporated a strong cultural element that privileged Yiddish as the language of the Jewish masses.
Rosenfarb’s parents sent her to the Bundist Medem School, where all instruction was in Yiddish. This grounding in Yiddish secular studies had an enormous influence on Rosenfarb’s intellectual development, even though her secondary school education was in Polish. But her schooling was cut short by the war. By the time she was ready to graduate high school, Rosenfarb and her family had been incarcerated in the Lodz ghetto, and it was in the ghetto in 1941 that she received her high school diploma. This marked the end of her formal education.
In the ghetto she began to write poetry, waking up at dawn from her bed of chairs to compose her poems in bookkeeping registers in the hours before going to work at her various ghetto jobs. Despite her modest appraisal of herself as “just a girl who wrote poems,” Rosenfarb’s talent brought her to the attention of Simcha-Bunim Shayevitch, the great ghetto poet and author of the epic poem “Lekh Lekho.” She became Shayevitch’s protegée and it was he who introduced her to the writers’ group of the Lodz ghetto, who quickly recognized her talent and accepted her, at age seventeen, as their youngest member.
When it became clear that the Lodz ghetto was to be liquidated in August of 1944, Rosenfarb and her family, as well as Shayevitch and the family of Henekh (later anglicized to Henry) Morgentaler, the man who would become her husband, as well as the family of Chava’s best friend, who would later become the Swedish writer, Zenia Larsson, all hid in the second room of the Rosenfarbs’ ghetto apartment behind a door that was hidden by a wardrobe. They were discovered by the Nazis two days later, on August 23, 1944, and deported to Auschwitz. At Auschwitz the knapsack containing Rosenfarb’s poems was ripped out of her hands and thrown on a pile to be discarded. During the selection for life or death, Rosenfarb claimed that her mother was in reality her elder sister and in this way she managed to save her mother’s life. From Auschwitz, Rosenfarb, her mother and sister were sent to a labour camp at Sasel where they were put to work building houses for the bombed out Germans of Hamburg.
From Sasel, the three women were sent to Bergen Belsen. There Rosenfarb contracted typhus and on the very day when the British army liberated the camp in 1945, she was lying near death. The British transported her to a lazaret outside the camp, where she slowly recovered. Once she regained her strength, Rosenfarb and her sister traveled the German countryside seeking news of their father, whom they had last seen at the train station in Auschwitz. After weeks of fruitless searching, Rosenfarb learned that her father had died in the last transport out of Dachau, when the train on which he and the other inmates had been riding was bombed by the Americans. In 1945, Rosenfarb, her mother and sister crossed the border illegally into Belgium, where she lived as a Displaced Person, supporting herself as a teacher at the Workman’s Circle Yiddish school. It was in Brussels too that she began to write The Tree of Life. Because she had no legal standing in Belgium she was required to emigrate. In 1949, she married Heniek Morgentaler and the two emigrated to Canada, landing in Montreal in February 1950. There she gave birth to her first child, a daughter Goldie, several months after her arrival in the New World.
In Canada, Rosenfarb quickly settled down to write. She began as a poet, publishing her first collection of poetry, Di balade fun nekhtikn vald [The ballad of yesterday’s forest] in London in 1947. This was followed by a book-length poem about her father, Dos lid fun yidishn kelner Abram [The song of the Jewish waiter Abram]; and the poetry collections Geto un andere lider [Ghetto and other poems] andAroys fun gan-eydn [Out of Paradise]. Her play Der foigl fun geto [The bird of the ghetto], about the martyrdom of the Vilna ghetto partisan leader, Isaac Wittenberg, was translated into Hebrew and performed by the Habimah, Israel’s National Theatre, in 1966.
Finding that neither poetry nor drama could begin to express the range and depth of her feelings about the Holocaust, Rosenfarb turned to fiction. In 1972, she published in Yiddish Der boim fun lebn [The Tree of Life]. This monumental three-volume epic chronicles the destruction of the Jewish community of Lodz during the Second World War. It is one of the few novels—as opposed to memoirs or autobiographies—to be written by an actual survivor of the Holocaust.
The Tree of Life follows the fates of ten Jewish inhabitants of Lodz who live through the terrible events of the years 1939-44, that is, from before the beginning of the war, when life was still “normal,” until the liquidation of the ghetto in August and September 1944. While most of Rosenfarb’s characters are fictitious, some are based on actual people, like the poet Shayevitch and Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, the “eldest” of the Jews in the Lodz ghetto, put in place by the Nazis as the ghetto’s puppet leader.
The Tree of Life was immediately hailed as a masterpiece by the Yiddish press, which repeatedly emphasizing its unique place in the literature of the Holocaust. It earned Rosenfarb prizes and kudos in lands as diverse as Argentina, Mexico and Australia, to say nothing of the US, Canada and Israel. These included the Niger Prize from Argentina, the Atran Prize from the United States and the Canadian Segal Prize, which she won twice. In 1979, Rosenfarb was unanimously awarded one of Israel’s highest literary honours, the Manger Prize for 1979. The jury wrote: “[The Tree of Life] is a work that rises to the heights of the great creations in world literature and towers powerfully over the Jewish literature of the Holocaust, the literature which deals with the annihilation of European Jewry, in particular Polish Jewry.”
The Tree of Life was translated into Hebrew as Ets Hahayim and a one-volume edition appeared in English in Melbourne, Australia in 1985 and was later re-issued in its original three volumes by the The University of Wisconsin Press, (2004-6).

Chava, her mother and sister Henia, shortly after arrival in Brussels, Belgium, late 1945 or early 1946. They are wearing coats made from UNRRA blankets.

Chava and Bono Wiener standing in front of Ghetto Memorial, Warsaw, 1946. Bono Wiener would become Chava's second husband.

Chava's first passport.

Cover of Chava's first passport.



orn i

n Gombin (G?bin), Poland 1915, died in Kibbutz Evron, Israel, 1969


Tobka (Tova) Beatus. She was a dedicated member of Hashomer Hatzair since her childhood, and two years before the war she lived in Kibbutz Hachshara, in order to immigrate to Eretz Israel. The war cut all her dreams for a Zionist pioneering settlement in Eretz Israel. Tobka stayed behind and soon joined the activities of the underground. She was a liaison in the Kielce-Radom region, where the Jews of Plock were expelled to, during 1941. She did her very best to help them in their distress and route of agony. While fulfilling her dangerous duty, she was caught and identified as a Jewish girl. She fell in battle, as one of the heroes of the Jewish people and her memory will never be forgotten for eternity".


Faye Lazebnik Schulman

Faye as a young girl 

"We were not like lambs going to the slaughter.
Many fought back — if there was the slightest opportunity
— and thousands lost their lives fighting the enemy and working to save lives." born: Lenin, Poland (now Belarus), 1924

Faye’s Family 

Faye Lazebnik Schulman had four brothers and two sisters in her large, Orthodox Jewish family. The Lazebniks considered themselves Jews first and foremost, but before the Nazi invasion in 1941 experienced no anti-Semitism in their small town on the Russian border. A Jewish child growing up in Lenin quickly learned four languages: Yiddish at home, Polish at school, Hebrew in religious school and Russian around the town.
The Schulman Family

faye lazebnik schulman
The War Years

When the Nazis invaded Lenin in 1941, Faye's family was imprisoned in a ghetto. Her two older brothers were sent to Nazi slave-labor camps. The Nazis exterminated the entire ghetto population, sparing only Faye and a handful of other Jews with useful skills.

After the liquidation of Lenin, the Nazis gave Faye films to develop, and she made extra copies. One of the pictures she kept as a testament to Nazi attrocities was a scene of the trench where the Nazis dumped bodies of her family and the rest of the Jews in the Lenin ghetto. With her family dead, Faye no longer feared that her escape would endanger others. During a partisan raid on her town, Faye ran away and joined the Molotova partisan brigade.

"This was the only way I could fight back
and revenge my family."

                                                        Faye and partisan friend
The Roots of Faye’s Resistance

One of Faye's sisters had two young children to care for and the other was sickly, so household chores were Faye's responsibility. Faye credits this with making her physically strong and self-reliant. In addition, Faye took over the family photography business at the early age of 16, when her oldest brother, Moishe, a professional photographer, moved to another town. Faye's photography skills would make her valuable to the Nazis — and give her the opportunity to document their atrocities.

"I didn’t choose this type of life. The choices were made for  me

In the partisans, Faye learned nursing and took up arms as a fighter. She took pictures to document the two years in which her brigade fought and hid in the woods along the Russian-Polish border. Throughout the war, she demonstrated her fierce will to resist the Nazi war machine.

"When it was time to be hugging a boyfriend, 
I was hugging a rifle. Now I said to myself, my life is changed. I learned how to look after the wounded. I even learned how to make operations."

Faye's partisan brigade raided her own village several times to restock food, medicine and weapons. In perhaps her ultimate commitment to resistance, during one of these raids, she ordered the partisans to burn her own house down. "I won't be living here. The family's killed. To leave it for the enemy? I said right away: Burn it!" 

Faye and partisan friend

Faye and partisan friend

After the War 
In Russia, Faye was a war hero. She was a newspaper photographer and had food, housing and money for the first time since the war. But, she desperately missed her family and friends.

Faye rejoiced in 1945 when she found her brother Moishe, alive. He had also escaped the Nazis and joined a different partisan group. Faye married his friend and fellow partisan, Morris Schulman. The newlyweds wanted to immigrate to Palestine (now Israel) and help build a safe homeland for the Jews. The only way to do this was to leave Russia and enter a displaced persons camp in Germany, waiting for permission to immigrate.

Faye and her new family in Canada 

During the two-year wait, Faye and Morris helped smuggle arms into Palestine to support the struggle for independence. When Faye became pregnant, the couple decided that Palestine was too dangerous a place for a newborn. They secured visas for Canada, where they opened a successful family business and raised two children. Faye lives in Toronto today and has published a book about her war experiences: A Partisan’s Memoir: Woman of the Holocaust (Second Story Press, 1995).

Faye’s Message for Teenagers Today
"To Jewish kids I would like to say — be proud to be Jewish. To non-Jewish kids I would like to say — if there is a war and you have to fight, fight for freedom and don’t be ashamed to be in the army."








  • 1924

Barbara Ledermann Rodbell


Barbara making up for a ballet performance in Amsterdam.

"I had always been willful and very much my own person. If I believed in something, I tried to follow up on it."
Born: Berlin, Germany, 1925

Family Background 
Barbara Ledermann Rodbell’s family considered themselves more German than Jewish. Her father, Franz, a prominent lawyer with many non-Jewish clients, was fiercely proud of Germany and he enjoyed sharing its music and arts with his two daughters. Barbara’s special love was dance.

In 1933, when Hitler’s power was surging in Germany, the family visited Barbara's grandparents in Holland. Dutch friends urged them not to return to Germany, but Franz Ledermann was unconvinced and returned, alone, to his Berlin law office. There, he found a notice stating that Jewish lawyers could serve only Jewish clients. This would have made his law practice impossible. He rejoined his family in Holland, where he began studying Dutch law in order to start his career over again.

Barbara and her family enjoy 
the Berlin outdoors.

Anne and Margo Frank playing with Barbara and her sister Susanna Ledermann

The Ledermanns settled in a neighborhood of Amsterdam where many other German-Jewish families had immigrated, including the Frank family. Barbara and her sister, Susanna, became close friends of Anne and Margot Frank.

Even after the Nazis invaded Holland, Franz Ledermann continued to believe that law and reason would prevail.

"My father just didn’t want to believe something like that [genocide of the Jews] was possible — it’s very understandable. He just couldn’t believe the humanistic Germans he knew would do such a thing."

Roots of Barbara’s Resistance
Barbara was "just an ordinary high schooler" in Holland, concerned with friends and dancing, unaware of politics. However, when she fell in love with Manfred Grunberg, who was already involved in resistance activities, her awareness changed.

Manfred and his friends convinced Barbara that the Nazis planned to exterminate the Jewish people. She realized that her father’s trust in the ultimate humanity of the German government was misplaced. At age 17, she was just old enough to be independent.

With support from Manfred and other resisters, Barbara left her family apartment in Amsterdam and set out to pass as a non-Jew. She acquired false identification papers, her first act of resistance. "I changed my name, I took off my star, I became a non-Jewish person," she recalled. Because of her street smarts and determination, blond hair and Aryan looks, twice she was able to escape the Nazi round-ups that ultimately sent her parents and sister to the gas chambers of Auschwitz. 

Fellow resister and boyfriend Manfred with Barbara in Holland.

"I was exactly the right age to be on my own. If I had been younger, like my sister, I would have stayed with my parents. If I were older, with children, I just don’t know how I could have done it."


Dutch line up for food during the Hunger Winter of 1944-45. 

barbara ledermann rodbell
The War Years
Barbara and Manfred, along with his sister Magda, rented rooms in the home of a German and hid Jews in the house, thus carrying out resistance work literally in the home of the enemy.

Barbara risked being recognized as a non-Jew in a city where many people knew her real identity. The danger increased when she began performing with the famous ballerina Yvonne Georgi, who was rumored to be a friend of Hitler and whose ballet audiences were full of German officers. Despite the danger, she used her position as a dancer and papers that allowed her to be out after curfew, to help transfer Jews from one hiding place to another.


"If somebody would stop you, you could show the papers and a big smile, with the makeup still on, and it worked. I know I was scared and worried about it, but it never stopped me."

In an ironic twist, Barbara's friends, never suspecting that she was using her position in the ballet for resistance efforts, and fearful that it was too dangerous for Barbara to dance in public, went to Yvonne Georgi and revealed Barbara's true identity. Georgi asked Barbara to leave the ballet, but never betrayed her to the Germans. Barbara didn't learn the real reason for her dismissal until years later.

In addition to transferring Jews in peril, Barbara was able to procure food without being suspected of harboring Jews. She and her friend Magda delivered illegal underground newspapers so that Dutch Jews would know what was really happening in the war. They put the newspapers in baskets, covered them with lettuce and tomatoes, and were told to drop them at various doorsteps. Barbara and her fellow resisters knew very little about one another’s specific activities. That way, anyone who was caught would not be able to reveal information that could harm others.

After the War 
Barbara continued using her talents by dancing, acting and modeling. With her family lost in concentration camps, she left Amsterdam and moved to the United States. Dancing did not provide steady income, so Barbara joined the Ringling Brothers Circus. Then, because she didn't want to travel with the circus, she took a job in Baltimore, selling cosmetics. She met Martin Rodbell in an amateur theater group, married him and raised four children — "two for me and two for my sister ." Her husband won a Nobel Prize in medicine in 1994.

After the war, Barbara rides an elephant with the circus in America.

Barbara’s Message for Teenagers Today
"You always have to think for yourself."

Elderly Woman is Wanted Nazi War Criminal

By Michael Leidig in Vienna

2:25PM BST 22 Oct 2007

She looks like someone’s harmless grandmother waiting for the man to come to read the meter or repair the boiler. But this little old lady is one with a dark past and a unique claim to infamy.

For Frau Erna Wallisch, 85, ranks number seven on the Simon Wiesenthal Centre’s list of Nazi war criminals still at large.

Tracked down by British historian and author Guy Walters for his book 'Hunting Evil', about the escape and pursuit of Nazi war criminals, she lives in a small apartment on the bank of the Danube in Vienna. Incredibly, her surname is printed on the bell-push for her apartment.

When found by Mr Walters last Friday, Wallisch refused to comment on his investigation into her past as a brutal concentration camp guard.

Other residents in her apartment block said they knew nothing about her history, and most told Mr Walters that they supported the Austrian government’s decision not to prosecute her.

"It’s all in the past and should be forgotten," said Frau Durchhalter, one of Wallisch’s neighbours. "People should learn to forgive."

"I do not find this attitude surprising," said Mr Walters. "For too long, the Austrians have been unacceptably lenient with these evil men and women in their midst. I suspect their reluctance to confront these criminals is because it would only highlight the extent of Austrian complicity with Nazism."


Contributor: bgill
Created: October 18, 2011 · Modified: November 1, 2011

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