Auschwitz Survivors Succumb to COVID-19
COVID-19 may have taken the lives of Auschwitz survivors Henri Kichka and Margit Buchhalter Feldman, but their legacy of survival, in the face of atrocities, will always live on.
September 2nd 2020 marks the anniversary of 75 years since the ending of World War II, and in commemoration I attempt to recreate the experiences of one family of Auschwitz-Birkenau victims. This story is told from the perspective of a survivor, who did me the great honour of sharing it with me before they passed.
Rachel wraps her blanket around her baby doll, Iris, and reaches for her mother’s hand. They are being ordered out of their home and into the street. Down three flights of well-worn dark oak steps they hurry, black cast iron railings keeping them safe in their panic. It seems that everyone in their apartment block has been ordered onto the street. The shouting is deafening to small ears, and four-year old Rachel’s tears drip onto Iris’ blanket.
Rachel’s mother, Anita, keeps a firm grip of her daughter’s right hand — despite all the pushing and thuds to her back. Her other hand clutches the handle of a small brown leather suitcase. It is the sum of their belongings. Mrs Aarons from number eight is lagging behind and crying. Her ulcerated, arthritic legs are painful, as she has not left her apartment in many years. She is given no special treatment, just ordered to hurry up.
Daniel and I try to slow our pace, so we can help Mrs Aarons, but we are pushed forward with a blow to our backs. Whatever has been used to deliver it, the blow feels cold, and hard, and unforgiving. I try not to show my pain.
In the street below, we are herded together. We are told we are being taken to a new area, where we will all have work. Ordered not to talk and to hurry, we scramble as fast as we can over cobbled streets in tired shoes needing repair. Some of the group have placed their belongings in a makeshift wooden cart. Smaller children sit atop, wide-eyed and frightened. Mothers hold their babies in their arms and try to stop them crying by kissing them tenderly on their face or head, as they rush to keep up. All the time, we are shouted at by SS Officers: “Schnell, Schnell!”
No one can leave
We walk for miles, heading south towards the Wista River from the main street of Straszewskiego. Meandering together in a murky pursuit of the unknown, we are tired and scared. We respond to prods and commands to hurry, until exhausted we arrive at Limanowskiego in the district of Podgórze. We soon realise we are being resettled into the Kraków Ghetto. It is cramped and cold.
Star of David
On arrival, we are forced to wear armbands, bearing the yellow Star of David. Most synagogues have been closed down, but we keep our faith and find our way to pray. There is one chemist, The Eagle Pharmacy on Zgody Square, that remains open, and it becomes a hub to meet.
Thankfully, some of the residents have retained their violins. Familiar songs can be heard through closed doors or within the walls of the ghetto café. The music soothes our hearts and allows our minds to escape.
We are set work on tasks. Some clear the streets from snow, maintaining Planty Park and other green spaces. Others are sent to cook, or make clothing and munitions. German factories send raw materials and we are issued with production orders. Hearing “Schnell, Schnell” becomes routine.
Anyone refusing is shot
It is May 1941, and no one is allowed to leave the ghetto without a special permit. Permits are used for work, and mandatory identity cards are issued and renewed monthly.
Every day the gates are guarded, and curfews are in place. Germans, Poles and local Jewish police keep a vigilant eye on us. Security police randomly storm through the ghetto, demanding we hand over our woollen garments and furs. Anyone refusing is shot. The wall of the ghetto is curved and resembles tomb stones.
We soon develop friendships. Ira and Miriam Mendes are a loving couple in their 40s. They confide they have cyanide pills hidden and will take them if need be, preferring a quick death to the tortures they have heard of. Daniel and I cannot believe the horrific stories they recount, but they assure us they are true. Many loved ones have disappeared, never to return.
SS Officers instruct us to hurry
Life is arduous. Daniel and I obey the rules, but we are sick and malnourished. It is a cold winter, but in March 1943, we are told we are lucky and have been selected. We are being resettled into a better rural area where there will be more work. At 1100 hours we meet at the Limanowskiego main gate to await further instructions. Attempting to hold hands we follow the others selected, and assemble. Shouting SS Officers instruct us to hurry and keep up as we are marched to Zgody Square then transported by trucks to Plaszów railway.
We wait patiently, not knowing what to expect.
Love keeps us strong
A wooden rail cattle-car arrives, and we are herded on. There is no time to think, as we are pushed in roughly. The doors are slammed shut and bolted. Hugging Daniel, I sob and kiss his cold, frail lips. He whispers my name. Helena. We tell each other, as we always do, how much our love will keep us strong. We will always have this ‘knowing bond’ to keep us protected, no matter what. As we look into each other’s eyes, the sadness and hunger of our days wash away, and we see our souls connect. We will always be as one, full of light and hope. We know our love can never be taken from us. A smile creeps on our lips. We are alone in our own cocoon of love; where time stands still and everything is where it has been before. I cling to Daniel and feel his lips gently kiss my head. I close my eyes and joy radiates through our bodies, filling our hearts.
Green fields unfold
We journey for many days. It is hot and cramped and the stench is putrid. There are no toilets onboard. Just one bucket. Defecation takes place where we stand. A final jolt and a screech of brakes signals our arrival. The doors are unbolted and we expect water and fresh air to greet us. But it doesn’t. There is an acrid smell. I have no idea what it is, and stifle vomit. As we are shoved out onto the platform, green fields unfold in front of us. There are uniform rows of red brick housing blocks to the left of us, and tall smoking chimneys to the right. Barbed wire fences mark our route between them.
Mothers and children scream
An SS Officer directs us into a line. We assemble quickly, as other officers stroll the platform. Shaking with fear, cold, and hunger, we are eyed up and down, then forced into two lines. Daniel is ordered to get to the left and I am pushed to the right. Mothers and children scream and sob as they are dragged from each other, and refusal to part is met with a bullet.
I walk on with the rest
Daniel and some other men are led away through an imposing black iron-framed gate. I feel my heart has been ripped from my body. I walk on with the rest of the women in my line. Holding each other’s hands, lowering our eyes, we follow the SS leader. We are told we are going to get cleaned-up and take a shower. It is a welcoming thought after all we have endured.
We are ushered towards an enormous concrete building, and ordered to remove all of our clothing. The stack is soon high. One of the officers gestures to me to leave the line. When I refuse to do so, he drags me away, pulling me after him. I assume he is going to rape me. I try to bite at his arm, but am too weak to get my teeth through his thick uniform. Behind me, I hear heavy metal doors being shut and bolted.
The officer laughs and tells me he has just saved my life. Of course, I do not believe him. He is just trying to get on the right side of me, so I will offer less resistance when he rapes me. He pushes me towards the black gates, then with a hollow laugh he disappears, and I am left among the men and younger women moving forward through the gates...