How might someone have gotten a note forwarded from a transport train headed to Auschwitz?

How might someone have gotten a note forwarded from a transport train headed to Auschwitz?


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A relative who is no longer living told me that when her uncle (Jewish, living in hiding in France) was discovered and put on a train transport to Auschwitz, not long before liberation, he threw a note to his sister out of the train to let her know his fate, and this note was miraculously delivered to his sister in London.

How might this note have reached its destination?

I'm trying to picture this, step by step. He would likely have been in a windowless cattle car -- so how did he get a note out of the train? Whom might he have given it to? Would this have been from the station where he was first put on the train, or farther along the route? Would the note then have been sent through the postal service, or by some other means?

Edit: I imagine the uncle and his wife would have been killed upon arriving, or shortly after arriving, in Auschwitz. The officially-encouraged-postcard hypothesis seems unlikely to me, partly from the way the story was told to me, and partly because my impression is that towards the end of the war, Germany was hanging by a thread and would not have bothered with this type of PR any more.

The way this family history was explained to me, it was a note thrown out of the train, and it was considered remarkable that the note reached his sister.


To expand on Jeff's answer, many of the journeys would take several weeks, moving from one transit camp to the next.

Prisoners were given post cards with idyllic scenes to write to family and friends to indicate how well they were treated and extoll the virtues of their new homelands in the east.

And indeed it was always possible (though risky) to try and write a note and let it slip through the wooden planks making up the side of the rail cars. But such notes would be unlikely to be found and sent on. Not just would the chances of them being found be small, censorship and plain old fear would prevent most people from trying to send them on if they did find them (and how to know where to send them? Or even have the means to if you did know?).

A note slipped from a train in France or Germany on the way to Poland would have to travel through Vichy France and fascist Spain to Portugal before getting to Britain. While possible in theory, in practice it'd be highly unlikely to ever arrive unless the person initially finding it was involved in the secret networks set up by the OSS and other organisations to help downed allied pilots get to England (and many of those were caught and sent to POW camps).

Far more likely is that someone after the war invented the story to have something interesting to tell. Not dissimilar to hundreds of thousands of Dutch and French (and no doubt others) suddenly having been part of armed resistance groups after the war, when during the war those groups numbered a mere few thousand in either country (of course more in France, as it's bigger, but in both cases a tiny percentage of the population).


In at least some camps, inmates were encouraged to write, although certainly heavily censored, postcards/letters to family to allay suspicions of both families and international agencies like The Red Cross. Part of the motive also may have been so money and food was sent to inmates which were probably stolen.


Auburn's History

The gold camp of Auburn was much like the other early mining camps of Newtown (near present day Lincoln) and Elizabethtown (near Iowa Hill). All were founded on an initial gold strike and very quickly attracted miners, merchants, saloonkeepers and gamblers. Elizabethtown was settled in the fall of 1850 but was deserted by 1854. Newtown was founded in 1855 and within a few years it too had been abandoned. What made Auburn different? Why did it survive? As with the other two towns, the “easy” placer gold was soon played out and most of the miners moved on to the next “big strike” location. Auburn, however, maintained its population and grew to be the most substantial town in the County because of its selection as county seat and its location.

Auburn, although stripped of its surface gold within months, managed to hang on and avoid the boom and bust cycle of so many other gold camps in northern California due to its location and its position as county seat.

Excerpt from Early Auburn – Images of America by Arcadia Press
By April McDonald-Loomis, John Knox and Art Sommers


Eyewitness Testimony: Cattle Car Deportations

The Jews are deported to Auschwitz daily, on schedule. They leave from the ghetto embarkation depots, on schedule. Conductors signal, "All aboard." Brakemen wave lanterns. German and Hungarian guards shoot a few reluctant travelers, club and bayonet a last group of mothers into the compartments. The engineer opens his throttle. And the train is off for Auschwitz, on schedule.

Eighty Jews ride in every compartment. Eichmann [said] the Germans could do better where there were more children. Then they could jam 120 into each train room. But 80 is no reflection on German efficiency.

The 80 Jews must stand all the way to Auschwitz with their hands raised in the air, so as to make room for the maximum of passengers.

There are two buckets in each compartment. One contains water. The other is for use as a toilet, to be shoved by foot, if possible, from user to user.

I wonder here, why the water and toilet buckets? One water bucket, one toilet bucket for 80 despairing men, women and children plastered against each other as in a packing case, and riding to death. Why? One water bucket, one toilet bucket are not enough to relieve the misery of these barely living ones. Jammed together, how can they use any buckets? They must urinate and defecate in their clothes. They must continue to burn with thirst until they arrive at the gas ovens. But the buckets are there.

I look at these two buckets as some curious souvenirs. Of what? I answer hesitantly of the fact that humanity is hard to stamp out completely. It persists. It sneaks a token of itself into each foul-smelling, Jew-jammed compartment. The two buckets are like the spoor of some wounded thing &ndash a German memory of humanity not quite dead.

from: "Perfidy," by Ben Hecht, Julian Messner, Inc., New York, 1961

Article 8 of 13 in the series Holocaust Overview

Inhuman "Humanities"

Stateless: When Germany Deported Thousands of Polish Jews in 1938

Poland Video Log Part 1: At Treblinka Death Camp

Belzec: The Forgotten Camp

Richard Dawkins and Eugenics

Mazel Tov. It's a Boy!

The Tulsa Race Massacre and Oklahoma’s Jews

Strapped In: My Complicated Relationship with Tefillin

Comments (79)

(66) Frank, January 15, 2015 9:51 PM

jewish misery

What exactly did the jewish people.do for a whole country to have so much hate towards them? Maybe Germans saw them as the people.in america view the muslims? I have never heard why an entire country could idly stand by and allow this to happen.

Jim, February 6, 2015 4:48 AM

are you for real? You're comparing nazis attitude toward Jews like Americans toward Muslims? You must be a simpleton! Radical Muslims have EARNED the wrath of the world not just Americans you jerk!!

venicementor, February 18, 2015 5:01 AM

Do us all a favor and read history

Frank - how old are you, anyway? I am not going to ask if you went to school as it obvious you did, with your questions. American academia for sure. Read some history and not just of regular Internet sources, read peer reviewed material and you will find out, the Jews did absolutely NOTHING to deserve this.

(65) Anonymous, January 15, 2015 6:13 PM

My father was there

He felt so humiliated, even after 60 years he couldn't talk about it

Anonymous, May 11, 2016 11:56 PM

They were brainwashed into thinking Jews were not humans, so it was seen as ok for this to happen. Its was like slavery.

(64) dylan clark, May 27, 2014 3:25 PM

(63) John, May 13, 2013 11:38 PM

(62) Anonymous, December 18, 2012 11:36 PM

i think that it's very sad.

I'm learing about the holocaust in school and my whole 6th grade class is watching boy in the striped pajama's. i'll recomend this site to my teacher.

FRozen Fire, October 10, 2014 2:53 PM

OMG SO ARE WE.

That is so cool! we are learning about it to!

(61) Anonymous, November 28, 2012 4:19 PM

so sad this happend less that 100 years ago how could someone do this 2 people =(

(60) haley decker, November 24, 2012 12:52 AM

these nazis are crazy

I can't beleive that this is what nazis did to those pour people. I'm a student studying the holocaust at my school. I'm appauled by what I've found out so far. It's just disgusting. Thank you for the good website.

(59) Anonymous, November 20, 2012 10:19 PM

This is truly evil. We need to learn from our past, and not repeat this unfortunitly we are. This means that these prople have died in vain. For example, Bosnia and Cosivo. When my dad fought there, for two years, the cathlics were in the jews posit

(58) Anonymous, October 15, 2012 10:48 PM

that is really sad, especially the one where every 1 was dead even before they got to the extermination camps =(

(57) jojo, May 23, 2012 12:05 PM

thx for the amzing info. really usefull

thx for the amzing info. really usefull

(56) Anonymous, April 27, 2012 5:59 PM

This is soo sad it make me want to cry

(55) samie, April 16, 2012 3:40 PM

this was really sad for what they did.

(54) Robin, April 11, 2012 8:07 AM

we need to learn

This is truly evil. We need to learn from our past, and not repeat this unfortunitly we are. This means that these prople have died in vain. For example, Bosnia and Cosivo. When my dad fought there, for two years, the cathlics were in the jews position, while the muslims were the nazis. The village was under fire for a whole month, people only living in there basements. After the men were rounded up and marched to the top of the hill. If they behaved, they were only shot in the head tried to escape and they were shot multiple times, beaten, and there bodies sent done the hill with a name tag for there families to be tortured, humiliated, and killed just because they were disrespectful by trying to run for there lives. My dad was there to end this, but he saw this first hand, and it has happened only about ten to twelve years ago. We need to learn from our mistakes and soon, otherwise we' ll have another WW. We are curently being divided again, between racists, and religions again. ( I' m only 14 by the way) The truth is ugly and brutile, but we need to remember it and learn from it, othetwise were the same as our enemy.

Vyanni Krace, May 6, 2012 5:52 PM

That is truly horrifying. This is exacly why I chose to not have a religion-since religion seem to be the leading factor in wars-it sickens me and I dont want to be part of a religion if religions are constantly starting wars. 'If they behaved they were just shot in the head. Tried to escape and they were shot multiple times, beaten, and their bodies sent down the hill with a name tag for there families to be tortured, humiliated and killed. ' Huh. Thats just sick. How humans can do such horrible things to one another I really do not understand and I never will. People like that dont count as humans to me. They dont even rank as scum. And all in the name of their religion. Thinking that by brutally torturing and murdering members of their opposing religion they will somehow reach their version of heaven. How disgusting. Sickening. If anything, by killing those people simply because they were of another religion they have given themselves a one-way ticket to their version of hell. And if not, if they somehow actually do reach heaven despite such actions. If those actions are deemed correct then that is just wrong. Heaven isnt really all that great if reaching it means doing horrible things to others because thats just wrong. Sorry about that rant. Im a very morally strong person with a strong sense of justice and an immense lack of faith in religion. *Religion lost my trust long ago due to the actions done in its name.* Im also 14 too by the way. Its nice to meet you.

Andrea Eller, June 19, 2012 8:43 PM

You are correct and you are incorrect.

I can see that you have a passionate sense of morality and justice. That's a wonderful thing, and I hope you never lose it. But do you know the expression, "Don't throw out the baby with the bath water"? In this case it means if you are Jewish, eliminating Judaism would be a terrible mistake. There were many, many Jews who went to the gas chambers thankful -- sometimes even singing in gratitude! -- that their religion and their devotion to it differentiated them from the sub-human, sub-animal levels of these Nazi (and other) killers.

(53) Muffin, March 22, 2012 9:49 AM

Have you ever noticed how those deniers are always saying that Nazis had no death camps or genocide policy - but they never deny the other things the Nazis did to the Jews: deportations, cattle cars, death marches, ghettos, pogroms, etc.

(52) Andy, February 15, 2012 3:35 AM

Now that is evidence of cruelty I am tired of those right nazis saying this never happened when you have overwhelming evidence in front of you

(51) Jacob, 13, January 18, 2012 2:09 AM

We sit here and think about how bad it was when I recently learned that the Nazis are still out there. They are extremely scarce in numbers but they still are there. After coming to the web-quest in my classroom I found out it's not about the Holocaust, but actually that fact that this is real and can happen again. To all the brave Jews who died in these camps, I hope they know they didn't die in vain. One day I may find some way to prevent such inhumanity to our fellow human beings.

(50) marie, December 22, 2011 1:27 AM

its was really sad when i heard this story people did not have to die they are people just like us.

why people have to do this thing its so horrible for me. I think some of the solders are burning in hell for what they had done to those people they are just people. they did not do anyhting bad well maybe but not o them those people are just horrible.

Anonymous, January 12, 2012 10:11 PM

this is horrible

did u know the nazis pushed people off of cliffs. some of the people in concentration camps are forced to go around and pick up dead people that were shot. one trip took so long that when they opened the doors every body was dead.

(49) Lindsay, December 19, 2011 6:12 PM

At me school we have a class we can take to learn about the Holocaust and genocide. Before taking it I had a slight idea about what happened after taking it I have learned so much about the Holocaust. we are doing this project where you have to use terms from the Holocaust from A-Z. Doing this shows you so many more things. It is sad I can honestly say but understanding the Holocaust can make you a better person. You learn to appreciate things and gain an understanding that nobody is less then you people are different not inferior.

Scaranda, February 1, 2012 1:17 AM

Very well put, Lindsay: "people are different not inferior."

(48) Anonymous, December 13, 2011 7:09 PM

what happened

So this is really sad but most of you say it very,un maturly..im pretty sure most of you dont know what went on or how anyone in the holocaust felt,im pretty sure that this is more serious than sad.I feel like this is sad,but no one is doing really anything to stop genocide..its still going on,in places like darfur.so instead of saying its sad and feeling pitty,STOP STUPID, INSIGNIFICATE,CRAZY THINGS,like genocide.take action,(and im only 13 yrs old)so if i care than we need to do something

cheyanne, January 6, 2012 7:44 PM

I am 13 years old and have full respect for what you all have to say but really in places like dafur we don't have much we can do. All we can do is pray that this inhuman killing will be stopped.

(47) Luna, December 9, 2011 1:49 AM

this is so sad, why would anyone ever do that to people? i hate it when innocent people are killed

(46) chenell, November 25, 2011 8:30 PM

im suprise about this and thats sad how they done to them poeple and it doesnt matter who they are but that awful what they done. and i learn this in class and my hearts was drop how they done to them and same thing in the movie of boys in stripe pajamas.

(45) mads acree, November 2, 2011 6:46 PM

this was soo sad

i read a biography about this and it was extremley sad at the end when she was set free they thought she was in her 80s she was 13 that is both sad and nasty

(44) Rebecca Ekanem, August 4, 2011 10:18 PM

I felt horribly bad when i watched a video on d holocaust, i just couldn't stop crying. This is man's inhumanity to man. I still cant understand how on earth people could do this to their fellow humans without sympathy.I felt horribly bad when i watched a video on d holocaust, i just couldn't stop crying. This is man's inhumanity to man. I still cant understand how on earth people could do this to their fellow humans without sympathy.

(43) Amber, May 23, 2011 4:46 PM

This is sad

Why. This is inhumain and horable. Every time i learn about the holocaust it makes me feel more and more gratefull to be in the centry and not in that time period alos i recamend people to watch paper clips the movie it about a small commmunity makeing a change that has to do with the holocaust. Thanks(::(

(42) Anonymous, May 3, 2011 6:23 PM

This is the saddest thing i have heard about my " GF" cries when i show her pics

(41) Anonymous, March 24, 2011 7:23 PM

we learned about this in class and people started crying durning the videos. And there was one kid in the video who was like we don't need to learn about it, it happened in the 17th century and another person said they thought the holocaust was a jewish holiday it was a really bad video.

(40) Anonymous, March 17, 2011 2:29 PM

omg this is terrible i cant belibe anybody would do such a thing !

(39) chase, January 27, 2011 2:19 PM

Raggin Taylor, March 18, 2011 12:48 PM

(38) Kaitlyn, January 10, 2011 12:17 AM

Horrible Tragedy

That is just absolutely horrible nobody deserves that kind of treatment no matter what there belief is and I think we all need to study the holocaust and learn from this so we dont make that kind of mistake again in the future!

destiny, April 13, 2011 2:25 PM

yea this is really terible i hope and pray this does not happen in the future

(37) kelsey, November 19, 2010 12:53 AM

people think certain animals are dangerous but they dont no that the human mind is far more hazardous

(36) Anonymous, November 18, 2010 12:10 AM

ANIMALS AREN'T EVEN TREATED LIKE THAT!(thats if you are treating animals like they should be treated)

(35) Isaiah, November 5, 2010 6:15 PM

German People

GERMAN PEOPLE ARE SO FREAKIN RACIST! (only the nazi) There so racial noott kool I HATE THEM FROM WHAT THEY DID TO JEWS! gosh

(34) elicia, May 14, 2010 5:14 PM

the jews were put in a train and lied to by the nazi.

it is a very touching story.it is sad also, no one deserves to be treated like animals.

(33) Anonymous, May 14, 2010 5:14 PM

thats terrible 18 days innocent human beings were just pushed and teased into the cart, but why one may know

thats terrible 18 days innocent human beings were just pushed and teased into the cart, but why one may know

(32) Anonymous, May 14, 2010 3:01 PM

about the holocaust.

i think that was not right and it should have never happened we a studying the holocaust and i am reading the final journey by gudrun pausewang

(31) Anonymous, March 29, 2010 11:54 PM

(30) Ruvain ben Shia, March 28, 2010 10:54 PM

Prepair today to not repeat yesterday.

Watch for the slow removal of individual freedoms. At first the hurt is as an insect bite, then the lion jumps out of the bush. It's better to kill the insect than to wait for the lion.

(29) Anonymous, March 25, 2010 2:44 PM

(28) , March 17, 2010 5:14 PM

Thats sad how would some be able to do that? Its just to trick someone like that. I mean would you be to? I know I wouldn't be able to. Its just WRONG to do that to someone. Even if you dont beleive in the same things that they do.

(27) Anonymous, March 9, 2010 7:28 PM

I cant believe that Hitler would have even the mind to do this horrible thing!

Raylinn, April 1, 2021 5:52 PM

No that is not true get your facts straight.

(26) Andrea, January 31, 2009 10:01 PM

Interesting Commentaries

I found one person's comment to be interesting: why did Hitler only torture the Jews and not other people of different nationalties This is a false assumption. Many were persecuted in the Holocaust, whether based on nationality, appearance or supposed faults that Hitler decided to focus on. The Roma were among those persecuted and lets be realistic, it was because of their nationality, not because they were criminals or untouchable.

Anonymous, December 19, 2011 6:20 PM

Exactly. Thank you for saying that. Hitler also persecuted Gypsies, Homosexuals, Handicaps, Mentally Handicaped, and many others. Hitler wanted to make (he thought they were) Aryans the superior race and he was willing to do just about anything to do that. Even if it ment killing millions of inocent people. He was just so sick.. makes you wonder how a person can get that way

(25) Steve, January 14, 2009 7:05 AM

The 20th Train

I urge you to read the story of the 20th train. It was the only time that a death camp transport train (from Mechelen, Belgium) was ambushed and people (between 200 and 300) rescued. Three men on bicycles carrying pliers, pistols, and a lamp covered with red paper to signal the train to stop carried out the operation. It should be made into a movie.

I was born in Salonica in 1946.My father was a distinguished med doctor with many Jewish people among his patients,being a close friend with many of them.I had my first vague experience of the Holocaust,in my early childhood,when I saw the "Number" on the arm of a family friend.I realized that something evil had happened but,as a child,didn t know,axactly what that was.I am absolutely conveinced that the total loss of OUR jewish friends,was a disaster for the city which CAN NEVER be repaired or forgotten.For myself,Holocaust is a nail in my heart until I die.

(23) komodo, December 25, 2008 3:29 PM

The Rise of Evil

Hitler was able to attain power legally because he knew how to use the system. He promised the German people change, a better tomorrow and an opportunity to once again take their rightful place in the world. He stifled dissent through the use of force and terror. German Jews were thoroughly assimilated in German society and did not believe they would be singled out for destruction even though the evidence against that way of thinking was mounting. When Hitler invaded Poland, and later on the Baltic countries and the Ukraine he sent the Einsatzgruppen closely behind the Wermacht to conduct what we call today "ethnic cleansing" which means the shooting of Jews along with Poles, Slavs and Gypsies. Killing pits were filled from Eastern Poland to Western Russia with hundreds of thousands of Jews who were shot down, murdered, by the killing squads with help from local militia and even occasionally Waffen-SS and Wermacht troops. There was very little dissent among the troops who did the killing.It was only later, perhaps early in 1942, that death camps were set up to receive Jews for destruction. The notes from the Wannsee Conference held in January 1942 that survived the war showed that the Nazi's estimated 11 million Jews that were going to be destroyed, from Western Europe including England, Scotland and Ireland to Siberia. That was too great a number to be shot and a more "efficient" method of destruction had to be found. Trains and death camps filled the bill.

(22) JH Abeles, November 12, 2008 3:33 AM

Personal Horror of "TRANSPORTS"

As a second-generation survivor, I cannot grapple with, cannot imagine, the horror of the transports. One thousand people were placed on each of these by force. Each car was way overloaded. Three of my four grandparents and my only aunt were taken by transport from Vienna to Sobibor and Maly Trostinets in 1942. My other grandfather had already, by then, been murdered in Buchenwald. When I recently in Sept 2008 visited Italy and inevitably rode trains on the European continent, I could not help but contemplate the suffering of my dear relatives, whom I never had the privilege to know, on other European trains 64 years earlier. When I was younger, I once stood for about 4 hours on a train from Boston to New York to get home from college one Thanksgiving. At that time I was not yet aware of the transports. Standing for 4 hours was unpleasant, believe me. How can I imagine standing for 96 hours (four days) or more? Without water? Without food? Without sanitary facilities? How can I imagine the murder of those who withstood the experience upon arrival at their destination? Who can imagine such things? The horror, the horror. Thi

(21) Anonymous, June 21, 2008 8:59 PM

Hitler was evil and did whatever he could to gain power even if it meant killing people

I am not a jew. I am an American of German descent. I know the German people knew what was going on because my family had relatives that visited in 1937. They spoke with much animosity toward anyone who was a jew. It disturbed me as a young child because I was able to pick up on the contempt in their conversation. I remember asking my father about it and he said our church tells us to love everyone. The relatives were angry with my father for saying this to me. It did not stop him, however, he continued telling me not to listen to such nonsense.
After the war when people would say they didn't know about what was happening, I knew better. Our German relatives told us they did not believe in Hitler and they knew nothing about the camps and what was happening there. How could they not know? Did they think all the missing people visited the land of Oz?
I read Mein Kampf and that book oozed such hatred that it sickened me. After world war I, Hitler wanted to have power and the people in Germany were starving. He gave them a scapegoat and made it the Jews. If he could give them something to hate and behave as their "savior" then he would gain much power.
I believe in forgiveness, but only for those that didn't realize their sin. Hitler knew what he was doing. He did it perfectly, and he will answer to God for all eternity for the suffering, pain, and loss that he inflicted on the Jewish people. I hope the Jews can find it in their hearts to forgive the German people for their learned hatred and find peace for themselves.
I will pray for you always. And I will also pray for the German people that they will never again be lead around in such a malevolent way.

(20) anoymous, June 4, 2008 9:26 PM

Have you ever wondered why Hitler actually did what he did? I mean many poeple think that he had on mind that he was doing a deed towards god by murdering all those Jews. Jews are like any other people. They eat sleep breathe and do everything else that the Americans, Canadians and Mexicans do. So why did Hitler only torture the Jews and not other people of different nationalties. There is many cofusion both online and in novels about the Holocaust. Many poeple say that he was beaten and abused by his father at a young age. Sometimes this can lead to a mass murderer. but think about all of the other things that could have caused this. Hitler was a dangerous man that caused families to be separated, families to be killed and devastation all around the world. People had their identities taken away from them, and when they were out in lines to go the either the smoke chambers or the barracks, it was like a path to either life or death. Today, we have it really good. Our ACTIONS speak for themselves, and we have the option to CHOOSE what we do in life. The poor Jews back in the Holocaust had no idea or choice where their life and family was headed. It was a very upsetting time and if you ever get the chance to pick up a copy of Mein Kampf anywhere get it and read it. That is the only way that you are going to know anything about what when through Hitler''s mind. God Bless all Jews!

(19) Anonymous, April 3, 2008 3:56 PM

we are watching a movie about the holocaust at my school it is calles "paperclips" it is very interesting but sad at the same time. hitler was an evil man. god bless you and all the jews

(18) shamil mohamed, February 23, 2008 10:46 PM

hitler is evil and is burning in hell right now and forever,for what he has done to the jewish people.may god be with the jewish people always.

(17) hebrown, February 19, 2008 10:33 AM

I trouble and arrogance.

Hitler (and his pals) had I trouble.
In his book Mein Kampf (My Struggle)
it is all about him/me.
We must all be careful of I trouble because when we begin to think it is all about me ARROGANCE sets in and then we begin to think we are Superior than anyone else and then we become Racist and then dangerious.
God helps us to watch out.

(16) H.E.BROWN, February 1, 2008 4:57 PM

The Holocaust

Hitler is burning in Hell right now and will be forever!

(15) Danielle, January 11, 2008 3:49 PM

How could somebody be so cruel. To use people as human stairs. To be stuffed into jail cells, to kill innocent people. Those people are cowards epscially Hitler, he is a coward to me

(14) nirav, December 19, 2007 6:13 AM

the holocaust is indeed a very bad and worst night mare ever happened in the history of humanity. 6 million people were wiped off and GOD did nothing much! Why did hitler kill jews? If at all he hated them why did not he let them deported only, why he had to kill them? And why he hated the jews? If he was a real Christian, was he not supposed to even love his own enemies? If at all any jew would have offended him, he should have held a grudge against that person and not against the entire community. No where did the Jewish community maligned him so as to earn his ire. The Jews are the most intelligent people in the world and just like the Gujaratis of India are very entrepreneurs.
Its good that nazisim has been wiped out now but Israel now faces another like wise enemy - the islamic fundamentalism. Now we only have to pray to GOD to stop the atrocities on Jewish people. And those Christians who say that jews killed Jesus should well understand that the romans were not counting the rosaries at the time of crucification. What happened was the will of God and cannot be related to present day sufferings of the diaspora.
USA must support Israel whole heartily and stop applying double standards.
Shalom!

(13) greg volansky, November 9, 2007 9:22 PM

great lesson

what about the train crews? they had to know the fate that awaited their cargo.were they guilty of war crimes or murder?

(12) john guzlowski, October 25, 2007 12:14 PM

Cattle Trains to Germany

My parents were both taken by train to the concentration camps in Germany. Thank you for providing the personal accounts of what that was like.

(11) sarah, September 30, 2007 1:34 PM

i read the article by Ben Hecht and it really opened my eyes to these nazi's a brutal people making you feel horrible and then mocking you in your face cause theres nothing that you can do about it if you had to use one of the buckets you couldn't because then for the rest of the train ride you would be in soacked, urinated clothes and this was children to not just grown-ups

(10) Tyrell Powell, April 24, 2007 8:53 AM

This is very sad.

This was very difficult to learn about.It very sad to watch movies about this subject

(9) Alisha, April 17, 2007 6:13 PM

This helped me soooo much on my report!

(8) harry thomas, January 20, 2007 5:18 PM

pray for them

people live what they learn. The jews have a moral responsibility to humanity not to learn from the Aryans the level of depravity meted out to them.Show the world that you are Abrhm's seed.Treat Plstnians well.

(7) Kelsey, June 9, 2005 12:00 AM

German I Agree

I read Sam's comment and I do agree. I come from a German Heritage as well and it is great to see Germany the way it is today. Excellent.

(6) Sam, April 19, 2004 12:00 AM

Having Volga-German heritage

I came across this web site. I am German, and sympathize. My grandfather and his brother both fought against 1942 Germany. I am glad to see people are not so different. I am glad to see Germany the way it is today, peaceful and markedly opposite to what the nation once stood for. Good site, my regards.

(5) Alexandra, April 10, 2004 12:00 AM

those trains

i cant even begin to imagine how our people managed to withstand those trains. my grandparents, who are german, were forced on these trains as children and there stories of what they saw and how they were treated chill me to the bone. its a wonder any of us are left

(4) kimberly, February 12, 2004 12:00 AM

my grandfather is polish and was put on a train from poland to siberia, to a forced labour camp. the trip took two weeks and half of the one hundred men died. there was no food and no water, but the passengers could stick their hands through the holes in the roof and eat snow. yet this is hwat killed many of them, causing dissentry. the older men aboard told my grandfather not to eat the snow, and he survived.

(3) fern, January 22, 2003 12:00 AM

Broken Heart

I wish everyone could see the pictures and know what our people went through. My grandmother lost her family during the war.It breaks my heart.

(2) Tessie Lumabao, February 27, 2002 12:00 AM

Good information it is what I needed, thankyou!

You guys did a great job, good job! I am teeling my friends because we all needed this.

(1) Tess Udall, February 25, 2002 12:00 AM

Very good information! Thank you. Good pics.

Thank you so much for publishing this information and these pictures. They are very appalling and I am telling friends about this wonderful site. Thank you so much!


The Holocaust’s Great Escape

Shortly after dawn one January day in 1944, a German military truck departed the center of Vilnius, in what is today Lithuania, and rattled southwest toward the fog-laced towns that ringed the city. Near the village of Ponar, the vehicle came to a halt, and a pale 18-year-old named Motke Zeidel, chained at the ankles, was led from the cargo hold.

Zeidel had spent the previous two years in German-occupied Vilnius, in the city’s walled-off Jewish ghetto. He’d watched as the Nazis sent first hundreds and then thousands of Jews by train or truck or on foot to a camp in the forest. A small number of people managed to flee the camp, and they returned with tales of what they’d seen: rows of men and women machine-gunned down at close range. Mothers pleading for the lives of their children. Deep earthen pits piled high with corpses. And a name: Ponar.

Now Zeidel himself had arrived in the forest. Nazi guards led him through a pair of gates and past a sign: “Entrance Strictly Forbidden. Danger to life. Mines.” Ahead, through the gaps in the pines, he saw massive depressions in the ground covered with fresh earth—the burial pits. “This is it,” he said to himself. “This is the end.”

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This article is a selection from the March issue of Smithsonian magazine

The Nazi killing site at Ponar is today known to scholars as one of the first examples of the “Holocaust by bullets”—the mass shootings that claimed the lives of upwards of two million Jews across Eastern Europe. Unlike the infamous gas chambers at places like Auschwitz, these murders were carried out at close range, with rifles and machine guns. Significantly, the killings at Ponar marked the transition to the Final Solution, the Nazi policy under which Jews would no longer be imprisoned in labor camps or expelled from Europe but exterminated.

Zeidel braced for the crack of a rifle.

It never came. Opening his eyes, he found himself standing face to face with a Nazi guard, who told him that beginning immediately, he must work with other Jewish prisoners to cut down the pine trees around the camp and transport the lumber to the pits. “What for?” Zeidel later recalled wondering. “We didn’t know what for.”

A week later, he and other members of the crew received a visit from the camp’s Sturmbannführer, or commander, a 30-year-old dandy who wore boots polished shiny as mirrors, white gloves that reached up to his elbows, and smelled strongly of perfume. Zeidel remembered what the commandant told them: “Just about 90,000 people were killed here, lying in mass graves.” But, the Sturmbannführer explained, “there must not be any trace” of what had happened at Ponar, lest Nazi command be linked to the mass murder of civilians. All the bodies would have to be exhumed and burned. The wood collected by Zeidel and his fellow prisoners would form the pyres.

By late January, roughly 80 prisoners, known to historians as the Burning Brigade, were living in the camp, in a subterranean wood-walled bunker they’d built themselves. Four were women, who washed laundry in large metal vats and prepared meals, typically a chunk of ice and dirt and potato melted down to stew. The men were divided into groups. The weaker men maintained the pyres that smoldered through the night, filling the air with the heavy smell of burning flesh. The strongest hauled bodies from the earth with bent and hooked iron poles. One prisoner, a Russian named Yuri Farber, later recalled that they could identify the year of death based on the corpse’s level of undress:

People who were murdered in 1941 were dressed in their outer clothing. In 1942 and 1943, however, came the so-called “winter aid campaign” to “voluntarily” give up warm clothing for the German Army. Beginning in 1942, people were herded in and forced to undress to their underwear.

Double-sided ramps were built inside the pits. One crew hauled stretchers filled with corpses up the ramp, and another crew pushed the bodies onto the pyre. In a week, the Burning Brigade might dispose of 3,500 bodies or more. Later, the guards forced prisoners to sift through the ashes with strainers, looking for bone fragments, which would then be pounded down into powder.

All told, historians have documented at least 80,000 people shot at Ponar between 1941 and 1944, and many believe the true number is greater still. Ninety percent of those killed were Jews. That the Nazis charged a brigade of prisoners to disinter and dispose of the bodies, in the most sickening of circumstances, only amplifies the horror.

“From the moment when they made us bring up the corpses, and we understood that we wouldn’t get out of there alive, we reflected on what we could do,” Zeidel remembered.

And so the prisoners turned to one thought: escape.

Ponar is dotted with new monuments to Jewish victims, after the first was demolished by the Soviets in 1952. (Christian Als)

Richard Freund, an American archaeologist at the University of Hartford, in Connecticut, specializes in Jewish history, modern and ancient. He has been traversing the globe for almost three decades, working at sites as varied as Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, and at Sobibor, a Nazi extermination camp in eastern Poland. Unusually for a man in his profession, he rarely puts trowel to earth. Instead, Freund, who is rumpled and stout, with eyes that seem locked in a perpetual squint, practices what he calls “noninvasive archaeology,” which uses ground-penetrating radar and other types of computerized electronic technology to discover and describe structures hidden underground.

One day this past fall I walked the grounds of the Ponar forest with ­Freund­ and a couple of his colleagues, who had recently completed a surveying project of the area. Snow had been forecast, but by late morning the only precipitation was icy rain, driven sideways by the wind. The forest was mostly empty, save for a group of ten Israelis who had arrived that morning they all had family from Vilnius, one of the men explained, and were honoring them by visiting local Holocaust sites.

I followed Freund up a short slope and past a trench where prisoners had been lined up and shot. It was now a barely perceptible dip in the loam. ­Freund stepped gingerly around it. In the distance, a train whistle howled, followed by the huff of a train, shuddering over tracks that had carried prisoners to their deaths decades earlier. Freund waited for it to pass. He recalled that he’d spent nearly a month researching the site—but “a few days,” he said, “is plenty of time to think about how many people died here, the amount of blood spilled.”

Although he was raised some 5,000 miles from Lithuania, on Long Island, New York, Freund has deep roots in the area. His great-grandparents fled Vilnius in the early 20th century, during an especially violent series of pogroms undertaken by the Czarist government, when the city still belonged to the Russian Empire. “I’ve always felt a piece of me was there,” Freund told me.

Which made him all the more intrigued to hear, two years ago, about a new research project led by Jon Seligman, of the Israel Antiquities Authority, at the site of Vilnius’s Great Synagogue, a once towering Renaissance-Baroque structure dating to the 1630s. The synagogue, which had also housed a vast library, kosher meat stalls and a communal well, had at one time been the crown jewel of the city, itself a center of Jewish life in Eastern Europe—the “Jerusalem of the North.” By one estimate, at the turn of the 20th century Vilnius was home to some 200,000 people, half of them Jewish. But the synagogue was damaged after Hitler’s army captured the city in June 1941 and herded the Jewish population into a pair of walled ghettos, whom it then sent, in successive waves, to Ponar. After the war the Soviets razed the synagogue entirely today an elementary school stands in its place.

Lithuanian archaeologists had discovered remnants of the old synagogue—evidence of several intact subterranean chambers. “The main synagogue floor, parts of the grand Tuscan pillars, the bimah”—or altar—“the decorated ceiling,” Freund explained. “All of that had been underground, and it survived.”

Freund and his colleagues, including Harry Jol, a professor of geology and anthropology from the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire, and Philip Reeder, a geoscientist and mapping expert from Duquesne University, in Pittsburgh, were brought in to explore further. They spent five days scanning the ground beneath the school and the surrounding landscape with ground-penetrating radar, and emerged with a detailed digital map that displayed not just the synagogue’s main altar and seating area but also a separate building that held a bathhouse containing two mikvaot, or ceremonial baths, a well for water and several latrines. Afterward, Freund met with the staff at the Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum, named after the famed 18th-century Talmudic scholar from Vilnius, and a partner on the Great Synagogue project. Then, Freund said, “We asked them: ‘What else would you like us to do? We’ll do it for free.’”

The next day, a museum staffer named Mantas Siksnianas took Freund and his crew to the forests of Ponar, a 20-minute drive from the city center. Most of the nearby Nazi-era burial pits had been located, Siksnianas explained, but local archaeologists had found a large area, overgrown with foliage, that looked as if it might be an unidentified mass grave: Could Freund and his colleagues determine if it was?

Mantas Siksnianas, a historian at the Vilna Gaon Museum, helped identify a previously unmarked burial pit. (Christian Als)

As Siksnianas led Freund through the woods, he told an astonishing story about a group of prisoners who had reportedly tunneled to freedom and joined partisan fighters hiding out in the forest. But when Freund asked to see exactly how they made it out, he got only shrugs. No one could show him no one knew. Because a tunnel had never been definitively located and documented, the story had come to take on the contours of a fable, and three-quarters of a century on, it seemed destined to remain a legend without any verifiable evidence to back it up—a crucial piece of the historical record, lost to time.

So the following year, in June 2016, Freund returned with two groups of researchers and their equipment and for the first time mapped the unknown areas of the site, including any unmarked mass graves. Then, using a collection of aerial photographs of Ponar shot by Nazi reconnaissance planes and captured during the war, which helped give the researchers a better sense of the camp’s layout, Freund and his colleagues turned their attention to finding clues about how the camp’s fabled survivors were able to find a way out. (A “Nova” television documentary about the discoveries found in Vilnius, "Holocaust Escape Tunnel" will premiere on PBS on April 19. Check your local listings for times.)

Relying on a surveying device known as a total station—the tripod-mounted optical instrument employed by construction and road crews—Reeder set about measuring minute elevation changes across the land, searching for subtle gradations and anomalies. He zeroed in on a hummock that looked like the earthen side of a bunker, long since overgrown with moss and foliage, and roughly 100 feet away, a telltale dip in the earth.

Although the composition of the ground, largely sand, was favorable for ground-penetrating radar, the dense forest surrounding the site interfered enough with the radar signals that they decided to try another tack. Paul Bauman and Alastair McClymont, geophysicists with Advisian WorleyParsons, a transnational engineering company, had more luck with electrical resistivity tomography, or ERT, which was originally developed to explore water tables and potential mining sites. ERT technology sends jolts of electrical current into the earth by way of metal electrodes hooked up to a powerful battery and measures the distinctive levels of resistivity of different types of earth the result is a detailed map to a depth of more than a hundred feet.

“We were able to get a readout not in real time, but close to it,” McClymont told me. “We’d pull the data off the control box, transfer it to a laptop we had with us in the field, run the data through software that does the conversion, and then we could see it”—a sliver of red against a backdrop of blue.


True History of an Unknown Hero of the French Jewish Resistance

Shortly after she agreed to speak to me for an interview, Charlotte Sorkine Noshpitz tells me that she has had a dream. Members of her Resistance group are seated on the floor, the way children in a group sometimes arrange themselves. She is standing — behind them, looking down at their heads. She is shocked to see them. Most, she says, are dead by now. She was the youngest of her group, 17, and now she is 88. If the others were alive today, they would be nearly 100.

In Nice, France, during World War II, Charlotte Sorkine conveyed groups of children to the Swiss border to be rescued. Under Maurice Loebenberg of the French Resistance, she created thousands of false papers. She accompanied groups of young people who went to join the Allied armies in Spain.

After the Gestapo arrested 24 members of her group, the Armée Juive, in July 1944, she joined an independent liaison group, the Jewish Fighting Organization, and obtained and transported weapons. She took an active part in the liberation of Paris.

For her service in the French Resistance, she was awarded the Médaille de la Résistance, the Croix du Combattant Volontaire de la Resistance, the Médaille des Services Volontaires Dans la France Libre and the War Commemoration Medal. And yet hardly anyone knows her story.

I have known Charlotte for nearly 50 years. We met in 1964, when she and her husband joined us for a Passover Seder at the home I shared with my then husband, Bruce Sklarew, in Maryland. A psychoanalyst, he worked at the National Institute of Mental Health with her husband, Joseph Noshpitz, an eminent child psychiatrist and child psychoanalyst who conducted our Seders for more than 30 years. He died in 1997, at the age of 74, and my former husband and I edited and published “The Journey of Child Development,” his collection of unpublished papers, in 2012.

Though I had wanted to interview Charlotte for decades, as I feared that her story would never be told, she had demurred. “It is not a story, but a life,” she said. “It came about because of the situation I lived in. If it becomes a story, you could rent it. Like a good movie. But it would not be understandable,” she told me. I recall her saying at one time that it would no longer be hers if she told it.

In 1986, when I was thinking of leaving my current life and heading north to direct the artists community of Yaddo, Charlotte gave me two gifts. The first was a tiny book called “The Essay of Silence,” published in 1905. All its pages were blank. The second gift was a small book by Vercors, a pseudonym of Jean Brulle, written in 1942 and called “Le Silence de la Mer” (“The Silence of the Sea”), published secretly in Nazi-occupied Paris. It tells the story of an elderly man and his niece who refuse to speak to the German officer occupying their house. Both gifts reminded me that Charlotte did not wish to make a story out of her experiences.

The impetus for our conversations came in 2012 when I received the spring issue of Prism Magazine, an interdisciplinary journal for Holocaust educators that is published by Yeshiva University. It fell open to a page with a photograph of a young woman who had been a member of the French-Jewish Resistance during World War II. Marianne Cohn had taken hundreds of children to the Swiss border before the Gestapo captured, tortured and killed her — only three weeks before the liberation of Annemasse.

Though Cohn had the chance to save herself, she determined that to do so would put the children at too great a risk, and she refused. I was struck by the similarities between Cohn’s life and Charlotte’s. Could Cohn have been someone Charlotte knew?

Over the years, Charlotte talked informally with my husband and me about the times during the war. But after I mentioned Cohn, and Charlotte agreed to be interviewed, she and I talked in a more deliberate way. We would sit together at the huge dining room table in her house in Washington, D.C., which was filled with her sculptures, including a bust of her father, figures reminiscent of the work of Alberto Giacometti, small abstract metal pieces mounted in wood and hand-blown glass pieces made by her grandson. Over the course of our conversations, among the many things I learned was that Noshpitz did know about Cohn. In fact, one of Noshpitz’s duties was to assume Cohn’s responsibilities of transporting children to the Swiss border.

Charlotte tells me of another dream, this time of her grandmother, whom she does not recall ever dreaming about.

“Where is your grandmother?” I ask her.

“In my kitchen, here in my house in Washington,” she says.

And now she remembers that when her grandmother died, she repeated the words to herself from the Gluck opera “Orpheus et Eurydice” over and over: “I have lost my Eurydice, nothing equals my unhappiness… I am overwhelmed by my grief. Eurydice!”

Image by Courtesy of Charlotte Sor.

A Life on the Run: As a teenager, Charlotte Sorkine ran weapons and made false identity papers.

Charlotte Sorkine was born in Paris on February 15, 1925. Her mother was born in Braila, Romania, and her father in Rogachev (now Belarus). They were not French citizens at the time of the German occupation, which is important to note because foreign nationals were taken in the first round-ups. As early as 1940, Vichy laws revoked the citizenship of naturalized Jews and decreed that foreign nationals of Jewish faith could be interned in camps or restricted to residence by regional prefects.

Charlotte’s maternal grandparents lived in the family home, as did her brother, Leo Serge Lazare Sorkine, a poet who served in the Resistance and was betrayed and sent to Silesia to work in the salt mines. He was killed before the Russian liberation too weak to survive a forced march in freezing conditions.

Charlotte grew up in a highly intellectual household. Her maternal grandfather, Wolf Louis Horowitz, born in 1866, was a professor of anthropology who spent much of his professional career at Kings College, London. There were weekly salons with such individuals as Henri Bergson and Gerard de Lacaze-Duthiers. During the war, he and his wife were taken to the Rothschild Internment Center. They both died in 1946. His numerous publications are archived in New York at the Center for Jewish History’s Leo Baeck Institute.

As a young child, Charlotte heard about the Germans and an apparent danger, though not a clearly defined one. She recalls German refugees coming to the door to sell pencils. At one point, she gathered up a collection of prized porcelain dolls marked “Made in Germany,” walked to the balcony of her home and threw them over the railing, where they broke into pieces. Years later, when she and her brother were teenagers, their mother told them that they must attach a Jewish star made of yellow cloth and outlined in black to indicate that they were Jewish. They both wept.

In July 1942, French police came on several occasions in the middle of the night, looking for Charlotte’s father. On July 16, 1942, in the daytime, two French policemen came for her mother. Charlotte packed a suitcase for her. The Nazis declared a raid and a mass arrest where more than 13,000 were taken: 44% were women, 31% children. In Paris in 1988, Charlotte walked us past the prefecture of police: “Here is the place where the policemen served who came to take my mother,” she said. “They were young, embarrassed.”

By this time, Charlotte’s father was in hiding in their house. Her mother was taken to the center of Paris, to the Velodrome D’Hiver, the cycling track, where it was later discovered that Jewish people had been taken in large numbers and kept there for five days without food or water, other than that provided by relief groups, and without toilets or a place to rest. From there they went to internment camps in Drancy, and then by train to Auschwitz, where they were killed.

Image by Christopher Parks

Legions of Honors: For her service in the Resistance, Charlotte Sorkine was honored with the Médaille de la Résistance (center, black and red stripes).

Her brother had already left for Nice their father left shortly thereafter. Charlotte, then 17, remained in the family’s home in Bourg-la Reine with her grandparents. Eventually she headed south to join her father and brother in Nice, in the basement apartment they shared. One day, her father, upon opening a closet in their room, came upon a stash of his daughter’s weapons by then Charlotte had joined forces with Resistance groups. She realized that she had to arrange to get her father out of the country immediately. “I made false papers for him as a Chinese man, and led him to think that I would accompany him to Switzerland, but as we approached the border I bid him goodbye. A passeur, or one who lead people to safety, guided him to a camp in Switzerland, where he lived out the war. At the Liberation, he returned to Paris. He was shocked to discover that his son had been deported.”

When Charlotte took over Marianne Cohn’s responsibilities, she continued the work of transporting groups of youngsters to the Swiss border. She made false documents received and transported weapons and money planted explosives where Germans gathered. One time, she pasted plastic explosives on the wall of a movie theater in Paris where the SS was meeting. “We heard the boom,” she recalled. “It worked! Imagine!”

Among Charlotte’s many responsibilities was guiding men to Toulouse, where passeurs took them to the Spanish border. “Here at night they crossed the Pyrenees to the Spanish frontier and were brought to bordellos as safe houses,” she said. “Some spoke only Yiddish. Some went to join the Resistance in North Africa.”

She recalled riding her bike, with its basket loaded with weapons and weapon parts, when German soldiers confronted her. At that split second — with no time to think — she let her bicycle fall at the feet of the soldiers. They assisted her in getting to her feet, and she rode off.

Often, situations arose that required an instinctive response. One day, she boarded a train for Nice, carrying a suitcase with weapons. Her journey required a train change in Marseille. She chose to sit among the German soldiers because it was far more common for the French soldiers to inspect French passenger bags. The Germans talked with her and helped her off the train in Marseille. They checked her suitcase with their own luggage in the train station, as there was a wait for the connecting train to Nice. “If you want to see a real French football match while we wait for the train, I will take you,” Charlotte told the soldiers.

With that they all went off to the game. When they returned to the station, the German soldiers removed her suitcase — green with a double floor for hiding weapons and money — from the baggage check. They handed it to her and boarded the train for Nice.

Charlotte tells me she has had a dream about her mother: “I saw her from the back, with her navy blue coat and hat. She didn’t even say goodbye.” She tells me this in French. “It cannot be said in English,” she explains. She repeats this phrase in French several times. “I see myself bringing the suitcase. She didn’t even say goodbye.”

Among those in Jewish Resistance organizations in France during the war, some 40% were women — an astonishing figure, considering that women had few rights at this time, including the right to vote, which was not granted until 1944. A very small percentage of girls had matriculation degrees or any university education. Yet women played a major role in the Resistance in both decision-making positions and the carrying out of missions. Charlotte told me she believes that women have quite different instincts than men. “Perhaps not the same species!” she said.

What makes one person seek the hidden contours of safety and another put aside all risk? Perhaps it would have gone differently for Charlotte Sorkine or Charlotte de Nice or Anne Delpeuch, or any of her various identities, had she not opened the door of a synagogue where a Jewish resistance group was forming. And it might have gone differently had she not passed a test she had not known she was taking, given by Lariche, one of the Resistance leaders, at the start of the occupation. She had gone in search of false identity papers and made her first contact with him: “We met in a park. I am with a big, tall man, Lariche, on a bench. All of a sudden a man comes and tells him that such and such were arrested and tortured. I didn’t move. I waited and waited. Then Lariche talked with me and gave me the papers. I suppose when that man came to talk in front of me, it was to see my reaction.”

When I asked about the change in her own thinking, from child to Resistance fighter, she responded: “Risks and fear are two different things…. When you are young, you don’t think things can happen to you. But you don’t think of it you have something you must do.”

“But,” I said to her, “some were hidden. OSE [Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants, a humanitarian organization for the rescue of children] took care of and hid the children. Why didn’t you take that route? You could have gone into hiding.”

“I had no choice,” she told me. “You cannot go back. My grandparents were arrested my mother taken my brother sent to the free zone. It was my destiny.”

After the war, Jean Paul Sartre met with some of the young people who had served in the Resistance, in coffee houses, cellars and cafes. His thinking about existentialism seemed to be in accord with their lives at that time: Where do they go from this moment? They cannot reconstruct their former lives parents, siblings and family structures are missing. What do they do with what they, as youngsters, have been required to learn in these war years: risk-taking, destruction, loss of life, loss of trust and, on the other hand, deep trust in their particular group?

At first, Charlotte began to study — at an atelier for life drawing classes, then on to the Sorbonne to study psychology, to the Louvre for the study of art history and to language school. She had a darkroom in her house, and at the time, Richard Wright was in Paris and arranged with her to work there. “Black Boy,” the first half of his memoir, had recently been published. It took another 32 years for the second half to be published posthumously.

Charlotte was offered the opportunity to come to the United States to study mental health treatment centers and new therapeutic disciplines, including art, dance and drama therapy, and to aid a group of French doctors who planned to build a treatment center outside Paris, modeled on the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kan. She boarded the shop the Ile de France and headed toward New York. The lengthy and rough trip caused many to become ill however, she and a few others weathered it well. Among her companions were Ernest Hemingway and the folk singer Josh White.

“You want a screwdriver?” Hemingway asked her. She had no idea what it was!

“A Bloody Mary?” A strange name to this young Resistance fighter!

“We had a wonderful few days together,” she said.

Joseph Noshpitz and Charlotte Sorkine met at the Menninger Clinic. They eventually married in Paris. When it came time for him to say, “I do,” a chorus of her Resistance compatriots, concerned that his French was not sufficient, chimed in, “Oui, Monsieur le Maire!”

“I married them all!” Charlotte Sorkine Noshpitz told me.

Now in her 88th year, Charlotte Sorkine Noshpitz carries with her the knowledge of how one makes the decision to take action when human beings step across the line in their treatment of one another, and she reminds us of our own obligation to stop injustice when we are aware of it.

“What kind of a tree do you want to be when you die?” Charlotte asks me. “A rosebush? There is no conclusion. It is a circle. It will start again. Always there will be people who do these things. No end. As in Vietnam, young people were taught to be aggressive. The military teaches the young. Look at today. We are still doing it today. We must transmit to our children, not by example, not directly, but to mold character, the role of a grown-up. I will evaporate one day. Floating around like waves and clouds over the houses. All my world. You will see me. Like a Chagall. That’s my conclusion.”

Myra Sklarew is emerita professor of literature at American University. From 1987 to 1991 she served as president of the Yaddo artists community, and in 1977 she won the National Jewish Book Award for poetry. She is the author of the forthcoming “A Survivor Named Trauma: Holocaust and the Construction of Memory“ (SUNY Press).


6 The Arshanskaya Sisters

In the winter of 1941, Nazi troops invaded the Ukrainian city of Kharkov. Many Jews died, some hung from lampposts. The soldiers forced thousands to march 20 kilometers (12 mi) out of the city. The Arshanskaya sisters, 14-year-old Zhanna and 12-year-old Frina, were among 13,000 people crammed into an old tractor factory designed to house 1,800.

The girls&rsquo father bribed a Ukrainian guard with a golden pocket watch to secure the release of one of his daughters. He told Zhanna to run, since the older girl had more chance of surviving. Zhanna never saw her father again but was reunited with Frina within a few days. The younger girl never revealed how she was able to get away. The sisters found their way to an orphanage, where the staff created fake identities for them.

Zhanna had been playing the piano since she was five. When a local piano tuner heard her play, he offered the two girls a place with a musical troupe that entertained the occupying Nazi forces. The girls began hiding in the spotlight, providing entertainment for the people who had tried to condemn them to death. &ldquoWe were a precious commodity for the Germans,&rdquo Zhanna later said.

Their value to the Nazis saved their lives. They were ratted out as Jews, but the soldiers declared that there was no proof and kept the girls around. By the end of the war, the musical troupe was taken to the Nazi heartland of Berlin.

When the liberators arrived in 1945, the girls were taken to a camp run by American officer Larry Dawson. His brother was an accomplished musician, and the Holocaust was no barrier to love stories. Zhanna married David Dawson after moving to the United States. She has one memento from her life before the Nazis arrived: a sheet of her favorite music. Zhanna grabbed it and kept it with her when her family was forced from their home. It is kept in a safety deposit box, as a treasure for future generations of her family.


Belzec By Alan Elsner

Set in a remote corner of eastern Poland near a grubby little town is the site of the Nazi extermination center of Belzec where 600,000 Jews were murdered between March and November, 1942. I visited the site with my father last summer to see the place where his parents, my grandparents, reached met their deaths.

The first unpleasant surprise was that the camp proved difficult to find. There was not a single signpost in the village pointing to it. We stopped a local resident and my father asked him in Polish where the museum was. He shook his head. “Then where is the memorial?” my father persisted. The man shrugged blankly. He was an elderly man and it crossed my mind that he could well have been here when the daily transports of Jews were arriving. “The place where they killed the Jews,” my father finally asked. A look of comprehension dawned on the man’s face. “Go to the crossroads and turn right. It’s two kilometers down, next to the railway line,” he said.

As we pulled in, we saw a rusty sign, half hidden by trees, next to another larger placard advertising agricultural vehicles. There was no car park. We pulled up next to the gate, outside a private house from which pop music was blaring on the radio. A child was puttering around in the back yard. We were the only visitors.

Small signs in English and Polish said a monument to commemorate children killed in Poland from 1939 to 1945 would be built here and gave a bank account number for contributions. Later inquiries revealed that nobody knew anything about such a monument or who controlled the bank account and other visitors have told me the sign was removed some time in 1994.

As we got out of the car, a woman came out of the house to talk to us. “It’s not true they killed children here,” she told us. “They just put up that sign to get people to give money.” To be confronted by a Holocaust denier actually living beside a death camp is a highly disconcerting experience. But when she saw the flowers in our hands, she went into the house and brought us two vases with water to put them in.

My father’s family had come from a small town in southern Poland called Nowy Sacz, nestled in the foothills of the Carpathian mountains. Before the war, around a third of the town’s population of 35,000 had been Jewish. On August 23, 1942, all the Jews were told to gather in a central square wearing their best clothes and carrying personal possessions up to a weight of 15 kilograms. About 800 of the youngest and strongest were selected for labor camps. The rest were squeezed into a narrow area where there was no food or water and told to wait. Finally, in three batches between August 25-28, they were marched to the railway station, loaded on cattle trucks and transported to Belzec.

There is little to see at Belzec. The Nazis removed most of the evidence when they evacuated the camp and the Poles have made little effort to maintain the site. A block of granite near the entrance, engraved in Polish, notes that 600,000 Jews and 1,500 Poles who helped Jews died horrible deaths here. A few yards behind is another memorial, a statue of an emaciated figure supporting another skeletal figure. The Polish inscription here reads: “In memory of the victims of Hitler’s terror murdered from 1942 to 1943.”

Behind that, birch trees have grown up. Among them have been placed a row of concrete blocks, perhaps intended to symbolize the gas chambers. Adjacent to that, one comes upon a row of giant urns. The overwhelming effect is of neglect. There is not a single Jewish emblem — not a Hebrew word, not a Star of David, although there is a small statue of the Virgin Mary among the trees. The place is overgrown with weeds and the symbolic structures, such as they are, are crumbling. I saw two women with shopping bags taking a short cut home through the camp.

These are the facts about Belzec. Forty-seven miles north of the major city of Lvov on the railway line to Lublin, the gas chambers were installed in the winter of 1941 and the camp received its first shipment of Jews March 13, 1942. Although poisoned gas was first used to kill Jews at the camp in Chelmno, Belzec was second and seemed to get up to industrial speed quicker. Within a week or two of coming on line, it was handling 5,000 victims a day.

A report by a German officer written in mid-September 1942 describes how Jews rounded up in their villages were packed 200 to each cattle car. The journey to the camp sometimes took more than a day but no food or water was provided. Throughout the passage, Jews constantly tried to break out through the walls and ceiling of the train cars. Many succeeded but were shot by soldiers guarding the train or hunted down by police units. On several occasions, the train guards used up all their ammunition shooting escaping Jews before the train reached Belzec and had to resort to stones and bayonets.

“The ever greater panic spreading among the Jews due to the great heat, overloading of the train cars and stink of dead bodies — when unloading the train cars some 2,000 Jews were found dead in the train — made the transport almost unworkable,” the German officer complained. He demanded more guards and more train cars for future shipments.

Many of the transports to Belzec passed through Lvov where the deportees were “processed” for death at the Janowska concentration camp in the town. Jews were marched into the camp assembly ground, ordered to strip naked and marched back to the same transports. Still, many tried to escape on the final leg of the journey to Belzec. It was said that the track all along the way was littered with the bleached remains of unsuccessful “jumpers”.

There were four primitive extermination cells. Carbon monoxide gas from diesel engines was pumped in to kill the victims. An SS officer, one Lieutenant Gerstein left a rare description of conditions in Belzec. He described how the Jews were packed into the gas chamber so tight they could not move. When the doors closed, the diesel engine would not work. Finally after three hours, it stuttered to life. “Up till then people were alive in these chambers — four times 750 people in four times 45 cubic metres. Another 25 minutes went by. True, many were now dead. After 28 minutes, only a few were still alive. At last after 32 minutes, everyone was dead,” Gerstein wrote. “Finally, all were dead like pillars of basalt, still erect, not having any place to fall.”

On the specific point of whether or not children died at Belzec, we have the testimony of one Edward Luczynski from a 1964 trial of German officers: “After the doors were opened, it was often ascertained that some of the children and adults were still alive. Children on the floor and adults with their faces pressed against cracks sometimes managed to survive. The survivors were killed by the Ukrainians,” he said.

Despite its phenomenal killing record, the Germans liquidated Belzec early in 1943. One problem was the lack of efficient facilities for the disposal of bodies, which were dumped in nearby anti-tank ditches. By then, a much more sophisticated killing facility was available at Auschwitz to take up the slack. When they closed Belzec, the Germans tried to erase all telltale signs. Bodies were removed from their mass graves, their bones were crushed with a special machine, the remains were burnt and the ashes scattered. Ethnic Germans were settled on a farm established on the site. Only two Jews survived Belzec and one of them, Chaim Hirszman, was killed by Polish anti-semites March 19, 1945 in Lublin, while he was giving testimony to a committee of inquiry. The second died in 1954. Few of the Germans who operated the camp were identified or brought to justice. One of them, Kurt Franz, who had later gone on to serve as deputy commander of Treblinka, was released from jail in Germany in May 1994, despite having been sentenced to life imprisonment in 1965.

Toward the end of the war, anxious to disguise the evidence of their crime, the Germans tried to clean out the graves and burn the corpses. They didn’t have time to complete the job. That means that underneath the ground that visitors tread on today lie the twisted remains of countless thousands of Jews. On October 10, 1945, a Polish court visited the site and found bones, women’s hair, false teeth, hands and children’s body parts still lying on the surface. Apparently, local people had been desecrating the dead by digging for gold in the area. Another visitor from Washington DC, whose grandparents also died at Belzec, told me that on a 1991 visit, he found a human jawbone lying on the ground. He put it in a jar and took it to Israel for burial. Another visitor, Richard Bikales, brought home a jar of earth from Belzec to bury in the United States. When he examined it, he found it was full of bone fragments.

Is it important to preserve sites like Belzec? I believe it is, for religious, historical, political and what could be called emotional reasons.

Religiously, the place is a huge graveyard. If for no other reason than respect for the dead, the place should be kept in a decent state of repair. Historically, it is important to realize that the Final Solution didn’t just happen. It evolved through a complex process, reaching its culmination in the supreme industrial efficiency of Auschwitz and Treblinka. Thus, for a complete historical record of the Final Solution, one should preserve each of the sites that played a role in the evolution of the techniques of mass murder. Before Auschwitz came Belzec, the first place in human history to use permanent gas chambers.

The state of Holocaust memorials in Europe varies from country to country. Some sites — Auschwitz, Dachau — have emerged as major tourist destinations. Others have already disappeared. But historically, preserving a few choice sites is not enough. Holocaust deniers are still trying to pretend that the greatest crime in history never took place. Their activities will only intensify as the generation of camp survivors dies out. The more original sites are preserved, the better our ability will be to defeat these libels.

Politically, I also feel there is good reason to try to preserve Holocaust sites. The fall of Communism in Eastern Europe has opened new opportunities. As is well known, the former rulers of the Soviet Union, East Germany, Poland and other countries were at pains to deny the Jewishness of the Holocaust. They are now gone, replaced by governments presumably more amenable, anxious to forge good relations not only with the United States but with Israel as well. It is important these governments know and understand the centrality of the genocide to our concerns. It is important that they feel constrained to take responsibility for the decent upkeep of the sites on their territory. After all, if we don’t care, why should they? We must impress upon them the fact that we do care. It is not for the Polish government to erect a suitable Jewish memorial at Belzec. That’s a job for concerned Jews. But it is Poland’s responsibility to maintain the site in a proper condition.

Finally, I put forward an emotional argument for keeping Holocaust sites in good condition. This is purely selfish perhaps, but many people who are still bereaved in a deep sense visit these sites. They deserve better than they get.

For my father, our visit to Belzec was clearly overwhelming. As soon as we entered he was overcome with great, shuddering sobs. “My mother, my poor mother,” he kept saying. Yet there was nothing there to give a sense of comfort or consolation. Instead, one had the sense of people that had been blotted out, leaving nothing, not even a simple Magen David, to memorialize their existence and their suffering. In that sense, museums in Washington and Los Angeles, or in Jerusalem, or Berlin, or anywhere else for that matter, are not enough. The children and grandchildren of victims who visit the places where their relatives died so cruelly need a place to pray, to reflect, to come to terms with what happened. My own visit left me with a sense of anger. As the months have passed since my trip, this wound has only deepened. I can’t get it out of my mind. For the first time in my life, I had a sense of my grandparents as people who had loved and been loved and whose loss had been deeply felt. Their final hours had been unbelievably cruel and humiliating, their sufferings protracted and unimaginable. But the place where they died is overgrown with weeds and invaded by pop music. A few crumbling concrete blocks of questionable symbolism are all they have for gravestones. For them and the other victims, there is no remembrance and no honor. As long as that remains the case, the hurt will remain.


Steven Frank: A Holocaust Survivor’s Story

A shorter version of this piece can be found at https://www.thejc.com/news/news-features/steven-frank-how-i-survived-the-holocaust-and-why-i-tell-my-story-1.479151. But, if you have the time and patience, I would urge you to read this longer version. I believe his story, as told to me, deserves to be read in its entirety.

I was born in Amsterdam in 1935, the middle of three sons.

My Mother had c ome from England to Holland to a sort of finishing school, to learn how to cook and keep house, that sort of thing — and while she was in Holland she met my father in a rather romantic way. She was cycling in the park and got a puncture she was standing like a forlorn lady at the side of her bike when this man came along and volunteered to mend the puncture, and that was it.

They were married in December 1931 in The Hague, and settled in Amsterdam where my father was an eminent practising lawyer.

My mother was a British citizen, but what happened — the law at that time was — that when she married a Dutchman she lost her British citizenship. She had lost that protection.

My father [Leonard Frank] was very much involved with helping people who weren’t as fortunate as we were. He set up a group of lawyers in Holland in an organisation called “Our House”, which was like a legal aid system to help the poor of Amsterdam get legal redress in court, for which they had to pay very little money, because they hadn’t got any.

And he was very much involved in mental and physical health. That’s one of the reasons he probably never left Holland [despite the threat of war], because he happened to be on the board of a very famous Jewish mental hospital in Amsterdam.

These people hadn’t a clue what was going on, and he realised that if the Germans invaded Holland, he really needed to speak for them and help to protect them — bearing in mind of course that in Germany, the Nazi regime had had killed off 250,000 mentally and physically handicapped people through euthanasia.

At that time, with the oncoming of war and the rise of Hitler to power in Germany, many German Jewish refugees were fleeing the country, trying to find somewhere to live. Many went to Holland because Holland had been neutral in the First World War and they thought they might be safe if war continued.

Of course, that was all wrong.

But anyway, my father was asked by the Dutch government to set up a welfare organisation to help these people find homes, work and that sort of thing which he did.

Then, when the Germans invaded Holland [in 1940], that funding was cut off, and he spent a lot of time with his brother-in-law, trying to extract finances out of co-religionists in Holland, to help to keep these people alive, to help keep them going.

He joined the Dutch resistance and was part of a team that helped make false papers for [Jewish] people.

They would come to my father’s office to collect these papers when they were ready. By that time my father, as a lawyer, was banned [under Nazi law] from giving legal advice to any non-Jewish clients, he was only allowed to give advice to Jews.

Then they got their papers, through Holland, through Belgium, through France to the Alps, where this organisation had a guide that would take these people through the top of the Alps by some goat track into the safety of neutral Switzerland on the other side, avoiding all the border guards on the way.

Part of his work in the Dutch resistance was also to find hiding places for Jews to hide, because people were desperate to go underground. We even hid Jews in our house from time to time — Jews hiding Jews is something you very, very seldom hear about.

And then one day somebody… he was betrayed.

At 11:00 one morning he was in his office, in October 1942, when the secret service people stormed in and took him away. They took him to the SS headquarters in Amsterdam, where I presume that he was tortured.

From there he was taken to the big prison camp at Amersfoort, where we know he was tortured, and from there, in very poor physical condition, he was sent to Westerbork, and not long after that he was out in a cattle truck and he was sent to Auschwitz, where he was gassed on the 21st January 1943 — which makes Holocaust Memorial Day so very special for me, because it’s so very close to the death of a man who had done so much in the short life that he had had.

[Leonard Frank was just 39 years old when he was killed.]

When my father was arrested, my mother really took control. We fled our house and went into hiding in different places. But strangely enough the Germans never came to the house, the house was just left empty as we walked out of it. So we returned to it. My mother, again showing enormous courage, found out when he was in prison in Amersfoort who the cleaners were, and actually went into that prison disguised as a man, scrubbing the floors, and briefly spoke with my father. He told her that he hadn’t been tortured but he hadn’t given anything away — and that was the last she saw of him.

And while she was in prison there something very special happened, which became apparent much later in my life.

Three of my father’s friends, not Jewish, university friends, they were all married, they all had children — they pleaded for clemency for my father, which was a very dangerous thing to do, because you were dealing with an organisation which had a fanatical hatred of Jews. And not only was he a Jew, but he was a Jew in the Dutch resistance to boot, he had all the down-pointing thumb things for him. And these people were prepared to speak on his behalf.

They were married, they had children, they had responsibilities, they could easily have just turned their backs and said ‘there’s nothing much we can do’. But no they pleaded — they wrote a long, long letter about all the organisations my father had been involved in and the people he’d helped, that sort of thing.

Now the Germans wouldn’t relent, but it did mean that his wife and three sons were put on one of the several priority lists that the Germans had set up in Holland in order to stop mass panic amongst the Jewish population in Holland. There were a hundred and forty odd thousand Jews who were living in Holland when the Germans invaded. A hundred and ten thousand were taken off to the camps, and a hundred and three thousand never returned.

So in order to stop that mass panic, the Germans pushed people into different community groups, if you like, promising all sorts of things — promises which were never kept. And they put us into the Barneveld group. My mother got information from the government that said that she would not be sent to a camp abroad. This was a special group to be in — people were absolutely petrified of being sent east.

We remained in our house for a little while, and suddenly my mother got a notification to say that we were to leave our house and report to a station to be sent to this place called Barneveld. Barneveld had a castle the Germans had requisitioned, and I can only say that the people on this Barneveld list were the sort of top echelons of Dutch Jewish society. Obviously there was some sort of political reason to separate us from everybody else, as a bargaining point, which in actual fact they did do later near the end of the war.

But we were in this Barneveld group, in this castle. There were no guards, no barbed wire, you could wander around, lovely grounds — of course, they were a bit overgrown by then — but nobody tried to escape, because if you were escaped and then you were caught, you were almost certainly going to be sent east. So I suppose sheer fear kept you there — ‘keep your head down, war can’t go on forever, when it’s all over hopefully we’ll be able to just wander back to our homes again’.

We were there for about six months — and suddenly the German army stormed into the camp and they sent us to Westerbork — and that put the fear of God into everybody, because Westerbork was where most of the Dutch Jewish people went before they were carted off on trains eastwards. And we were in Westerbork for a whole year.

It was in Westerbork that one began to realise that things were really bad. The food was adequate but monotonous, there was lice everywhere, scarlet fever, dysentery, polio — you name it, all the diseases were rampant within this camp.

In the barrack where we were — all 660 of the Barneveld group were all crammed into this one barrack men on the right, women and children on the left. In front of the window there would be a trestle table holding about twelve people, and that became your little social group, you got to know those people really well. And in between those windows would be bunk beds two high… and then bunkbeds three high in the centre, then it went down to bunk beds two high on the other side.

We sort of existed there. We had no schooling at all, we lived very much on our own… playing with our friends, we made up an alphabet, called it the Westerbork alphabet.

But what I remember most about that place was that I learned to become streetwise there. On one occasion I was wondering on my own. My mind was miles away — probably thinking about what life was like before we were in the camps. And suddenly I found myself right up against the barbed wire fence, about six feet high with a moat the other side of it, then another barbed wire fence on the other side of it — and a guard looking down upon me from one of those elevated huts, with a machine gun and searchlights with which thy guarded the camp. And I suddenly realised — I’d come to a halt — and turned round and saw I’d left the barracks behind, I’d wandered over a sort of no-man’s land. And then I looked along the fence, and about twenty metres away there were two German guards with an Alsatian dog.

I froze. I looked at them and they looked at me — and then they unleashed the dog.

And the dog came snarling towards me — I put my hands in front of my face — I was bitten all over my arms, my thighs and my legs — and I can still hear the German guards laughing at this bit of Jew-baiting, this little eight year old being mauled by this vicious Alsatian — before they called it off and I ran back to the barracks, bleeding from all these bite marks. But after that I’d learned my lesson. When I got to a corner I would look before I proceeded, and if I saw guards I’d keep well away from the guards — evil people, not nice. I was beginning to learn how to become aware of my surroundings.

One of the things that probably had the most effect on me in that year that we spent in Westerbork, was that on this table where were sitting, there was this elderly couple. They were great anglophiles — they were in their fifties — and he was a teacher. And they would talk to my mother in English about the happy holidays they had spent in England — you can imagine you do a lot of reminiscing, in a place like that, about the good old days. We sort of really took to this couple, we sort of adopted them as sort of surrogate grandparents.

And I remember one day, it was in May 1944. I’d been outside playing somewhere and I wandered into the barracks. And suddenly I heard this great howl from the sky and then a ‘rat-a-tat-a-tat’. And I looked up at the roof of our barrack and suddenly saw holes appearing in the roof, and I thought ‘what’s going on’? Bullets were ricocheting off metal bedsteads and going all over the place. Panic and pandemonium, people screaming and shouting and running all over the place. And in this panic I instinctively ran back to my table. And when I got there I ran through this hail of bullets and I wasn’t even scratched. It was as if there was this invisible shield around me, protecting me.

And when I got to my table, there was this sweet, kind, lovely man slumped across, riddled with bullet holes, blood pouring out of his body over the trestle table and onto the floor. It was the first time I had come face to face with death, and it was the death of someone we had come to love. And the greatest tragedy of all was that this man, who had loved England so much, was killed by British bullets coming from a British aircraft, as a result of intelligence that was completely wrong.

My barrack was completely destroyed, and the whole of the Barneveld group was then split and put into other barracks within the camp. And suddenly that feeling — like a flock of sheep, when you’re all together, you feel a sort of safety — then we were all in different barracks.

I was in barrack number 71, where I met a man who was growing some tomatoes — a whole row of tomatoes outside of his barrack room window. He’d managed to get hold of some rotten tomatoes, and picked out the pips. He germinated these and was growing them — I became his little helper. Barneveld had had a little kitchen garden, so I was quite interested in what he was doing. So I helped him water these plants and he showed me what to do to help the plants grow up nice and straight.

One day he said to me ‘Steven, I’m afraid I’m being sent to Poland, I won’t be able to look after my tomato plants anymore. But will you look after them for me?’ And I felt so proud that he should ask me to look after his tomatoes — which of course I did, until it was my turn to go.

Today I have a house up the road here with a large garden. And in that garden I’ve got a greenhouse, and in that greenhouse I grow tomatoes. And whenever I’m watering those tomatoes, making sure that they grow up nice and straight, I see this man looking on. I’m still watering his tomato plants, seventy four years on. He’s there. I don’t know his name, but he’s so clear in my mind, it’s almost as if I’m still doing it for him.

Journey to Theresienstadt

And then in Westerbork — it was September 1944 — the allies were at Arnheim [130 miles away, taking part in the ill-fated Operation Market Garden].

Anne Frank and her family [no relation to Steven Frank] were on the last transport the week before ours — it went to Auschwitz. I remember that particularly well because my uncle was on that same transport — he came to say goodbye to us, he knew that this was the end of the line for him as well.

So I knew exactly when the Frank family went, although I didn’t personally know them — Anne was much older than me anyways, she was born in 1929, six years older than me, and at that age that matters.

But anyway, we were on this transport to go to this place called Theresienstadt — or Terezin, near Prague. And I remember my mother getting us ready for that journey. Two pairs of socks, two pairs of pants, two pairs of trousers, two vests — in fact I was probably just about wearing all the clothes I had. And one little rucksack with a few more clothes, I should imagine, and a few personal things.

Of course, Theresienstadt was a totally different thing. In Westerbork, the transports would leave absolutely regularly as clockwork every Tuesday. It was all organised by Adolf Eichmann.

Whereas in Theresienstadt Eichmann had no influence. The cattle trucks going from Theresienstadt to Auschwitz were not infrequent, but they went in clusters. So there would be a great deal of activity, a lot of people going, lots of transports, and then there would be a period of nothing. Then another period of great activity. So it was a totally different type of transportation. In Westerbork you knew there was going to be a transport leaving on Tuesday. On Monday a list would go up. And people were in panic and pandemonium if of course they were on it — most of them were going to Auschwitz, Sobibor — if you were ‘lucky’ you went to Bergen Belsen and Theresienstadt.

We had no idea where we were going. We didn’t even know anything about Theresienstadt. We did know about Sobibor and Auschwitz because they had appeared on 99 percent of the trains. All the trains had an indicator board showing where they were going. We knew those places were in Poland, and it was cold and it was hard, it was going to be a really hard life there. But that’s all we knew. Bergen Belsen — I can’t remember how much we knew about Bergen Belsen. But that was it.

And I remember there was a song that was song when we were in Westerbork, which went something like — people were going on the transports to Auschwitz or Sobibor — ‘we gaan naar Polen, met warme zolen op onze schoenen’, which means which means ‘we’re going to Poland with warm soles on our shoes’. It was a song people sang, you know — there were many songs that were composed in these places.

And then pushed into this cattle truck — and I then embarked upon a journey that I shall never forget, for 39 hours in a cattle truck.

No food, no water, no sleep. And I remember the stench that built up in this cattle truck, of faeces, urine, vomit, sheer bodily stench, sweat. The oxygen levels within the cattle truck were dropping. In our cattle truck there were four tiny little slit windows, and we would clamber up on the rucksacks — they’d piled them into two corners so that some of the people could sit. We’d clamber up on the rucksacks to the windows to get the air. The adults, of course, would pull us back, because it would take it [the air] away from them.

And then suddenly the train stopped, it was dark. And suddenly I heard this great rumble as the door slid open and this great waft of ice cold air came into the cattle truck and suddenly you could breathe again. We’d arrived in Theresienstadt.

So we arrived in Theresienstadt, or Terezin, which was originally a garrison town built in 1780 by Emperor Joseph II of the Austro-Hungarian empire in memory of his mother. It was originally built to house 8,000 soldiers. And the Germans kicked them [the inhabitants] all out and put 44,000 Jews in the same space. So you can imagine how overcrowded it was.

We were first dumped in the Hamburger barracks with my mother, on the floor — there were no beds or anything like that. On the floor — and then we were taken away and put into a children’s home, a Dutch children’s home.

My mother, realising that things were going to get really bad in this camp — a typhus epidemic had started, among the scarlet fever and all the other diseases that were around — she volunteered to work in the camp hospital laundry — a sort of hospital in this place, where she would wash the bandages and the swabs. I mean, nothing was sterilised, everything was reused, just washed as best as they could. But they did have hot water there — and when the authorities weren’t looking, she would wash her children’s clothes, adult’s clothes, and barter that for food, because the only way you could typhus at bay was to keep yourself as clean as you possibly could. She would barter that for food, because in this camp we starved.

And so we sort of existed there in this children’s home, we played among our peers there, we invented games which we played. For example, we played chess — we managed to get hold of some chess sets. I mean, they weren’t complete by any means, but all sorts of artefacts could be used as pawns or knights or bishops or whatever was missing. We made our own chess board, that’s not too difficult. We made cards — we managed to get cards from all different packs, and even then we might have to make the four of diamonds into a five, or a jack of spades into a king — but 52 cards so we could play cards, you know, patience and all the sort of things that as children one plays.

We collected razor blade covers. Stamp collection was something that was done in those days — not so much these days — kids used to collect stamps. And with the razor blades — most of them were Gillette razor blades — and they had a sort of lithograph, of Mr Gillette, with his signature going diagonally across it. And we found that when there was a change in the print run, the shading on the lithograph would change a bit. So that was how you got your swaps and things.

We invented games that we played among ourselves. We played button football on the floor. We managed to get hold of buttons on winter coats that were big, so they were the ‘players’, and shirt buttons as the ‘ball’ and we made up goal posts with something or other, we would play that on the floor and we got quite good at flicking it into the goal and quite good at keeping the ball out — or the button out, should I say.

The other interesting thing we did there was, we made torches. We managed to find where the German guards were throwing away their old, disused batteries, and we managed to get hold of some bulbs and wire. And we found that if you took these discarded old worn-out batteries, and you put them between your thighs at night when you went to sleep, the warmth of your body would regenerate those batteries sufficiently so that when it got dark the following night — and of course it did get dark, there was no light or anything like that — you had your little bulb — and you wound one end of the wire round that screw bit of the bulb — that grey looking blob you put on one terminal of the battery, and your wire on the other terminal of the battery.

It was probably my first physics lesson — your little bulb would shine like a bright star in the sky — and your mind would go into overdrive. It was such a soothing thing to see your little bulb so bright, and you found yourself inside the envelope of the bulb — and you were back in Holland and thinking of all the wonderful things you would do in the summer, the happy days that you’d spent.

But of course, the thing doesn’t last very long, and suddenly the bulb begins to dim — and you think to yourself ‘please don’t, please let me stay in there’. But it gets dimmer and dimmer eventually you are left with a little filament in the bottom. And then it goes out, and you realise you’re back into the reality of where you were. But for some little time, your mind is transported elsewhere. And that was very, very comforting, that sort of thing.

Theresienstadt was just another holding camp, you know, you were just waiting your turn to be sent eastwards.

I can remember, they came to the children’s home where we were. They weren’t interested in me but they were interested in some of the other children over there — and I can only assume they weren’t interested in me because I was in this Barneveld group, which I think they were holding back for political reasons. So they chose other children there.

And I remember the guards came for this selection — it was something I shall never, ever forget.

If there were two sisters they would take one and leave the other behind, if there were two brothers they would take one and leave the other behind, if there were a brother and sister, they would split them up.

One lot going to Auschwitz, another lot staying behind.

And I witnessed this howling, this screaming that went on with all these children — ‘please, please! Please let me go with her!’, or ‘please let me stay with him!’ That sort of thing.

To which the guards would respond ‘nein, du raus, schnell’ — ‘no, you, out, quick’ — those going to Auschwitz to almost certain death, those remaining behind to a very uncertain future.

But the greatest tragedy of all was that these children, that’s the last bit of family they had left. Their mothers and fathers disappeared, other brothers and sisters if they had any — gone. All these children had left were one another — and the Germans deliberately broke that last link in that family!

And that cruelty still riles me today, that they could do that sort of thing to little children aged eight, nine, ten. It was dreadful.

We starved in this camp. I can remember on one occasion we got a Red Cross parcel. God knows how on earth that ever arrived in the camp. But we got one and I remember we opened the Red Cross parcel with my mother and my brothers there.

There was some corned beef in there, it wasn’t a very big parcel. But also hidden in among there were three cigarettes –and cigarettes were like gold bars, you could get a lot for a cigarette, people were desperate for a smoke.

But what I remember particularly about it was that when my mother took all these things out I wanted the whole process to reverse itself, like on a video, everything was going back in this box — and just before we put the lid on I was going to jump in with it and then it was going to go all the way back to England, because that’s where these Red Cross parcels came from. I remember that so very clearly. And those little sort of things kept you alive. I mean, we did starve in this camp.

We played among ourselves. We didn’t have any schooling or anything. We wandered around, I remember on one occasion we managed to find ourselves in the attic of the Hamburger barracks where my mother was — these were large three hundred metre square buildings, so you can imagine what the attics were like — of course in those days there was no sort of lagging or anything like that.

We would run in those attics, even the bit in between the beams, which was just plasterboard holding up the ceiling from the room below — if you stand on it you usually put your foot through it — we were so rat-like that we ran along there and nobody ever went through. Bearing in mind that those ceilings were constructed in 1780 and this was 1944–45, it gives you some idea.

And it was while we were sort of exploring and running in the attic there that we found a trap door. And we managed to lever it open — normally a trap door if you’re looking at it from inside a house you can just push it open, but if you’re on the top you’ve got to sort of prise it open, which we did.

And down below there was this huge room, I remember there were three strand lights hanging down with metal lampshades, and they were covered in black cobwebs.

But what was really exciting was what was on the floor. A pile of coats, a pile of jackets, a pile of trousers, a pile of skirts, boots, shoes, brushes and combs, toys — all sorts of artefacts, all piled in various corners of this huge room.

‘Wow’, I remember thinking, ‘this is an Aladdin’s cave that we’ve found’, because the winter was very, very cold, and clothing was scarce.

And I remember rushing back and telling my Mum, who for some reason wasn’t working at that moment. And she collected together a group of women and they followed us up. They managed to squeeze their way into the attic, lower themselves into this room and help themselves to coats, gloves, scarfs, anything to keep warm.

And having found it I was allowed to choose something out of the toy heap, and I chose a chess set which I still have today.

When I give my talks in schools I take it with, and I show them the king and I say ‘sadly this king cannot speak’. But the chess set is so precious to me, because in retrospect I realise that all the artefacts in this room had been taken by previous inmates of the Hamburger barracks, who were stripped virtually naked, put on cattle trucks and sent for destruction in the East somewhere. And this stuff was being recycled through the German war effort. But now the Germans were losing the war, this recycling system had come to a halt, ceased to exist, so this stuff was there. Of course we didn’t realise that at the time.

Then we moved into 1945. As the war was coming to an end, transports, instead of leaving Theresienstadt, were now coming back in, mainly from Auschwitz. Cattle trucks, mostly open cattle trucks with corpses inside.

My mother would go through them, looking for my father.

The few who survived were taken to the sort of hospital that we had there — and then we heard about the gas chambers, because these people knew. We were really frightened.

And then there was a rumour going round that they were actually building gas chambers in Theresienstadt as well, with the new maximum through-put. In Auschwitz they had problems — they could gas people but they couldn’t get rid of the corpses quickly enough, so there was a sort of backlog.

Here in Theresienstadt they had engineered it [so the rumour went] that there would be [gas chambers with] constant throughput without any holdups or bottlenecks, that had been designed there, and that they had started building them. So people were really scared — ‘what are they going to do, when are we going to be gassed?’

And then slowly, the war was coming to an end. We could see planes overhead that hadn’t got crosses on, they had stars, white stars mainly.

And I remember one night we were woken up in January, and there was this tremendous noise of bombs falling, and the whole sky to the north had a sort of crimson redness about it. And someone said ‘it’s Litomerice’ — Litomerice is around four and a half kilometres to the north of Theresienstadt, it was a light industrial town.

But it wasn’t that at all — what we were witnessing was the bombing of Dresden in Germany, over ninety kilometres away, something like that — such was the fierceness of that bombardment, that you could hear it and see it from where we were in Theresienstadt.

Nazi attempts to destroy the evidence

And right near the end of the war we were woken up very early one morning. We were made to get dressed — around four o clock in the morning, with children in the children’s house. And we were taken to the crematorium. And we were lined up in this dimly lit tunnel — there was a cable that went across the ceiling with this occasional light dangling down.

And I remember we stood there — we were told to hold hands and stand in a row, there was a little girl on my right and a little girl on my left. And the tunnel on my right seemed to go on and then go round a bend, going to the left it just seemed to go on and then you couldn’t see any further.

And after a little while a little box came from the left, down to each child — giving it to the little girl, who gave it to me, I gave it to the other little girl, who passed it on.

For hours and hours and hours, we were passing little boxes from right to left, right to left.

This was done in virtual silence, there was no sort of chattering among the children or anything like that. And every now and then, either upstream or downstream, you heard a child quietly sobbing. Because each box we were moving contained the ashes of the dead. And the Germans, with true efficiency — each box was labelled with the name of the ashes it contained, their date and place of birth, their date and place of death. And as it came down the line, a child would recognise their mother, or their father, brother or sister — and would quietly cry or sob.

Then they were nudged — pass it along — you could hear these cries, this quiet sobbing going around, then and there all around you. They were throwing all of these ashes into the river, to get rid of the evidence before the allies arrived.

And then right near the end of the war my mother, returning from the camp hospital laundry, was approached by some Russian prisoners of war. You must remember that we were in fact the very last place to be liberated, we saw it right the way through until the bitter end.

And these Russian prisoners of war knew that my mother was a native English speaker. They were desperate, they said ‘please, please come to our house, we’ve got something very important to show you.’ So she went, and they took her into the attic of their house — and in the attic they had hidden a radio. Can you believe it? A radio! How they powered it, heavens only knows. But it was, and it was working.

And they gave my mother pencil and paper, and my mother wrote down what she heard. It was Winston Churchill broadcasting from the Cabinet War Rooms in London, that at midnight that night the war would be over.

But it was about six o clock in the evening in Theresienstadt. Anyway, they thought ‘what are they going to do between now and midnight’ — because the Germans had this sort of fanatical hatred of the Jews.

Were they going to try and gas as many of us as they could in these new up-to-date, modern maximum through-put gas chambers? Or were they going to shoot us? Or a mixture of both?

There’d even been a rumour that they’d dynamited the whole camp and they were just going to blow us all up. So people did go to sleep — if they went to sleep at all — fearful.

The following morning the German guards had disappeared, and the Russian army entered the camp.

Now they didn’t want to stay — of course, the people were dying like flies all over the place. Starvation, typhus, any disease you could think of. And they didn’t want to have anything to do with it. So they went through it and it was taken over by the Red Cross.

I suppose in retrospect now, we were somewhat fortunate that we were the last place to be liberated, because by then the Red Cross had learned.

In Buchenwald, which was liberated by the Americans, and Belsen, which was liberated by the British, the soldiers were confronted by these walking skeletons begging for food.

What do you do? You give them food.

It’s the worst thing you can do. These concave stomachs that you have by then when you’re starving to death, they just burst with the food — and you die.

So the Red Cross made very, very strict control about our intake of food — we were still only getting one meal a day, but just a little more each day.

And they started a big decontamination programme inside the camp, to get rid of all the bugs and things that were there. And of course, the gas that they used for that? Zyklon B, there was plenty of that about.

It wasn’t until June 1945 that they started allowing people to leave.

My mother didn’t want to go back to Holland. She feared everybody would be dead there. So she pleaded with the Red Cross to see if we — her and her three boys — could get to England.

And the Red Cross said ‘look, you can forget that, you’re under Russian occupation here. The Russians don’t even talk to the British, never mind about trying to get any sort of cooperation.

‘Your best bet is to go with the Dutch back to Holland. Go to The Hague, go to the embassy, get permission and then come to England that way.’

And my mother just did not want to go back to Holland. But we were put on the second transport to go back to Holland. The Red Cross were organising — the first to go were the Czechs, then the Hungarians, then the Dutch. And we were on the second transport of the Dutch, with my mother still protesting about wanting to go to England.

We were taken from Theresienstadt — I can’t remember if we were in a train or a vehicle, I have no memory of what we went in — but we went to a holding camp in a place, the Czechs called it Sokolov, it was right on the Western side of the Czech/German border, Falkenau was the German name. There was this castle there, which again was this sort of holding place while they were organising transportation back to Holland.

But anyway, my mother was still protesting to the Swiss, who were the people in charge at the Red Cross. And one of the officials said ‘look. You want to go to England? Here’s a chance. There’s an ambulance which has some wounded French soldiers — they’re going to Pilsen, to be repatriated to France. There’s room in the ambulance for you and your children.

‘You go to Pilsen, Pilsen is occupied by the Americans (General Patton had moved a long way east). The Americans are talking to the British — go there if you want to, perhaps negotiate something from there to go to England.’

And so my mother took the opportunity. We travelled in this ambulance with these wounded French soldiers, bandages round their heads, arms in slings, some had their legs out. My mother sat in the front with the driver, so there was not much communication between us three little Dutch speaking children and these French soldiers.

We arrived in Pilsen it was night time. We were taken into this massive hangar and it was full of DPs — displaced people.

Never — even after all I’d been through, never had I seen such misery and deprivation as was in that hangar. People just lying about, sitting there, moaning and groaning, everything was brightly lit. It was like if you’d entered hell. It was awful.

The following morning the ambulance came and we got in with the French soldiers and we were taken to the airfield. And when we got to the airfield the people there put their hands out — stop.

‘French nationals — proceed. You lot — back.’

My mother then argued — there was an enormous argument. She said ‘I am not going back into that place. I’ve just spent nearly three years in concentration camps. I am not going back, I refuse to go back in there.’

‘No. I’m not going. I want to see the garrison commander.’

‘I want to see the garrison commander,’

My mother was under five feet, quite little — and these three scraggly little boys, you can imagine. A great argument then took place. Eventually they gave in and the garrison commander came, and he took pity on this little woman with her three little boys, and they put us in a disused barrack that they had there in Pilsen.

Then my mother saw the garrison commander, put her point across- her father was living in London, was there any chance that he could help her get her and her children to London?

And he said ‘well, there is a window of hope.

‘RAF transport command fly in three times a week with food for the garrison, in these cargo planes. And of course, when they leave they’re empty they have been known to take reporters and various other people on board, give them a lift to wherever they’re going. I’ll have to ask them and see what they think. They’re due this afternoon.’

So she waited and in the afternoon she was called to the garrison commander there, with these two pilots there from RAF transport command, and she put her point about wanting to go to London, she gave the name and address of her father, my grandfather, where he worked — he was a music publisher in Poland Street.

And they said ‘well, this is all very illegal and underhand, we’ll talk about it. We’ll be back on Friday, a couple of days later and we’ll let you know.’

Two days later they came and said ‘we’ll take you.’

And so we flew from Pilsen, sitting on the floor of these old Wellington bombers, converted into a cargo plane. It was made of a wooden structure with a canvas body, twin prop, and the windows were sort of cellophane. You can imagine — very, very basic.

We flew from Pilsen to Metz, where they refuelled, and then on to Paris, they said ‘we have to stop here, we’ll fly on the next day, but we’ll find you a place to stay for the night’.

On this plane there were two or three other people. And I remember in particular there was this Swede, he must have been a reporter. He had this gabardine raincoat on and a brown trilby hat. And my mother and he were in deep conversation for a lot of the way there.

Apparently he’d said to her ‘when you get to Paris they tell you that you now have to report to the British embassy and if they give you permission you’ll be flown on to London, but the chances are that they won’t give you permission, they’ll want you to go back to Holland.

‘Your best bet is to say to the pilot ‘look, I tried to get through to the embassy but I couldn’t get through’.

Paris in June 1945 was an absolute shambles. I remember all the cobblestones were out of the streets there, it really looked dreadful. I suppose you could well understand that communications were far from satisfactory in any way.

So she said she couldn’t get through, and the pilot was umming and ahhing and then said ‘fine, we’ll take you.’

So they then flew us from Paris over the channel and we landed at Croydon airport. Literally the plane just came in onto the runway, they taxied to a halt, propellors still running. They opened the door, we got out, they closed the door, they taxied away, up the runway, up into the sky, and away they went, going either to Doncaster or Manchester to refuel and reload for the next lot of stuff to go to Pilsen garrison.

And there we were, standing on the runway at Croydon — which was then the Heathrow of London — thinking ‘where do we go from here’. You’d think somebody from the airport authorities would be zooming across — ‘what the hell are these people doing on the runway?’ — nobody came.

Then another airplane landed, a whole lot of people got out, and we just joined them. And lucky for us, I believe they turned out to be Brits who’d been in Europe when war was declared in September 1939 and were therefore unable to get back home, they’d been interned in those countries and now they were coming home. When we joined these people, we were taken to a Nissen hut, where some official from the Home Office or Foreign Office, I don’t know — spoke in a language I didn’t understand, welcoming all these people home.

And they we were put on a coach, from Croydon in South East London, diagonally across London to Stanmore , where there was an RAF reception centre. We were absolutely flabbergasted at the amount of war damage that we encountered on our way through London. We had no idea that London had been bombed like that.

Then we got to this place in Stanmore where my mother was interviewed. And she asked whether she could get in touch with her father, but she had to wait her turn.

While we were there, like all these sorts of government institutions, there’s always a policeman on duty — some old boy they’d got out of retirement. And he took pity on these three little boys that were just standing there and he taught us our first English, which was [imitates cockney accent] — ‘Sundaye, Mondaye, Tuesdaye, Wednesdaye, Thursdaye, Fridaye and Saturdaye.’

And then he gave us each sixpence, which in today’s money is about a pound. Such kindness! It was the first time that a uniformed policeman had shown any kindness to us in five years, so it’s an incident I shall never forget.

My mother was then able to get in touch with my grandfather. The first time he was away, so we stayed the night and the next day she rang him and he came to collect us, and that’s how we came to England — illegal immigrants.

My grandfather had had no idea what had happened to us.

What had happened was [before the war] he and my grandmother, they didn’t divorce, but they split up, and my grandmother [who was Dutch originally] came back to Holland.

Not only my mother had moved back to Holland, but her older sister had moved back to Holland and gotten married there. She was a nurse and got Tb and my grandmother helped to look after her and bring her back to health.

But my grandmother who went back to Holland was one of the first to be taken to Auschwitz, in August 1942, very, very early on taken to Auschwitz and killed there.

I remember our reunion with my grandfather very clearly. We came out of this reception centre at Stanmore, there was a bus — we saw my grandfather coming out and he started walking down this straight road to the reception centre.

My mother and the three of us standing there, we saw him coming. And then my mother rushed forward and they embraced, tears streaming down their faces, and then all of us joined in.

Because my poor grandfather, having two of his daughters in Holland, having no idea what had happened to them.

The last communication he had had was in Theresienstadt. Right near the end of the war, somebody had brokered a deal through the Red Cross with the German government — ambulances and medicines against Barneveld group prisoners. Around 75–80% percent of the Barneveld group prisoners were exchanged for these medicines and ambulances.

But because my father was in the Dutch Resistance, on our papers was written the word ‘bestraft’ — ‘punished’. And so we didn’t go. That was probably the lowest ebb of my mother’s life. We stayed behind in Theresienstadt, this was in January 1945.

The rest of the Barneveld group were put on a train and taken to Switzerland, where this deal was brokered. That must have been a very, very low part of my mother’s life, when that happened.

One of those people in the Barneveld group worked with my mother in the camp hospital laundry. My mother had given her information about her and us, and this woman had taken it back. She ended up in Switzerland, and in Switzerland she managed to get in contact with my grandfather, and then my grandfather wrote her a letter thanking her so much. So he knew that at least one of his daughters was alive [at that point]. But my grandfather thought that we hadn’t survived.

His other daughter — my aunt — she was murdered in Auschwitz, her husband was worked to death in Auschwitz.

They had one daughter, Ruth, who was hidden on a farm [in Holland] and after the war my mother took her on as well, so instead of being a widow with three children she was now a widow with four children. Tremendous credit to her -Ruth never called my mother ‘aunt’ — she always called her ‘mother’, she always called us her brothers, we always called her our sister, despite the fact she kept her own surname, which was not ‘Frank’ of course.

The immediate post-war period in England

We arrived in June 1945. We were then farmed off — it must have been through some Jewish organisation. I went to Weston-Super-Mare, stayed with a professor. My younger brother was also in Weston-Super-Mare, but with a different family. My older brother was with a doctor in Bristol.

It was quite interesting, the relationship — certainly between me and the people I was with and my younger brother and his people — we didn’t speak any English. These people must have been saints to take us on, because believe you me, we were like animals that had come out the jungle, and they had to cope with that.

I am convinced they probably had absolutely no training, no information in those days. They did it purely out of humanitarian reasons. And so the relationship was sort of odd. Just to give you an example, having breakfast, and then after breakfast when everything was being taken off the table, they would go out because we were finished, if there was any bread left in the basket [makes snatching noise] I put that straight in my pocket. Weird things like that. You never know when you’re going to be hungry — ‘I’m never ever going to be hungry again, I’ve got this bread in my pocket’. It must have been very difficult.

My elder brother struck it really lucky. He had a wonderful guardian — Dr Morley. He was a GP and he had his practice in Wookey Hole, Cheddar Gorge and all those lovely places in Somerset — which is not that far from Weston-Super-Mare. He used to come and collect us all in this old Rover that he had, and of course he got a special petrol allowance because he had to visit his patients.

I remember he had to visit a sick nun in a convent somewhere around the Weston-Super-Mare area there. We arrived there… a nun came to the car to us, and Dr Morley said ‘the nun will take care of you while I see my patient.’

So we walked with this nun into the convent there, and she took us into the chapel. She said — how I remember these things! It’s amazing. She said ‘this is where we pray to our lord Jesus Christ’. And immediately [makes a warding gesture] ‘not for me! That’s not for me!’ And I drew away, as if to say ‘no, that’s not right.’

My mother, realising that she was living history, kept all the documents — I don’t know how she did, but she kept the documents.

She would talk frequently about her experiences to her friends. She wasn’t hiding it at all. And my mother put all of these documents into a book, she called it the family book. And she would show this book to friends of hers who were really interested in seeing it.

The book today is in the Imperial War Museum and is on display there. It’s open, actually, at her identity card — why they chose that, I don’t know, but they did.

The book will be preserved. They wanted to take the pages out, but I said ‘no, you’ve got to keep it this way, it’s the family book, it’s what my mother produced, it’s our history. It goes from when the Germans first came to Holland, right the way through here to England, where we were given double rations because we were so malnourished — there was rationing in those days, of course — and we were given free medical attention — there was no National Health Service in those days at all. The government did that. We were ‘returning prisoners of war’ — that’s what we were called. “Holocaust survivors” — that word didn’t exist.

We were feisty — and I guess that was one of the reasons we survived. Right near the end of the war I went down with mumps in Theresienstadt. These days, you’re inoculated against mumps, it’s not particularly debilitating. But I actually lost consciousness, I was unconscious for three days. Normally when you lose consciousness you’re on your way out. I survived. I came back. Why?

All my life I’ve so often thought ‘why did I survive?’ It wasn’t until much, much later that I found out that of around 15,000 children that went to Theresienstadt, only about 93 of us survived. The odds of surviving were so, so little. Why did I survive? What was so different about me?

I became a scientist in my life. I became a chemist I looked after people’s water supply. I haven’t invented some fantastic chemical process or made some scientific discovery, got the Nobel prize for chemistry or anything like that. Nothing like that I was just an ordinary guy doing an ordinary job in an ordinary outfit, in a laboratory. Why was I allowed to live?

And then, up comes this business about Holocaust education, the outreach programme. Survivors going into schools, talking mostly to year nines, thirteen and fourteen year olds, about what they experienced.

And suddenly I found that me, who had never stood in front of anybody I was a backroom boy — suddenly I was doing these things, and apparently I seemed to be doing it quite well. And I think — this must have been the reason why I was allowed to live. And so it became a mission, that I have to go on giving this talk as long as my short legs can get me up to the station and on to the train to wherever I’m going to go, and tell them my story.

I was in Chichester on Wednesday, and that was my 801st time I have given a talk.

I started in 1995, so I’ve been doing it for a long time.

I find it [the general reception in schools to my story] absolutely amazing. I went into a school last week in East London. These children sat there — they came in, sat down. They didn’t speak to one another, they were quiet, they were thoughtful. Normally kids come in and they’re chatting to one another and a teacher will go ‘please be quiet’ and they will all stop. Not these — they were respectful and quiet. And they sat there and I gave my talk.

Some of the reactions you get, over all these years I’ve been doing it, are quite extraordinary. Particularly among the awkward squad. Teachers say — ‘you have to keep an eye on Johnny there, because he can be a bit of a problem’. They hear you talk — and then quite often they go in their classroom and do some drawings or poems, various things. Those children bring out the best things, which they do on their poetry, drawings, whatever they’re doing. It almost seems as if there’s a bit of empathy between me — what I went through — and them — what they are experiencing, as being part of the awkward squad.

And then you come across what happened to me at a school in Sutton, in Surrey. A bog-standard comprehensive school. I gave a talk, it all went very well quite often kids come up to you afterwards. They don’t like asking questions in front of everybody in the hall, so they come and ask you questions face to face.

About a week later I got an e-mail from the teacher saying ‘they’re still talking about it’. You get this so often — ‘they’re still taking about your talk. It’s one of the talks they’ll never forget’ — I keep getting that all the time.

This teacher said ‘there was a little girl at the end who patiently waited, and then at the end she asked you a question and you answered it. And I want you to know that little girl is a selective mute, and that was the first time she had ever asked a question in school.’ And then you begin to think to yourself ‘my goodness me, if you have that effect on children, you must be doing something good.’

I’ve been doing this for so long I come across teachers — now heads of departments — who say ‘oh, I heard you speak when I was in year nine.’ I just go on and on and on doing it. But I feel like I will go on doing it because that is what God wants me to do.

There will come a time when none of us will be around anymore to do this. It’s surprising how many people there are who don’t even know what ‘Holocaust’ means, and even more that some of them believe it didn’t happen, which in itself is unbelievable. I’ve witnessed this thing.

Modern technology will help to some extent [when the last survivors are gone], we’ve now got this interactive video technology [for example, in the National Holocaust Centre near Nottingham]. But there will never ever be a time when this is repeated — your own experience, telling it to an audience, is the only way.

They talk about the second generation — my children — talking. Well my children get quite emotional about what happened to me and my family. And I just feel that if they start giving talks in schools, that that emotional part will come to the fore and they will start to sort of embellish, if you like, the experience of my testimony. And I wouldn’t want that, because that’s not what it’s about.

It’s a very, very difficult thing. When we’re gone, it will be remembered, Yom Hashoah will always be there.

The planned Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre next to Westminster

I’m in favour of it. I think it should be there right next to the Houses of Parliament. Because I know people keep talking about the Holocaust, but this is going to not only the Holocaust, but genocide — man’s inhumanity to man. And something like that should be right at the heart, right next to Parliament. That’s why I think it’s such a good thing.

The Holocaust is the most important part of all the genocides that have taken place. It was the first recognised example of state-industrial killing.

Mankind has not learned anything from it. As we talk, people are being slaughtered, not for what they’ve done, but purely for what they are.

And therefore I think it’s such a good thing that they will have it there and that people will visit it and people will take on board what goes on in there. And they’re going to have an education centre in there as well, so that schools will go there.

And I find, I have great faith in the young of today. They are much more tuned in to the good things in life — by the good things I mean the right things in life, as opposed to the wrong things.

So many times children ask me, ‘what are your religious feelings? Were you more religious when you came out of the camps?’ Yes, I was more religious. I was very religious when I came out of the camps, because we had religious instruction in Theresienstadt — illegally, it was all done in cubbyholes and places like that — and I could read Hebrew fluently.

When we were in England, I used to do Shabbat on a Friday night. My mother and two brothers weren’t religious, but they sat there and let me carry on with it. And then when my cousin Ruth — my sister — joined us, who had been hidden in northern Holland in a Calvinist family, when she came to England she was a religious Calvinist at the age of five or six. So she would be sitting like this [joins palms] praying to Jesus Christ, while I was doing the Jewish thing. If you were a fly on the wall you’d think — what an extraordinary thing is going on in this household.

But I think the most important thing about all this is that it was tolerated by anybody. And this feeling of this Jewishness — the race thing is very strong in me, I feel very proud of that.

[But things would slowly change in regard to Mr Frank’s attitude to the religious aspects of Judaism].

I had been ostracised as a child for being a Jew, and I just didn’t want anybody to know that I was Jewish when I came to England. And my mother, bless her, she took us to the Saturday clubs at the synagogue in Marble Arch, but we weren’t interested. I wanted to be playing football in the park. I just wanted to the same as everybody, I didn’t want to be different.

When children ask me that in a school, I give them an example, I say to them. I say to one child, ‘you there. Will you come out and just talk for five minutes?’ And you can see fear on their faces.

I say ‘don’t worry, you don’t have to do it — but you’ — and I point to the person next to them — ‘I bet you’re thinking ‘thank God he didn’t ask me’.

It’s not so much that you can’t do it, it’s suddenly that you’re out here and suddenly different from all the other people in the room. That is so difficult, and it is why I was sort of desperate to merge with the population.

I could read Hebrew fluently — and I lost it completely, I can’t read a word, it completely disappeared, which I’ve always found rather weird.

But I’ve never ever felt that I would want to go back into the religious side of it. There’s something there that holds me back, I don’t know what it is, whether it’s the experience that I had as a child of being made different.

As a child suddenly I wasn’t allowed to go to the park, all my friends in the street who weren’t Jewish could go to the park to play, and there was this notice, ‘Voor Joden verboden’ — ‘forbidden for Jews’ - I couldn’t go in.

‘Aren’t you coming in with us?’

‘No, I can’t because I’m a Jew’.

There was never any sort of anti-Jewish feeling from any of them, they just accepted it. And I couldn’t understand why, being a Jew, I couldn’t go into the park to play. I hadn’t broken anything or vandalised anything, I couldn’t understand it, except that I was thing called a Jew, but it didn’t really mean anything to me.

I first really took on board the enormity of being a witness to the Shoah when I was in the Northwood & Pinner Liberal Synagogue, where two of my grandchildren were having their Barmitzvah and Batmitzvah.

The Rabbi started talking to them about how they’re now leaving childhood behind and coming into adulthood and the responsibilities and all that sort of thing. And then he said to them ‘you have a very important legacy to carry on with your grandfather was a Holocaust survivor. It’s very important for you to remember that.’

And as I sat there, I suddenly thought ‘my goodness me, I’m a witness to one of the major traumatic pieces of history that’s happened to our people.’ Almost as if I was there when Moses received the Ten Commandments. That is a huge responsibility to carry forward. And that’s why I feel it’s even more important that I go on telling the story, over and over and over again.

I’ll tell you this because it’s quite an interesting story.

Next door to us when we lived in Amsterdam, lived a religious practising Catholic family. Six children — the family was older, the parents were about half a generation older than my parents, so they’re children were in between us and my parent’s age, nineteen twenty. And the boys were all at seminaries, training for the priesthood. You used to see them wandering up and down the garden, reading some liturgical script, dressed in black clerical robes. We all thought ‘don’t they look funny, fancy walking up and down reading’. We would look through a knot in the fence and giggle.

But I always remember at Christmas time they would invite us in on Christmas day. Now we had a Christmas tree, because we were secular. They of course had a Christmas tree, but underneath their Christmas tree they had a nativity scene, and so they would explain ‘this is baby Jesus and Mary and Joseph’. And I remember thinking ‘that’s all very interesting, but we don’t do that in our house’. Just accepted that that was what they did in their house but we didn’t do it in our house. They were lovely, sweet people. When my mother and us left our house to go the first camp, to Barneveld, as we were leaving our house to report to the station, the neighbour came out and she gave my mother a little black silk purse. She said ‘take this, it may be of some strength on your journey ahead.’ And what she gave my mother was a Jesuit crucifix.

And you might think — what a strange thing for a Catholic to give to a Jew, and what a strange thing for a Jew to accept it?

My mother carried that crucifix with her throughout her whole life. And when she died I found it, and I use it in my talks.

The main reason is because of what happened when we arrived in Theresienstadt, thirty nine hours in a cattle truck, tired and worn out. The first thing that happened to us was that were taken into a brightly lit room to be I can only describe as interrogated.

There was this trestle table. And in front of this trestle table was my mother there, two of my brothers on either side, and I was at the edge, so I saw more or less side-face on.

This German woman [interrogating us] oozed with hatred. Her face was very pale, she had very dark red lipstick, dark eyes and a net that went over her hair. And her manner — what’s your name! How old are you! Where do you come from! — very, very frightening.

And then at the end of all this, my mother had to turn out her handbag, which she still had. And out fell that little black silk purse, with that little crucifix in.

And this woman raps out — was ist das — and my mother answered her in German, ‘please don’t take that’. If there was anything of any value, of course, they would always take it away.

This woman opened up the silk purse, pulled out this crucifix, put it back and gave it back to my mother.

But what I saw in those evil, evil eyes, was this glimpse of compassion. Just a glimpse.

To me it was like — you imagine it’s night time, there’s a thunderstorm, it’s raining like hell, there’s lightning, everything going on. Suddenly it all stops, the clouds briefly part, and a shaft of moonlight descends upon the earth. And then the clouds come back, and the lightning and thunder and everything resumes.

In that glimpse of compassion, that brief glimpse of compassion in that evil woman’s eyes, for me, there was God.


Auschwitz

I felt that this was an extremely well-researched and well-written account of this episode of the cruelest man has ever been to one&aposs fellow humans. It is the harrowing account of the creation of Auschwitz (with notable parentheses about the other camps and the overall context in which they were created and were operated). I visited Auschwitz days after finishing the book and felt prepared for the horrors that awaited me and also felt I got much more out of the experience since I felt relatively I felt that this was an extremely well-researched and well-written account of this episode of the cruelest man has ever been to one's fellow humans. It is the harrowing account of the creation of Auschwitz (with notable parentheses about the other camps and the overall context in which they were created and were operated). I visited Auschwitz days after finishing the book and felt prepared for the horrors that awaited me and also felt I got much more out of the experience since I felt relatively informed. I would highly recommend this book for anyone planning to visit the Lagers and would highly recommend the 6h tour in English and the amazing tour guide: Borgusia!

Rees' book has a fabulous introduction which gives the context that led to the horror and its consequences and is extremely well-written. The book is the result of hundreds of interviews performed by the author and his team during the research leading to a BBC documentary and this book of survivors, SS officers, Polish residents of Oświęcim, Poland, and others. So, it is based on first hand oral evidence as well as research into the 10% of archives not destroyed by the Nazis during their flight, documents taken back to Russia by the victorious army, etc. I would further recommend that even if you do not wish to read the entire book, that the Introduction is truly an important standalone document including many insights such as Goebbels believed that it was always preferable to reinforce the existing prejudice of the audience rather than try to change someone's mind. (p. 17) This made me think of the current rallies around Trumpism and how now effort by the maga(t)s is ever made to convince, only to validate and terrify.

The book then starts with the origins of the Holocaust. One must bear in mind that the economy of the Nazi empire was based on enslaving the non-Aryan populations and so concentration camps such as Dachau were used for political prisoners (Socialists, journalists, professors on the left, etc as well as prisoners of war). The concept of Death Camps (of which there were four including, of course, Auschwitz, came in 1942 and following. The techniques were adapted from experiences on euthanasia on patients in insane asylums and retirement communities. Germany needed "useful" citizens to build their future and they proceeded to eliminate those they felt were dead weight. It is also important to point out that there were tens (and not hundreds or even thousands) of homosexuals sent to Auschwitz for "re-education" because the sexual act itself was not the real issue, it was the necessity for Aryans to reproduce and create the next generations of Nazis for the empire - so it was not a systematic moral imperative but rather a more political, reproduction-related imperative (contrary to most anti-gay initiatives today). In fact, there was a class of children named pipel who were young male prisoners who were servants and quite often sex slaves to SS officers and to Kapos in camp. In this context, Poland and the conquered territory in the Soviet Union was intended to clear a large space for a growing Nazi empire to expand into. In fact, the invasion of the Soviet Union had a specific idea behind it, as illustrated by this quote from Himmler just before the operation Barbarossa in 1941 was started:'The purpose of the Russian campaign [is] to decimate the Slavic population by 30 millions.' (p. 69). The region around Krakow happened to be in the center of the projected empire which would stretch from the Pyrennees and the Atlantic Ocean to the Volga.

The next chapter, Orders and Initiatives is about how Commandant Rudolf Hoess built Auschwitz. He had been a guard at Dachau before the assignment to convert the marshland around Oświęcim, Poland and the existing Polish army site there into a detainment camp. From Feb 27, 1942, experimentation at The Little Red House on Birkenau was started - the first crematorium. The Poles living the the area were ejected from their homes and pushed out of the region. Any resistants were murdered or imprisoned in Auschwitz. In fact, the initial population of the camp was Russian and Polish POWs. Jewish prisoners started arriving in 1943. A total of 1.1M people were killed at Auschwitz in the gas chambers, via exhaustion or execution of which 1 million were Jews.

The Factories of Death chapter describes the rapid ramp up of the killing capacities towards the end of 1943 and early 1944 as well as the fate of the 69000 French Jews (the 3rd largest number of murders committed during the Holocaust at Auschwitz after the Hungarians (

450k) and the Poles (300k)) and as someone living in France, this was particularly difficult to read for me.

One interesting piece here (in light of current US ICE policy on the border): Even Hoess observed how families in Auschwitz wanted to stay together at all costs. Although the selection process separated men from women, husbands from wives, the Nazis soon learnt that is was almost always counter to their own interests to separate mothers forcibly from their children. (p. 168) So, in this sense, the ICE policy of separating mothers and children is intentionally cruel and reading that it was even a step that even the Nazis refused to take was shocking to say the least.

In another chapter, Rees talks about the widespread corruption in the camp. Here I learned of 'Canada', the warehouse at Birkenau where all the goods stolen from victims was sorted and stored. This was probably the luckiest place to be assigned as a girl or woman because the prisoners here were able to occasionally get slightly better clothes and larger rations than in other barracks of the camp. The property in Canada (diamonds, gold, watches, coins, dollars, etc) was all the explicit property of the Reich, but the temptation was overpowering to steal and there was an incredibly huge black market (well described in terms of bread as currency in Primo Levy's If This Is a Man • The Truce) (p. 224) Fritz Klein, one Nazi doctor, was quoted as saying with no remorse "Out of respect for human life, I would remove a gangrenous appendix from a diseased body. The Jew is the gangrenous appendix in the body of mankind."
Therefore, from the purist Nazi point of view, Auschwitz and the other death camps were an exercise in health management - facilitating the removal of people who were a burden or a threat to the wellbeing of the state.
(p. 229)

It is also in this chapter that the human experiments are described. one day, readers must visit Block 10 to get an idea of exactly how grim and evil this was. The thing to realize is that it was done for profit: Bayer paid 170 Reichmarks for each woman that was killed in experiments on an anaesthetic. Bayer was a division of IG Farber, the company that owned the synthetic rubber plant, Buna, where Primo Levy and Elie Wiesel were imprisoned.

The other gruesome aspect to camp was the brothel in Bloc 24 (page 249), limited to non-Jewish and non-gypsy prisoners, and the common rape in Canada of women working in that block. See page 238.

There are popular books such as The Tattooist of Auschwitz which purport to be realistic pictures of life in the camps or which romanticize the relationships between SS and Jewish women in camps. The problem with the former is that there are situations such as witnessing executions which were impossible given the organization at Auschwitz (the executions were committed between Bloc 18 and Bloc 19 against the execution wall and there was no way for a prisoner to observe this.) As for the second, it was exceedingly rare because there was little direct contact between the SS who lived outside the camp walls and the prisoners. The creation of brothels was the reason that Hoess was dismissed from running Auschwitz (temporarily as it would turn out because he was recalled when operations needed to be scaled up in 1944 for the arrival of Hungarian Jews) because the internal Morgen investigation into the camp revealed an unacceptable level of corruption and Hoess was the fall guy.

There were gruesome stories of the roundups, the one from Izbica in Poland where Janek denounces his friend Toivi saying "He's a Jew. Take him." Janek then said goodbye to me in a way that is difficult even now for me to repeat. he said, "Goodbye Toivi. I will see you on a shelf in a soap store." (p. 255). One needs to realize that the remains of cremated prisoners were not actually used for soap, but they were used as fertilizer and the ash fell in the river, so the Nazis were eating and drinking the dead Jews quite literally. That in addition to sleeping on mattresses filled with Jewish women's hair, wearing clothes woven from that same hair, etc. etc. The industrial nature of converting literally millions of humans into compost and industrial products is just appalling and terrifying in this reader's view.

Perhaps the most evil part of the book, the Frenzied Killing chapter, is where the Sonderkommando are described. These are the unfortunate prisoners - often Greeks or Ukranians - who were to strip the bodies of the dead in the gas chambers, search orifices for valuables, and cut off dead women's hair before transporting the bodies to elevators up to the crematoria. There were 900 of these workers in 1944. There was a special exhibit during my visit to Auschwitz in February 2020 about the Sonderkommando and I cannot describe how horrific the scenes and testimonies were. Here the revolt of the Sonderkommando on October 7, 1944 is described in which crematorium 3 was destroyed but at the cost of over 460 prisoners shot and executed.

The last chapter, Liberation and Retribution, describes what happened after Jan 27, 1945 and it was particularly galling to read that over 85% of SS that committed murder at Auschwitz and other death camps went unpunished. This is a fact that Primo Levy also bemoaned as it was done as a political consideration and was truly another injustice for the victims. To think Doktor Josef Mengele, who was the notorious doctor of Block 10 and who as a non-soldier did not have the underarm tattoo of the SS and therefore escaped and was aided by the Vatican to escape to Argentina, dying of a stroke while peaceably swimming in the ocean in Brazil.

This is truly an essential book on the most horrific incident in human history. One of many horrific events. One wonders whether humans will ever evolve beyond this kind of brutality, but the rise of Nazism in the 21st century seems to give rise to skepticism in that regard.
By their crime the Nazis brought into the world an awareness of what educated, technologically advanced human beings can do, as long as they possess a cold heart. Once allowed into the world, knowledge of what they did must not be unlearnt. It lies there - ugly, inert, waiting to be rediscovered by each new generation. A warning for us, and for those who will come after. (p. 375)


Auschwitz

I felt that this was an extremely well-researched and well-written account of this episode of the cruelest man has ever been to one&aposs fellow humans. It is the harrowing account of the creation of Auschwitz (with notable parentheses about the other camps and the overall context in which they were created and were operated). I visited Auschwitz days after finishing the book and felt prepared for the horrors that awaited me and also felt I got much more out of the experience since I felt relatively I felt that this was an extremely well-researched and well-written account of this episode of the cruelest man has ever been to one's fellow humans. It is the harrowing account of the creation of Auschwitz (with notable parentheses about the other camps and the overall context in which they were created and were operated). I visited Auschwitz days after finishing the book and felt prepared for the horrors that awaited me and also felt I got much more out of the experience since I felt relatively informed. I would highly recommend this book for anyone planning to visit the Lagers and would highly recommend the 6h tour in English and the amazing tour guide: Borgusia!

Rees' book has a fabulous introduction which gives the context that led to the horror and its consequences and is extremely well-written. The book is the result of hundreds of interviews performed by the author and his team during the research leading to a BBC documentary and this book of survivors, SS officers, Polish residents of Oświęcim, Poland, and others. So, it is based on first hand oral evidence as well as research into the 10% of archives not destroyed by the Nazis during their flight, documents taken back to Russia by the victorious army, etc. I would further recommend that even if you do not wish to read the entire book, that the Introduction is truly an important standalone document including many insights such as Goebbels believed that it was always preferable to reinforce the existing prejudice of the audience rather than try to change someone's mind. (p. 17) This made me think of the current rallies around Trumpism and how now effort by the maga(t)s is ever made to convince, only to validate and terrify.

The book then starts with the origins of the Holocaust. One must bear in mind that the economy of the Nazi empire was based on enslaving the non-Aryan populations and so concentration camps such as Dachau were used for political prisoners (Socialists, journalists, professors on the left, etc as well as prisoners of war). The concept of Death Camps (of which there were four including, of course, Auschwitz, came in 1942 and following. The techniques were adapted from experiences on euthanasia on patients in insane asylums and retirement communities. Germany needed "useful" citizens to build their future and they proceeded to eliminate those they felt were dead weight. It is also important to point out that there were tens (and not hundreds or even thousands) of homosexuals sent to Auschwitz for "re-education" because the sexual act itself was not the real issue, it was the necessity for Aryans to reproduce and create the next generations of Nazis for the empire - so it was not a systematic moral imperative but rather a more political, reproduction-related imperative (contrary to most anti-gay initiatives today). In fact, there was a class of children named pipel who were young male prisoners who were servants and quite often sex slaves to SS officers and to Kapos in camp. In this context, Poland and the conquered territory in the Soviet Union was intended to clear a large space for a growing Nazi empire to expand into. In fact, the invasion of the Soviet Union had a specific idea behind it, as illustrated by this quote from Himmler just before the operation Barbarossa in 1941 was started:'The purpose of the Russian campaign [is] to decimate the Slavic population by 30 millions.' (p. 69). The region around Krakow happened to be in the center of the projected empire which would stretch from the Pyrennees and the Atlantic Ocean to the Volga.

The next chapter, Orders and Initiatives is about how Commandant Rudolf Hoess built Auschwitz. He had been a guard at Dachau before the assignment to convert the marshland around Oświęcim, Poland and the existing Polish army site there into a detainment camp. From Feb 27, 1942, experimentation at The Little Red House on Birkenau was started - the first crematorium. The Poles living the the area were ejected from their homes and pushed out of the region. Any resistants were murdered or imprisoned in Auschwitz. In fact, the initial population of the camp was Russian and Polish POWs. Jewish prisoners started arriving in 1943. A total of 1.1M people were killed at Auschwitz in the gas chambers, via exhaustion or execution of which 1 million were Jews.

The Factories of Death chapter describes the rapid ramp up of the killing capacities towards the end of 1943 and early 1944 as well as the fate of the 69000 French Jews (the 3rd largest number of murders committed during the Holocaust at Auschwitz after the Hungarians (

450k) and the Poles (300k)) and as someone living in France, this was particularly difficult to read for me.

One interesting piece here (in light of current US ICE policy on the border): Even Hoess observed how families in Auschwitz wanted to stay together at all costs. Although the selection process separated men from women, husbands from wives, the Nazis soon learnt that is was almost always counter to their own interests to separate mothers forcibly from their children. (p. 168) So, in this sense, the ICE policy of separating mothers and children is intentionally cruel and reading that it was even a step that even the Nazis refused to take was shocking to say the least.

In another chapter, Rees talks about the widespread corruption in the camp. Here I learned of 'Canada', the warehouse at Birkenau where all the goods stolen from victims was sorted and stored. This was probably the luckiest place to be assigned as a girl or woman because the prisoners here were able to occasionally get slightly better clothes and larger rations than in other barracks of the camp. The property in Canada (diamonds, gold, watches, coins, dollars, etc) was all the explicit property of the Reich, but the temptation was overpowering to steal and there was an incredibly huge black market (well described in terms of bread as currency in Primo Levy's If This Is a Man • The Truce) (p. 224) Fritz Klein, one Nazi doctor, was quoted as saying with no remorse "Out of respect for human life, I would remove a gangrenous appendix from a diseased body. The Jew is the gangrenous appendix in the body of mankind."
Therefore, from the purist Nazi point of view, Auschwitz and the other death camps were an exercise in health management - facilitating the removal of people who were a burden or a threat to the wellbeing of the state.
(p. 229)

It is also in this chapter that the human experiments are described. one day, readers must visit Block 10 to get an idea of exactly how grim and evil this was. The thing to realize is that it was done for profit: Bayer paid 170 Reichmarks for each woman that was killed in experiments on an anaesthetic. Bayer was a division of IG Farber, the company that owned the synthetic rubber plant, Buna, where Primo Levy and Elie Wiesel were imprisoned.

The other gruesome aspect to camp was the brothel in Bloc 24 (page 249), limited to non-Jewish and non-gypsy prisoners, and the common rape in Canada of women working in that block. See page 238.

There are popular books such as The Tattooist of Auschwitz which purport to be realistic pictures of life in the camps or which romanticize the relationships between SS and Jewish women in camps. The problem with the former is that there are situations such as witnessing executions which were impossible given the organization at Auschwitz (the executions were committed between Bloc 18 and Bloc 19 against the execution wall and there was no way for a prisoner to observe this.) As for the second, it was exceedingly rare because there was little direct contact between the SS who lived outside the camp walls and the prisoners. The creation of brothels was the reason that Hoess was dismissed from running Auschwitz (temporarily as it would turn out because he was recalled when operations needed to be scaled up in 1944 for the arrival of Hungarian Jews) because the internal Morgen investigation into the camp revealed an unacceptable level of corruption and Hoess was the fall guy.

There were gruesome stories of the roundups, the one from Izbica in Poland where Janek denounces his friend Toivi saying "He's a Jew. Take him." Janek then said goodbye to me in a way that is difficult even now for me to repeat. he said, "Goodbye Toivi. I will see you on a shelf in a soap store." (p. 255). One needs to realize that the remains of cremated prisoners were not actually used for soap, but they were used as fertilizer and the ash fell in the river, so the Nazis were eating and drinking the dead Jews quite literally. That in addition to sleeping on mattresses filled with Jewish women's hair, wearing clothes woven from that same hair, etc. etc. The industrial nature of converting literally millions of humans into compost and industrial products is just appalling and terrifying in this reader's view.

Perhaps the most evil part of the book, the Frenzied Killing chapter, is where the Sonderkommando are described. These are the unfortunate prisoners - often Greeks or Ukranians - who were to strip the bodies of the dead in the gas chambers, search orifices for valuables, and cut off dead women's hair before transporting the bodies to elevators up to the crematoria. There were 900 of these workers in 1944. There was a special exhibit during my visit to Auschwitz in February 2020 about the Sonderkommando and I cannot describe how horrific the scenes and testimonies were. Here the revolt of the Sonderkommando on October 7, 1944 is described in which crematorium 3 was destroyed but at the cost of over 460 prisoners shot and executed.

The last chapter, Liberation and Retribution, describes what happened after Jan 27, 1945 and it was particularly galling to read that over 85% of SS that committed murder at Auschwitz and other death camps went unpunished. This is a fact that Primo Levy also bemoaned as it was done as a political consideration and was truly another injustice for the victims. To think Doktor Josef Mengele, who was the notorious doctor of Block 10 and who as a non-soldier did not have the underarm tattoo of the SS and therefore escaped and was aided by the Vatican to escape to Argentina, dying of a stroke while peaceably swimming in the ocean in Brazil.

This is truly an essential book on the most horrific incident in human history. One of many horrific events. One wonders whether humans will ever evolve beyond this kind of brutality, but the rise of Nazism in the 21st century seems to give rise to skepticism in that regard.
By their crime the Nazis brought into the world an awareness of what educated, technologically advanced human beings can do, as long as they possess a cold heart. Once allowed into the world, knowledge of what they did must not be unlearnt. It lies there - ugly, inert, waiting to be rediscovered by each new generation. A warning for us, and for those who will come after. (p. 375)


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