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Good afternoon, and welcome to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. My name is Bill Benson and I am the host of the museum’s public program, First Person. Thank you for joining us. We are in our ninth year of the First Person program.
Our First Person today is Mrs. Fanny Aizenberg, whom you shall meet shortly. First Person is a series of weekly conversations with survivors of the Holocaust, who share with us their firsthand experiences associated with the Holocaust. Each First Person guest presently serves as a volunteer here at the museum.
With few exceptions, we will have a First Person program each Wednesday until August 27. This year, we will also have First Person programs on Thursdays in June and July. The museum’s website at www.USHMM.org provides a list of upcoming First Person guests. If you go to the website, just click on the First Person program.
This 2008 season of First Person is made possible through the generosity of the Louis and Dora Smith Foundation, to whom we are grateful for again sponsoring First Person. Fanny Aizenberg will share with us her First Person account of her experience during the Holocaust and as a survivor for about 45 minutes.
If time allows, you will have an opportunity to ask Fanny some questions at the end of our program. Before you are introduced to her, I have a few announcements and requests for you. First, if possible, and particularly today because we have such a large crowd, if possible please stay seated with us through the entire one-hour program. That will minimize any disruptions for Fanny as she speaks.
If we do have a question-and-answer period, please make your questions as brief as you can. I will repeat the questions so everyone in the room including Fanny can hear it, and then she will respond to your question. If you have a cell phone or pager that has not yet been turned off, this would be a great time to do that.
I’d like to let those of you who may have passes to the permanent exhibition today know that they are good for the entire afternoon so you can sit with us through the one-hour program and then get to the Permanent Exhibition.
In January, the United Stated Holocaust Memorial Museum announced that it began providing information to Holocaust survivors and their families from the International Tracing Service, or ITS Archive. Located in Germany, the archive was the largest, closed Holocaust archive in the world containing information on approximately 17.5 million victims of the Nazis, both Jews and non-Jews.
After years of efforts, the archive has been opened to the Museum. The ITS material is being transferred in digital form to the Museum in a series of installments, the first of which arrived in August 2007. The archive includes information about Fanny and her family, which we will refer to a bit later.
More information on the ITS collection can be found on the Museum’s website, or by visiting the Museum’s Benjamin and Vladka Meed Registry of Holocaust Survivors, located in the Wexner Learning Center on the second floor.
The Holocaust was a state-sponsored, systematic persecution and annihilation of European Jewry by Nazi Germany and its collaborators between 1933 and 1945. Jews were the primary victims; six million were murdered. Gypsies, the handicapped and Poles were also targeted for destruction or decimation for racial, ethnic or national reasons.
Millions more, including homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Soviet prisoners of war, and political dissidents also suffered grievous oppression and death under Nazi tyranny. What you are about to hear from Fanny Aizenberg is one individual’s account of the Holocaust. We have prepared a brief slide presentation to help with Fanny’s introduction.
We begin with this portrait of Fanny and her daughter, Josiane, taken in 1942. Fanny was born December 3, 1916 in Lodz, Poland. The arrow on the map of Europe points to Poland. Fanny was the second of three daughters born to Benjamin Orenbach and Rivke Leah Aspis Orenbach.
Soon after her younger sister Rose’s birth in 1921, the Orenbachs moved with their daughters to raise Fanny and Rose in Brussels, Belgium. On this map of Belgium, the arrow points to Brussels. In Brussels, Fanny’s father, Benjamin, worked for the Yiddish Gemeinde, or Community, which coordinated Jewish religious activities in Belgium.
Fanny’s mother volunteered for the Jewish Burial Society, maintaining vigils over the bodies of the deceased. Fanny graduated from college, where she studied dressmaking and design. While working as a dressmaker for the royal family, Fanny met Jacques Aizenberg, who was a trained violinist but supported himself as a tailor.
On May 19, 1938, Fanny and Jacques Aizenberg were married, and here we see their wedding portrait. One year later, on March 21, 1939, Fanny gave birth to a daughter, whom they named Josiane. This picture of Jacques, Fanny and Josiane was taken in 1941.
The following year, on May 10, 1940, Germany invaded Belgium. Jacques headed the call of the Royal Air Force asking for Belgian volunteers to work for the British air force. This map shows the routes of the German invasion of Western Europe, including into Belgium.
In 1942, Germany began the roundup of Belgian Jews. Fanny arranged to hide Josiane in a Carmelite convent. For security reasons, Fanny was not allowed to know where her daughter was hidden, and this photo of Josiane was taken in 1941. In Brussels, Fanny worked for the underground.
In 1943, she was denounced and sent to the Malines transit camp in Belgium and then to Auschwitz. The arrow on this map points to the location of Auschwitz. Here we see a document recently uncovered in the ITS Archive that I mentioned earlier, that lists Fanny on the transport list from Malines to Auschwitz.
The circle is around Fanny’s name. She is number 119 on the list and her profession of seamstress is listed on the right-hand side. In January 1945 as the Soviet army approached, the Germans evacuated Auschwitz and Fanny was sent on a death march out of the camp. She was forced to walk for three months, until she was liberated by the Soviet army in late April 1945.
After the war, Fanny was reunited with her husband and daughter and the family immigrated to the United States in 1949. Here we see Fanny and Josiane on a ship en route to the United States.
Today, Fanny lives in Wheaton, Maryland, just outside of Washington, D.C. She and her husband, Jacques, moved here in 1983 after 25 years in Atlantic City. Jacques passed away in 1988. Fanny’s daughter, Josiane, lives near her, and has just recently retired from the county of Montgomery, where she was a social worker for abused children.
Fanny volunteers here at the Museum. You will find her in the Archives translating documents from French to English. She is presently translating a book by a non-Jewish teacher about the occupation of Belgium. She also works at the computer to verify the accuracy of lists of names provided for Museum research.
Fanny also volunteers at an assisted living facility in Silver Spring, Maryland, where she helps the residents make jewelry. On top of that, she is an active leader of the Yiddish Club at a senior citizen’s center that meets twice monthly. I think you’ll be pleased to know that Josiane, Fanny’s daughter, is here with us today. Josie if you would not mind a wave so people know you are here.
I might also mention that Josiane’s husband, Alfred Traum, will be a guest on the First Person program on July 29. With that, I’d like to ask you to join me in welcoming our First Person today, Mrs. Fanny Aizenberg.
Fanny, thank you so much for your willingness to be First Person today, and for joining us. It’s just an honor to have you here.
Well, we should get right to it because time is limited. Fanny, although you were born in Poland, your family would move to Brussels, Belgium when you were a young child. You told me that you had a wonderful childhood, so let’s begin today with you telling us a little about those early years— your early life, that wonderful childhood, about you, your family and your community.
Thank you all for inviting me and thank you for coming. Although it’s so many years ago that all those horrible things have happened to me and to many other people, it’s still very hard to talk about it because the pain and the agony of those horrible things which have happened to all of us—that’s going to remain with me for the rest of my days.
Belgium was a wonderful country. Education was always a priority. We were three sisters, my parents were Orthodox, my father was employed, he was a very learned man. He was employed by the Jewish Community, which was in charge of supervising the synagogues, the special slaughter, (which is according to the Jewish religion); also with special burial, because many Jewish people had special and different burials. She was taking care.
My mother was a wonderful woman and we had a wonderful, loving family. My mother was always busy and always helping and raising the family. We all went to school. You see, in Belgium, education is a priority. You must go to school to the age of 16 and many more have continued their education. And you had to go to school.
People who did not go to higher education or to colleges had to go to a trade school. In other words, we were all trained to be able to make a living and to be able to be independent people. As children, we had a wonderful time going with friends. Every neighborhood has parks and in those parks, they had different bands every Sunday. They had a merry-go-round.
We had really a wonderful time growing up, between the activities with school and the activities with the families and friends, so we really participated. It was such a peaceful and wonderful time. And let me tell you, we were so innocent, never thinking whatever would be possible to happen in Belgium.
Fanny, one of the things you told me was that you don’t remember Brussels as a place of prejudice or antisemitism. You thought it was in just every way a very good place to be.
It really was. I don’t know what it is now, but you see the Belgian Congo used to belong to Belgium and in Brussels, we used to have many black people, or people of any color. We went to school together, we lived as neighbors, and we really didn’t know the difference and there wasn’t.
This is what made Belgium such a peaceful country. Also, we were told at that time that Belgium and Holland would remain free countries and not be occupied by the Germans. Unfortunately, this didn’t happen, and Belgium was occupied on May 10, 1940.
Before the occupation of Belgium, in fact before the war broke out in Europe in September of 1939, Fanny, you finished college, you went to work, you got married, and you gave birth to a child. During that time, Hitler had consolidated his power and Kristallnacht, or the “Night of Broken Glass,” had occurred in Germany and Austria.
Tell us about that time, beginning your life as an adult, before the war began, about being a wife and a mother, and what effect the events in Germany might have had on you in your adult life.
It had an effect on everybody because fear was so unbelievable. We started to be scared because we didn’t know what was going to happen. In November of 1938, “Crystal Night” happened in Germany and in Austria and that was the beginning of the destruction of the Jewish people and killing of the Jewish people.
In Belgium, the Jewish Community has advised and asked Jewish families if we could take a child to take care because they claimed the reason why the children have to leave Germany or Austria is because if the parents are going to go to work, how could you work with small children? So of course, my parents sheltered a little girl until 1940.
The same organization who brought those youngsters to the different families also picked those youngsters up and put them in an orphanage home which was called the [Erondelle]. That orphanage home had been in existence during the war helping those children and of course, they were all in hiding.
Because of the help of so many wonderful people, this was made possible—the kindness of people, just to help another human being.
Fanny, before the war broke out, you had developed your occupation. You had become a dress designer and you worked for the Royal house. That was quite an honor, wasn’t it?
That’s about it—the pay wasn’t so good. But I tell you, it was just an honor and it was not just a few people; it was a whole house, there were 20 people, just working. For one year, although we all had graduated with a degree, we still had to learn how to make patterns, coordinating colors, and it was really a wonderful, wonderful, peaceful time.
And of course with your friends, and again, the different activity. You see, Belgium is a very cultural country. It is one of the smallest countries in Europe. We had an opera house and concert hall where we all participated.
I think the audience would enjoy hearing about Jacques, who was a trained violinist. He would become a tailor, but tell us about the work he was doing as a violinist.
Well, this is probably before all your time, and I don’t think this was happening here in America. In Belgium, in movie houses, according to the neighborhood where the movie house was, there was either three, four, or five people playing, but once the talkies came in, all those jobs were not available anymore.
So there were a lot of people who had to make a living in another way. So, my late husband went to school and he learned how to make patterns and then he was working for a place where they were making…you know those outfits you see conductors wearing the cut outs or the diplomats wearing? That’s the kind of tailoring he was doing until the war broke out.
I want the audience to make sure they understood that, that Jacques’ career working in the movies ended when the talkies came in. He was working in the silent movie era and then was put out of business.
Many, many thousands of people had lost their job.
By the talkies. Fanny, on March 21, 1939, you had your child, Josiane. Knowing that Kristallnacht had occurred the previous November, at that time with a newborn baby, do you remember being fearful even at that time? Was it a time of uncertainty and fear for you, or still a time of hope?
Well, we were hoping against hope, but the fear was so tremendous because we didn’t know the unknown, and we didn’t know what the next day would bring. We could not believe that it was possible to have such a persecution of Jewish people which was continuing.
You see, in Belgium they have different clinics (I don’t know if you call that a clinic in America) for a young woman who was to give birth. You have to come every week and the babies were checked by a physician and also if they needed any vaccine, and food was given out to us without [having to] pay.
Once in 1940, when the Germans invaded Belgium, our world fell apart because, like I said before, we were told that Belgium and Holland would remain free countries, you know, like Spain and Switzerland, and of course that didn’t happen; they occupied.
So once the Germans occupied Belgium, the first thing was Jewish people were not allowed to go to those clinics anymore and of course we couldn’t come with the children. The Jewish teachers were not allowed to teach anymore and Jewish physicians were not allowed to practice, to help other people.
When that started, the fear was just unbelievable. I can’t even find the word in English that you could describe the fear of each and every one, constantly, because we didn’t know what the next step. Also, once the Germans occupied Belgium, we all had to report and give our radios to a certain place where you had to give your radio. This way, immediately we were cut off from the news and anything else.
Fanny, that time of course, when Belgium was invaded was May 1940. Germany and Russia had attacked Poland in 1939. Soon after the invasion and occupation of Belgium, what happened to Jacques? We said earlier that he heeded the call for volunteers. Tell us.
In 1939, the Belgian government has asked young men to sign up because they too were so fearful and they didn’t know what the next day or whatever is going to happen. To sign up in case there was any danger, that they would be able to help out, not knowing what kind of help. And of course, among thousands of young men in Belgium, my late husband signed up too.
Some in the audience may have seen a very recent film, in fact it is probably out today, called “Atonement.” One of the scenes there takes place at a beach called Dunkirk. Fanny, would you share with us what happened with Jacques at Dunkirk?
When, finally, the people were able to reach Dunkirk, which was a seaport and the closest way from Belgium to England. Three ships, of thousands of people from all over Europe, young men were on those ships. And only one ship made it to England.
The two others were bombed and burned in Dunkirk. Right now there’s a lot of literature that we get from that period of time in Europe and of course, mainly in Belgium, because going to Dunkirk, they have people from all over Europe who had been able either to escape or to be smuggled.
Jacques, fortunately, was on the one ship that made it.
He and his brother were on the ship that survived.
Did you know what happened to Jacques?
Nobody knew. I only learned from the Red Cross after the war in 1945 when I came back from Auschwitz.
So as far as you knew, you were alone with Josiane.
What did you do then?
Well, since we were told that we were all going to have to go to work, where or why we did not know, in Belgium immediately, the underground (we called it the resistance) were trying to find places to hide the Jewish children.
Thanks to the churches and to private families (there’s a movie upstairs on the fifth floor [of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum] and I’m sure they’re going to show it more), they show you the people who were kind and willing to risk their lives to help the Jewish children to go into hiding.
I’m sure many people in the audience here could understand how difficult it was. I had a young child and as prearranged, two ladies came to take her into hiding. I didn’t know them. I was not allowed to know where she was going to be in hiding, because in case we would be arrested and beaten, we probably would give out the names of other people.
My child didn’t want to leave me. She was crying and screaming, but she was in hiding and thank God, she survived, and again, I want to say from the kindness and the generosity. But also you must remember, in Belgium we had rations, and the people who helped us they do it for no money.
Nobody got any money and also they were risking their lives. They had big signs in big cities like in Brussels. If anybody would be caught hiding a Jewish person or a Jewish child would be shot on the spot and they did that, and that’s how we were living in fear day by day.
Fanny, tell us if you would what was happening with your parents at that time.
My father was very active, like I told you before, with the synagogue and all the different activities. Jewish people were not allowed to be buried anymore, not in the cemeteries as before. There was the rabbi, my father and many other people who had organized how to bury those people in the Jewish tradition.
Somehow the people were denounced and the Gestapo came and arrested everybody. And, the men were taken to a place which was called Breendonck. It used to be a military place. I have learned here from the Museum that that particular place used to be held before the war for anybody in the military to be punished.
After the war, they had a reunion in Belgium that I went to and we were shown that place which was called Breendonck. It’s worse than hell. That’s where those Jewish people were tortured. They still show you all the tools they were using to torture the people.
Then my father and the rest of the men they were tortured to death and then they were put on a train, even though they were dead, and they were sent to a place, Auschwitz. We didn’t even know the name. We didn’t even know the existence of such a hell and such a horrible thing.
How about your mother? What was she doing at this time?
My mother was hiding in the place where they were helping homeless women. There came a time when they could not stay over there because the Germans were trying to find out if Jewish people were hiding. Myself and my mother then we were hiding in many, many different places.
I want you to know that the Salvation Army has helped so much, but the only thing is, people could only stay one night because they didn’t want to get too suspicious, so we could only stay one night. We were going to many other places and many other people. And don’t forget, all of this was done through the generosity and the kindness and caring of so many wonderful people.
Fanny, you’ve told us now about your arranging to find hiding for Josiane, you were having to go into hiding yourself. Deportations had begun, deporting Jews out of Belgium. Your sisters also went into hiding, didn’t they?
Tell us a little bit about that.
My oldest sister and her husband were hiding in the basement of a church and that’s when the people in the resistance, or the underground which you call it here, were getting their supplies of ammunitions and that was over there. That particular group has survived. My oldest sister and her husband survived and her three small boys had been hidden in a church in Brussels.
Despite the fear and the danger as you mentioned, you still were able to do some work with the resistance. Tell us a little bit about that.
Well, where we lived, we had one room in an attic and at that time in 1938 after “Crystal Night”, many young people had escaped Germany and Austria. There was a whole group, like I say, the resistance, who got organized and we had one room where two people were able to stay for about a year.
And that’s how…you see, everything had to be done in secret. You cannot announce it and since we didn’t have the radios, because that was the first thing taken away from the Jewish people is the radio so we would not have any communication except with the people we were working together with in the underground.
You would hand out pamphlets?
Yes, and also like I say, everything had to be done in secret so it’s really very difficult to do that because the Germans’ biggest strength was to find out people and they did that. It was called [ruffles], where they were arresting people from one corner to the other.
All those actions were done at night because they knew the kindness and the willingness of the Jewish people and the non-Jewish people to be help and help in the hiding.
Fanny, as a result of someone denouncing you and your mother in 1943, the two of you were arrested by the Gestapo.
Tell us about the circumstances of the arrest and what happened to you once you were in the hands of the Gestapo.
Well, we were found out after many places which we had been in hiding, and we were taken to a place called the Gestapo. I don’t know if you ever heard of that name. I hope you never do. That was a place where they were beating up people because they wanted us to tell them where our children are, where our friends are hidden—anything which would be beneficial to them.
This is another reason why we were not permitted to know where our children would be hidden, in case we would be taken and they know that they had very good ways of torturing the people and finding out all the things they cared to find out.
And from there, we were really badly beaten because we were bleeding in many places. They had a very great way of torturing and finding out from people what they cared to find out. And then from there, we were taken by those big closed trucks. I don’t know if you have seen some of those trucks where the military is traveling—they show that many times in the movies.
Then we went to a place which is called Malines. It’s not far from Belgium and it was like a sammellager. They accumulated people there and then they were sending them according to what they say, to work in camps, because we had never heard the word Auschwitz. We didn’t even know the existence of that particular hell.
Fanny, before you describe when you left Malines, the place where they had kept you at the Gestapo headquarters was Avenue Louise, and from there after you were beaten you would be taken to Malines. You told me that the resistance would later attempt to blow up the Gestapo.
They did. Not only did they attempt, but they did. If ever you go here and visit on the second floor, there’s a whole panel of different people from the resistance in different countries and tells you what they have done. That’s really a wonderful write-up.
From one of the resistance from Belgium and three young men were able to get ammunition, got a little plane and they were bombing Avenue Louise, the Gestapo. But that didn’t stop them from continuing their business and their killing and whatever they were doing.
Fanny, from Malines, you would of course be taken to Auschwitz. Although you told me you don’t begin to have the words to describe Auschwitz, please tell us what you can about arriving there and what it was like for you when you got to Auschwitz.
I don’t think there are any words which are possible to describe that hell. From Malines, we were put on a cattle train, 110 people in one train with one bucket and one bucket of water. The crying and the praying were just indescribable you can’t even describe that. That lasted for three days and two nights, believe it or not.
Once we arrived in that hell of Auschwitz, we didn’t know the name. We didn’t even know what it meant because many young people would have just killed themselves instead of having to wind up there. When the doors opened, from 110 people, 40 people survived getting out alive from Auschwitz.
Going on from the train already pulling out, we were greeted by German soldiers with barking dogs. Don’t forget, we all came from decent homes and had decent lives, and being exposed to something like that. There were two lines—one was for men and one was for women.
I was put in a line and my mother was put in another line and once the line was continuing and I saw my mother in another line, I felt being together would help us no matter what and we would be able to survive better. When I moved to get closer to my mother, I was hit over the head [and the soldier was] saying, “If I put you to that place, this is where you’re going to say.”
[He was] not saying it nicely, just screaming and hitting. The place was pitch dark. The only thing they had in order to put people from one line to another line was those big lights which they have when they promote a movie. So that’s the only way they could see us and I don’t know how.
From that line we were taken to a room freezing cold, still accompanied by the barking dogs. Don’t forget we were very young women, like I said before, coming from a decent home and brought up that way. In that room, it was freezing cold and we all had to take our clothes off and stand there naked.
We were examined in our private parts to see if we are hiding anything. Finally, we were put into a line where we had our heads shaved and then we had a number put on our arm, which was tattooed. A few days later, they found out there were four other people who had the same number.
So that started again. We had to be lined up and go and have the number crossed out and a new number tattooed on our arm. Six of us were given one blanket and taken to the bunks. The cries were so bad and the scare was unbelievable. We were so fearful, I can’t even find the words.
The only people who have been able to describe the horrors of Auschwitz are Elie Wiesel or Primo Levi. Those are people, especially Primo Levi, who was already older, and he described it in such wonderful words which I could never find and of course, English is my second language and even in French, I could not find the words of the fear which was instilled in us.
And, of course, we were holding on one to another. We didn’t recognize each other because then we were given those striped suits and wooden shoes and that’s when we went to the barracks. The barracks had three shifts with straw and one blanket to six people.
We were crying and holding each other because we had nobody else. We didn’t even know where the rest of the people we came on the train with would be, but we learned that very fast. The next day we had all to line up and our group was sent to work in the ammunition factory.
We got hot tea and a slice of bread. Again, going to the factory, we were making the little bombs and the fume of making those bombs, washing them and cleaning them was unbelievable. Because, after a short time, our eyes were white and we were starting to lose our nails because of the chemicals.
In a very short time, we have learned that some women who were working in the ammunition factories were stealing those little balls with the powders in them and hiding them under their tongues and one of the crematoriums was blown up.
That didn’t help too much except the five women who were caught were hanged. Because of them being punished, we all had to stay in line a whole night until the next day when they were hung, to make sure if we do anything, that’s the next thing is going to happen.
We had daily visits from Mengele and Himmler warning us, if we don’t have the quota, if we don’t make enough of those bombs to go, this is where we’re going to go, and they would point to the crematoriums.
Fanny, besides having to endure the loss of dignity, the hardships you described working as slave laborer in the munitions factory, for you, you also experienced medical experimentation. Would you say just a little bit about that?
Many of us, the young women, were taken out from the lines either going to work or coming back from work and we were subject to medical experimentation. There was a table and this was done by physicians and by nurses. We were tied up to that bed and we couldn’t cry because we would be beaten up.
And don’t forget, I don’t know what has been done. I don’t know what part was taken out. They had shelves with little jars with parts of different people with different notes of whatever they were supposed to take out. They also did experimentation on twins and on small children who they had saved.
We continued working and we were always accompanied to work and from work. The conditions in camps, I just can’t share it with you. I can’t even find the words to tell you how we were able to survive under such inhuman conditions.
Also, in 1944, there was so little hope that any of us would survive, the reason why I think we have been in (that’s the six of us), we had no family, we had no one. The only thing which I think had helped us is getting to be like a family with one another.
And each and every one was hoping, including myself, that maybe I’m going to live and find my child, which was my great hope. I think this has helped—I don’t know if you could call it help—just to think that maybe, maybe we’re going to be the ones, because bad was constant in such horrible different ways.
In 1944 we were so desperate. There was absolutely no hope, not even a way that maybe we were going to survive, I don’t think that we were really religious at that particular time but we knew when Yom Kippur was. It’s a holiday for the Jewish people and it’s really a day where people pray that if they did something wrong, to be forgiven.
This is what we did, just hugging one another and trying to give hope and support to one another because again, as I say, there was no family, there was nobody. We just had the few of us. Death was constant because even going to work, coming back from work was always with the barking dogs.
That’s another thing that scared us more than I really could find words to describe—such inhuman conditions. And those experiments made—just very inhuman, horrible things, and again, don’t forget, this was done by educated physicians. There are a lot of books here if you want to check who described the Nazi doctors and what they did.
Fanny, in January 1945 as the Allies advanced, the Germans forced you and the others who were still alive at Auschwitz to go on a death march. Would you tell us about the death march, what you experienced, and then about your liberation?
Well, we were all put on those closed trucks with one bread and Auschwitz was evacuated. Then we went with those trucks to Ravensbruck, which is quite a distance. Some of the people working here were kind enough to make me the maps and the distances from one place to another, just to realize.
It’s you know called a death march because so many people have died on that particular march. And, it was snowing and we were walking in the snow, and you could tell wherever there was a drop of blood, you knew that a live person was there. Our toes were frozen and we marched until the end of April.
In April, there was the last big battle between the Russians and the Germans that lasted for three days or maybe more. Because, by that time, I don’t know how we made it, but we were just giving up. We couldn’t stand up anymore. The six of us looked like, you know, you see like a garbage bag—you wouldn’t even pick it up or you wouldn’t even give it a second look.
But, the reason why we had been discovered was because the Russians at that time, after that big battle, knew that Germans were hiding wherever there was a corner where they could hide. And let me tell you, wherever the Russians found a German, there was no trial or nothing—they were just shot at the spot because they knew if they don’t, they were going to be killed.
They were very, very kind to us. They had a makeshift hospital. They cleaned us up. They didn’t have food, but they had milk and I think this is what has saved us because we didn’t have food for such a long time. Other people had been liberated either by the Americans or by the British and they had food.
And, of course, the soldiers were very happy to share the food with the survivors but many people didn’t make it. They died because their body was not used to it anymore and could not absorb the food. We were in that particular place with very caring physicians.
Don’t forget, we didn’t know the language and they didn’t know French, but they were kind and they were cleaning us up. They gave us as much medication as they had. Ten days later, there was a convoy from the Red Cross coming to find out if there were survivors.
Because by that time they had learned of Auschwitz and what had happened in that hell where so many people had been exterminated. Really killed either through experimentation or through the gas chambers.
And they tried to send us back where we came from. Another person also from Belgium took us to Brussels, where I lived before. The four others were sent to France because that’s where they came from.
Fanny, your liberation in 1945 came after (as you said, people here helped you look at the maps to see where you went), you marched for three months, you had typhus, you were in a very bad condition.
Frozen feet, no more nails and the eyes were white because of the fumes and the powder used at the ammunition factory.
So once you’re liberated and you return to Brussels, what did you do then? Tell us what you were able to do to get yourself back on your feet and particularly to reunite with Josiane and then with Jacques.
My older sister and her husband were already free because Belgium was liberated in September 1944. They had another Battle of the Bulge at the end of ’44 and the beginning of ’45, but Brussels was liberated. The first thing was, my older sister, once she got her apartment, she made sure she found out where my child was and she went and picked her up.
Tell us about the reunification.
I cannot tell you in words, the joy to find my child again. I’m sure there are mothers here who unfortunately, maybe have lost a child or who regained a child. This was the happiest day in my whole life I ever had.
Also, being that my daughter, my child, was afraid that she was going to lose me again, when we were sleeping, she made ties between her nightgown and my nightgown to make sure that I would not leave her again.
What were you able to find out, Fanny, about Josiane’s circumstances while she was hidden? Were you able to find out much about what had happened to her?
Yes, she was hidden and they saved her life so we have to be very, very, very thankful for so many wonderful people. Again, I’ll repeat it, Belgium was rationed and they were willing to share the little food they had at the time. Also, they didn’t get paid for all the care they did.
Of course, the children didn’t have the care which they’d normally have from their parents or from their mother, but they did the best they could have done. And, believe it or not, because of the kindness of so many, there’s a wonderful documentary here on the fifth floor. If you have a chance to see it, it shows you the priests and nuns and average people who have been interviewed by so many different countries to find out what made them do that. They said they did it because that was the thing to be done and they did it. Remember, all this has been done without money—just the kindness of people.
Fanny, once you were reunited with Josiane, then of course you would then be able to reunite with Jacques. Tell us how that came about.
My husband’s unit they were injured in England near Manchester. They had bombs flying—I don’t know what they call those bombs.
The V-2 rockets?
Yes, they were bombs without people and they had a target and didn’t make noise. They didn’t know where they were going to fall and many people had been killed. And my late husband was injured and he was in the hospital for almost two years.
And then we have been lucky, in 1946 I got my apartment back and I was reunited with my late husband and with my child. But I had so many medical problems. In Belgium, I went to many doctors. Here in America, I went to the best and I was a few times in the hospital.
And finally, it was found out that because of the experimentation done on us, I couldn’t have any children anymore, and we were hoping maybe to have another child to be whole again and this really until today has given me such an inferiority complex because I never felt whole again.
Fanny, it would take several years, but in 1949, the three of you—Jacques, Josiane and yourself—would immigrate to the United States and you would then begin to start a whole new life that brings us to today in 2008. We don’t have time to talk about what happened after that, but we do have just a few minutes perhaps to ask the audience if they’d like to ask you some questions.
Yes, I would like to thank everybody for coming today and listening to such an unbelievable part of my life. But if anybody feels that they want to ask me, I’d be very happy to answer.
Also, I want to tell you, the biggest treasures in my life is my family and my daughter is here with me today. How lucky I really am. That’s my treasures, and thanks to them, I’m able to continue to live and they give me hope and courage to continue. Again, thank you all for coming and listening. If anybody has any questions I will do my best to try to answer them.
We’re going to take a few questions now, and then I’ll do a closing for the program. I’ll turn back to Fanny for just a moment to end our program and then she will stay behind if anybody would like to come and talk to Fanny afterwards over here by the podium, so please feel free to do that when the program ends. Let’s have a few questions.
Fanny, the question is, what role did faith play for you through the whole experience that you went through of the Holocaust?
You know this is why I mentioned before, how important it was to us to still think of Yom Kippur, which is such an important date in the Jewish religion.
The question is that you mentioned that you were very close to six women in the camp—have you been able to keep in touch with those women or know what became of them?
We did for a while, but I’m the only one who has survived.
Fanny, were you able to stay in touch with them for a while after the war?
For a long time—the one in Belgium for a few years because she didn’t have anywhere to go, so she stayed with us for a while. But then again, I think the mental health was very important and even today, I still don’t feel like a whole person.
Fanny, we’re going to close the program in just a few moments. First I want to thank Fanny for being so willing to do this and to try to spend, in less than an hour, to describe all that you went through. It’s an impossible task and I think you’ve given us a remarkable, remarkable glimpse into what you experienced.
I’d like to thank our audience for being here and to remind you that we will have a First Person program on Wednesdays through the 27th of August, plus Thursdays in June and July. We’ll have another First Person program next Wednesday, March 26, when our First Person will be Mr. Fritz Gluckstein.
Mr. Gluckstein, who is from Germany, survived the Holocaust by managing to stay in Berlin throughout the war despite several arrests and other close calls. So we hope you can come back next week, or any other time we have a First Person program.
It’s our tradition at First Person that our first person has the last word and so with that, Fanny, I’d like to ask you if you have any closing thoughts to share with our audience before we end.
Yes, I want to thank each and every one for coming here today and to share and to listen to my incredible story.