Auschwitz: The Beginning, June 1944
The trip ended—we arrived on at Auschwitz on Shavuos. We heard “aussteigen aussteigen!”. (Get out! Get out!) It was night. It was like a burning hell, not bodies, but piles and piles of luggage that had been confiscated from the Jews. We saw people in striped uniforms—who were they? The men in uniforms pulled everyone off the train. Young people to the right, men to the left, older people straight ahead. I wanted to follow our mother and grandmother, but a prisoner made me go to the right—“you'll be better off” he said.
We five sisters hid our father, so they wouldn't take him away from us with the men. But the prisoners saw him and pulled him out—they knew we were hiding someone. He went with the men. The people who worked in the crematorium told us that the people in the new transports were sent immediately to the gas chamber and then cremated. Our father was 62 years old, our mother was 61, and our grandmother was 93.
In Auschwitz, we were brought to special barracks [probably Camp C]. In Esther's voice: I volunteered to take the dead people into the camp to see if I could find our parents. A girlfriend and I carried a body in the ambulance, to see if I could find them. There was nobody there. This was the Vernichtungs (extermination) camp—I think it was in Birkenau. Dr. Mengele came there every week to do the selection. [Note: Many Auschwitz survivors recall seeing and interacting with Mengele, the SS men actually seen by the sisters may have been other SS personnel. Josef Mengele was one of about 20 SS physicians who worked on the selection ramp.]
Dr. Mengele would point at the people in the line, as if to say “You and you go to the left side, go burn a little bit.” Once thousands of kids came in from Lódz, Poland, and some girls were hiding under our bunk. Mengele took something out of his pocket, and hit the four girls. All four of them died—what a monster he was. One day, he befriended a little gypsy boy and dressed him like his own son—dressed him up in a Nazi uniform—and the next day he threw the boy into the gas chamber alive; that's what Mengele did.
In Esther's voice: They gave me a silk dress and a slip, but no underwear. The dress was too long, so I tore a part of it off to wear like a scarf on her head. That night somebody stole the scarf from my head, and someone stole my shoes. I slept in a barrack, on a cement floor, for about a week—they gave us a little soup. We were five sisters together. We did not have numbers tattooed on our arms—we did not know why. [Note: They probably did not receive tattoos because they were being held in a special compound for prisoners to be sent to other concentration camps in Germany.]
Daily Life in Auschwitz: June to October 1944
In Goldie's voice: One night, at two o'clock in the morning, I went with a group of girls—we sneaked out of the barracks to go take showers. While we were in the large round shower room, someone stole all of our clothing, including our underwear and shoes. We had to return to our barracks naked.
One day someone found some beet peels. We rubbed our cheeks with the beet peels to give ourselves some color.
Our sister Goldie (Iren) was a very compassionate woman. She tore the knitted sleeve off her dress to give Esther a hat, and gave the other sleeve to Chana (Anna). So she had no sleeves. Goldie gave Esther her stockings, and she kept her shoes.
Finally, we were sent into a barrack holding a thousand girls. There were twelve girls in each bunk, four layers, three girls on each layer, sleeping head to foot. There was nothing on the boards of the bunk. People were screaming, going crazy, yelling “I want chocolate cake, I want chicken fricassee”—they went wild. We heard that the Nazis put something into the bread and the coffee to calm us down, and to stop us from getting our periods. The people who didn't drink the coffee ended up committing suicide.
In Esther's voice: I never complained, I was just sitting like a “dummy.” My older sisters went to one of the Blockältesten (supervisors), Etta Rubinrot, and told her they knew how to sew. They sewed beautiful clothing for this woman. Otherwise there was nothing to do, just the roll call every morning and evening. One day, out of the one thousand girls at roll call, one girl was missing. From four o'clock until twelve o'clock we were kneeling outside; they wanted to find the girl. A thousand girls were suffering. She was hiding in the latrine and when she came out, they killed her.
In Esther's voice: I did nothing, except for pulling thread out of clothes to help my sisters. On the first day, we sat in a circle on the bunk, and we passed around a big pot of soup. Everyone took a sip. I got a big chunk of meat, and the blockälteste said “spit it out—this is human meat!” After that, I ate only the bread and the coffee, and I never touched anything with meat in it. The soup was terrible—it had bran in it—you had to spit it out. The blockälteste liked us because we sewed for her. She gave us the pail from the margarine so we could lick it out.
In Goldie's voice: Many girls would keep their daily bread in a sack. Once when I returned from taking a shower, I found that my sack had been stolen. Across the barrack, another girl discovered that her bunkmate had eaten my bread in bed. The girl beat her until she finally returned my sack, but it was already empty.
Latrine call was at 4:00 am, there were about 100 seats, for men and women. You would go to the bathroom and wash. It was freezing. There was no soap, no towels. Right after that was roll call until 9:00 in the morning when we were counted. At 10:00, the sun came out so strong, and the electric wires gave off so much heat, that we had blisters on our lips and our bodies. One day we saw a woman who worked in the kitchen, she wanted to give her child a little soup, she put the child on a piece of wood to slide him under the wire—the guards shot the mother. The little girl fell on the wire and was electrocuted. Many people would go to “touch the wire” and then they were lying there dead—they looked so beautiful.
One mother had three daughters and she ate up their bread so the girls were yelling, “Everybody's mother was killed, why couldn't they kill you?” The people went crazy there; they didn't know what they were saying.
We saw many beatings. There were four sisters hiding under our bunk—Mengele [or another camp official] saw them, pulled them out, took an instrument out of his pocket, and hit them all. They died in front of us. In Esther's voice: I could never eat a piece of meat because of the smell of burning flesh and hair.
We saw the flames, heard the screaming, and smelled the burning flesh and burning hair. All night long we heard screaming. The flames were shooting high, and the whole sky was red.
One night—it was probably August—it was pouring. We were on the top bunk (we were privileged because we sewed for the blockälteste). Esther: I must have caught a sore throat, I woke up with a rash and 106 fever. It was scarlet fever, other girls had it too. We were all sent to the doctor, who said you have to go to the crematorium. My four sisters started to scream, and told the blockälteste that they wouldn't sew for her anymore. So the doctor said okay, you have to go out for the roll call, but during the day you can lie next to the heater. I was burning up—I was dying. I saw my mother Rivka come to me, and she pushed me back with her two hands. She said “Not yet”. She did this several times. She looked beautiful.
Then, my fever broke, and I felt better. The next week Mengele came for a selection. My whole body was peeling, so he threw me to the left. Also my sister Berta—we were to be taken to the gas chambers. We went to touch the wire. We were so close to the wire, but the blockälteste saw us, and called “Grossman! Grossman!.” She pulled us away so we could stay with our sisters—she needed us.
In Goldie's voice: I dreamed one night that I was in an empty big place, naked, running, screaming. I saw the searchlights focusing on me, and there was no one else around. I yelled out, "Apuka (Father), I can't stand it anymore!" Our father said be patient until Hoshana Rabba. (When we were released, we saw Jewish guys on a truck, one threw her a twig, he said it was for Hoshana Rabba.)
Leaving Auschwitz: October 1944
The next day we heard that there would be another selection. Goldie traded a week's worth of bread for a pillowcase to put on my head as a scarf, so that I would look healthy. There was a good-looking man with a long white beard, he looked like Eliyahu (Elijah the prophet), who was selecting people to go to a factory. The Blockälteste said, “Please stay. I saved you so many times—don't go away.” Then we said to each other, “Let's go. Whatever is going to happen, at least we are five together.” The Blockälteste said that if we see the trucks coming in the morning, we should say shema yisrael because this is our end. They sent us to the gas chambers. [Note: The sisters were being held in a transit camp, so probably were sent to a holding compound and not the gas chambers.]
We were sitting there for two nights and one day, waiting for something to happen. In the morning the trucks came with hundreds of bodies, and there was no room left to burn people, so they released us from the gas chambers, and they gave each of us a dress and a coat and shoes, and took us to the railroad station. The Germans were waiting there. They gave us a baked potato and salami. In October 1944, they took us out of Auschwitz. We didn't know where they were taking us. These were our prisoner numbers [Buchenwald numbers]:
They sent us to Altenburg, a place in the Thüringen region of Germany, where there was a Hasag aircraft parts factory [subcamp of Buchenwald]. At Altenburg, we received new prisoner [Buchenwald] numbers:
Altenburg Factory: October 1944 to April 1945
When we arrived at the factory, we got a bowl and a spoon, and they gave us noodles in milk to eat. We each had a bunk bed with a blanket—it was like heaven. We worked all night—from 6 pm to 6 am. The work was very hard—we were inspecting bullets to see if the size was right. Our sister was testing to make sure that the thread was good. During the day the bombs were coming so we went to the bunker. Etuka Rubinrot (who was our Blockälteste in Auschwitz) gave seven tickets to our five sisters so that we could get extra soup. In Esther's voice: One evening I felt like I was being watched—they were calling me a saboteur. The bullets that I inspected didn't fit in the machine gun. But I showed them that the bullet fit in my machine—it was a miracle.
SS guards walked around with guns, and the girls were also watched by others who stared through holes in the walls. After passing through my machine, the bullets went into a room, where they were dipped in ammonia, then loaded into the guns. We had to pass the bullets in trays of fifty, and the trays were very heavy. The SS woman supervisor thought we weren't working fast enough. She yelled “mach schnell” and dropped three trays into our sister Adel (Udika's) arms, and she started to spit up blood—something burst in her lungs. She was barely eating after that; she was very skinny and very weak. They took her away from us, to a hospital, but there was no medication.
One night, Berta (Binuka) was lying down on the floor in the ammunitions factory because she was hungry and tired. I said to her, “The Germans will come and they will take you away.” Berta said she didn't care. The next day I went to the garbage dump looking for turnips. I filled the hood of my sweater with turnip peels—I wanted my sister to have something to eat. The commandant came after me and knocked me on my head with the butt of his gun; my glasses flew away and I ran back to the barracks. They came after me; they called my number—I thought for sure that this was my end. My sister told the supervisor that the commandant was after me, so the supervisor saved me again.
At night, we walked home, frequently barefoot (even during the snowy winter months), for our shoes had been stolen or taken away. In Goldie's voice: My legs were covered in bursting blisters from sunburn, and my skin was scaly from malnourishment.
Starting in January (1945), there was nothing to eat. One SS supervisor brought in an apple kuchen at Christmastime, her mother had sent it. She shared it with us because we were her favorites.
One day they turned off the lights in the factory, they said that there was no more electricity, and we had to go to the barracks. In Esther's voice: I had washed my dress and put it on the oven to dry, and I didn't have time to grab it. I covered myself with a blanket. The factory supervisors got an order to kill all 800 of us, but the yard was too small, so they had to take us to the next city. We were walking through the front—everything was burning around us.
We saw a German woman carrying clothes, who gave us advice: “Children, slow down, sit down. Even if the commandant comes, you tell him that you're not going.” The commandant came—he said “Mach schnell—they are here!” A German plane came very low and started shooting at us with machine gun fire. My hair burned off because a burning tree fell on me. My sister threw something on my head to smother the fire. We were all huddled together. It was very quiet.
It was Friday, April 13, 1945. One boy looked down and saw American tanks lined up. He said “children we are free.” As I was running, I lost the blanket, and I was completely naked. A German guy brought me something to wear.
In Goldie's voice: One hundred girls died when they ate bread which they had found in an abandoned warehouse. They had been poisoned—whether by food poisoning, from bread that was too rich for their stomachs, or by a last malicious act on the part of the Germans, I do not know. Finally the girls realized to stop eating from that food supply. I realized that we should only eat rice and other mild foods; our bodies were just skin and bones.
Related Map Links
Europe 1943-1944, Auschwitz indicated
Auschwitz environs, summer 1944
Auschwitz I camp, 1944
Auschwitz II (Birkenau) camp, summer 1944
Auschwitz III (Monowitz) camp, 1944
Auschwitz subcamp system, Upper Silesia 1941-1944