The Museum’s Behind Every Name a Story project gives voice to the experiences of survivors during the Holocaust.
Deportation to Auschwitz
I met Josef Mengele, the German physician known for his barbaric and torturous medical experiments performed on Jews in concentration camps. It was an afternoon in Lager C in Birkenau, my home from May to November, 1944 when Mengele strode in to inspect the living conditions of the 800 prisoners housed there. He looked like a movie star in his high boots, white gloves and impeccable SS uniform. “Good afternoon, ladies. How are you? Are you comfortable,” he asked us politely. No one said a word. There was only complete and utter silence. We were immobilized with fear; afraid that the penalty for daring to speak to this terrifying figure would be death. The people on the bottom level of the three-tiered bed were crouched over; they had no room to sit up straight. We looked like animals in a cage with our shaved heads and the ripped rags wrapped around our emaciated bodies. “When will I see my mother?” one woman finally asked in a very low voice, almost like a whisper. “In a few weeks, don’t worry,” Mengele answered politely and pleasantly. “When will I see my little girl?” a second woman got the courage to ask, when she saw that the first woman hadn’t been beaten for speaking up. Mengele gave her the same answer. We almost believed him. He looked so elegant and civilized compared to us that we felt like we were looking at God. Of course he meant that we’d see our loved ones in a few weeks when we joined them in heaven after going up in smoke from the crematorium. Mengele said he would visit us again, but he never came back.
My journey to Auschwitz-Birkenau began on May 19, 1944 when I boarded the train with my parents, three younger sisters and two brothers.
Our homeland, Czechoslovakia, had been annihilated in March of 1939. Our region was returned to Hungary from which it had been taken after World War I, while other sections of the country became a German Protectorate. I was 21-years-old in early April, 1944, when my family and I were forced to leave our home in the predominantly non-Jewish area where we lived in Munkachevo, and moved to Jewish Street in the Jewish ghetto. We brought only those possessions we could carry, and lived on the floor of someone’s house. Jewish Street was the dirtiest street I ever saw. A few weeks later, the order came for us to get ready to leave for “relocation.” Germany was weakening against the onslaughts of the Allies, but the shipments of Jews to concentration camps were continuing on a regular basis.
We arrived at a brick factory along with hundreds of other people from the ghetto, and we were told that it would be several days until we were moved to the rail station to board our train for relocation. We waited at the brick factory for five days while German and Hungarian soldiers stood guard. We all built temporary shelters for ourselves from the bricks that were scattered around. The soldiers tortured us there for their personal entertainment. We had to climb in and out of the little brick shelters like dogs. The soldiers hit people with a stick while making them jump around on all fours, and after they had their laughs, they sent them back to their holes.
Finally, we boarded a train that was used to carry cattle during ordinary times. We had no idea where we were going. My family and I did know that two of the older sons in our family of ten children were already dead. In 1942, Michael was taken by the Hungarians to work in a labor camp, and we received a notice that he was killed in action. Herman, who had run away from home at the age of 16 to fight with the Czechoslovak army against the Germans and Hungarians had also been killed in action. Samuel and Nathan tried to leave the country in 1942, but never made it. The borders were already closed. They were taken prisoner by the Hungarians and sent to Terezin [Theresienstadt], at once a ghetto, concentration camp, and forced labor camp near Prague in Czechoslovakia; that became famous after it was opened to officials of the International Committee of the Red Cross as “proof” of how well Hitler was supposedly treating the Jews. Nathan was one of the Jews taken from Terezin to Poland to help build Birkenau. I remember we received a letter from Nathan that he had smuggled out from Terezin. We should have mercy on him and send him some food, he wrote. The lice were eating him up and he was starving to death. But we had no food to send him and he would never have gotten it even if we did. We never heard from him again. When I arrived at Auschwitz, I met a friend of his who showed me the scaffold where he was hanged. I found out that he had been working as an orderly for an SS man, a high position for a prisoner. He had gotten hold of some money and jewelry that was taken from new arrivals to the camp, and he wanted to buy his way to freedom. He paid off a guard to give him his SS uniform and let him escape. But the guard never showed up to the appointed place. Nathan was 28-years-old when he was hanged.
After the war I learned that my brother, Samuel, had been taken from Terezin to the concentration camp, Dachau. I never found out what happened to him, only that he never came back. Another brother, Benze, was taken by the Hungarians in 1942 to help dig ditches for the Hungarian soldiers. However, what he really did was help the Hungarians evacuate Jews to the front. He witnessed the executions of countless German and Polish Jews, and returned home in the fall of 1943 with white hair. He was there on that spring day in 1944 when we boarded the cattle train to Auschwitz.
The trip lasted three days. The 80-100 people jammed into each car received no food or water during those three days. There was no room to lie down, only to kneel or sit crouched against other miserable people. It was a nightmare. People were dying and going insane; screaming. The only sanitary facilities we had were pots some people had brought along for their relocation, but after three days, those pots didn’t help the situation. When it rained we took turns standing by the window to catch a few drops of water on our tongues.
We arrived at the platform of Birkenau at dusk on a Sunday evening. It was Shavuot. We disembarked the train and were told to line up in rows of fives, men to one side and women to the other. It was always in fives. Old people and those who didn’t have the strength to walk were told to go to the wagons that would take them to their new homes. We left our packages behind, which the soldiers said would be delivered to us. After those three days on the train, we couldn’t even think anymore. We lined up as they instructed us, not having any idea what was ahead. Esther, my youngest sister, had been very sick in the train, so I told her and my mother to go in the wagon because it would be easier for them, and we would meet later. I never saw either one alive again. My mother and my 12-year-old sister with beautiful long blond braids were both gassed to death and cremated that very night.
The SS men and their dogs began marching us down the road and suddenly we saw the big chimneys ahead. We didn’t know where we were. I saw a pair of eyeglasses and crutches by the side of the road and wondered to myself why the owner would leave them there, when surely he still needed them. How naïve I still was to think the owner of those glasses and crutches was alive.
I was with my two younger sisters, Hermine, 20, and Blanche, 16. My father and brothers Joseph and Benze were with the men, who were kept separately from that point on. Joseph and my father were destined to die, while Benze, who survived, didn’t see any of us again until after the war.
I arrived with my two sisters to what I now know was called the Central Sauna, the reception building in Birkenau where prisoners were processed and their clothes were disinfected and deloused. There were two doctors sitting at a table, and they separated us once again. Half of us, chosen at the discretion of the doctors, went back outside for a short walk to the gas chambers. My sisters and I were in the half that went for real showers down the corridor of the Sauna building.
We were told to remove our clothes and place them in the cubicles provided. We were given soap and took a group shower, after which we were led into another room where all hair was shaved from our heads and bodies. We were given gray cotton shift dresses, which were the only material possessions we would ever have in Auschwitz. Then the SS women took over and began marching us to the barracks. It started to rain, and when I felt the drops of water bouncing off my bare head, I began for the first time to feel very frightened. We were brought to Lager C, a barracks filled with three-tiered beds, with wooden boards serving as mattresses. Fourteen people slept on each tier and shared one blanket. We were like sardines. When one person wanted to turn, everyone had to turn. For years afterward I had a black mark from lying on my side on that wooden board.
We were awakened at 4 a.m. that first morning and asked what our skills were. The maids and cooks were the lucky ones. Their skills were needed and they were given regular jobs. The people who had no skills that were of immediate use to the Germans were chosen to perform odd jobs like hauling rocks from one place to the other. We were then lined up with the rest of the camp for a mass counting, which was to become standard procedure. At 4 a.m. the entire prisoner population would be lined up in rows of five for counting and inspection. Selections were made for the gas chambers. If someone couldn’t be accounted for, the entire camp had to kneel until the person was found, dead or alive. Anyone who stood up was killed. And every morning, prisoners who had decided to kill themselves could be seen lying dead by the electric fence surrounding the camp.
That first day we knelt barefoot and freezing until noon. When we returned to the barracks, each group of 14 people who shared a bed was given one bowl of soup, filled with rocks, greens, garbage; anything that was available. There were no spoons, everyone had one sip at a time while the others watched to make sure no one cheated and took more than her share. I wasn’t hungry enough at that point to eat. I had seen the woman preparing the soup sticking her arthritic feet into it to warm them. We waited in the barracks until 5 p.m., when the entire camp was again assembled for counting and selection. Afterwards, we were given dinner consisting of one slice of bread and a piece of margarine. This time I ate it.
By that night, all of us were already terrified and crying. A prisoner who had been there for a while came into our barracks and said, “Do you know where your parents are? They’re up in smoke,” pointing towards one of the chimneys. That’s when I realized my parents and little sister, Esther, were no longer alive.
One day I saw my 13-year-old brother, Joseph, playing with other children in an enclosed area, and he asked me where his mother and sister, Esther, were. I told him they were napping. That was the last time I saw Joseph. I learned later that he was killed when the Germans evacuated him along with 400 other children from Auschwitz as the Allied forces approached. The Allies thought the train was carrying supplies and ammunition for the German troops and bombed it, killing everyone aboard. I never saw my father again after our arrival at Auschwitz at dusk on Shavuot, and I believe he was murdered there in the gas chamber.
All the days at Auschwitz continued much like the first. After the first counting and gas chamber selection was over at about noon, we had our one chance of the day to use the sanitary facilities, which consisted of hundreds of holes dug into the ground in one section of the camp. Urinating at the wrong time could mean death. One of the worst sights I saw in the war was that of an SS woman savagely beating a teenage girl to death for urinating at the wrong time.
We were counted and selected for the gas chambers two or three times a day; sometimes all day. Anyone who wasn’t looking well and couldn’t hide it was immediately sent to the gas chamber. Some people, the lucky ones, were chosen to leave Auschwitz and go to work in Germany. Anything was better than being in Auschwitz, where you never knew if you were going to live through the day. At first, when the SS women asked us who wasn’t feeling well, we foolishly thought they wanted to take care of the sick. It didn’t take long for us to realize that those who went with the SS women never came back.
Sometimes sick prisoners tried to outwit the SS men and women who were in charge of the gas chamber selections. Every barracks had a kitchen next to its backyard. When we were let out into the backyard, some people would take scraps of beets lying on the ground and rub them on their cheeks to make them look red and healthy. That was also risky, though, because occasionally the SS would select the “healthy” prisoners to give blood for the German soldiers. The reward for this would be an extra piece of salami. When the selection process would go on all day, the task of escaping death became as tricky as running through a loaded minefield. Yet those with guts could survive.
One day in October, my 16-year-old sister, Blanche, was selected for the gas chamber. Along with the other condemned, she was put into an empty barracks that had a piece of wire stretched across the door, showing it was forbidden to enter. I instantly knew I would never give my little sister to the Germans without resistance. I told her to make sure to stay near the door. She was crying. After a few hours, I went with my other sister, Hermine, to get her. I stepped over the wire, went inside, grabbed her and wrapped her in a blanket. There was bedlam inside the barracks of the condemned. People were screaming and crying, and the guards were busy trying to maintain order. Luckily, there were no guards outside. We crawled back to C Lager.
Not surprisingly, food was constantly on our minds. For hours at a time, we would talk about the foods we had eaten at home; describing how the food looked and saying we would gladly give ten years of our lives for a good meal. The dinner menu at Auschwitz never varied much. It was always either jelly or margarine with a slice of bread, and, occasionally, a piece of salami. I always ate my bread right away, but some people liked to save their slice for the next day. It gave them security to know they had that piece of bread waiting. In the morning it would be covered with the bedbugs that ate themselves into the wooden boards and bit us while we slept. But people just blew the bedbugs off their bread and ate it anyway. Insects weren’t considered disgusting in Auschwitz. Sometimes we even ate grass, like cows do. We knew the grass had been urinated upon, but it didn’t matter to us. When a group went to the gas chamber, there were, occasionally, extra rations of food left over. I actually looked forward to this. Can you imagine waiting for people to die, so that you can get an extra piece of rotten potato one inch in diameter that was better fit for pigs than humans? I was terribly ashamed of that, and I still am. You really became an animal there. Every day was like a hundred years.
Our suffering at Auschwitz-Birkenau ended in November, 1944, when my two sisters and I were sent to work in Germany. The Russians were very close, and the Germans had begun evacuating the camp. Air raids were occurring frequently by that time and bombs were being dropped on Auschwitz regularly. They darkened the camp during the air raids, but we were actually praying for the bombs to hit us. I didn’t care if I died, as long as it took some Germans with me.
We left Auschwitz on a cold night. It was not a joyous occasion. It was snowing, and we were standing outside, almost naked. We stood one behind the other, holding each other very tightly to keep warm. At dawn, they led us into the washroom to take showers. They gave us clothes, and shoes that didn’t fit, but at least they were shoes. Shoes were very hard to come by in Auschwitz. Our coats each had a huge red cross on the back so we could be seen if we tried to escape. As they loaded us onto the train, they threw each person a loaf of bread. Everyone dropped it, they were so surprised to be getting an entire loaf of bread.
The train went along, and people were dropped off periodically. Dachau was one of the stops. As we traveled through Germany, we looked out the window and saw normal people dressed up and traveling with their children. We were shocked to realize there were still people in the world, living normal lives. We no longer looked human, with our emaciated bodies, sunken faces and shaved heads. I didn’t know it at the time, but I weighed less than 80 pounds. I felt very sick in the train, with a terrible toothache. I couldn’t eat my loaf of bread. I felt at my last edge and wasn’t even happy to be leaving Auschwitz. I just wanted to live long enough to tell the world what had happened.
We were sent to work in an ammunition factory in Torgau, about 160 kilometers from Berlin, where we remained until April, 1945. Our work was to drag 50-pound bombs out of the forest that the Germans wanted to move to a safer location, in view of the imminent arrival of the Allies. Our living conditions improved there. The beds were two-tiered instead of three, and four people instead of fourteen slept on each tier. We felt we were human again, although we still weren’t getting enough nutrition to grow back our hair. In April, the Germans bombed their own factory. They were evacuating and wanted to leave nothing behind for the Russians. There were 250 of us working there, and our commander regretfully told us that he would have to kill us, since the front was rapidly approaching. Several days later he lined us up and we were sure we would be shot. Instead, he announced he decided to spare us, so we could put in a good word for him to the Americans and Russians if he was caught.
The Americans were the first to arrive at Torgau. I remember they lined us up and told us we were free. A rabbi was praying. When the Americans left, the Russians arrived and began brutally attacking us. Daughters were raped as their mothers watched. Only by running for our lives into the forest and hiding, did my sisters and I manage to escape the Russians.
The next step to freedom was a barefoot march to Leipzig, Germany, from dawn until 1 a.m. the following morning. Not one building was left standing in Leipzig; there was only rubble. From there we were taken on a cattle train by the Americans, who had a separate compartment, on a three-week stop and go journey to Prague, Czechoslovakia. We spent the next several months recovering in a school that had been converted into a refugee camp by the Red Cross.
The first thing I did after recovering physically was to take a train back to my hometown, Munkachevo. I walked from the station to the house where I used to live. Strangers were living there. I asked if any of my mother's belongings were still there, I said I was her daughter and she would want me to have them. They told me nothing was left; it had all been thrown away, and they shut the door in my face.
I left Munkachevo forever and spent the next several months wandering around Hungary and Czechoslovakia, boarding the train and disembarking at random cities, getting accustomed to being without parents and a home. At every station, names of survivors who were looking for relatives were posted. I looked on every list, but never found the names of my parents or any of my missing brothers and sisters.
Back in Prague when I was reunited with my sisters, we experienced some amazingly good luck for the first time. We were walking down the street when I suddenly recognized my older brother, Herman, whom we had long thought was dead. We had even sat Shiva for him in 1942. He didn’t recognize us, but I knew without a doubt it was him from a scar on his face from a horse kick. We were all crying in the street. Herman, always the independent rebel, assumed we were dead and never looked for us. If he had looked, he would have seen our names posted on every list of survivors. It turned out that while Herman was traveling all over Europe and fighting against the Germans with the Czechoslovak army, he threw out his identification papers to protect his family in the event he was caught and taken prisoner. Someone found them, and assumed the owner was dead. At the time of our reunion, Herman was dating the daughter of Prague’s police commissioner and was doing very well. He had her cooking for us constantly, and she even gave us some of her clothes.
By 1948 my sister Hermine and I had both met the men who would become our husbands and we were married in Czechoslovakia. Between 1948 and 1949, my surviving brothers, Benze and Herman, myself, Hermine and our husbands, as well as our youngest sister, Blanche, all left our homeland and moved to the United States. Not one of us ever set foot again in the Czech Republic, Hungary or Germany; not once; not ever again.
Irene Safran Cliffside Park, New Jersey May 1978