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< Echoes of Memory

Life Changes

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By Ruth Cohen

I was born in Mukacevo, Czechoslovakia. My family was a close and warm family. They took care of each other and lived intertwined lives. My uncle lived right next door to us with three cousins. My grandparents lived nearby and after my grandfather died, my grandmother came to live with us. Other family members, living in towns farther away, would come to visit once a month.

We were a well-respected family in Mukacevo and in the region. My family was an intellectual family, with several doctors and rabbis. Education was valued, as was kindness and caring for the community. My family ran a soup kitchen for people in need of extra food in the community.

One of stories I recall is of how on Purim, people of the town would stop by my grandparents’ house to put on a “Purim Spiel.” The feeling of life and vitality that was present in our lives has remained with me over the years, as has the terrible sadness that overcame us as we caught wind of the horrific things happening to our family and others around us. And even then, my family helped others. My parents took in two children whose parents feared for their lives. They thought the children would be safer with our family. Unfortunately, they were wrong.

In 1938, when Prague was annexed by Germany, Czechoslovakia was partitioned. Our section of the country was returned to Hungary. Horthy, the president of Hungary, supported Hitler’s policies. Our lives changed completely. My family owned a wholesale liquor, wine, and beer manufacturing business, which was immediately confiscated by the government. A man from Budapest took over the management of the business, under my father and uncle’s tutelage.

I was almost eight years old. We had just received news that the area in which we were living was being annexed back to Hungary from Czechoslovakia.

In the morning my mother said, “I did not sleep all night, worrying about our future.” My father was equally concerned. We children got ready to go to school. On the way we stopped to pick up my best friend. We always walked to school together. She told me that her mom had spent the entire night being happy about the future. We talked about this all the way to school and were totally confused.

Our wonderful school, the Hebrew Gymnasium, changed. Girls and boys could no longer attend the same classes from fourth to eighth grades. There were many other changes as well.

In 1941 and 1942 news filtered back to us that some family members from Slovakia had been deported to Majdanek and killed. Our mother and all the family went into mourning and so our lives changed once more. From some girls who managed to escape we heard news of people in Poland being made to dig their own graves, lining up on the side and falling in as they were shot. For a while we housed many of the girls who had escaped. I do not know where they went after our house.

In March 1944, the Germans marched into Budapest and within a few weeks they had set up ghettoes. We had to vacate our houses and move to these designated ghettos. We were lucky—we moved to my aunt’s family compound, which happened to be on one of the streets designated for the ghetto.

Four or five weeks later we were marched to one of the brick factories in our city and loaded onto cattle cars. That was a horrific and life-changing day for many of us. Along with many other terrible things happening around us, one of our favorite teachers decided that she was not going to walk into the cattle car; she sat down on its steps instead. She was shot on the spot, with all of us watching. Most of the rest of us followed orders. The rumor was that we were being sent somewhere to work. We would be working in the fields. The sick and very old, including my own grandmother, were separated from all of us and herded onto the cattle cars. Three or four days later, we arrived in Auschwitz.

In reality, it was a lifetime later.

Arriving at the “ARBEIT MACHT FREI” sign in Auschwitz at the age of 14 at the end of May 1944, I remember being totally devoid of feelings. I remember being separated first from my father and then from my mother, my 12-and-a-half-year-old brother, and my two little adopted cousins, who were eight and ten years old.

Not having any idea of what was awaiting us, my older sister and I followed orders.

I do not remember anything about my head being shaved, showering, or taking my four brand new dresses off to put on the striped clothing and wooden clogs. My first memory is of entering barrack #30 in the C Lager (camp) with my sister and the many people who we were to share our new home with.

Suddenly a woman approached my sister and they hugged and cried. This young woman, Miriam Leitner, was the Block Alteste (barrack director); she and my sister spent a summer together at camp in 1938 or 1939. She was taken from Slovakia, along with many other young women, to somewhere in Poland. From there they were taken to the German front, where they were put to work and also made to serve as “women” for the soldiers. She and some of the other women survived and were brought to Auschwitz, where they got some posh jobs, such as Block Alteste or Lager Elteste. She took us into her very little room and told us that our mother, brother, and little cousins had most probably already been murdered. We could not believe her—it was not possible to fathom. Then she gave us a few cubes of sugar. As I was sucking the sugar, I remember feeling the energy swimming through my blood stream. I thought that was fascinating.

She made my sister her assistant—she was to keep the barracks clean and make sure that it was neat. Since I was only 14 years old, I qualified to be a Läuferin (messenger girl). She managed to arrange that job for me. Our job—I think there were eight or 12 of us messenger girls—was to stand at the gate of our camp where the German guards were housed in a booth and follow their orders to bring messages to everyone who needed to receive news or directives. This job most probably saved our lives in Auschwitz. For example, when I got sick with typhoid fever, the nurses in the infirmary always hid me when they knew that a selection would be taking place.

The Germans at the gate had lots of fun with us. Since we all spoke German, they spoke in very loud voices for us to hear about the atrocities that were going on, what and how people were being tortured and killed in the camps. They also kept cursing the Jews constantly.

I don’t remember much else, except standing outside early in the morning for cel appel (roll-call) in the freezing nasty weather everyday. I also remember feeling so sad each time someone was selected from our barrack and taken away. It always meant that we would never see them again, as they were taken to the crematorium.

One time my sister and I received a message from our father that he was going to be passing by on some road where we might be able to see each other. I have no idea how this came about. However, we did go to that road and we did manage to see him with scores of other men carrying blankets from one camp to another. It was great to know that some others in our family were still alive. For a while, we were very happy.

Another time we received another message. This one was from one of my uncles. He had just arrived from Terezin and was in the Lager next to ours. If we could, we should come to a certain spot by the electric fence at four in the afternoon. My sister and I did just that. The meeting was joyful and painful for all three of us. We met again several times after that. One day he told us that if on a day he did not show up, we should know that he had been taken to the gas chambers and murdered. Indeed, one day a female friend of his met us at the wires and told us that he sent us a message of lots of love and good-bye. That was an indescribable moment in my life.

Shortly after the attempted and failed uprising of the Sondercommando, my sister and I were selected to be shipped out of Auschwitz. This was late in October 1944.

©2011, Ruth Cohen. The text, images, and audio and video clips on this website are available for limited non-commercial, educational, and personal use only, or for fair use as defined in the United States copyright laws.

Tags:   ruth cohenechoes of memory, volume 6

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