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My Friend Lola

By Manya Friedman

A new year of uncertainty had just begun, 1945. It would be another year of hunger, pain, and misery. As I contemplated our future with my best friend, Lola, I wondered how much longer we could endure the brutalities. I could sense from the expression on her face that she was more concerned about the immediate, the present moment. She had not been feeling well for several days but did not dare complain, nor go to our camp doctor. In a labor camp there is no room for the sick or those unable to work.

She seemed to drag every morning; her body was unwilling to work. I helped her climb down from the bunk bed, supported her every morning at dawn while standing in line to be counted, and assisted her with her chores at work. I was her supervisor.

Then one day she just refused to get up. She was burning with fever. I felt the heat during the night, since we slept next to each other. I took her to the infirmary. Dr. Berkovitz, a French Jew, was very sympathetic. He was the second doctor at the camp. The first doctor was deported together with the Jewish camp overseer and the woman who gave birth at camp, for not reporting her pregnancy. The newborn was thrown against the wall by the enraged SS Lagerführer from the neighboring men’s camp. Dr. Berkovitz, though very sympathetic and fatherly, lacked the proper medications to cure any illness. I visited my friend every day despite restrictions.

Early in the morning on January 19, as our group was returning to camp after working the night shift, we could sense that something was out of the ordinary as we were approaching the camp. Girls were running in and out of the barrack. There was a big commotion. No one knew anything for certain and all kinds of rumors were circulating. Everyone was talking about evacuation. It seemed the Soviet army was approaching and the German camp authorities had decided to evacuate us to central Germany.

I was faced with a dilemma. Not only was I uncertain about my own future, but what should I do about my friend Lola in the infirmary? Should I leave her? Maybe she would be liberated by the Soviet army, but at the same time a rumor circulated that the camp would be burned down, to ensure that no evidence was left behind. I could not support my friend by myself, but after convincing another friend to help me, we took Lola from the infirmary. With support from both of us we managed together with the others to march to the railroad station. There were no railcars available and we could not return to our camp; the road was blocked. When we were leaving our camp, a group that marched from Auschwitz was waiting at the gate to enter for a rest. So we spent the night in a neighboring barn. The next morning we were loaded onto open rail wagons, the type used to transport coal. To overcome the January cold, each one of us had been given a blanket as we left the camp.

Each car was packed, with no room to sit down. I took my friend to a corner of the railcar, held on to the rails with my hands, and with my back pushed away the crowd so she would not be squashed. After almost ten days in the excruciating cold with only the snow to quench our thirst, we reached Ravensbrück. My friend, for some astonishing reason, felt much better. We spent some time in the Ravensbrück camp, then were transferred to a smaller camp, a subcamp of Ravensbrück. By then it was April—spring. We sat on the step leading to the barrack, trying to catch some rays of sun which seemed, for the most part, to be absent from the camps. We checked each other’s heads and removed our garments to try to eradicate the lice, but were mostly unsuccessful.

One night, again sharing a bunk bed with my friend on the upper-third tier, I felt like I was sleeping next to a hot oven. She again had a high temperature and was uttering incoherent sentences. I was faced with the same dreadful decision of what should be done. Should I take her to the infirmary? I did not even know if there was one in this camp, or if there was a doctor or nurse. And what if they would report her to the authorities, or they might send her away. How could I leave her like this? She would be missed at the roll call’s counting, and she could die from the fever. I decided I had to take her to the nurse. As before, I visited her daily, although this time I could only wave to her through the window.

A few days later, at dawn, while standing at roll call to be counted, I and a few other girls were selected from the line. Since a selection in camp never meant a better lot, I was concerned that it would be very distressing for my friend when she found out. I instructed the others not to mention anything about me. I decided I would rather have my friend think that I deserted her when I did not show up, rather than have her worry that I had been deported from camp.

This selection happened to be my liberation. It was the end of April 1945. The chairman of the Swedish Red Cross, Count Folke Bernadotte, was in Germany negotiating with Himmler, head of the Gestapo, for the release of some Scandinavian prisoners of war. He also insisted that Himmler release some prisoners from Ravensbrück camp.

After the war was over, after inquiring of different authorities, reading the lists published by many Jewish and other organizations, and corresponding with the police from my hometown, I came to the sad realization that I had lost my entire family—my parents and my two younger brothers. I also grieved the loss of my best friend, Lola, from camp. Sometime later, I received a letter from Germany, from Lola. She had been liberated by the Soviet army, after suffering a recurring illness. I read that letter over and over to assure myself that she really had survived. She also wrote to me that she found out that Dr. Berkovitz had survived as well. She made a special trip to visit him and thank him for his fatherly care. Dr. Berkovitz greeted her with disbelief. He could not believe that she had survived and attributed her survival to a miracle rather than to his medical expertise. He told her all he had had in camp was aspirin and Band-Aids.

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