November 01, 2015
By Agi Geva
I had never known what the word means. I had never dreamt that my life would depend on it. I had never imagined that one day someone would have the power, just by looking at me, to decide whether I would live or die—and that just by the movement of a hand pointing in the direction I was supposed to move, my fate would be decided.
It happened to me twice.
On March 19, 1944, the German army entered Hungary and occupied it. On that same day, my dad, Zoltan, passed away. He had already been very ill for a long time.
From that day on, nothing made sense to me. Impossible, unexplainable, horrible, and unimaginable events started to take place, as if we had been taking part in a horror movie. Nevertheless, we had the hope that it would eventually end. Every day was different, with bad surprises, new restrictions, and humiliations.
We ended up being deported from our hometown, Miskolcz, and from our homeland, Hungary, to Poland, to the concentration camp of Auschwitz. After a few miserable weeks, we were transported to Plaszow. We were sure that we were getting to a better place, as what could be worse than Auschwitz? There were no selections upon our arrival, which made it already better, and we had better bunks and more food.
At Plaszow we were treated exactly as if we had gone back thousands of years in time, as if we were the slaves in Egypt. There were many assignments of humiliating work. One of them was the one my mom, Rosalia, my sister, Shosha, and I were assigned to, together with many more inmates. We had to carry rocks up a hill. They were big rocks, of course. We put them down at the top of the hill and then the next day we had to carry them back to where we had picked them up originally. It was even more difficult to carry them downhill. Those of us who did not pick up a big enough rock were beaten, as we had seen in some drawings of biblical pictures. My sister, Shosha, who marked her 13th birthday in Plaszow, was one of those people who were beaten. She could hardly move those rocks, but she was forced to do so.
Our mom had repeatedly warned us not to tell our real age. When we were asked, we had to say we were 18 and 19 in order to stay together. We also were warned not to refer to one another as mom or sister. Rosalia saw the way families were separated when they had used the terms “mom,” “grandma,” or “daughter.”
And then one day, we heard cannon shots. Our hopes soared. “The Russians are nearing; they are going to liberate us,” we thought. But it did not happen. The Germans wanted all of us to leave the camp. We were herded into cattle cars and we left Plaszow. We always felt desperate when change occurred. Where now? Our mother consoled us: “This time it could not be worse,” she kept on telling us.
After a day’s journey the train stopped. The doors were opened. Those who recognized the place started to cry, to despair. Mom had no consoling words this time—we were back in Auschwitz.
We looked bad; we were very thin. Our skin was burned badly from working so many hours in the sun. Our mother had to make decisions quickly. She saw the German officer selecting already. She said: “I shall go first, Shosha will go second, and Agi will be last, as she looks the worse among us.” She told us to try to follow her, to wherever she would be sent. She took the risk of all of us being killed together, instead of our going through unknown suffering without her looking after us. She also reminded us to ask, if possible, to go to a work camp, as workers were always needed.
She was shaking when she faced the selection officer. He made a move with his hand, sending her right. Shosha was sent to the right and I was to go to the left. I did not move. I remarked, “I would like to go there,” showing the direction in which my family had gone. There I was so young, frail, and weak, standing opposite that huge SS German officer, not knowing at the time that I was actually negotiating for my life. All around there were German soldiers pointing guns at me. It seemed that everything froze. Everything came to a standstill until the end of the conversation. And then, as if in slow motion, the conversation continued.
“Because that is a work camp,” I said in German.
“You do not look as if you could still work,” he said, surprised.
“Let me prove it.”
And at this point he realized that we were speaking German.
“This is a Hungarian transport, how come you speak German so well?” he asked.
I cannot remember my answer. He looked me over and said, “Go where you wish.”
When I started to go after my mother, she did not see me. She had fainted already. She was so sure that if one of us was taken away, none of us could survive.
Soon after that, I fainted too for the first time in my life. The reason was the tattooing. After the selection, we all got tattoos, a series of numbers on our left arm that left me so humiliated and hurt mentally and physically. Only much later did we find out that the selecting SS officer was one of the most notorious doctors in Auschwitz, named Mengele. He does not deserve the title “Dr” or even to have his name written in capital letters. When I was asked, was I not afraid when I was facing the famous doctor, I always said, “No, I was more afraid of my mom” had I not asked to go to a work camp. Besides, at that time I really had no idea yet who he was and what he signified.
My dad also had a great part in saving our lives, since he had explained to us girls many years before the war that Shosha and I had to learn to speak multiple languages, as there might come a time that that knowledge would be the only thing that couldn’t be taken away from us. He had made arrangements for us to study German and English, and he supervised our progress throughout the years of our childhood.
When I returned to Hungary after several decades, I could not find his grave.
In 1944 there was no time, no possibility to mark it with an engraved stone. His spirit and memory live in me all the time though. I wish to pay tribute to my parents for their foresight, their wisdom in succeeding in many different ways to save us, Shosha and me, and keep us alive, no matter what.
* * *
My mother remarried and lived in Israel on a kibbutz until she died at the age of almost 98. She had five grandchildren and 17 great-grand children. Shosha still lives on the same kibbutz, and her late husband also was a Holocaust survivor. Shosha has 13 grandchildren and 4 great-grand children, all who live in Israel.
Neither Mom, nor Shosha or her husband, wanted to talk about the Holocaust. Only last year did Shosha agree to give her testimony to Yad Vashem. I lived for 52 years in Israel, first in Haifa and the last 10 years in Tel Aviv. Seven years ago, my daughter and her family invited me to stay with them here, in the United States, and I have been living here ever since. My son lives in Tel Aviv with his family. I have visited Israel every year since then.
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