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< Echoes of Memory

The Sonderkarte

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By Manya Friedman

By the end of 1940, about half of the population from our city of 28,000 Jews, plus the Jews brought in from the neighboring towns, had already been deported. The Dulag (transit camp) was always full to capacity with Jews awaiting deportation either to labor or concentration camps. Jews started thinking of ways that they could be useful to the Germans so they could remain in place.

It took a lot of effort to convince the German authorities in our area that the Jews could be useful to them by producing uniforms and boots for their military. When the Germans finally did agree, the first shops were opened in March 1941. The Germans presumably hoped to get big bribes from Jews hoping to get employment and avoid deportation. This of course raised the hopes of some Jews.

The Sonderkarte, which we called a “right to life,” came into existence when the first shop was opened. The card was supposed to shield us from deportation.

I got employment in one of the shops after my parents were forced to provide a sewing machine. I did not have much sewing experience, but I was lucky to be seated between two professional seamstresses who probably felt sorry for me. As soon as they produced their quota—which for them was easy—they helped me make my quota of pieces. Later I became proficient enough to do it myself. I was even given the job of sewing in collars and stitching on pockets. During normal times I would probably have been proud of my accomplishment, but our work was done with the pain of hunger and tears.

The work was demanding. Our supervisor, a one-armed Nazi who had been a high-ranking military member but was injured in the war, inspected every piece we handed in. He counted the number of stitches to the centimeter. We were producing the uniforms for the Nazi soldiers, the mustard-colored shirts for the Hitler Youth, and white coveralls for camouflage for the Nazi soldiers fighting on the Russian front in winter.

We were also making some garments from material that was partially made from wood pulp. The splinters were still imbedded in the cloth, which often caused infections in our fingers.

The pay was minimal. One could not survive on it; often girls fainted at work from lack of nourishment. And the daily long marches to work from the ghetto and back, guided by the Jewish militia, were exhausting. Our ghetto was at a distance from the city, in a poor, undeveloped neighborhood previously occupied by blue-collar laborers.

Our only hope was the Sonderkarte that was to save us from deportation. In the beginning, if one was stopped on the street for deportation and could provide that card, they would be let go. Therefore we held on to that thread of hope despite the demands of work and the minimal pay. Maybe a miracle would happen in the meantime, we thought, and someone would stop the murderous Nazis.

We were considered by some Jewish resistance groups as traitors abetting the Nazis, though we hated every stitch we made.

For two years we had been constantly reminded by our shop manager, an elderly German “gentleman” whom we nicknamed Dziadek (Grandfather), how lucky we were to be employed at that shop and to be avoiding deportation. Unfortunately, the promise of our “protector” was not worth much when an order from a higher authority was issued to eliminate all the Jews from the area. In March 1943, as our shift was about to end and the workers in the next shift were waiting in the yard to take over, the SS surrounded the building and we were all taken for deportation. There was no sign of our Dziadek then to protect us.

We were marched to the gathering place where people for deportation were held. The building was the new Jewish high school—a place meant to prepare promising young people for a bright future had become a holding place for people of all ages whose future was either the concentration camp or the gas chamber.

When my parents found out about my detention, they and my two brothers came to the holding place. They brought me a suitcase with my personal belongings, which they dropped off at the building across the street. We could not communicate because of the crowd and noise, and because I was on the second floor. My brothers somehow managed to squeeze through the crowd. Partially in mime they managed to convey to me to look for something in the padding of my coat. There was some money sewn in.

I have etched the picture of them into my mind, standing there in front of the building. This was the first time we had been separated, even after appearing many times together at selection points for deportation. This would be the last time we would see each other.

The Sonderkarte, our right to life, now meant nothing.

©2008, Manya Friedman. 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:   manya friedmanechoes of memory, volume 5

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