By Manya Friedman
It was about the end of April 1945. Days in camp turned into long months, months into years, one day resembling the other. This day in this small camp, a subcamp of Ravensbrück, began like any other day. Wake-up call at dawn, with all my strength I gathered my weary, aching bones to face another day of misery and abuse. If by chance I managed to rinse out my underwear the night before, it was often still damp in the morning, but I had to put it on anyway, even in the wintertime, there was no choice. Then I lowered myself from the upper bunk, with a bent back not to hit my head on the ceiling, my wooden shoes in one hand, being careful not to step on someone below, and I rushed to the latrine to get in line. I often tripped in the dark over bodies that had expired during the night. On the way I caught a fistful of water from the dripping, rusty faucet, to apply to my face in a hope to wake up. Again I rushed with the tin cup to get some of that foul-tasting, brownish, lukewarm brew called “coffee.” Sometimes it had a faint taste of the soup from the previous night, because the kettles were not washed well. But who cared? It tasted just the same.
The shrill sound of the Kapo’s whistle, like a whip cutting through the air and through our shivering bodies, reminded that it was time for the appell (roll call). I rushed to get in line—lines of grotesque-looking figures. In the winter we shivered from the cold underneath the striped, thin dresses; in the summer we sweltered under the oppressive heat, waiting to be counted, while standing at attention. The countless reading of the numbers, no names, the faint reply “here,” counting by one of the Kapos then another; often someone in line fainted from exhaustion and weakness, and had to be supported by others. Even in this small camp it seemed like an eternity, being counted and recounted, again and again.
But that day was different. While we were standing in line to be counted, a Kapo accompanied by a military person walked up to our group, pointed a finger at about a dozen or so girls, and ordered them to step forward. You could sense the uneasiness and anticipation in the lines; the lines shifted like an ocean wave. What now? In those few seconds all kinds of thoughts flashed through my mind. Why me? Where to? Sneaking a quick glance at the others around me, I tried to figure out how I differed from the rest. Again the thought, why me? And why now, when there is a spark of hope that this hell may finally end, judging by the frequency of the air raids, and the roar of Allied planes above our heads. There was no use trying to find a reason; there was no reasoning in camp. To the many questions circling in my head, there were no answers. Though one thing was certain, a selection had never meant a better lot.
After the selection, our small group of girls, with stooped shoulders under the weight of uncertainty, resigned to feeling helpless, and dragging our feet in the wooden shoes, was marched toward the gate of the camp, leaving the others behind, and not knowing what the future would bring. Would there be a future?
Outside the gate, a white, covered truck was waiting, a few Kapos and soldiers were mingling about, flirting and laughing, a familiar sight. The Kapos motioned to us to climb up into the truck, but it brought few results. Though the truck’s tailgate was down and we tried hard, we were too weak to conquer this hurdle, despite the fear that at any moment the Kapo’s whip would come down on our emaciated bodies. Instead, to everyone’s disbelief and amazement the Kapos actually helped us climb up into the truck. Somehow, from nowhere a crate appeared that we used for a step to climb up. I thought I was hallucinating or this must be a dream. I did not trust my senses any longer. But momentarily I recalled how the Germans often used all kinds of tricks to get the people to come to an assembly point, using the pretense either to register, or to check and stamp the passports, but instead were put in trains or trucks and deported.
After being settled in the truck, each one of us received a “C.A.R.E.” package. Again disbelief, but no time to rationalize how or why, even if this would represent our last meal. Within seconds the packages were
ripped open and the contents devoured. It was food. There was powdered milk, cocoa, sardines, crackers— everything was eaten at once, we were not even aware what it was. Some of the girls got sick, our stomachs not used to digesting such food.
The truck kept rolling on with its exhausted, helpless, resigned cargo, and we had no clue where to. No one spoke, each one of us preoccupied with our own thoughts. Then, lo and behold, the truck reached Denmark. FREEDOM? Incomprehensible! We were all dazed, unable to comprehend what was going on around us. (It was the end of April 1945, and Denmark was still under German occupation.)
Apparently the white truck that our group was being transported in was from the Swedish Red Cross, hence the helpful gesture from the Kapos to show the Red Cross personnel that we were treated humanely. The white truck had markings on the sides and on the roof, but we were not aware of it. Later we learned that negotiations were going on between Swedish Count Folke Bernadotte, head of the Swedish Red Cross, and Himmler, head of the Gestapo, about the release of Norwegian POWs. But since it was the end of April, and Himmler was realizing that Germany had lost the war, he agreed to Bernadotte’s request to release from the camps some women of “Polish” origin and hand them over to the Swedish Red Cross. I later learned that the word “Jewish” was never mentioned. Thus began the brave rescue operation.
The courageous Danish people were waiting for us with food and a place to rest up. A small boat carried the few of us from Denmark to the shore of Malmö, Sweden. What a sad-looking group we presented. Now, out of camp, among normal-looking people, the sight of us was deplorable. Our short-cropped hair growing untamed in all directions, the sunken wide eyes, the shapeless striped dresses covering our skeletal bodies, tied at the waist with a piece of frayed rope. And the wooden shoes. Somewhere I found a pair of high-laced leather shoes on raised heels to replace my wooden ones, but without shoelaces. It took some searching to find two pieces of string long enough to pull through two eyelets to hold the upper part of the shoe together, and even more strategy to place the strings in the right place to hold up the long tongues attached to the shoes, so as not to trip over them.
In this pose I was approached by two reporters who accompanied us on the boat. I do not recall what they asked me, nor what I told them, but I vividly recall feeling embarrassed. One hand nervously reached for my head trying to slick my hair down a bit, the other pulling at my dress trying to smooth out some folds. Could this have been the moment when I regained the feeling of being human again? After all, I was still a teenager.
At the shore in Malmö, our group was greeted by some dignitaries—a rabbi and a clergyman, either a minister or priest—and an orchestra or maybe a band was playing, I could not distinguish one from the other. We were mesmerized by the sight. All those people came to greet us. Yet, somehow, I felt detached from all this, like viewing it all through a sheer curtain. There were people making speeches, I assume to welcome us, but we were incapable of listening or comprehending what was going on. There were also many onlookers, some probably came out of curiosity, others out of sympathy. The entire situation seemed so unreal.
There was also the medical staff of the Red Cross waiting, and they took us to a large hall where people wearing masks and gloves met our group. Our group huddled together, more comfortable with the girls from our own camp. The sick were taken immediately to the hospital while the rest of us went through a hot shower, with real soap (I can still feel the luxury), delousing, and disinfecting. We were scrubbed, sprayed, and dusted, then received clean clothing donated by the local people. It felt good to be rid of the lice that consumed every moment of our free time trying to eradicate them, without success. The clean outfits that replaced our soiled, striped dresses felt as splendid as if they were made of pure silk.
We were put up in some school buildings. Each one of us got a mattress covered with soft paper sheets. We felt pampered. Yet, it still didn’t sink in that we were really free. At night, if you woke up, you could always see girls looking out the windows to make sure that we were no longer in camp. But the nightmares persisted.
A few days later, in the middle of the night we heard a big commotion going on. Students, in their handsome uniforms and white round caps, came running up the stairs shouting: “The war is over. The war is over.” We all ran out to greet them, forgetting that we were only in our underwear, hugging, kissing, and jumping up and down with joy. A lot of celebrating was also going on in the streets. People dancing and singing, people blowing the car horns, nobody slept the rest of the night. The next day there was a lavish reception in the school’s recreation hall. Since there were among us people from different countries, the band was playing everyone’s national anthem. Never before, or since, was I so touched listening to the Polish anthem, because this time the sound of it had for me a different meaning. A sign that the war had ended, and so had our suffering, but most of all, hope of finding somebody from the family.
“The war was over,” but I was left all alone....
©2011, 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.