The Museum’s Behind Every Name a Story project gives voice to the experiences of survivors during the Holocaust.
Marius was the only “humane” being I met during the terrible days of deportation. On a snowy November day in 1944 at Auschwitz ( I was 19 years old), they called us together and crammed us again into railcars, 80 girls in a railcar that was meant for eight horses and sent us away -- we didn’t know where, of course. Before that they wanted to take a sample of blood from us in the camp in return for a glass of milk, but we withdrew to the farthest point of the koja (three stories of bunks housed in a one story shed) and wouldn’t take the bait. They had been beating the kojas for three days consecutively, but Kati (a former schoolmate that was also in Auschwitz) and I shrank back so that they couldn’t reach us. We came out from there only when we had to get on the train.
After a few days of starvation, we arrived to our unknown destination and they led us off the train. It was dark; thick, white snow was falling, we saw lights somewhere far away and despite the darkness, we realized we were in the mountains. Then, accompanied by the SS soldiers and their blood-thirsty dogs, we marched into a huge factory. They put us up in the attic, where there were some bunk beds; from now on; this was going to be our new living space. It was nice and warm, and a group, who had already been there for some time, told us that we were in a small town called Oberhohenelbe in the Sudetenland. We worked together with the civilians down in the factory. It was one of those model concentration camps -- i.e., the camps they displayed to the Red Cross to show the world that Jews were used as laborers in work service; they weren’t working for the German army. (They didn't show the Red Cross places like Auschwitz and its crematorium, that's for sure!) Already that evening, some of us were selected to work the nightshift in one of the other factories in the town. The rest joined the other group in the factory where we were put up. In the other factory in Hohenelbe (a nearby village), they worked only during the night. We, the newcomers, relieved the majority of the people who worked there.
Denise, a French Jewish woman about 35 years old, gave me her warm coat saying that she wouldn’t need it anymore because she was assigned to the factory below in the daytime shift. I thanked her for the coat. Denise than whispered in my ear: ‘If you see Marius, say hello from us. Don’t talk to the other French people.’
She hurried away, lest the SS soldiers would notice that we had been talking. Denise’s coat kept me really warm; I would have frozen without it. However, I was worried about my shoes. I was still wearing the two big left shoes that I had received in Auschwitz, and I had to drag my feet along to keep them from falling off. There were only a few civilians working with us during the nightshift, but they were very friendly. Of course, talking was forbidden, so they could only give us orders. We listened carefully to the laconic explanations that Grete from Bratislava translated for us from the German. She spoke German very well. If I remember well, I made anodes and cathodes. Grete heard that we were working in the Lorenz factory fabricating airplane parts. She got along with an older civilian worker whom we called Tanti (aunt). Tanti once managed to sneak in a daily paper, from which we learned that the German troops were planning to withdraw. We smuggled the paper into our camp: we folded it up and put it in my shoe, since they were large enough. Because I couldn't walk in them properly anyway, the SS soldiers got used to this sight and so I managed to smuggle the newspaper unnoticed.
“Well, did you meet Marius?” asked Denise one morning during the Zellappell (roll call). I shook my head, “No, I don’t even know who he is.”
One night my machine broke down, and I told Tanti right away. “Sit down; they’ll repair it in a minute,” she said. And indeed, a few minutes later, a thin, black-haired boy (about 20 years old) appeared, dressed in dark blue overalls. He slid under the machine and looked at me in a strange way. He muttered something, but I didn’t understand. He took out a big screwdriver from his pocket and started whistling merrily. “Wait a second,” I thought, “the Carmagnole tune -- even my tone-deaf ear recognizes that.” I smiled, which made the boy very happy.
From under the machine he asked me in a low voice whether I spoke French. I nodded. “Ask permission to go to the toilet, I’ll follow you in a minute or two and meet you up.” I was very scared because we weren’t allowed to speak to the French prisoners. If Pauline or Claudette asked permission to go to the toilet, the SS soldier, together with his dog, always went with them and waited for them until they came out, because they were French Jews. However, he never followed me because I spoke German and therefore he wasn’t suspicious. As if in a dream, I went to the SS soldier and asked permission to go to the ladies’ room. He nodded that I could go, and that I may go alone. I staggered onto the dark corridor. I went up the staircase to the first floor. There were many doors in the corridor; I walked along silently and in terror.
Someone slammed a door on the first floor, I heard loud steps and then all became silent again. My heart was beating so fast that my legs felt as if they were made of lead. I was standing there in the half-lit corridor leading to the toilet as though I was mesmerized; time seemed endless; other doors were slammed; I was scared to death. It seemed like an eternity and I couldn’t wait to get back to the hall. Another door opened and finally, the boy appeared… “I’m Marius, how do you do? How are Denise and Ella? Tell them I said hello.”
“Marius,” said I in an almost inaudible voice, “what will happen to us if the war is over? The Germans will surely kill us because we are Jewish. I’m sure they have a gas-chamber here in the basement somewhere.”
Marius looked at me, not comprehending what I was talking about; he didn’t have the slightest idea. “I’ll meet you tomorrow; I’ll check into this,” and he left whistling while he went down the stairs.
In the morning I whispered to Denise that Marius says hello to you and Ella but I can’t tell Ella because I don’t know who she is.’ Denise knew her and pointed her out to me. She was a Transylvanian girl with gorgeous blond hair and big blue eyes. “Marius says hello,” I whispered to her, and her pink cheeks reddened a little.
“Tell him that I’m thinking of him.”
“I’ll tell him tonight,” and I hurried away for the Zellappel.
In the evening I got out Denise’s coat and our small group went to the Lorenz factory again. Towards midnight I heard the Carmagnole tune again, and I saw Marius crossing the hall and signaling to me with his eyes. I went to the guard and asked permission to go to the toilet. Still unsuspecting, he let me go alone. Marius was waiting in the half-lit corridor.
“Ella and Denise are thinking of you,” I said. “Me, too,” said Marius. “I found out that there are not any gas-chambers, either in your camp or in the area. We’ll soon be free.” He left whistling.
After that we met three times a week and when my machine broke down again and he came to fix it, he whispered that the next day, he would bring a lot of chocolate bars which, in fact, are vitamins and that I should distribute them: half to go to the eleven members of our group and half to me and Ella. We met the next day.
“Where did you get the tablets from?” I asked.
“I broke into the factory apothecary.”
I thanked him for his kindness and asked him if he could draw an approximate map of where we were. The girls would like to have a map to know which way to go if they ever have the chance to escape.
“We’ll be together. We’ll be set free at the same time. The French have weapons, so don’t worry, we’ll protect you,” he said and left whistling. It seemed to me, that not only did he steal, but he also lied, in order to keep our hopes up. Indeed we hoped for the best. Grete’s Tanti dropped a hint as well. She said the German army was near and it was going to be restructured.
In the morning I got back to the camp with two bags of vitamins. I counted the tablets and distributed them as was instructed: half to the group, half to the two of us. Next day I gave them to Ella and the other girls. We were all very glad to get the vitamins, especially me, because Kati was full of sores due to the lack of vitamins. The camp doctor, a woman, put paper bandages on her arms since there were no linen bandages. She had a tiny consulting room where the patients with fevers were put up. The girls got medicine from the Czech civilian workers, who secretly helped us sometimes. They, too, were in great need for food and medicine.
The doctor and Denise cleaned the tiny consulting room. The physician was a warm-hearted woman from Zagreb. She was absolutely great; she even conjured up some medicine from the German superiors. Not only did the small consulting room serve our health, but it also represented our spiritual comfort. That was where all the news was also dispensed and she encouraged us, filling our hearts with hope.
My eyes were always inflamed because of working during the night, so I went to the consulting room for treatment every morning. Two drops of medicine in my eyes and a lot of drops of hope in my heart -- this was my daily portion. I took the newspapers to the doctor because she was the only one who had time to read them unobtrusively. She was also glad to receive Marius’s gifts and I was happy to give her some of my vitamins so that she could use them in the consulting room. I gave the rest to Kati in small doses, just as the doctor told me.
That night I reported to Marius that Ella was happy for the vitamins and also to hear that he was thinking of her. “And the map?” I asked. But I didn’t wait for the answer because I heard footsteps approaching, and Marius left whistling.
During the 10-minute break, a chafed girl came to me, representing some of the group of eleven and gave me back the vitamin tablets. “What is it? What happened?” I asked.
“We don’t want these. They are the tablets of the devil.”
“What devil are you talking about? Marius stole these from the apothecary.”
“Don’t believe him. He gave us these so that we would fall in love with him, too, like Ella did.”
I tried to convince them that this was not the case, that such candies exist only in fairy tales, and that they should take the vitamins… but all in vain. I told the doctor about this in the morning, and we had a good laugh and agreed upon the fact that some hidden villages where these girls were from, still lived in the Middle Ages. I gave the doctor the vitamins the girl had given me; they were very useful in the consultation room. Naturally, I didn’t say a word about this to Marius.
About two weeks passed before I could meet him again. “Psst…,” he said and threw down a small ball of paper that I instantly hid in the heel of my shoe. In the morning in the consultation room, after having been given the eye-drops, I took the piece of paper out and realized I was holding an approximate map of the area. The nearest big city was Dresden and we were in the western part of the Sudetenland in Hohenelbe. He wrote “Esperance” (hope) on the slip of paper as a signature.
Only after a long time did Marius show up again, and I thanked him for the map and for the hope he gave us. In the meantime Ella and the other girls kept asking me about Marius every single morning and took notice in an unbelievable way that I hadn’t seen him for ten days.
One morning, after the doctor gave me the eye-drops, she said, “You know, they say that you don’t deliver Marius’s messages to Ella out of jealousy.”
“Unfortunately, I cannot even deny it because I cannot prove how untrue this is. I’m helpless, but please, believe me that not one word is true,” I said. I was sorry for Ella, and had it been possible, I would have gladly exchanged jobs with her to prove that neither Marius nor I felt any kind of attraction for each other. He only comforted us and gave us hope with the good news, which I always told in the consulting room. I never failed to pass on the messages.
The thick layer of snow started melting. In the pine forest our small window looked out upon, we saw as the red tops of the houses came into view. The landscape was wonderful, just like on a Christmas card. One morning on the paths leading to the houses, we saw some tired soldiers dragging themselves along towards the small town. Two weeks later they called us for a special Zellappel and the camp commander declared that as of tomorrow, we were free and that he would like to hand us and the French prisoners of war over safe and sound to the partisan authorities. They would be in charge of us. A big hubbub broke out and we swarmed out in the yard where the French POWs were already standing there waiting for us. We immediately mingled among them. The commandant disappeared. I stood there by the fence waiting for Marius, so I could shake his hand to tell him how grateful I was for his help and that I would always consider him a very good friend. I did notice him. He flew towards me and when he got near me, two arms opened at my back and the next minute, Marius and Ella stood beside me hugging each other totally ignorant of the world around them.