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Helen Rodak-Izso

The Last Chance to Remember



Chapter 14. AUSCHWITZ

We arrived at this hellish place on Sunday afternoon, June 4th 1944, about 2 o'clock. The welcome sign was greeting us,

or in my translation "THE GATE TO HELL"

The train doors were opened and we had to leave without our belongings, no rucksack, parcel or bag. Men were waiting for us in their striped uniform who were prisoners. Häftlings themselves. they were there to help us, mainly to the older people and children. They were supposed to guide this incredible mass of people into five abreast rows. The men were separated before we knew it. Our dear father was already somewhere in a distance and when he tried to find us in this sea of people, he reached out with his arms with a jar of jam in his hand. then everything went mad.

Children up to 14 years of age could stay with their mothers, smaller children were left with older women. In the meantime the long row of people was just surging ahead in some vague direction. A milling mob was pushed from all sides with no feelings at all! Shouting and yelling from everywhere! We were somewhere in a very frightening place! This was the last chance to be with our parents and we couldn't help them at all. This bitter feeling was very painful, unbearable.

Slowly the crowd pushed us ahead and we found ourselves in front of the god of this part of the world: The angel of death! or by his real name: Dr. Mengele!

He asked our dear mother what is her age? She answered exactly the truth; so her Fate was sealed, his decision was made up fast: showing her the route to the left with his white glowed hands dressed in his impeccable uniform. Then he motioned to my sister and me to the right side. This was the working side.

Our mother turned back once more, I see her even today with her navy silk kerchief on her head. I see her look which said everything. It haunted me for a long time. She turned back after us.. She was seized by fear; numb, painful, plain fright. This was the last time we saw her!

We found her kerchief on our side next day; it was a puzzle to us, how did it get there! But like everything else, it showed a bizarre sign of the upside down existence. Somewhere we found a crooked knife and with difficulty tried to cut the kerchief in two, and then kept it as our precious souvenir, our talisman. This was not the right place or time to be emotional. We took the events as a bad dream as though it was not happening to us. It gave the impression of bedlam! The promise was that we would see each other in the evening,- but which evening?

We were marching on a half finished road with barracks on both sides as far the eye could see. Watch towers in certain distances so we were watched from all sides. The barbed wire everywhere was electrical, so many people finished their life by touching this dangerous fence! We spotted some human beings (possibly young women before) in unpredictable clothing. Barefoot, shaved head, and a haunted look in the eyes, in a tortured face. They ran close to their inside fence and tried to motion to us that we will have the same fate! The Germans will take everything away from us that we still have, so better to throw it over to them in case they would find something on us.

At this time our Aufseherin (German uniformed women guard) appeared. Whip in one hand, stick in their boots and a gun in their belt! The yelling started: you verfluchte Juden!! los!! los! (You damned cursed Jews, go on, go on, move - move!) As we were marching, we were escorted on both sides by SS officers some on foot, some on bicycles. Some were thinking aloud just to frighten us "Sterben ist nicht so schlimm, sterben tut nicht weh! It is not so bad to die and really it doesn't hurt!"

Not far from us we spotted a pile of logs, a fire and this was how we learned later, what we didn't want to hear, or see, or to know. The corpses were burned! The method was the same with the elderly or sick simple as that! The gas chamber was working at full capacity, under the blue sky!

It all happened in the wide open where the whole world could see if this world would want to know! But it was too morbid, too horrible, too upsetting! Or plainly just too hard to believe! So they preferred to look aside and go on with their lives!

Finally we arrived at a huge building, where we had to abandon everything that we were still trying to clutch in our hands. We had to throw down our coats, purses with the precious pictures.

This was the delousing (Entlausung) station. There we found girls who had been deported years before from Slovakia. From the many thousands of girls, some 50-60 were still alive at the time, but in terrible shape. Of course they had no human feelings any more. What they had lived through is beyond every imagination. They were indifferent towards everything or everybody and were desperate; so when they saw us coming they thought that there are still new victims and they deeply hoped and waited. The end was still not in sight. They were all tattooed and suffered bitter, unbelievable experiences! These girls already had some positions, which helped them a bit.

Like Block Alteste (head of the block) or "kapo" most of the time, not a popular person or position (in charge of the working group) and was expected to be rough with the entrusted people! They were helping the Germans. For this work they had better living conditions, food and a place for sleeping. We found Häftlings (prisoners) from every nation. The triangle, coloured sign told the world what was our crime, why we were there and what nationality brought us there!

Red: means political prisoner; green: criminal; purple: Jehovah's Witnesses; black: beggars; brown: Gypsies; blue: idiots; yellow: for Jews; pink: homosexuals.

We had to strip down standing there totally naked, bare- naked, we were able to keep only the shoes. Through the window we spotted men from our group, a younger generation than our father. I tried to look, to search, to watch; no way, it was impossible to recognize anybody. Some already wore uniforms, but many were still in their own clothing as they marched by.

As we were waiting there, standing naked, some of the men from that outside group were sent in for fake reasons, just to humiliate us again and again, since they were people from our town! Those poor men were not prepared for the picture that they found there. They became bewildered and just didn't know where to look or how to get out of there quickly! We were ready for the so called shower, but first our hair had to be cut. This job belonged to those unfortunate Slovak Jewish girls who had languished for years already in this hopeless situation. As the girl was pulling my hair it was really painful, not only emotionally. She worked with no feelings, but I tried to understand them! After the cutting came the clippers to complete the job and the one who was working on me was yelling with painful anger: "Just what did you think, that you would escape the whole thing? While we were suffering for years already, you were still living a normal life and enjoying your family." Poor girl, she was right, but this is how it happened. Nobody went there voluntarily and in Slovakia it had started much earlier.

We were such a horrible sight naked, with no hair, we didn't recognize each other and didn't know what is going on around us. The German soldiers were walking in and out, we didn't count as human beings anymore. And what we felt was even worse. We were standing there for hours hungry, tired, thirsty, mentally and physically totally exhausted!

Through the window we saw men marching again. My eyes almost popped out and I was not able to recognize anybody. They somehow all looked alike. I was desperately trying to find my father; my own father disappeared in the crowd. They were marching in front of my eyes and it was not possible to distinguish one from the others; somehow it seemed that all the figures, shapes and colours blended together into one huge colourless body.

Finally, late in the afternoon we found ourselves in the shower. The water was handled by men, but they didn't think of us as women and we felt dreadfully helpless. We didn't get soap.

We could keep our shoes; only those who had very nice boots or shoes lost them there, they were confiscated. The replacement was a joke, they gave us another pair but it was always different in size and colour- on purpose. Even these, before they were given or rather thrown at us, were dipped in water to make sure that nothing was inside them. After the shower we had to rush to another place, where we were going to receive some clothing, rush, because they were always in a hurry. With the clothing was the same situation as with the shoes. They took the trouble to find the most ridiculous things for each person, to make a laughing- stock of us; they succeeded with their effort. We didn't know if we should cry or laugh. My "outfit" was like a monk's robe, brown in colour with two big collars (cape) and it was long too. So in my boots, shaved head and this clothing I must have been a sight! My sister received an ankle length, grandmother style dress in a floral pattern. The whole outfit looked grotesque, grotesquely funny, especially without hair. We looked at each other with disbelief as we didn't recognize one another. It was a tragi-comical sight. To me it meant even more of a shock to watch my sister, who was a pretty, young girl transformed into a strange figure in such a short time. It was fun for them to select the clothing and they took the time and trouble to mix up all the sizes. They tried very hard to give a small size to a bigger person and again a taller person received the shortest something. We really looked, like we were in a carnival. My sister also had something that not exactly suited her.

After the shower came the order loud and clear, that everybody should find partners and make up a five person row for roll calls, or stand in line. When the call would come, we had to be ready at once! My sister and I were together, she found another sister pair, so the fifth was a girl from our home town, by the name: Goldstein Rezi, my sister's school mate. She came from a very respected family, but she cannot be proud of herself because of the way she behaved later when she had a chance to be in an important position. She was lucky enough to be the Lager-Alteste for a short time.

We had to stand erect and our backs were marked with red color, with a big brush. Then we had to line up for tattooing, but this one time we were lucky by accident, because they ran out of the ink. Our group was postponed for the next day which never came, because we were transferred.

It was late night when we found our barrack. We were so unspeakably exhausted that we had just one wish; to be left alone and finally sit or lie down somewhere!

Hundreds of women were supposed to find some place in this barrack, but this was next to impossible. It is unbelievable what was in store for us! This block was really a washroom where a lavatory basin ran the whole length of the place in the middle and the floor was cemented. No benches or chairs, only total darkness received us which was very frightening. A crowd of hungry, cold and tired, thoroughly desperate women tried to settle down. From time to time an Aufseherin would come in demanding Ruhe (quiet) saying if we didn't follow her instructions we could expect shootings from the outside. We were already bewildered, but this ice cold voice just added to our high strung existence. There was no place to sit even in a crouched position. So, after many hours spending just leaning against each other, our mind went blank from the exhaustion. Some women climbed into the basin trying to stretch out a little bit, but it was cold and wet.

This was just one of the many nights to show the incredible situations in this devilish place. To leave the block was strictly Verboten (forbidden) and unfortunately the washroom problem was not any different than before. When we couldn't take the cold anymore, we tried to exercise, just to feel that we were still alive. We were also frightened all the time, wondering what might come next?

We were thinking all the time, yet trying to avoid the most gnawing pain, what happened to our dear parents?
Slowly with full fright we were afraid to believe what we heard on the Appell-Platz (Appell square where the roll calls were held). The dreaded notion slowly crept into our minds that we were deceived and with closed eyes and trembling hearts we tried to hope against hope. To understand all this, we were not awake, we were in a daze, just moving mechanically. We didn't grasp yet what was going on, that we had lost our family, our home and everything.

We lost our little bag with the most cherished family pictures, everything was taken away from us brutally and senselessly. Slowly it dawned on us that we had no right to anything, there was no way out, and a dark curtain descended in front of us, before our eyes, which blocked the view to the outside world! The gnawing pain became unbearable but this was not the place or time for emotion. We were deprived of everything that makes a human being a person.

Meanwhile the gas chambers were working full time!

Next morning after a restless and sleepless night at about four o'clock in the morning we were aroused with a shrill sound of the alarm. We were only women who were never soldiers before; to stand appell, to fall in line in the shortest time, five abreast, was a dreadful experience. Now, there was a chance to hit, yell and shout at us because we were never fast enough for them. We were always pushed, always!

The Appell Platz (inspection field), a huge sandy place where we spent hours just standing and waiting. From the very early hours through the day, slightly dressed, no stockings or socks and hairless was hard to endure: first the chilly mornings, then the blazing sun on our bald head. We found out that we are in the Birkenau-Vernichtungslager (extermination camp). On the road we saw women breaking stones or carrying sand in wheelbarrows, or shovelling sand. Some groups were working outside of the camp heavily guarded.

On the first day we had a taste of this cannibal treatment. While standing appel, even I tried to look harder towards another group in a distance. Everybody was in a constant search. Somehow I thought that the figure I saw was my mother. It was her way of standing or holding herself. But I was not able to tell, no matter how hard I looked and tried again. To get there or move at all, was out of the question. From this other group, from which I couldn't take my eyes away, an older woman was trying to find her daughter on our side. She started to move or just made a motion; the Aufseherin was there in a minute, took out her gun, first just to frighten this poor soul, whipping her all over her head. When she tried to shield her face the Aufseherin took her move as if she was trying to attack her. So this beast let her dog (hound) on her victim, who was already on the ground, screaming for help, for mercy. Then she quieted her with two more shots. By then we were numb, not believing what we saw and still standing.

Suddenly an SS soldier appeared to help. He wanted to take part also and gave the woman another shot, though this poor woman was already quiet. Standing there for long hours in the blazing sun witnessing such a horrible scene, we felt frozen with fright. We were yearning after something to moisten our throat, we had difficulties to swallow, felt so dry, ultra dry. Happenings like this just added to our discomfort.

These things happened 44 years ago and I still vividly remember; there was no mercy from anybody or anywhere! What a world we live in, if such things can happen. We were not supposed to notice anything, just to look ahead and stand still, erect!

The days went by with such incidents and when the night came the fight started again for a small place to be able to rest a little bit. It started to rain, so some of the girls couldn't hold back and ran to the open window to try to catch and swallow a few drops of the rain. It was dripping from the roof or from the rain pipe; at the moment it really didn't matter. But they paid for the luxurious drink, which hardly moistened their lips.

We got some kind of soup for the first time; there was one bowl for 50 people, just like for animals.

We were trying to get at least a few drops, but it was really inedible. Next day we had some bread and margarine. A little piece of bread from a small bread for five people (one row). It was something to see and watch, how carefully all this was measured because every morsel counted. In the morning we heard rumours that we would get uniforms, prisoners garb. We had to undress totally and wait for the promised clothing. We were on the road and guarded by well armed soldiers, in high wind and cold weather. The watchtower was also occupied for the occasion. At this time, this was their torture. The following days and nights were not any better, maybe even worse.

Next day something happened which is worthwhile to mention. The day before we had been registered and I always used my maiden name so as not to risk staying with my sister together; we were afraid that otherwise we could be separated. They also were asking for some skilled people, but remembering Ernie's experiences in the camp and his words: the best thing is to be lost in the crowd, we followed his advice. The truth is that nobody, but nobody, knew what was the right thing to do, or move and we didn't know what the next hour would bring. As we were standing at the roll call, all of a sudden I was called out. Why? They needed ten people, but I still didn't understand why I was singled out.

Nobody dared to say a word or to put up questions. I said good--by to my sister; we cried and shared our meager portion of bread. Frozen with fear I just waited, when one of our Kapos (in charge of the working group) named Berger who came from Uzhorod (Ungvar), was there with her mother and two sisters; I somehow took the courage and dared to ask, why am I there? Miraculously there was an answer: they needed dentists. There was another astonishing surprise, they checked out my name, my number and it was a mistake. I was sent back to my place.

When we came back into our barrack, there was an Aufseherin waiting for us. Her helper was a Jewish girl from Slovakia and she recognized her cousin in our group, among us. She called her out, they embraced and were wordless with emotion. Again this girl was allowed to bring somebody with her and to my surprise she choose me. The Aufseherin looked at me, again up and down and apparently she was not happy with my appearance and decided that I didn't look responsible enough (for what?) and gave me a smack and slap that sent me to the other corner of the room. No wonder! In my monk-outfit, without hair, in boots, and I am sure with a desperate look in my eyes, I must have been quite a sight!

Next morning after an early alarm we had to march to the railway station. There, a long row of cattle cars waited for us with wide open doors.

But unfortunately the roof was leaky exactly in the box-car which was marked for us. It had a gap on the roof. Half of the place was dry, now it was up to us, how can we help ourselves to solve this problem. We changed places so that some of us could enjoy a little dry corner for a while. We were cold, because we were wet all over from the previous rain. We didn't wash ourselves for days!

We didn't get anything to eat so we learned something new and tried the grass. There was nothing else. Hunger is terrible and coupled with thirst can be unbearable. No matter how disciplined a person is or how educated, this is something where nothing else helps other than food. We couldn't even think normally and I admit shamefully that in this situation, we were talking mainly or only about food. There were times when the girls had heated arguments about certain recipes, whether a favorite torte needs 13 or 14 eggs? It only shows how abnormal we had became with this existence, when we didn't have any hope just to see one egg? One cannot even think normally, because dizziness is a constant bother. We were in a never ending panic facing new uncertainty.

It was pouring but none of us cared any more. We were exhausted, hungry and cold, but nobody cared. Our SS man was not a German so we found out some news. Our destination now was Riga.

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