Helen Rodak-Izso

The Last Chance to Remember

 

 

Chapter 15. KAISERWALD at RIGA


It was very cold and this was one of the most complicated journeys and we were wondering how much can a person endure? We were almost naked, not even a handkerchief with us, which would had helped my sister to cover her ears, because at home she used to have ear infections after every cold. We were very concerned, but thank God, she survived. We were still in our wet clothing we were wearing. We took turns on the dry "land" leaning on each other. After hearing the news we had a little hope that if the war didn't take too long and if in the meantime they won’t kill us, maybe we could survive. This trip took about three days, again one bucket for the necessities and of course no privacy again. What can be more humiliating.

Riga or the name of the camp Kaiserwald. Half of our transport went somewhere else. We entered this famous camp with uncertain feelings. Here were mainly German Häftlings (Slaves) or prisoners from Vienna. They had been here for years so we heard some horror stories of what they had to live through. They let us wait, but to our surprise we were given striped jackets and some rags for our head. There was a new registration again with new numbers. We received some blankets which we had to guard or they were stolen by the new group.

After such a long time I cannot remember every detail, but in a nutshell this is how it was.

The place where we could lie down was wooden and dirty. Here I befriended a lady Häftling from Vienna and she presented me with a sewing needle, a real needle but without any thread yet. For time being I owned a needle and it was a very good feeling that somebody was humanely nice to me.

We also received a plate and a wooden spoon. Our chief inquisitor was "Karla," a half Jewish woman from Hamburg, who was more strict than any male guard. A huge person whose voice was always heard, very loud, yelling, shouting, hitting. She had no feelings at all. She looked after herself pretty well, cooked fine things in front of our eyes and we had to smell them! Our empty stomachs couldn't take all this and made us dizzy.

I still see the used soapy water, when it ran in front of me trough the wooden floor, after she washed herself. And we had to listen to her splashing herself in her bath water which for us was unattainable, out of reach. Alarm was always very early around 3:30. We were rushing into the washroom to try to clean ourselves without soap and towel. We used sand instead the soap. Then we had to line up for some soup which was inedible. People who had been there for a longer time tolerated it. There was nothing else and they learned already that to survive it was of vital importance to eat whatever we found. We were very hungry but our stomach just couldn't take all this yet, accompanied with physical and mental tiredness, as well. But the time came when we couldn't stand it anymore and slowly giving in, we tried and ate up everything in sight. Just to watch our remaining energy.

"Alles heraus zum Appell, aber schnell, sonst werdet ihr etwas erlebenn, sonst komme ich: los, los!" (Everybody out but fast otherwise you might experience something, or I will come myself! Go, Go, move on, move!
The door to the outside was narrow so it was very difficult for us to be quick and fast. We were trying, but when so many people are running, pushing each other and panicking, it is very difficult because we had to be at the Appell Platz at once! But Karla's shouting, yelling, constant warnings and gesticulating with her whip just bewildered us. Now she had her chance to kick and scream! Finally the rows were standing, Karla checked, rechecked and the Appell was ready for the goddess, the Aufseherin and Oberscharführer. They looked over the numbers and the whole group, and finally came the words of relief "Arbeitskommando antreten! Aber schnell, schnell!" (Hurry up! Working group line up for duty, get ready and start but fast, quick)

Clara (my aunt) and her friends were working somewhere else. My sister and I were working in the daytime. Kaiserwald was a smaller camp of all nationalities. But still a concentration camp!

We had an early appell, working the whole day and there was no rest at night either!

Lagerruhe (rest) was the loud order from Karla at about 10 o'clock, but she herself made such a noise for hours that it was not possible to sleep. If a new transport came in the middle of the night, Karla pulled our blankets away from our exhausted bodies and gave them to the new arrivals. She announced new orders for us that we should move closer to each other so we would warm up! Later on we learned from our experience and lay down on our blankets, not covering ourselves until it was dark enough. We were cold and wore the same clothing day and night! The nights were cold and the food was the worst imaginable. It was unbelievably difficult to keep ourselves clean with only cold water and without soap.

After a few weeks a doctor made the dreaded selection in Kaiserwald. This was the time when older or sickly people and children were separated from the rest and taken to another barrack. There they were guarded until the next morning, when in a closed truck they were taken away. Nobody knew where or what happened to them. We could only see that the truck left a couple of times always packed and returned empty. Among those were many from our home town; the wife and daughter of Dr. Rabbi Enten, Mrs. Barkany and many others.

This was no news for the others; only we didn't know what is going on! The older residents made such a scene that it was heartbreaking. We saw men who were tortured for the slightest "violation" then they were transferred to the Vernichtungslager, from which there is no way to return. We heard the devastating rumours, that before our arrival 18,000 Häftlings were executed.

There was a shortage of coal; there were no railway trains; but for us they found time and possibilities to send us here and there. Where is the logic? Our lager was in the forest which was full with ammunition. About in August the Russians started to attack Riga, but we were not afraid. Only the hope that some day we will be freed kept us alive.

We were thinking always, only of our dearest ones and through tearful eyes we saw them everywhere.
If we had to witness a punishment we didn't dare to think about the fearsome possibility that they could or would be in a similar treatment. If somebody had the nerve to touch them! Some of the SS men showed their hatred openly, didn't cover up their feelings towards us!

We learned many new things; how to mix cement, how to straighten and widen the road. Here we had an SS man, Herr Bauman, he was from the Sudetenland. We were desperately hoping that he would be a decent human being, because he had a dove, a real dove sitting on his shoulder when he came out to roll call. It was a good feeling to watch this bird, partly because it is the symbol of peace and partly because we liked to believe that its master could not be a bad man if he liked animals.

While we were working on the road and he was walking by, he was thinking aloud so it didn't look as though he was talking to us. He never gave me bread or any food but he called me: die Schwarze and prepared a sun-clock for me in the sand. One day he came by and told me that if I would be very careful he would give me another assignment. I could take another girl with me and since my sister Olly was with another Kommando, I choose a girl from our city (Karp) who lost her husband and two children.

He sent us ahead on the road to check the work and to prepare the measurements for the width of the highway. But we had to watch for unwanted visitors! We went ahead and sat down relaxing a little bit. Suddenly we heard some rustle behind the bushes. We stood up hurriedly and started to work seriously when out of nowhere a group of German SS officers showed up. They hardly noticed us, then walked towards the whole group busily talking.
I couldn't forget this scene for a long time, how we were sitting on the road side and talking about our dearest ones. Nothing else was on our mind! We couldn't talk or think of anything else and this feeling never left us for any length of time!!

Then we discussed our constant problem, our hunger. Since we were somewhere around the countryside, we could bump easily into somebody from the village. I had some ideas that I rushed to tell to my friend, that if somebody could walk by, we could try to ask for some bread? (Horrible) She agreed, but gave me the first opportunity. I was very polite and told her to make the first step. While we were debating the subject, a village woman showed up and my friend pushed me forward. While I was nearing the woman, I changed my mind and decided, that I will tell my partner, that the woman had nothing. It just didn't come out on my mouth to ask for food. But this brave woman was faster. As she saw me approaching her, she quickly took out something from her basket and threw it to the ground before me. I quickly picked it up, and took it to my friend, we opened it and there were two pieces of beautiful, home baked brown bread, wrapped in newspaper. She never looked at me and left quickly, disappeared! This experience was bitter, but it was a good feeling to bring something home. Hunger is a big boss and doesn't allow one to be proud!

We shared the big fortune with the others in our hut, needless to mention how much was left for us.
From Kaiserwald we were sent away again and found ourselves in the cattle train in roofless box cars which was another struggle and curse. The weather was merciless too because it was either raining, or the sunshine was blazing, and we had absolutely nothing to cover or defend ourselves. Our tolerance was getting low and patience was thinner and thinner. We were in a tightly closed place, day and night, very much overcrowded and immensely tired, hungry and thirsty. The trip lasted about four days and nights until we finally arrived somewhere, to a very frighteningly abandoned place. There was not a village or a living soul in sight. We had a bad feeling of uncertainty again - but we had to march over some hills before we reached our destination.

We never knew if there would be a tomorrow. When we arrived in this place, we were so skeptical about our future, what can be their aim? Our bad feelings were just growing, it was so frightening to come to such an abandoned place. Even after we climbed those low mountains and were hoping to figure out something, why is this place so deserted.

Kurbe is in Latvia and this was the place where we spent the following weeks. There were no barracks so we were accommodated in tents, seven people for one tent. Here at least we had fresh air. To our amazement we discovered something new. Here the nights were only semi dark.

This was the place where Goldstein Rezi, from our home town, who had been mentioned before, had a chance to be a human being. For a short period of time she became the Lager Alteste and she enjoyed some privileges.
This girl had the nerve to come into our tent, eating two slices of bread in both hands thickly covered with margarine. Every bite was followed by our hungry eyes. She knew only too well our situation, how hungry we are, all of us. How could anyone behave like this, mainly somebody who is one of us, is a puzzle to me. She was supposed to translate the Oberscharführer's orders at roll call, but she did this in her own wording, forgetting that many of us understood German. It was a double disappointment for us. The message from the Oberscharführer is as follows: .... and shut up your bread devouring mouth! These words came from a girl who really was in the same boat; only for this short time she was so lucky, felt like a queen. She was not ashamed another time at roll call to unwrap a chocolate bar which we could smell only and this smell lingered in the air around her and us, making our struggle with hunger harder. After the war ended she was afraid to come home or to show up. To our knowledge she lived in Casablanca for a while.

We were in this lager for about one month and were working on the highway most of the time. Whatever work we did, next day we could start all over again.

It is undeniable that our present Lager Alteste didn't care or tried to understand our hardships; she did not help us at all! All these scenes are vividly in my memory even after so many years. How could she put those heavenly pieces in her mouth in our presence in front of starving people?

It was not only incredibly cruel, but how can anybody be so heartless? Her parents were among the most respected people in town, widely known as humanitarians.

Otherwise the camaraderie was great most of the time. At one time I was not feeling well enough to do the required job which looked complicated to me. We had to dig square, deep holes to prepare for planting young trees. The measurement made it harder and I was just about to give up, when somebody jumped in front of me, took my shovel from my hands and finished the hardest part.

She was a girl from Humenne and knew my grandfather; so out of sympathy she helped me. Of course I did the same if it was needed or if I had the opportunity and ability!

Here we were working in the forest again and the order was to cut some of the trees. Just when was the last time we had a chance to do something like this? We had to judge which tree had to go and of course we had no idea?! Then came the real hardship, the physical part, and we didn't have the faintest idea where and how to start the whole procedure? The other problem was that we had Latvian guards in SS uniform and they were trying to save their trees. On the other side the real SS men were pushing us for the assigned order and work, and the endless "los, los" was heard the whole day. So it went, day by day. We learned this skill too. We learned a lot, also trying to help ourselves with all kinds of small or bigger problems, like to improvise, when some difficulties arose.
Then another time, while working in the forest I forgot myself and started to hum and whistle. Unfortunately I never had a good voice what I missed very much many times. Somewhere, somehow I just had to give out my feelings, so instead of singing I found great pleasure and satisfaction in accompanying myself with piano playing with whistling. (Just for my own pleasure, nothing serious.) But here in the forest I heard the birds and they were helping.

Some unusual sound was in the air, so the Aufseherin listened carefully and suddenly was behind me, shouting and yelling: what is it, what does this mean? Very quickly I remembered where I was and quietly admitted my sin and was prepared for the worst. But to my biggest surprise she ordered me to go on but louder so everyone could hear. She didn't have to ask me second time. I started with Schubert's Lieder and went on, because it meant rest for everybody. The girls were leaning on their shovel and reminiscing, our thoughts were with our past, with our dearest ones. The Aufseherin was a tiny woman with piercing eyes, black eyes so we honored her with the title: the rat.

Is this all happening to us, are we the same people here in the forest now, who not long ago lived in homes and could come and go as everybody else? Now we are some kind of prisoners, only we don't have the slightest idea for what and why? It just cannot be in the 2Oth century that something like this should happen?

The world must have gone berserk; that is for sure! All this is happening in the wide open for the whole world to see and hear! But the simplest way is to look to the other side! We had all this treatment in a country which used to be the center of culture and knowledge! We watched the birds and bees flying all over, free, nobody watched them. Where did these people learn all these devilish skills? And how did they have the brutal strength, the plain physical strength to deal with all this barbarism day after day. There was no rest at any hour, night or day time.
Another time we were working in a vegetable garden, which had many pits to store for the winter the many kind of vegetable which were brought in from the outside. In the fall little potatoes, beets, beet roots and other vegetables had to be saved from the harsh winter and stored or planted in the ground in the several pits (little potatoes). This was also always a big excitement that is hard to describe! Some of the girls were so able, quick, alert and fast like lightning. They could save some to take home. Unfortunately when such opportunity came I became frozen, just couldn't move, at the same time it bothered me a lot. So some of the girls decided to help me to some, but it was not free! I had to guard the pit! As I was there standing and watching, the girls were doing their job and let some beets roll towards me. All these maneuvers were a great risk of course; we were checked at the gates.
Sometimes it was worthwhile to try, because we could bite into something edible. It soothed our hunger a little bit. Our meal was hardly edible, but we ate because we knew how important it was for our survival. What we got, was not nourishing, was missing the valuable food items. No vitamins and the yearning to bite and chew was there all the time along with the desire for food. For such maneuver one had to be incredibly quick and well guarded.
Some rumours started to run around and some truth must have been behind it. We noticed some excitements and sure enough we had to be ready to leave shortly because the Russians were nearing. We had mixed feelings again, who knows what to expect? One thing was certain, that we were always farther from home. The group started to line up for the march, they gave us something to eat for the trip and we were waiting for the sound of the roll call, oh how familiar already. They urged us to move, quick, hurry; los, los! Always everything was urgent, but this time it seemed that there really was not too much time. We had to reach another camp. But we had a big problem ahead of us because we had to cross a river on our own because the bridge was useless; it had been bombed.

There was a temporary bridge for the soldiers only which was built in haste and of course we were not allowed to use it. To this day I will never understand or believe how we did that? But the order came that all the girls had to form a human chain, take off the shoes and hold them high, and we started into the rough and swelling water, a the dangerous journey. The river bottom was full with smaller or bigger rocks which created hazards. The river protested angrily, we were invaders, but were strongly holding on to each other. The soldiers watched us from a distance on safe and dry land and enjoyed our struggle. Finally, unbelievable as it was, we reached the other bank of the river. Wet, exhausted and excited. We tried to rest, and put our shoes on; not a chance. The shouting and yelling started anew, we had to go on! Los you verfluchte Juden, Los! Hurry, move on! (Go on, move already you damned, cursed Jews!)

Dundanga and Rechlin were the next camps where we had to enjoy their hospitality. In one of them I had an almost pleasant experience. We were assigned to work in a huge SS vegetable garden. One SS man, who was watching my work, came closer, bent down and using his beautiful pocket knife cut off some of the vegetables which I was working with. It had a special taste, like mint, also smell. He ordered me with his note and with the green leaves into the SS kitchen.

To my surprise he wanted me in his office which was full with guns on the walls and then he ordered me to sit on a chest which must have been full with ammunition. I didn't feel safe at all among all these unfriendly and strange things, with my host an SS man, an alive and real SS man. Of course I didn't have any idea what his plans might be, but it was better not to guess. I just sat there, frozen and motionless waiting for my fate. He left me there alone and suddenly emerged with a bowl of milk soup, warm, and he carried it himself with both hands.

It was a real, real delicacy and he ordered me to spoon it, in front of him of course. The green mint vegetable was used in this heavenly prepared meal, which made the soup even better. My first thought was of course to share with my sister, but he yelled at me, that I have to finish right there under his watching eyes. With trembling hands and heart finally I took 2-3 spoons, I couldn't have more. He urged me to finish it and with the most severe and strict looks he warned me, that he lets me go, but I have to shut my mouth, otherwise I will see the consequences.
I walked out into the sunshine, dazed and sweating, partly from the human meal and partly from the excitement. I was so weak, perspiring profusely. He must have known that the first meal for a starved body should be light and not much, otherwise it is a torture. My starved body was not used to normal meals for a long time. The whole situation was unbelievably difficult for me because he didn't stop watching me and I didn't hope to get out alive from there. Also it was a very, very bad feeling that I had a chance to eat and was not able to share with my sister. He must have been a sadist to force me to finish the whole bowl in front of him.

From there we were put in cattle trains again and the box cars were roofless, the usual torture with rain and sun. The train stopped many times but nobody knew why and where we were heading. Being inside in the closed box car was like being in an oven.

Our nerves were frayed already but the constant togetherness, the press of the bodies made the situation unbearable. There was no place to stretch out even a little bit. With the smallest move we bumped into somebody's head or body, so the intolerance just grew. Kicking, pushing from every side in the overheated, tightly closed box car was something unspeakably horrible; praying aloud for help which never came! How we could survive such a trying time remains another miracle.

Finally we started to move; it was still better than standing in one place in such a hopeless situation. Such travelling took about 3-4 days, and nights. Just a miracle that we arrived alive, just to experience again something that is unforgettable!


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