Please note: Parental discretion is advised, as this series of articles may be too disturbing or graphic for children.
In Part 14 (September 16), Olga and her father arrive at Auschwitz.
Auschwitz. A mass of buildings, barbed wire in every direction as far as the eye can see.
They are rushed off the wagons, with the old and infirm once again having a difficult time climbing out. Some simply fall off. “Oy, oy, please help me,” one hears everywhere. Strange-looking men with sunken eyes, shaven, bald heads, wearing striped prisoner uniforms with numbers on their chests, climb on board to help with the disembarkation. They order everyone to quickly get off the wagons and leave all the belongings on board. First shower and disinfection, after which they will return to retrieve their belongings, Olga and the others are told. It makes sense, so everyone climbs down. But this was a lie, as they never saw their belongings again. Whatever personal items they may have retained, such as pictures of children or parents, are also confiscated. The dead bodies they have been riding with for days are tossed off the train onto a truck and driven away. Different trucks appear, and the SS assure all that those who are very old and infirm can ride on a wagon for their comfort. The Nazis reassure them, and the new arrivals believe them. What choice do they have?
They were chased off of the wagons by Hungarian-speaking SS, presumably Hungarian nationals who joined the Third Reich at the beginning of the war. They walk among the Jews menacingly, some holding fierce-looking German Shepherd dogs on a leash. They scream and at times beat the arriving Jews to get them to move faster.
Immediately upon disembarkation, the men and women were separated into two columns. For the first time since leaving Dombovar, Olga and her father, Adolf, are separated. Olga was terrified at the thought of her father being alone. Again, the SS informed them that soon they will be reunited. All this is only temporary during the intake processing, they are told. Some of the SS seem reasonable while others are cruel.
As the two columns begin to march off, Olga and Adolf lock eyes. It would be the last time they saw each other. Adolf sadly looked away as his column was marched toward the building with the large chimney belching out towering flames. The memory of her father walking away with his head lowered would haunt Olga for the rest of her life.
The women’s column began to march as well. Olga walked next to Kertesz Neni and Margit Neni, her sister-in-law, and Zsofika. The column marched several kilometers, passing hundreds of wooden barracks. Olga looked around and saw an immense camp surrounded by cement posts about 12 feet high. Each post was about two feet thick and connected to barbed wire. The wire separated the camp into several smaller camps, but each was immense. The posts all had an electric lamp on top that was aimed into the camps at the prisoners. These lamps were always on. Between the wires were signs identifying the various camps such as Camp B, Camp C, and Camp E. The wires were electrically charged with prominent signs warning of death for anyone who touched them. As they walked past the signs, they saw thousands of prisoners. In camp E, they saw hundreds of Gypsies with many Gypsy children running around. In Camp C were many women with shaven heads, wearing rags and wooden clogs on their feet. At first, Olga thought they were inmates from an insane asylum. They looked very bizarre, as they pointed to their shaved heads and then pointed to Olga and the column of women. In the distance was a large sign screaming out “Arbeit Macht Frei.”
Finally, the column arrived before a German officer sitting on a table with his legs crossed. In his hands he was holding a baton that he swung casually, to the left or to the right, as the column of women passed before him. When he indicated “left,” that person would shift into the column veering off toward the left side. When the baton swung “right,” that woman would shift off toward the column going right. Two new columns were thus formed, with the left column much larger than the right one. He waved Olga to the right, but Kertesz Neni, Margit Neni, and Zsofika, who were older, were sent to the left. The rebbetzin, Rabb Erzsebet, and her daughters came right after them. Erzsebet and her older daughter, Judit, were sent to the right. Little Dori, the younger sister, was sent to the left. With a few exceptions, Olga was now completely alone. Her closest friends, her father, gone to the left. Olga had no idea what the “left” meant at that time, and she, like everyone else next to her, wanted to believe what they were told.
Who could have imagined the barbaric cruelty of such an enlightened nation as the Germans? That they had devised and established a plan of extermination with assembly-line precision? Olga believed what she was told — that, naturally, they would meet up once again. The old who are not capable of physical labor will be responsible of taking care of the children. “Everyone will be put to good use,” was what the SS officers had said.
Later she found out that the German officer doing the selection was Dr. Josef Mengele, the “Auschwitz Angel of Death.”
They marched in rows of five toward a large building where they were told that they will be disinfected. As they enter the building the order is shouted out: Get undressed!
In dazed disbelief, there is hesitation. Get undressed, here, in front of all these German soldiers? Their hesitation invites a rain of blows with the truncheons, as the shouting gets louder. Undress now!
The frightened women get undressed and tie their clothing in a bundle and leave it there. The hair on their head is shaven off, followed by body hair. The Reich needs their hair to stuff couches, chairs, and car seats. Their clothing is vital as well, as Germany lacks all such commodities. After the clothing is disinfected, it will be shipped and distributed to German women all throughout the country.
After the shaving, they are led into a hall for disinfection. The disinfecting spray stings and seems to eat into the skin. Hours go by as they await the showers, and all the while the German soldiers laugh at their embarrassment and discomfort. Olga, like many single Jewish women, has never before undressed in front of a man. The embarrassment bites into her soul and is more painful than the disinfectant. What is to come next, she wondered? How can things get any worse?
Finally, they are led into a giant shower room, about a hundred at a time, and are showered. After the long and tiring trip, the shower feels good. But moments after they enter, they are driven out. As they come out, they receive no towel to dry off, but instead are given dirty rags by the Slovak girls to put on. These rags are distributed regardless of size — just whatever comes into their hands. No undergarments were provided, and the ill-fitting dresses are too tight on some while way too large on others. As Olga looks around, she sees an unbelievable spectacle. For the first time, she realizes that she, too, looks like a deranged insane-asylum inmate, just like those women she saw upon her arrival.
Auschwitz has very unusual weather. Even if it’s scorching hot during the daytime, it can get really cold at night. During the winter months, it’s bitter cold, nights and mornings. Now, with her body wet, Olga started to shiver. They are driven out of the shower area and across the road into Birkenau. Their destination is Lager BII C barracks, block number seven.
BII C had been set aside for the Czechoslovakian former inmates of the Theresienstadt concentration camp. But that was at the beginning of the war, when the Nazis cared a little about world opinion. They set up a “model camp” where families, children included, all stayed together. They built schools, even playgrounds for the children. The Nazi regime would then bring International Red Cross representatives, and others whose opinions mattered, to show them the benign, wonderful conditions in their “camps.”
Naturally, in all the other camps they continued brutally exterminating European Jewry. But now, in 1944, with the war nearing the end, they no longer cared about anyone’s opinion. So, the camp in Theresienstadt was liquidated, with everyone shipped to Auschwitz. As they awaited the transports of Hungarian Jews, they made room for them by gassing all the prisoners from Theresienstadt. The Hungarian women inherited the dilapidated and rickety barracks of BII C.
Since her arrival, she had been shaved, disinfected, showered, and dressed in rags. The meager belongings she came with, including her food, was now in the possession of the Germans. She had absolutely nothing of her own in the world. She had not been given any food or water and she was starving and parched. As they entered the barracks, they laid down on the floor, exhausted, packed together like sardines. When one wanted to turn over, they all had to turn. When someone got up to go to the bathroom, there was no room for her when she returned.
Olga really did not know where she was. What was Auschwitz or Birkenau? She had never heard of this place before arriving there. But she did understand that her life was no longer in her hands, and her destiny unknown.
Her humiliation was almost unbearable, but she had to endure. How did she get to this place? She thought about her recent treatment by the Hungarians and now the Germans. Step by step, she was dehumanized, as if by degrees. She realized that she was no longer even a person, just a number. She settled into sleep amid the screaming, cursing, and fighting as the others tried to get a better spot for themselves on the floor.
July 7, 1944: Olga’s first night in Auschwitz.
There were many things that she would remember as long as she lived. The humiliation of being stripped and disinfected could never be forgotten. But most of all, she could never forget the odor that hit her nostrils as they disembarked from the cattle cars on that first day upon arriving in Auschwitz. Someone said that it smelled like burning flesh.
Dr. Alex Sternberg authored the forthcoming book “Recipes from Auschwitz–My Parents’ Story of the Murder of Hungarian Jewry.” He is a lifelong student of Jewish history, focusing on development of Zionism and the Holocaust. He is presently teaching graduate studies and is active in several pro-Israel organizations. He is a retired research doctor in children’s pulmonary health and a master karate instructor.