By Dr. Alex Sternberg

Leaving Auschwitz

Please note: Parental discretion is advised, as this series of articles may be too disturbing or graphic for children.

Late August in Auschwitz, rumors are flying every day about many things. The frequent bombings and air raids of the allies give veracity to the rumors about liberation any day. “The Russians are very close,” is one such rumor. “Liberation is imminent,” “Americans are at our doorsteps,” is another. Then like a bombshell comes the rumor that “Hitler is dead!”

The doctors pulling the wagon taking away the latrine waste quietly pass the message to the women who happen to be near the cart. No sooner do they pass the message than they are gone, without giving any more details to the story.

(In Auschwitz, duties like emptying the latrine pails and carting away the waste are performed by the most educated of the men, usually the doctors. As they rolled the wagon through the camp, the wagon wheels often bump into the uneven dirt road between the camps, forcing the putrid, vile smelling liquid to spill, covering the doctors in waste. It was another way for the Nazis to humiliate and embarrass the Jews.)

The women gleefully spread the rumor through the camp, but carefully, so the blockowas and the blockelteste didn’t hear. Surely a beating but perhaps much worse would follow, if they heard someone spreading such seditious rumors. The women began to feverishly discuss the ramifications of this latest rumor. It means that the war will surely be over imminently, and they will all be liberated. Yes, they are going home. They will be reunited with their loved ones, whom they have not seen since the day they arrived at Auschwitz.

Some begin to daydream about picking up the pieces of their pre-Auschwitz life. Many discuss what they should do to all the nasty Hungarians who turned them in and who looted their homes. Time to get even; the reconciliation day is fast approaching.

But after a few days, this rumor is put to rest. “Hitler survived the assassination attempt,” they found out, much to their profound disappointment.

One of the same doctors pushing the latrine cart managed to pass a note written on a slip of paper that reaches one of the wives in the women’s camp.

Sweetheart! We’ll be home in three weeks. Since our home is infested with cockroaches, we’re going to paint. I’d have liked to have it done by our favorite painter, but he’s suffered a slight accident. Whichever of us gets home first will wait for the other in a clean apartment.

So, the women understand: the favorite painter only suffered a slight accident. Auschwitz continues and liberation is still far away.

Adding to the sadness now gripping the camp, Tishah B’Av is coming the day after tomorrow.

Many new questions arise: “Should they fast or is it permissible to eat?”

Those who are stronger decide to fast, while the weaker ones conclude that it is permissible to eat. After all, they are almost always fasting anyway.

The next day, after an air raid, flyers were dropped on the camp. This causes new rumors to begin. The flyers state that the allies are on their way. “Don’t give up hope, they will soon be here.”

That night a surprise concert, celebrating the lagerelteste’s birthday. All the blockowas come from many barracks together. Susanka from Olga’s barracks, together with Giska, Bella, Lea, and some others. Most are usually mean and cruel, but not tonight. Tonight, they are all on their best behavior, dressed in their nicest clothing. The ladies from Dombovar congregate together: The rabbi’s wife, Rabb Erzsebet, together with her older daughter Juditka, who recently managed to come over into their barracks along with Ilonka Keszler and Olga. It’s comforting to be together with people from home.

The next morning, the feeling of good will is gone. The birthday is over and the blockowas return to their beastly selves. Its zehlappel in the morning and the daily torture begins anew.

Interestingly, some women managed to give birth in Auschwitz. They arrived pregnant and they managed to hide their pregnancy. The ill-fitting clothes they received often were too large and helped conceal their ever-growing bellies. When the time came, they delivered their babies with the help of the other women, some of whom were doctors. They saw their babies for only seconds before the babies were taken away. In the world of Auschwitz, the choice was simple: either the baby dies or they both die. So the next day the beautiful baby is placed on top of the cart, bringing the bodies to the crematoria. Life goes on in Auschwitz.

Women were ordered to push carts from camp to camp, just like the men. Often, they saw relatives, sometimes even a husband. They almost didn’t recognize each other with the shaven head and the weight loss. Olga, at times, saw some friends from Dombovar. But, as an only child whose mother died years before, it was only her and her father arriving in Auschwitz. Although she looked all the time, she never spotted him.

After the morning appel, the women of camp BIIc (Olga’s camp) were marched to another disinfection. By now Olga was used to them. In order to keep the epidemics of scarlet fever or typhus down, the latrine seats were routinely sprayed with bleach. The women were taken to disinfection. Naked, they once again wondered if their new clothes would equal the ones they just left behind. They are chased past the other camp BIIe and continue toward the forest Brzezinka. So far so good, they have been here before for the last disinfection. But they are marched past the familiar disinfection barracks and past what Olga recently learned was the gas chamber. The frightened women began running to get away as fast as possible. They passed another building that is unfamiliar to them. They saw lots of women and children in nice clothing being taken inside the building. “Who are they and what is this building?” Olga wondered. Later she finds out that they were part of the latest transport to arrive in Auschwitz.

They stopped and stood, past the building, naked. After several hours they heard barking dogs and gunfire. Now they are more frightened than before. But shortly after, finally, they enter the disinfection barracks. They received new clothing and are marched back to camp BIIc. That evening, back in their barracks, the news is heard that several men attempted to escape, and the SS pursued them with the dogs. They were all captured and shot. That was the gunfire Olga heard.

Next day, August 18, brought exciting news. Shusanka, the blockelteste, announced that 1,800 women were needed and would be selected and taken elsewhere for work in a factory.

Those who went would be given more food and better clothing. Olga was ready to go with the 1,800. She had been in Auschwitz for a few months now and so far no work at all. Despite the infamous sign on top of the entry gate “Arbeit Macht Frei” “Work Sets You Free” there had been no arbeit.

Finally, the 1,800 women were selected at random from larger BIIc and marched out to the side of the camp. They were made to stand in rows of five as usual and told to wait at the side of the road, near the camp. As they waited there by the roadside. They saw a group of men approaching from the opposite direction toward their camp. The men, prisoners as they were, appeared to be very skinny and emaciated. Feeling sorry for prisoners more desperate than they were, Olga and many of the other women began to throw pieces of bread that they had been given a short time before. The men broke ranks and lunged at the bread pieces.

One of them, spotting a piece on the ground, bent down to pick it up. A nearby SS officer, holding a snarling, barking, German shepherd dog, noticed the hungry Jew pick up the bread. He sicced the dog on the starving, defenseless Jew, whose only crime was that he was hungry. The dog began to bite and tear at the man’s arms and legs, as he was trained to do. Miraculously, the man managed to crawl away, bleeding, and rejoined the others in the line.

Several of the ladies in the formation, upon seeing this spectacle, berated Olga and her friends for being so thoughtless and causing so much harm to the poor, unfortunate man. But Olga had no way to know that her act of generosity would have that effect.

Olga looked back with apprehension at Birkenau, the horrible place that until now was her home. Waiting, waiting, starving, being beaten and yelled at and terrified every time Mengele showed up for a selection. But she managed to escape any diseases and any selections up till now and was in reasonable condition. Where were they going to take them now? What would be her future, she wondered?

Not all of her friends were brave enough to share her adventurism and leave Birkenau. Some of the ladies from Dombovar elected to stay because they felt that with the Russians so close, liberation was more probable, and earlier, from there.

Looking back years later, Olga realized that her decision was the correct one, even if she didn’t really know that at the time. Her friends who elected to stay were exterminated in Birkenau. All those who remained back in Birkenau were liquidated when the Germans were retreating from the Soviet Army. As they wanted to cover up the magnitude of their crime, they either sent those who remained to the gas chambers, or took them on a forced “death march.” Miklos Nyiszli, in his book “I Was Mengele’s Assistant,” wrote that when Mengele found out that Nyiszli had a wife in Birkenau BIIc camp, he told him that she should volunteer for work outside of Birkenau in order to survive. Those who remained behind all perished.

Olga was never tattooed while at Auschwitz/Birkenau. But neither were many of her friends and others with her.

The group marched out of Birkenau and walked for many hours. Eventually, they were loaded onto cattle cars similar to the ones that brought them to Auschwitz. After a long time on the train, they disembarked and continued on foot. The march felt endless. By morning, they had walked for many hours and came to a very picturesque row of small houses along a lake. These houses were not like anything they has seen at Birkenau. They were told that these pretty barracks belonged to the blockelteste and the aufseiherin. After a lengthy march, they allowed the women to sit down on the side of the road. They sat there for a few hours. The road was gravelly and consisted of a black coal-like substance. Their clothing was completely black from the dust on the gravel. Finally, they were taken into the camp, their new home. They finally arrived at their destination, Ravensbruck.

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 the development of Zionism and the Holocaust. He teaches 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.

Olga’s Paprikás csirke

Chicken Paprikas

Ingredients:

  • Large Spanish onion (diced)
  • Half sweet pepper (diced)
  • 8 chicken legs (may be skinned)
  • 1 tsp salt and pinch pepper
  • 5-6 stalks of parsley leaves
  • 1 tsp. Hungarian sweet paprika
  • ½ tsp. soup mix

Directions:

Sauté onions in oil. As they glaze, place diced green peppers in skillet.

Wait until everything becomes soft. Add in sweet Hungarian paprika, pepper, salt, and soup mix. Place in chicken legs and roll in pan to cover with sautéed mixture. Cover chicken legs entirely with water.

Place on medium flame, cover, and cook approximately 40 minutes. Remove cover after 25 minutes and continue to simmer for 15 minutes. If cover stays on, paprikas will be a little more liquidy.

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