By Dr. Alex Sternberg
Ravensbrück had over 50 sub-camps. One of these sub-camps, Sachsenhausen, had 32 sub-camps of its own. These sub-camps were different in size and condition. Olga stayed in the main camp for a short while, before being transferred to one of the Sachsenhausen sub-camps called Reinickendorf. The primary factory they serviced here was the Argus Flugsmotor Werke, or Argus Airplane Factory. The food ration improved over the Birkenau fare, as did the living conditions. Still, it was a concentration camp, considered one of the more severe among the German camps. The Germans didn’t care if you lived or died.
When they were shipped to Auschwitz-Birkenau, they came from the same town together with neighbors and families. At times, they managed to stay together, and some managed to stick together all the way to liberation. While Olga arrived with her townsfolk, soon they were assigned to different barracks and different camps. In the beginning, she was together with the rebbetzin, Rabb Erzsebet, but sometime later Olga was switched from the barracks and assigned to a different one. Still, many of the Dombovar neighbors managed to stay within a barracks or two from each other. They still could interact and help each other to a point.
But once shipped to Ravensbrück, this all changed. To begin with, not all the Dombovar people agreed to leave Birkenau. Some reasoned that the Russians were in the immediate vicinity and they would be liberated shortly. Others, after hearing many endless rumors, no longer believed any of them. So they grabbed the opportunity to make a change. As stated earlier, the ones who stayed in Birkenau, waiting for the Russians, perished. Almost all of them ended up in the gas chambers.
Ravensbrück brought together a hodgepodge of cultures, a veritable Tower of Babel. Many were German Jehovah’s Witnesses who refused to say “Heil Hitler,” as they believed in greeting only G-d. Others were criminals or Gypsies, while many others were Polish political prisoners. Some were Catholic resistance fighters. In this multitude, few, if any, of the prisoners had anything in common with the others, neither in language, culture, religion, or a shared homeland. While some of the others knew what crime brought them there, the Jews really didn’t. After all, they didn’t commit any crime other than being Jewish. Even among the Jewish inmates, there was little homogeneity. Some were religious, others not. Some were educated, others less so. As a result of this, the possibility of bonding and creating a cohesive, unified group was almost impossible. The probability of forming a cohesive unit among such a diverse multitude in order to rebel was remote.
Of all the places, here was a place that needed a “family” or group to survive. Olga was utterly alone here. Previously, in Birkenau, she always knew someone within her barracks or in the next one. Here she was aware of her aloneness; she could count on no one in case she needed help, or even trust someone enough to speak with them.
A Yad Vashem publication about conditions in Ravensbrück touches on this phenomena and quotes Judith Buber-Agassi.
“[L]onely women were a rarity in the camp, because being alone meant near certain death. Everyone without a close relative, or a good friend, had to have a lagerschwester (camp sister), or the younger girls, whose mothers had been gassed, were adopted by mature women.”
“Having a sister, a cousin, or a friend in the camp with you was sometimes the only thing that gave you the courage to go on; each lived solely for the other.”
When recalling her days in Ravensbrück, Olga once again described her good fortune and the silver lining. Fortunately, as she recounted, she met two sisters, the daughters of the rabbi of Balatonfured, Rabbi Ezra Goldstein, and two additional girls. Olga and the other four girls became a tight-knit group that went everywhere together and became inseparable. They slept in the same area of the barracks, ate their meals together, and stood next to each other during the zahlappel. Undoubtedly, they all felt the need to have friends.
Their friendship grew the more they were together. The difference between them and the others was their attitude. The others spent endless hours fretting and complaining about everything, including the treatment by the Nazis, the cold or the heat, the size of the bread or sausage they received, whether they received their piece of margarine or not, the type of work they were assigned to. Naturally, they were unhappy about where they were, and so there was always something to complain about. Their anxiety was constantly on the highest alert.
Olga’s group instinctively understood the futility of squandering precious energy (not like they had an abundant supply of it) on useless complaining. Olga and her friends received their food ration and moved away from the rest to eat alone. The negative energy emanating from the others was debilitating and depressing. But Olga and her friends were thankful to G-d that He provided for their needs and protected them in the turbulent hell they found themselves in. They were thankful to be alive.
After the war, Olga observed, that many of the women who constantly complained never made it back home.
She thought back to her one experience “organizing” food that almost turned into a disaster when she was nearly caught. She recalled her excitement, her racing heart, and throbbing forehead as she prayed to G-d to protect her. After that night, she swore to herself than that she would never again expose herself to such needless risk. They all agreed that the useless complaining was just as futile and would not lead to anything healthy.
What bound Olga and her little group together was a similar attitude, perhaps a maturity built on their experiences learned in Auschwitz. Yes, Ravensbrück was no picnic, but it also wasn’t Birkenau. The stench of death, constantly in their nostrils there, was absent here. Yes, Ravensbrück also had a gas chamber with crematoria but it was not the large-scale extermination factory they left behind. Will they ever get sent back there, they wondered? Olga and her friends knew all too well that they were not in control of their destiny. They just hoped and prayed that G-d had no evil decrees for them.
They recited poetry as an escape from the dreariness of their surroundings. And they spent a lot of time on their “cooking” and on their recipes.
They accepted life in Ravensbrück in the Reinickendorf Argus airplane company and began to settle into a sort of routine. In the mornings, they stood together at the 5 a.m. zahlappel, had their “breakfast coffee,” and were marched out to the factory by a detachment of German Nazi guards.
Once at Argus their supervision was taken over by the German foreman Emil, and they set about performing their work. They worked for 12 hours, with a half-hour given for lunch.
One night, working on the night shift, she felt more tired than usual. After loading the nobbe into the “washing machine,” she turned it on, allowing the machine to go through its cycle. As was her habit, she sat down with her back propped up against the back of the machine to warm up. Before she realized, she had fallen asleep, slouched down behind a large machine. She didn’t inform anyone that she was sitting there, so no one knew.
Suddenly, Olga awoke to a silent, dark factory room. She was alone and frightened. She looked around to realize that everyone had been ordered out of the factory due to an air raid. Spring was approaching in 1945 and the air raids were more and more frequent. Panic settled in. “They will think I am trying to escape,” she thought. Not knowing what to do, she was scared out of her wits. Did they realize that a prisoner is missing?
She collected herself and walked out of the factory, trying to decide what to do.
Once outside, she saw some light in the distance. She ran like mad to catch up to the group of marchers. It took her a few minutes, but she caught up to the last row and squeezed herself into line. They walked a bit more away from the factory, before the Germans decided it was safe to return. As they walked back, Olga realized for the first time that when she ran out to catch up, she didn’t bring her flimsy overcoat. The German winter was bitter cold. But, still, it was better to be cold than caught.
They returned and completed the night shift.
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.