My mother’s birthday, which recently fell out on January 18, was largely ignored by our family.
My mother was born in Cracow, Poland, one of four children, to a prominent Jewish family whose roots in Poland dated back hundreds of years. With the Nazi invasion of Poland in September 1939, her family was displaced and interned in the Cracow ghetto. Forced into slave labor, she worked in a ghetto factory where she was sustained by the meager rations doled out to the prisoners.
One day, while she and a group of other teenagers were arguing about their plight and its impact on their relationship to God, she made clear for thinking that her belief in God remained unshaken. My father, who was enslaved in the adjacent Plaszow labor camp, heard her principled commitment and was immediately attracted to her. They were soon separated, with my mother being sent to Auschwitz, and my father to Theresienstadt. While at Auschwitz, she suffered many beatings at the hands of Nazi guards because her maiden name sounded “German.”
In 1945, my mother and others heard rumors spreading that the Nazis were losing the war. When January 18 approached she and other Jews hoped that liberation was soon at hand. Unfortunately for them, Russian troops did not enter the camp until 9 fateful days later, January 27, an event whose 70th anniversary was just commemorated.
As the Soviets approached, the Nazis killed of thousands of prisoners and on January 18, my mother’s birthday, forced her and thousands of others to go on a death march to various other death camps. The Germans were afraid that the Allied and Soviet liberators would hear about atrocities committed from eyewitnesses and decided to remove the “evidence,” forcing as many Jews from the camps as possible before the liberators entered. Himmler and other Nazis also believed that they could trade the Jews as hostages to make a better “deal” with the Allies when the war was over. Nonetheless, the death march was aptly named because those who fell behind and could not march in the bitter cold were shot on the spot or torn to shreds by German shepherds. More than 15,000 Jews died en route to their new hell.
My mother and a handful of other women survivors were forced into cattle cars six days later to be transported to the notorious death camp, Ravensbruck. Ravensbruck was a concentration camp set up specifically to murder women and was overseen by Nazi women camp guards who were known for their sadistic enjoyment of inflicting brutal punishments and torture on the Jewish prisoners.
In April, once again as Soviet troops advanced on the camp, my mother was forced to a sub-camp, Neustadt-Gleve, working in an armaments factory under inhumane conditions. Out of 1800 women in her group, only 100 lived to be transferred Neustadt-Gleve. She maintained her faith in God, saying that the horrors she witnessed and experienced were being perpetrated by evil men and that her faith in Hashem was unshaken.
She recalls seeing and hearing the Allies bomb the area and was fortunate to be liberated on May 8, 1945. After liberation, my mother and another Survivor attempted to go back “home” to Cracow, but were soon advised there was nothing to go back to. Over the course of the war, her mother, father, brother and sisters – her entire family — were murdered by the Nazis. Her aunts, uncles and nearly all of her cousins were murdered as well.
My mother heard there was a gathering place for Jewish survivors near the city of Prague, where those who were liberated from Theresienstadt had gone. Coincidently, my father was hospitalized in that area. Upon learning that my father had survived (his parents and 8 siblings were murdered), my mother sought him out and tended to him in the hospital. A few months later, in October 1945, they were married. Hoping to start a new life they attempted to go to Israel, but were barred from doing so, and ended up back in Germany. After three years of delay, they made their way to the United States in 1948, arriving with one dollar in their pocket.
My father took a menial job cleaning toilets and became a waiter in a delicatessen on the Lower East Side. He was soon fired after he cleaned a table, throwing out somebody’s scraps of food without realizing that the customer had simply gone to the restroom. My father soon joined Bartons Candy Company, where he worked his way up to production manager. My mother went back to school and later became a bookkeeper for many large corporations such as Singer Sewing Machines and Litton Industries. They were determined to rebuild their lives and effectively did so by being active in various Jewish organizations. Additionally, they are the proud grandparents of nine grandchildren and over 20 great-grandchildren. Fortunately, all of their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren are proud, Torah-committed Jews.
I recently learned that my mother helped save a young teenager’s life. My parents gave numerous talks to high school students in the Florida area, telling them about the horrors she encountered and that regardless of life’s challenges, they should never give up. Years later, one of those students was facing personal troubles and was contemplating suicide. She related to the daughter of someone that I know that she decided not to take her life because my mother’s speech allowed her to put her issues in perspective and realize that life was worth living.
My parents continue to live an inspiring life, full of integrity, values and Jewish pride. They are always so thankful for everything that they have. The memories of their past are seared in their minds, but they have a vision for the future. That future began in May 1945 and it is for this reason that we celebrate her birthday, not on her actual birth date of January 18, which reminds her of the death march from Auschwitz, but on May 8, the date of her liberation.