Throughout Europe in the 1940s, the complete annihilation of European Jewry was one of the foremost goals of any of the German occupied states. To minimise the Holocaust and claim that the planned murder and execution of the Jews was completely a Nazi responsibility is nothing short of a lie. The Holocaust was supported not just by the Nazis, but by local body governments, by everyday peoples, by housewives and even children. The indoctrinated hatred of the Jewish peoples throughout Europe was rife and many people, legitimised by the Nazi government, harassed and murdered Jews. The most infamous death camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau, or Auschwitz Camp II, received Jews from Upper Silesia, Slovakia, the Netherlands, France, Belgium, Yugoslavia, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Italy, all of which would not have been possible without the explicit help of everyday citizens within those cities.
Once in Auschwitz, just as it was in any of the other death camps, death was inevitable. In the original documents that J.A. Topf und Söhne (J.A. Topf and Sons was the construction company responsible for the crematoriums at Birkenau) provided to the German Command, is the statement that the furnaces they designed would effectively cremate 4,756 corpses per day.
Yet within the vast figure, of almost 6,000,000 executions, there were people who managed to escape the German killing apparatus. Eventually these people, often a long time after the fact, began to tell their stories. Yesterday I had the privilege to meet three of these people and listen to their harrowing tales.
Daniel Gold (Lithuania).
Daniel was born in Šiauliai, Lithuania in 1937. In 1941, the Germans occupied Lithuania, and the Jews of Šiauliai were enclosed in a ghetto. Two years later, the German Aktions were carried out and people not strong enough to work were taken away and liquidated, this included all the old as well as the children. Amazingly, Daniel managed to hide in a potato cellar with his cousins during the Aktion. Daniel spoke about the fear that he experienced that day. The tiny space that they were hiding in was so cramped that David, who was six at the time, and his cousins had to stand, pressed into each other in silence throughout the day. They could hear the drunk Lithuanian soldiers clearing the properties around them: furniture breaking, dogs barking, crying mothers and their children, gun shots, soldiers singing and celebrating their successes. Trapped in silence, with little air, the children who were unable to leave were forced to defecate where they stood.
Hidden away for the next year within the ghetto, Daniel managed to escape alongside his two cousins and his aunt and uncle, two days before the ghetto was fully liquidated. Hiding with a Lithuanian family, Daniel survived the Holocaust and was eventually reunited with his father who was liberated from Dachau by the US 7th Army. His mother did not survive.
Yehudit Kleinman (Italy)
Yehudit was an Italian Jew living with her mother and grandmother when one night, her mother received a phone call that left her ashen. Without telling Yehudit what was happening, her mother packed several suitcases and then took Yehudit, alongside her grandmother to the local civic offices. Once there, Yehudit – who had still not been told anything – described the oppressive nature of the room. German officers stood around a man seated at a desk who was writing down information. There was a very real sense of fear and panic in the room, but people were for some reason, following the orders they were given. When Yehudit and her family arrived at the desk, she was very surprised to see her Christian neighbour standing alongside the man at the desk. Suddenly, the desk clerk looked at Yehudit and asked her who she wanted to go with, pointing at both her mother and the neighbour. Yehudit was only 6.
Yehudit looked first at her mother and was confronted with a fear and look that she could never forget. Her mother’s face was grim and determined, ashen and deathly, hostile and unwelcoming. In a split second decision, Yehudit somehow knew that her mother was no longer an option and signalled that she wanted to go with her neighbour. Immediately German soldiers forcibly removed Yehudit’s mother and grandmother from the room while holding back the six year old. Amid the cries and panic, Yehudit was pulled in by her neighbour. Without even an embrace or a goodbye, Yehudit found herself without her family. She would never see her mother, or her grandmother, again.
Dropped off at a Catholic convent, Yehudit pretended to be a Christian and once the war was over, was found by a Jewish organisation who relocated her to an orphanage in Israel.
Rena Quint (Poland)
As a three and a half year old girl in Poland, Rena was one of the first people to encounter the Nazi ghettoisation of the Jews in 1939. Originally from a family who owned a nice house in Piotrkow, the forced settlement of the Jews in her area meant severe crowding with very little food, medicine, and heating. With entire families forced into single rooms, typhus soon became rampant. Within these conditions, the families were held together by the women as many men were forced into the labour camps.
Just before she turned six, she experienced her first German Aktion. Sometime after midnight, German troops rounded up the families and herded them through the streets, whipping the women and children like they were animals. They were then crammed into the local synagogue with 2,000 other people and Rena can remember the sounds of shooting and crying in the streets around her. Anyone who couldn’t fit into the room was taken out into the Radomsk forest where they were forced to dig the ditches that ultimately became their graves. While in the synagogue, Rena noticed a man, Rena wasn’t sure if it was an uncle, motioning for her to run out the door. Despite the fear that was engulfing her, Rena ran out the door with the man. She doesn’t know how she ran, or whether her mother pushed her, but that was the last time she saw her mother, brothers and her extended family. They were taken to Treblinka and the gas chambers where their bodies were piled into open pits and burnt. To this day, she still wonders what her mother was thinking as ran out the door.
The man she had run out with eventually took her to her father, but what was he to do with her? Girls were useless. So her father cut her hair short and dressed her in boys clothing. He changed her name from Fredgia to Froyim and told her that she was to say that she was ten and could work. She then spent the next while working in the class factory as a boy until she was taken to Burgen-Belsen where, sitting amongst a pile of copses, she was liberated by the British in 1945.
During the Holocaust, all of Rena’s family were killed by the Germans. Remarkably, she eventually found herself in the USA with a loving family who renamed her Rena.
In all, these survivors were the lucky ones. In many areas of Europe, no Jews survived the atrocities that befell their people. Yet in spite of all the horrors that Daniel, Yehudit and Rena faced, there remains within them a beautiful expression of humanism. While I am positive that many survivors succumbed to the evils they lived through, these three people exhibited a remarkable sense of peace that belied their journeys. Humour coupled with pessimism, and a journey defined by hope was evident in all of their stories, but by far the greatest light that shined from these people was their successes. Ultimately, Yehudit – whom I spent the afternoon with – found her ultimate success in revenge. The ability to marry and have children became symbolic of her victory over the Nazis who tried to destroy all the Jewish children. In this way, every Jewish child born became symbolic of the Nazi failure and the hope of a new Jewish nation.