Born in Warsaw on 15 August 1921. Deported to the Warsaw Ghetto in October 1940. Deported to Majdanek in 1943, then to Auschwitz and then to Bergen-Belsen where she remained until the end of the war. Lives in Cape Town.
In spite of surviving the Warsaw ghetto and three death camps, after the liberation I tried to integrate into a normal society and after getting married raised and educated my four children, but I wasn’t able to talk about my suffering and fight for survival because the open wounds were still bleeding. But now, after many years, the tears have dried up and the scars have healed, and I am now able to share it with you.
I was born in Warsaw, the youngest in a family of seven children. My father was a respected and well to do textile merchant. My mother and the siblings were engaged in the family business. I was a happy teenager, until the Germans invaded Poland on 1 September 1939.
After weeks of heavy air raids, the city of Warsaw also fell.
There was panic, uncertainty and fear, particularly for Jews. New orders and declarations were coming out daily. All Jewish land was requisitioned, all Jewish bank accounts were closed, blocked. All public gatherings were forbidden, all Jewish schools and synagogues were closed. Food was rationed. Curfew was imposed. We had to wear white armbands with a blue star on the sleeve of the outer garment. We had to hand over our radios. Jewish men were caught in the streets to do forced labour.
My father was also one of them. Since the synagogues were closed, daily prayers were held in private homes. He was caught in the street coming back from the prayers. When he came back home, we could not recognize him. His clothes were covered in mud, the collar was ripped out of his coat. Half of his beard was cut off. When he came back from work, he announced that he now realized that we are in the hands of murderers. Some men who did not report to work were shot.
I fell ill and was running a very high temperature. All infectious diseases had to be reported to the authorities. But there was a problem, because the sick person was sent to hospital, but never came back alive. The family was sent to be quarantines, where really they got sick. The home was fumigated, and before it was sealed, all precious items were stolen.
To avoid all of this, my parents got hold of a doctor privately. He diagnosed typhoid, which is intestinal typhus. There were no antibiotics in those days. I struggled and fought for my life, and only after long weeks, did I recover.
In October, 1940, we were herded into the ghetto. We managed to collect some of our belongings into sheets – like clothing, bedding, and some valuables. We did not forget our Torah, which my father managed to save from his synagogue. The rest of our possessions were looted by the Poles.
The ghetto was surrounded by high walls, with barbed wire and broken glass on top. There were refugees pouring in from surrounding towns and villages, escorted by German guards. The ghetto was overcrowded. There were 10 to 15 people living in a room.
There was malnutrition, starvation, epidemics and disease. Starving children in rags were begging in the streets. ‘” Give me a piece of bread, or a couple of Groschen. I haven’t eaten for days,”
A common sight every morning in the Warsaw ghetto, was corpses laid out during the night by their families. They were covered with newspapers held down by bricks, victims of starvation and typhus.
It was impossible to survive on the food rations, therefore smuggling of food was rife in the ghetto and sold at exorbitant prices. Only those who could afford to, bought it. Some smugglers managed to get food in by bribing the guards at the gate of the ghetto. There were also little boys, the stronger ones with bodies so thin, that they managed to squeeze through the cracks in the walls of the ghetto. They got over to the side where the Christian Poles lived. Sometimes carrying the mother’s wedding ring, or just begging for food. But on their way back they were often caught. At best, they were beaten up, after having shaken out the provisions from under their clothing. But most of the time, they were shot, and one could see their little bodies hanging over the wall or on the ground in a pool of blood. They were our first ghetto fighters, and we salute their memory. There were also some Jewish men who worked outside the ghetto in German workshops and sometimes managed to smuggle in some food on their way back home. There were also Polish policemen who smuggled food into the ghetto and sold it at exorbitant prices. And some of our people brought out their last belongings in order to buy some food for their starving families.
The raids and round-ups continued in the ghetto. Streets were cordoned off and anybody who happened to be in the closed area was caught and deported. The raids extended even to flats. And whether it was young people, mothers with babies, children and old people, everybody was dragged down while pleading. Entire families vanished. To make it easier for themselves, the Germans announced that anybody who would voluntarily report to work, would be given three pounds of bread and jam. As you can understand, there was no shortage of volunteers. But when these people did not come back, we realized that what we thought were only rumours, unfortunately must be true.
At the same time our underground organization was printing leaflets. Below one of them:
Citizens, Jews awaken from your lethargy, stand up to fight. Do not believe that they are sending us to labour camps. It is a vicious lie. Our brothers and sisters are being brutally murdered in the death camp Treblinka. Brothers, prepare to defend yourselves. Those who are not fit for fighting should go underground and hide in cellars and bunkers. Turn every building into a fortress. We have no right to occupy the surface of the earth, because we are condemned to death.
It was hard to believe that such atrocities were happening, but I was one of those who did believe and I left my workplace called Wertefassung [seizure of valuables] where our job was to collect all valuable items like paintings, artworks, tapestries and antiques that were left in the flats by people who were deported. We loaded these items onto trucks which were sent to Germany. With a few of my friends, I left Wertefassung and we went underground while moving from cellar to cellar. We became known as the “wild ones” as we were unknown to the authorities, and lost our ration cards.
At one of the orders, we were forced to hand over our silver. At another time we were ordered to hand over our furs, which were sent to the Russian front, for the German army.
Due to the constant and frequent raids, the population of the ghetto was shrinking. The Germans were reducing the size of the ghetto which was getting smaller. And so was my own family, getting smaller and smaller. I lost practically my entire family. Due to a miraculous chain of events there were three of us left: my father, my eldest niece Roma, and I. The rest of the family of 22 people were all deported. The three of us, together with a few of my young friends occupied a flat in the building of Mila 19, from where the owners were also deported. The building Mila 19 was opposite Mila 18, which was the headquarters of the ghetto resistance movement.
We immediately took to work and bricked up the doorway leading to the last room and shifted over a heavy mahogany wardrobe to camouflage the brickwork. One could not know there was another room in the flat. When we walked up the stairs to the next floor, the flat above was laid out exactly like ours below. We found a spot leading down to our bricked up room below. We cut out a parket floor, broke through the ceiling, and lowered ourselves on a stepladder into our bricked up room below. The last person pulled over a broken cot, before closing the flap. We sat in this bricked up room every day, venturing out only at night. At this stage, the Germans didn’t come into the ghetto at night. As we sat there, we could hear them marching in every morning shouting orders, looking for Jews. We even heard their heavy footsteps on our staircase and once, even in our adjoining room. They shouted: “Wo sind die verflucthte Juden!” (Where are the cursed Jews!)
And with us in hiding was a young couple with a baby. The mother had to cover the child’s face with a pillow, in case it cried out.
On an evening of April 1943 was Passover. I remember my father giving everybody a piece of Matza which he saved from the previous year and after reciting the prayers, he prayed to God that he should save us, like He led out the Jews from the bondage in Egypt. The next morning when the Germans marched in for their routine raids they were met with Molotov cocktails, homemade bombs, grenades, and shooting from windows and rooftops. The Warsaw ghetto uprising was on. The Germans were taken by surprise, and they withdrew leaving behind their dead and injured. Yes, German blood was flowing in the streets of the Warsaw ghetto. The next morning, they came back with reinforcements and a tank. But they came up against young men and women who would not give up, and the fighting went on and on. But unfortunately and eventually they could not stand up to the mighty, well equipped German army, and the uprising was crushed.
In retaliation, the Germans decided to get out every living Jew. But by then we were all already hiding underground in cellars and bunkers. The only way to achieve it was to smoke them out. So they decided to set the ghetto on fire, building by building. We had to leave our bricked up room because the building was on fire. We got through the burning staircase and the gate on fire, and made our way through other burning buildings, and came back to the last courtyard of our own building on Mila 19. Only this courtyard was intact.
Some time before, we had prepared a much safer bunker in this very courtyard. We dug under the foundation of the cellar where we prepared in a bunker some provisions like dried bread, spaghetti, water, candles, and horse fat, which we obtained with great difficulties. But we had to have it to sustain ourselves. We could only sit or lie in the bunker because the ceiling of the cellar was very low. Every night we used to climb out to get some fresh air and straighten our limbs.
But once we felt that it became unbearably hot, we couldn’t breathe, we were suffocating. We realized that this façade of our building was now also on fire. We had to climb out. And when we were out, although it was night, it was as bright as during the day. The whole ghetto was on fire. The scarlet flames were reaching the skies. The smell of the burning feathers from the bedding, is forever in my nostrils. And the sight of the burning ghetto is always in front of me.
There were people running around with their clothing on fire, with their hair singed, and their skin scorched. There were also others jumping out from their hiding places and their bodies caught on balcony rails. I saw a woman sitting on a step with a baby sucking at her breast. I shook her and somebody pulled me away saying, “Can’t you see that she is dead?”
There were informers who were running around, urging us to get out of the inferno. (The informers – also Jews – were promised by the Germans that they would not be deported if they found where Jews were hiding. But eventually, they met exactly the same fate.)
The informers urged us “Yes, there are Germans outside in the street, but you won’t be deported or shot. You will be resettled to the East where you will work with your family in the German workshops.” Instead of being burned alive, the people followed them. But when they got out into the street, they were immediately rounded up and deported.
But we, our small group that kept together in all of the bunkers, we rebelled. And even in this dark hour when we were trapped with nowhere to turn, we still resisted and refused to submit. Remember the couple with the baby who were hiding with us? We called the man Moshe Baker. Before the war, he owned a bakery in this very courtyard of Mila 19. He pointed out a spot where he used to keep flour and we lowered ourselves into that narrow place. We stood there so tightly pressed together that we couldn’t move our limbs. Every night we used to climb out to get fresh air and straighten our limbs.
But one morning we heard heavy footsteps above us, and knocking with a rifle butt into the trapdoor. “Raus, raus, verfluchte Jude! If you don’t come out, we will send gas down.”
We realized that we had been betrayed and had no option but to climb out. When we were outside, we were blinded by daylight, which we hadn’t seen for long weeks, living underground. And then we were ordered to stand with our hands up, facing the courtyard wall, and waited to be shot. I was praying to G–d that I should be shot first before my father who was standing next to me and Roma on the other side of my father. But we were only searched for weapons as they knew that we Jews were armed. And then we were ordered to place all our valuables into a sack which was placed in the middle of the courtyard. Then we were chased into the street where the buildings of our ghetto were still smoldering.
It was already three weeks after the heroic uprising and I believe that we were almost the last survivors holding out underground in the bunkers under the burned out Warsaw ghetto.
We were marched to Umschlagplatz. This was a place of no return. Umschlagplatz was a railway siding where the cattle trucks were packed to capacity with human cargo, and returned empty, ready for another load.
As the train was not there yet, we had to stay over on the floor of an empty hall in an adjoining building. When it got dark the Ukrainian and Latvian guards in black uniforms stormed in and pulled out young girls. My father managed to cover Roma and I with his long coat.
In the morning, when we were ordered down to the platform, I remember my father giving a piece of loaf sugar to an old man who was walking down in front of him. When we reached the platform, the old man was motioned out and shot almost at our feet. He was too old even to make the last journey. And we were chased. “Schnell, schnell!” And those who couldn’t run fast enough, were hit with the whips and rifle butts. We were forced into the cattle trucks, where we were standing so tightly pressed together, that they had difficulty in shutting the heavy doors, before bolting it.
When the train did eventually move, it was unbearably hot, there was no water, or any facilities. The stench was unbearable. Some people were fainting, others were dying in the upright position.
It was just by luck, by pure chance, that we were not driven in these cattle trucks to the extermination camp, Treblinka. But instead, we were herded in that pit of hell called Majdanek – concentration camp.
Eventually when the train stopped, the bodies rolled out. Roma and I couldn’t pick up my father, we had to leave him behind. When outside, we found some water dripping from a broken tap. Everybody was trying to get a few drops. And then I saw a familiar figure walking towards us in long white underwear. I realized it was my father. Only after the war I found out how this happened. Two young boys who were with us since the ghetto, were ordered by the Germans to clean out the cattle truck. When they recognized my father, they pulled him out, he came too in the fresh air. But not for long…
We were ordered to stand in a column five abreast, and Germans with dogs on leashes on each side of us. I don’t know what happened, but I tripped and fell as we were walking. I was crawling to try and keep up with the others, while a dog was biting into my back and I was waiting to be shot. But not until the Germans stopped amusing themselves and stopped laughing, was the dog called off of me.
When we arrived at the actual camp Majdanek, which was surrounded by barbed wire with sentries all around us, pointing guns. Immediately, older women, children, and mothers with babies, were separated from us and sent to the gas chambers. And then it was the turn of the older men. And my father was among them. When he turned back to have a last look at Roma and I, he was hit on the head and bent under the blow. And that was when I saw my father for the last time. I have never, never seen my father again.
We young girls had to go through a selection. I whispered to Roma that I was afraid that I wouldn’t pass the selection, because of my bleeding back from the dog bites and the scraped knees from crawling on the gravel. Roma assured me she would follow me wherever I was sent.
And it was with one wave of the whip, – rechts, links (right, left) – that a human life was decided upon. Right to life, left to death. When it was my turn to pass the selection, I used all of my strength left in me, and lifted my shoulders and head high and I was sent to the right; to life. And so was Roma.
After the showers, we were given lice infested clothes and sent to a block house which was completely empty. There wasn’t even a piece of straw. We slept on the bare floor. We stood to roll calls twice a day. The watery soup with floating, rotten leaves was inedible. The morsel of black bread was gooey like clay, and the ersatz coffee was hard to swallow. Some girls couldn’t take it. Their bodies got swollen, others got sick with typhus. They were all sent to the gas chamber.
I worked in different Kommandos, building roads and in the fields. One was Scheissekommando. Our job was to push a wooden cart filled with faeces. Two girls in front were harnessed instead of horses, and the rest of us pushed from the back and sides. After the rains, when the wheels got stuck in the mud, we were hit so hard, that eventually we managed to get it out. When we got to the field, we had to release the cork at the back. We were then all covered in human waste.
One day, when we came back from work, we were all assembled in a big open field. We had to watch one of our friends being sent to the gallows. When the SS woman kicked the box from under her feet, her body went limp. The commandant with shiny boots and white gloves holding a whip in his white gloved hands, announced: “This is going to happen to any of you who will try to escape. So that you won’t forget it, you will stand here the whole night until the morning roll call.” We stood there the whole night, holding each other to keep warm, watching the little body turning in the wind while Roma spoke of the Shabbat food at home. As she described it, we could taste it and smell the aroma.
One day Roma and I were among other girls who were sent to the men’s camp in Majdanek. We were placed in an empty blockhouse. And when the men heard some women were in their camp, they rushed in asking” “Have you perhaps seen my wife Mary, she had long blonde hair or my little girl Stephanie, she had big blue eyes?”
But they were chased out by the guards. The last man told us we were near the gas chambers. We then realized why we were brought over here, and knew that we were going to be gassed. It was the middle of the night, and we were chased out by Germans with their barking dogs on leashes.
We were forced into a bathhouse, in reality, into a gas chamber. When the heavy iron doors shut behind us, we stood there pressed together. We were crying, begging for help, and praying “SHAMA ISRAEL”, knowing that the poisonous gas would come out any moment. I was holding Roma’s hand and whispering: “Don’t be afraid, it won’t hurt. I don’t think it will even take long. We will soon join our loved ones.”
And another miracle happened. Suddenly the doors opened. An SS man walked in shouting: “Ruhe! Quiet! You are not going to be gassed.”
An order was received to gas 500 Jewish women, not 700 as we were. We were told that the correct transport of 500 to be gassed would be arriving in the morning and we would be sent to another camp. At dawn when we were chased out, there was a contingent of women coming off the cattle trucks, and they were led straight to the gas chamber which we had just left. “Ordnung muss sein”. There must be order. Due to German orderliness and the irony of fate, we evaded the Angel of Death.
We arrived in Auschwitz in cattle trucks. Only a few years ago I found out that they didn’t want to accept us in Auschwitz. They wanted to send us back to Majdanek as we were sick and some even dead. But the order was overruled, and we remained in Auschwitz. (This is all documented.) As we were arriving, there was an orchestra playing, made up of prisoners. In front of them, were all Kommandants of the camp. Among them was Dr Josef Mengele, known as the Angel of Death. Then our arms were tattooed. My number was 48 632. Below the number was a triangle, this was the sign of a Jew. Then all our hair was shaven off. I was calling for Roma. She was right next to me, but I didn’t recognize her. After the showers we were given lice infested clothes and sent to a block house where we slept 10 to a stone bunk, with only one blanket. At night, the rats came out from between the bricks and crawled over us. We got used to it. They were only looking for food. Sometimes, the morsel of bread I kept for Roma under my head, was eaten by them.
We stood at roll calls in the rain and blazing sun, in the snow and freezing cold. We were then counted, and counted over and over until the SS woman came and took the report of: so many sick, so many dead, and so many ready for work.
I worked building roads, pushing heavy trolleys, carrying heavy stones, heavy bags of sand, and cement. When I think of it now, I don’t know how I managed to do this very heavy work. But I knew I wanted to survive, therefore I had to carry on. After the rains, the wooden clogs got stuck in the mud, and in winter the snow accumulated under my clogs, and I walked like on stilts.
Roma contracted typhus and was sent to the hospital. After the third day she was warned by the woman doctor – also a prisoner – to get out because Mengele was coming, and then he always used to order all of the patients to be sent to the gas chamber. Roma couldn’t walk yet, but she crawled out and survived. But when I got sick with typhus, I was afraid to be sent to the hospital in case there wouldn’t be anyone to warn me if and when Mengele was coming. So I hid myself behind the block houses, and in the toilets, as I was unable to go to work. When the crisis was over and the temperature dropped, I joined my kommandos at work. Then I had enteritis and the toilets were far. If one dirtied on the way there, they would be punished severely. Our toilets consisted of a long, stone slab with black holes on both sides.
During the winter, when the water froze in the taps, I washed myself with snow.
One day Roma came to me and begged me to join her, going to the electric wires. “Let us end this struggle. In any case, the only way to survive Auschwitz is through the chimneys. So come let us join our loved ones.”
The will of survival had awakened in me. I wasn’t yet ready to die. I convinced her that we have to carry on so that if we managed to survive, we will be able to tell the world what these murderers had done to us.
At night, when the new transports were arriving from different countries in Europe, we heard foreign languages being spoken. But in the morning it was all quiet. But the chimneys were billowing smoke and fire and the smell of the burning of human flesh and fat was all over the camp.
There was a Belgian girl, Mala, who was an interpreter, she was liked by the Germans and all of us because she was so kind and very good to us. She managed to escape with a Polish man in German uniforms. Unfortunately they were both caught and brought back to be hanged. Before she cut her wrists we heard her saying to the Kommandant that their end was coming soon, and they would have to pay for their murderous deeds.
When the new transports from Hungary were arriving in 1944, I was selected for the position of Blockälteste, as I was one of the longest surviving prisoners. This was a cushy job, but I refused as this involved the use of the fist and the whip, also reporting to the Germans every occurrence of illness. This meant the sick was sent to the gas chamber. I didn’t want to stain my hands, nor to be an instrument for the Germans, or collaborate with them.
Once we were chased out in the middle of the night from the Blokhouse, fearing we were going to be taken to the gas chamber. But we were taken to the showers, as it was a delousing. We were ecstatic that we remained alive and we made a big commotion. Unfortunately, I was among the five girls who were to be punished by having their hair shorn to the skin for making such a big noise
Our hair had already started growing back a little, making our appearance look better. But, with our bodies emaciated, and with shorn heads, we were certain to be sent to the gas chambers.
The nurse who was cutting the hair was actually Jewish, but was in Auschwitz as a non-Jewess, a Polish prisoner. She was known to me, as her sister was my friend before the war. I never acknowledged that I knew her in Auschwitz.
As she was about to shave my hair, I made eye contact with her. Without saying a word, I acknowledged knowing her with my eyes, wordlessly begging her to help me. Mercifully she pushed me back into the line, without shaving my hair. Thus, she saved my life.
While marching to work, the men’s column was passing us. Moshe Baker, who was hiding with us in the underground bunkers in the ghetto with his wife and child – threw a piece of paper to us asking about them. The following days he threw one cigarette, and then a whole packet and more. We were “rich” as we could exchange the cigarettes for bread, a piece of garlic, or a potato.
In November 1944, I was in a transport, travelling two days and three nights to Bergen-Belsen in cattle trucks. Here, in Bergen-Belsen, there was no need for gas chambers nor crematoriums, because people were falling like flies. They were dying of starvation and infectious diseases like typhus, TB and scabies. The corpses were piling up outside each blokhouse, and even inside.
When I saw this, I realized that after surviving the Warsaw ghetto, Majdanek, and Auschwitz, I must not now land up on top of this heap of corpses in Bergen-Belsen.
The will of survival has again awakened in me in full force. I knew now I had to survive. And so it was, on 15 April 1945, we were liberated by the British army.
Words cannot express the feeling of freedom, but the most important thing is that we were alive, and that we could start living like human beings again.
In August 1945, I traveled from Bergen-Belsen to Warsaw, with an older woman, who protected me from the Russian soldiers. I had no money, and no passport. My identification was my tattooed number on my arm and a fingerprint on a document I received in Hanover. I went to Warsaw in search of my family, although I knew that they all perished in Treblinka. Yet, I still had a spark of hope. One of my brothers with his wife and daughter, left the Warsaw ghetto, to live in a village near Lublin. I always hoped that my little niece was saved by the Polish peasants, with whom they lived. And from Warsaw I made my way there, but at one of the stations, I was warned by some Jews that I shouldn’t travel any further, as there was a pogrom and the Poles were killing Jews. I had to return to Warsaw. Later I found out that they were eamong all the Jews that were shot in the forest.
There was an office where survivors left their names and where they could be reached. I put down my address as Bergen-Belsen. As I found nobody in Warsaw, I returned to Bergen-Belsen.
Through some British soldiers, we managed to contact Roma’s father, who was my brother in law. He survived by leaving the Warsaw ghetto, and made his way through different countries, and landed in Tel Aviv. He managed to get a visa for his wife and his four children, who were still in the Warsaw ghetto, to join him in Tel Aviv. Unfortunately, when the visa arrived in the ghetto, Roma was the only survivor. Her mother and the three siblings were already deported.
When he got the news that Roma and I were alive and in Bergen-Belsen, he used his influence to send us to Paris, where we were well looked after. After receiving the visa, Roma left me in Paris to join her father in Tel Aviv. Almost two years later, I also joined them in Tel Aviv.
Six months later, I met my future husband, a South African who was visiting Tel Aviv. Only thirteen days after we met, we were married. I became a South African by marriage, and lived happily with my loving family in Johannesburg and Brakpan.
As I am one of the last generation of eye witnesses, in the twilight of my days, I am pouring out the terrors of my life in the Warsaw ghetto and in the three death camps, where disease, malnutrition, and random killings, were the constants of my life. They worked us to death on starvation rations. We were the slave labour brigade. These scenes will remain forever imprinted in my memory. I will never be able to erase them for the rest of my life.
I still often ask myself, why was I chosen to survive. Twenty-three souls of my immediate family perished. My parents, my brothers, my sisters, their spouses, and eight nieces and nephews, including an infant born in the underground bunker in the Warsaw ghetto. I will never find an answer to this question.
So now, by spreading tolerance, learning and understanding, we survivors will be contributing to ensuring that these horrors do not happen again.
This Post Has 2 Comments
What a wonderful woman and what a story of tremendous suffering. G-d bless Ella, you are an incredible example of human courage and endurance. May you know the blessing of Yeshua.
I am speechless …..and in tears, about man’s inhumanity to man. Thank you for writing this down for future generations, to read and learn from
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