Hitler’s Prisoner . . .Part 3

The Book…continued

Utter Defiance

Susan "17" and her Father

Shortly after arriving at Thereisenstadt, mother and daughter faced their turn for the selection process. As fate would have it, one of the administrators choosing whether you stayed or went to the “East”, was Susan’s former gymnastics coach, Fredy Hirsch. He had been assigned the job of youth welfare administrator by the Nazis. As soon as he recognized Susan and her mother he told them they would be staying. However, Freidl was more concerned about being with her lover, Rudi Guth. She asked if he would also be staying. Fredy informed her that was impossible due to the fact that he was not part of the family. Hearing this, Freidl exclaimed, “then we don’t stay either.” Susan relives one of the moments that saved her life.

“To this day I don’t know where I suddenly found the courage to defy my mother for the first time in my life. I said …No, I am staying! If you want to you can stay with me, but I am staying. Her love for Rudi was stronger than her love and concern for me.

Susan told her mother they would meet up again for Christmas at the Prasna Brana. Those would be the last words she would say to her mother. Almost 50 years later while visiting the Auschwitz Museum with her three children, Susan located the transport lists that contained her mother’s name. The decision not to stay with her daughter that fateful day at Theresienstadt, ended her up on a train that took her directly to the gas chambers of Sobibor, not to the arms of her lover.

During her eight months stay at Theresienstadt, Susan would locate many of her friends from Prague, make new friends and fall in love with Dr. Ernstl Fuchs.

“It was a wonderful time for me despite the fact that we were incarcerated in a camp run by the Nazis. Being in love was important in Theresienstadt, though the object of one’s affection might change. It was important to have someone who could help with providing some extra food, which Ernstl could do, working in the hospital in the Sudeten barracks.

The extra food that Ernstl would provide was cooked up on a little pot-bellied stove by Susan and her best friend, Lilly. This little luxury would prove to be the two girl’s passport to hell. Upon discovering the supposed “stolen” stove in Susan and Lilly’s possession, the two friends were immediately called up for transport to Birkenau. Susan remembers that having to say goodbye to Ernstl felt like the worst feeling she had experienced up until that point in her life. However, nothing in her young life could have prepared her for the next part of her journey, which she describes in her book as literally a trial by fire.

Auschwitz-Birkenau

After a two-day long journey huddled together on wooden benches inside a cold, dark enclosed compartment, Susan and her fellow prisoners arrive at their destination.

“The train stopped, the doors were flung open and the very first impression was a smell, or more accurately, a repulsive stink, seemingly emanating from a smokestack in the background of the train, its flames topped by black swirling clouds. We found ourselves standing on what appeared to be a fairly wide railroad platform, bordered on both sides by long barbed wire fences.

The scene of terror, often seen in documentaries or Holocaust recreations, began with the women being lined up separate from the men. The SS men in their tailored uniforms positioned themselves directly in front of the line of women, posed and ready for inspection.

“They surveyed the first row of women standing in front of them. Some women in the row were sent to the tarp-covered trucks lined up on the ramp in front of the ambulance. The rest were told they would walk. I was standing well back in the column and could observe that a certain pattern seemed to evolve. Girls under 14 or 15, or if they looked under that age, and women over 35-40, would go by truck.  All children with their mothers in the column went into the truck as well.  I remember thinking: “How lucky they are to be able to ride. Now we remnants will have to walk God knows how far.” At that point those of us left standing did not realize what we learned all too soon – that the trucks took the women and children chosen “to ride” directly to the gas chamber and the crematorium.”

Out of the original 500 or so women transported, Susan and 61 others remain. After being herded like sheep into empty barracks with nothing more than a dirt floor, the dehumanization process began. First, each woman was stripped of any jewelry or valuables. Next, the women were marched into a large room with recessed windows, each one marked by a young SS man on guard patrol. In front of the young male guards, the woman were ordered to strip completely.

“Again, I can only say, I must have been in shock, feeling as if I was standing outside of myself observing the proceedings. I calmly took off all my clothes and the felt boots I was wearing. Then we were shorn from top to bottom of all body hair. This was supposedly for hygienic purposes, but in reality if was just one of the numerous processes calculated to demean and dehumanize the person, so that no dignity, self-esteem, or a sense of the need for self-preservation would be left.”

Naked, cold and shorn from head to toe, the women were forced into the shower room where they underwent a one minute ice-cold power-wash. No towels were offered to dry their shivering bodies only brash orders to move on to the next station. They would dry their wet skin with their new prison garments…rags sewn from captured Russian soldiers’ uniforms. Shoes, were not a given.

“If we were unlucky, we got clogs. Clogs rubbed the foot, caused open sores, resulted in infection, in gangrene, in death. Lucky me; I got shoes, high-tops, if I remember correctly.

Next came the most demeaning step in the Nazi’s exertion of their notorious humiliation tactics . . .the original mark of the beast. . .the tattoo.

“Depending on who did the tattooing, women prisoners trained in doing this, we either got a large sloppy five-digit number or a small neat five-digit number. Either one had a triangle underneath . . .there was no triangle under the Jewish number. Then the SS discovered that identifying a naked Jewish woman was not as easy as identifying a naked Jewish man who stood out from the others by being circumcised, and unless they looked Semitic or of Mediterranean type, women had no identifying mark. And if they were blue-eyed to boot, and hairless, there was no way to distinguish them from Aryan women. Therefore, triangles were tattooed under the number of all Jewish women new arrivals, after November of December 1942.

Following the strip-down, shaving, icy shower, issuance of rags, and the permanent ink reminder that they were just a number…came the handing over of the bowl. The psychological message was clear to the Nazis’ captives. . .in our eyes, you are nothing but dogs.

” . . .we were handed the bowl, a brick-red metal bowl about 10 inches wide and about 5 inches deep. This bowl, as we all too soon realized, was the only utensil we were given: no knife, no fork, no spoon , no cup, no saucer, no plate. There were also no toothbrushes, handkerchiefs, towels, nor combs. In a word, we were totally deprived of any civilized accessories; another fiendishly clever aspect of the Nazis’ plan to totally dehumanize their victims, which of course, led to mental dehumanization as a consequence. It reduced the prisoner’s self-esteem, her self-awareness, in short her humanity, to zero, preparing her for the quick descent into what in the camp jargon was called the “Muselmann” state (zombie) which designated her as ready for the gas.”

Death-Defying Stupidity

On day two at Birkenau, Susan impetuously stepped out of line and did something that could have ended her life that day. She dared to speak to the SS men on watch. Once again, her assertive spirit and ability to think fast on her feet, would keep her alive.

“Don’t ask me what prompted me to do it – was it sheer stupidity, or simply ignorance of the rules? – I stepped out of my row of five…stood at attention and said to the SS-men: “Melde gehorsamst Ich bin eine Bureaukraft” (With your permission, I would like to report that I am an officer worker!) Only later was I told that what I had done could have just as easily bought me a trip to the gas chamber…”

Apparently her aggressive style of self promotion did not issue in negative results. In fact, just a few days later, Susan was assigned work duty in one of the barracks outside the main gate. The barracks housed the offices of the Stabsgebaude, the staff building of the main camp where all the administrative work for the entire camp complex was carried out. This work detail allowed her to get a hot shower, fresh clothes and even new shoes. Unfortunately her stay in the office would be brief and in March of 1943 she was returned to the unending horror of Birkenau.

“Not long after returning from the Stabsgebaude, I began running the dreaded fever, the first sign of typhus, a disease spread by lice. Gastroenteritis followed. Every morning for roll call, I would stand between two of the women and they would practically hold me up…I remember them practically carrying me through the selection, that at that time, took place every morning and every night. I certainly looked like a Muselmann: concave in places where female bodies were supposed to be convex, with big eyes and a long nose in a skeleton face. But I distinctly recall keeping my eyes wide open and trying for what must have been a hideous grin to prove that I was not the apathetic, shuffling, Muselmann, ready for the gas.”

Over the next year, Susan would survive rape (with the promise of food she was lured by a guard into a store-room), venereal disease after the attack, near starvation leading to several brushes with death. Once again, her skills and intellect would prove to be her salvation. The same officer who she had so boldly approached on day two of her arrival, would offer her a new job detail.

“As I came in front of him, he smiled and said, “Ah, the office worker; how about you working in Kanada for a while?” And that is where I went, to Kanada, the most desirable work detail in all of Birkenau. . .Kanada was the elite work detail of the women’s camp as well as the men’s camp. It was the place where everything was available if we were careful enough not to get caught smuggling “organized items into the camp.

Death March and Finally Liberation 

Late in the year of 1944, Susan writes that rumors of Germany’s demise were swirling throughout the camp. Revolts occurred in the crematorium, those caught were hung in front of the entire camp. On the night of January 17, 1945 the orders to evacuate the entire Auschwitz complex were set in motion…evacuation meant the prisoners were going for a long walk, later it would be referred to as the “Death March.” As Susan recalls, the march took at least two days and two nights. The frozen snow-covered roads in the forest quickly became lined with bodies. The order was – “Bullet in the head to those who cannot walk.” Susan and her close group of 15 women from the Kanada work detail, clung together. Their destination was yet another train…to yet another camp, Ravensbruck, the only women’s concentration camp in the Reich.

“There the prisoner housing was luxurious compared to what had been provided in Birkenau for the main women’s camp. Here each of the women had a bed – I can’t recall whether they were two level bunk beds or single beds – but they had sheets, blue and white checked, and pillowcases and blankets.

A few months later, April 28 to be exact, the women were once again on foot, fortunately it was Spring and the weather was much more agreeable. This time, no one seemed to know where they were going. Susan believed they were marching west, in her opinion, the Nazis seemed only to be interested in getting them to the American lines – or more like it – themselves to the Americans, knowing full well if they ran into the Russians they would be shown no mercy.

“I seem to remember that we marched all the way through that first night. I see us on a paved road, with the moon lighting our way as we marched in a ragged formation, the three guards sticking close to us to make sure we 15 were all together.  – The morning of May 1st, while we marched on a two-lane highway, surrounded by Germans fleeing the Russians, it seemed as if all of the eastern part of Germany was on the road. Suddenly a motorcycle with sidecar, driven by a soldier, roared by, and he yelled as loud as he could “The Fuhrer is dead!” We’re free now, we shouted.”

A strange vehicle approached, Susan noticed the words “Daisy-Mae” right below the windshield. She knew they had finally run into the Americans. She was the only one in the group who spoke some school English. . .she approached the soldier and asked if he could please liberate them. She rolled up her sleeve to expose the tatoo and explain who they were and where they had been. After disarming the Germans who escorted the young women, he instructed them to continue walking to the town up ahead where they would find the Americans taking charge. When the girls finally arrived at the American checkpoint, they were greeted with total confusion. The soldiers had no idea what to do with them and told them to return to where they came from.

“I rolled up my sleeve and the rest of us did as well, and said: “I don’t think so! We come from Aushwitz and Ravensbruck.” They just stared at us, had no idea what we were saying, until an interpreter informed them. . .”these girls were extermination camp prisoners, they have no place to go.” So they told us…go into the village ahead and ask the commanding officer of our outfit what you should do. . .we walked the five or ten minutes on the dusty country road to the village. I was a strange feeling close to claustrophobia. This was the first time in three years that I had walked without a guard, without being told where to go. . .without fences or guards around me. A very strange feeling.”

Susan "Free" in 1945

Upon arrival, Susan and the others received a dental check-up, fresh clothes, etc. Once again, Susan was offered a job – this time as an interpreter for the counter intelligence group. This skill would land her in her first private bedroom in three years. After a conversation about former Jews she knew and inquiring about their fate, she discovered her father was still alive and living in Brussels. The APO immediately wired relatives who wired her father. Susan would not get in touch with her father directly until July or August of 1945, right before she went to Brussels.

“In July of 1945, I received permission to enter Belgium and took the train to Brussels. With my schoolgirl French I managed to find the right trolley car and get out at the right stop, Avenue Tervueren, and found the apartment house where my father lived, in the rue Vandenbussche, went up the stairs, and rang the bell. He opened the door. He had not changed at all. It was an emotional reunion; I think we both cried. It had been almost 6 years since he had left Prague and since both of our lives had taken frightful as well as miraculous turns, that kept us both alive.”

Susan completes the saga of her survival with the retelling of her coming to America, getting married and setting the course for the rest of her life.

After reading her book, I knew how much of a distinct honor it was that I now had the opportunity to spend time with her, to pose my own gnawing questions, to try to come to grasp with the kind of human spirit and will that could overcome such atrocities. I sit outside the window of the exercise room – she does not know that I am watching – and I watch her perform her weekly Tai Chi class. Her almost 90 year-old body moves in beautiful fluidity, as if encased in invisible water. I marvel at her strength, her wisdom, her beauty. And the only emotion that comes is gratitude……extreme gratitude.

If you wish to read Susan’s book, she has informed me that the best way to buy it is through her. You may leave your email in a message and she will contact you with the details..price etc.

Hitler’s Prisoner . . .Part 2

The Book

Susan, the daughter of Ernst and Freidl Eckstein, was born in 1922 in Vienna. Like all little girls, Susan grew up with many dreams for her life and hopes for her future. While Freidl passed on her incredible intelligence and audacious (although late to bloom) spirit to her daughter, it was her father who gave her a love for the arts, especially dance. At an early age, Susan was lacing up toe shoes with the intention and dedication of a prima ballerina. In 1929, the Ecksteins moved to Berlin, where Susan had the opportunity to attend ballet school. There were only two other Jewish girls in her class, Hanni and Ruth. At the tender young age of 11 years old, Susan would witness first-hand why her father always said “to be equal as a Jew we have to be better.”

“Ruth was the best gymnast in our class, better than any of the blonde valkyries. When they had to eliminate her from competition, because she was Jewish, the team did not win any more prizes as they had when Ruth was in the group. I can only imagine that this happened because the school did not want to have a Jewish-looking athlete in the competition. After all, Jews were not supposed to be athletes, according to the German propaganda.”

Back to Vienna

While most Jews in Germany were standing in line to emigrate overseas, much to Susan’s dismay, the Ecksteins invested good money to move back to Vienna to renovate her grandmother’s apartment. This decision in Susan’s words, would prove to be the fait accompli . . .playing right into the Nazi’s hands and Austria’s complicit role in Hitler’s take over. While Susan was going about the business of being a teenager – studying , experiencing her first “french” kiss and attending her first ball – the mood as well as the scenery, was changing daily in Austria. Her parents worked hard to shield her from the growing anti-semitic displays. For the most part, she only heard about the despicable behavior because her mother did not allow her to go into town where most of the incidents occurred.

“Contrary to revised post-war history, not only did the Austrians receive the Nazis with great joy and enthusiasm, they also went to work on anti-Semitic excesses with a fervor that had not been seen in the Reich itself since the Nazis took power in 1933. – The gleeful anti-Semitism displayed by the population found its outlet in vicious delights, such as making Jews scrub the sidewalks, which had been covered with Schuschnigg propaganda . . .they would stop anyone who even in the least looked Jewish, without asking for identification, and force him or her to do these demeaning activities. They would stop men with beards if they looked Jewish, and would cut, or even rip, the beards off them in the street.”

While Susan’s father was taking care of business in Prague, the Gestapo came to their apartment.  It was the last time that they would see their belongings. Susan and her mother were both issued exit visas and put on the next flight to Prague, with only two little suitcases in hand.

Susan at 14 years old

Refugees in Prague

An hour after boarding the flight, Susan and her mother were greeted by her father at the airport and taken into the city by taxi. The taxi stopped in front of their new apartment house. Their neighbors were Austrian and German refugees who had all left their former homes and everything in them behind. Knowing that it could have been much worse, they were all grateful for the shelter of their small flats. Over the next few years while sharing a small space with her mother and father, and eventually with other families, Susan blossomed into a young woman. She fell in love for the first time and experienced a somewhat normal life, as normal as it could be for a refugee living in fear of what might be coming around the next corner. Sensing the pending doom,  Susan’s father made arrangements illegally for the family to cross the Polish-Czech border, but due to her mother’s insistence it would be too dangerous for all of them to go, he left alone with the intention of providing safe passages for her and her mother in the near future. That day never came.

Deportation

In April of 1942, Freidl and Susan Eckstein received their transportation notice. As though hell itself had printed out a guest list, they were informed, in writing, that they would be escorted to the fairgrounds.

“And thus it was that Mother and I received a very polite card informing us that were going on transport on May 7; that we could take 50 kg of luggage, a bedroll and food for two days, and that we had to leave all our other property in place.”

May 9, 1942, mother and daughter arrived in Theresienstadt. They were sent to the Hohenelbe barracks, part of the hospital compound for the so-called quarantine, which later Susan would come to understand was actually a guise for the “selection” process.

Susan and her Mother

“It was only the administrative and professional hierarchy of Thereseinstadt that came to examine every new transport, and “selected” who was to stay and who was to go on to the “East.” At the time no one knew what “the East” meant. But those who did go “East” . . . .were never heard from again.”

   . . .to be continued, Watch for Part 3 in the following week

She Was Hitler’s Prisoner . . . #34042 . . .

She Is Dr. Susan Cernyak-Spatz, Holocaust survivor . . .Lecturer, Professor, Mother, Grandmother . . .and an amazing woman I am fortunate enough to call “friend”.

The Meeting   Part 1 of a 3 Part Series

Until just a few years ago, when I thought about the atrocities and horrors of the Holocaust, like most Americans, my mind was limited to what might be a considered a vicarious “Schindler’s List” type of experience. I perused the History Channel for documentaries on the subject, visited the Holocaust museum in Washington D.C., and watched each and every Hollywood version on the big screen. Up until I met Susan Cernyak-Spatz, the most personal experience as a non-Jewish outsider looking in, was my hauntingly surreal trek up to the steps of the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam. As I rounded the corner, fear gripped my chest and my heart began to pound into my ear drums. I realized each step I took, my shoes were striking the exact same brick path the Nazi soldiers, only a few decades before, marched across to capture their intended prey. I could see their uniforms, hear the sound of their strident boots marking time with death, as if in a trance. . .I could smell the fear. My mind went back to Anne’s own account from her treasured diary, in that moment, I was transferred back in time.

The first time I saw Susan, she visited a fitness class I was teaching at the Jewish Community Center. In instructor mode, I was (as always) animated, giddy and probably a little frivolous. Susan walked in and joined the class already in progress. I introduced myself to her. That’s when my eyes saw it – 34042 branded forever on her arm – knowing exactly what that meant, I found myself suddenly thrown into an internal meltdown. Shocked into sobriety, I struggled to speak and cue the next move. Within minutes, she left . . .turns out she was in the wrong class. After it was over, some of the students shared her identity with me. She was Dr. Susan Cernyak-Spatz, professor at UNC Charlotte, Holocaust survivor and well-known lecturer on the subject.

Several years later, in the midst of channel surfing for something decent to watch on T.V., I saw a familiar face come across the screen. It was Dr. Cerynyak-Spatz. She was lecturing to a group of students at the University. My hand froze on the remote. . .I was transfixed. Hearing her tell just a portion of her personal story, left my hungry to know more. I want the reality to sink into my bones, I desperately want to find some inkling of comprehension of the human condition which was capable of such evil. I pray I get a chance to get to know her.

Not long after that, I walked into the JCC, only to find her sitting at a table outside of the aerobic room. I approached her, introduced myself and began a conversation. I invited her to attend my Therapeutic Ballean class which would give me the opportunity to give her more individual attention. Much to my delight, she attended the very next class. At 89 years young, she was amazingly strong, flexible and of course, fearless. Because the format includes hands on stretches and massage, I got to touch the permanent reminder of her hell on earth. As my hand gently swept across her tatoo, I felt my throat clinch, I quickly turned my head away to fight back the tears. If I could have, I would have embraced her arm for hours. . .as if trying to receive a glimpse of history through osmosis. I felt overwhelmed, blessed and even more determined to connect. Fortunately for me, she enjoyed the class and announced she would be attending as often as she could. I asked her where I could buy a copy of her book,”Protective custody Prisoner 34042.” She brought me a copy the next class and thus began my journey of what I consider to be the ultimate privilege – the opportunity to get up close and personal, face to face and soul to soul with an eye-witness to the most heinous, unspeakable war crimes in modern-day history – I am honored, completely humbled and inspired beyond my utmost expectations.

Coming Soon: Part 2  THE BOOK, complete with pictures of young Susan and her parents.