Her Sixty Girls
Delayed by some twenty years and almost reluctantly, Fela Maiboim earned historical recognition of her deeds in Block 8, Camp 18, Auschwitz. Even today she is not ready to give details, but the girls from the Block are doing it for her, they simply owe her their lives.
Today she is called Fela Maiboim, once her name was Fela Caitak, but the sixty women who were once girls in Block 8, C-Lager in Auschwitz will always remember her as Fela. Almost all of them owe her their lives.
Not one of them knew her story or her whereabouts after the war until two weeks ago when Fela Maiboim was invited to Yad-Vashem and was awarded there an honor reserved for Righteous Among the Nations.
According to rules of the institution this honor is awarded only to Gentiles who saved Jews, but in this case they made an exception to the rule.
About thirty survivors, who reported to the invitation in the newspapers, came to the ceremony. But even beforehand, from the moment the notice was published, her telephone did not cease ringing.
All the callers informed her, purely and simply, “You saved me” “Because of you, I am alive”, “Good that I have found you”. They left their phone numbers but Fela did not make contact. She preferred to forget, and when she was willing to remember, she did so with a strange laconic restraint.
The tribute ceremony took place after a delay of more than twenty years; then, during the Six Day War, Fela first met one of her survivors, Lea Shnap. They met in the street purely by chance and Shnap who is a journalist for Hungarian newspaper in Israel published the story in full. She wrote amongst other things; “I arrived at the barrack for children between the age of two and sixteen inside an enormous shack. This was in block number 8 in Auschwitz. For weeks we did not touch food, which was not even worthy of being animal food. I was suffering excruciating pain in my ears; my lips were cracked and split from the fever which attacked me. Pus and blood oozed from my ears. Even then we knew the significance of being sick and where the sick got to in Auschwitz. I didn’t care. I was apathetic to everything. I lay on the cold floor and waited for something to happen to me that the dreadful pain would cease. A pair of good eyes, grey eyes full of pity looked at me from above “Go out to the roll call, here it is forbidden to be sick”.
Two brave, strong arms lifted me up, Fela, the block altste – the overseer of the block… When the nightly roll call ended we returned half-frozen to the block. Fela carried me and brought me to her small bed-room at the end of the barrack. She laid me on her bed, prepared me hot tea and began to clear the pus from my ear. She did this very delicately, stroked my hair and told me her sad history. She was a “veteran” here in Auschwitz, this was her fourth winter. With her own hands she had placed her mother in the car that took the sick to the crematoria. She could no longer bear her suffering. “But you, girls, you must remain alive; maybe the Jews will once again be resurrected”, she said.
Every day she looked after me with great devotion. She was like a mother to me and to the thousand girls in the barrack. Before we went to sleep on the crowded, over-pressed bunks until it was impossible to breath, Fela would come to us, kiss the foreheads of the remaining girls whose number was depleted daily. She gave us strength and the will to live.
Since then twenty-four years have passed. 1967 the Six Day War has broken out… I am among the first to come up to Jerusalem. Here I am standing near Bet-Hakerem Yeshiva where my son is a student. We are about to go on our way when my eyes catch eye-to-eye a pair of gray eyes, tired and sad eyes. Words fail me, I am frozen to the spot, feeling petrified and it was only after several minutes that my spirit returned and I caught her hand, minutes that seemed like an eternity until I was able to utter the single word, “Fela”, “Block 8 my girl” she whispered back.
Today Lea Shnap is an ultra-Orthodox woman whose son learns in a Yeshiva. Fela lives a completely secular life. When Shnap and her husband came to visit, Fela said to him “I can offer you tea in a glass, I don’t keep kosher.” “In your home,” Mr. Shnap replied, “Even pig is kosher”... Even today, like 44 years ago, there is something noble, sad and strong about her presence that makes one think in clichés. If anyone appears like an angel, it is she. All the women who came to the meeting used this description. One of them, Rachel Kramer dedicated a poem to her “In heroism and courage she bequeathed our lives”. She was in Block 8 with two sisters and Fela protected them from every guard. “Three sisters who came to Auschwitz together,” she said to them “must not be separated”. Two of them came to the meeting; the third did not manage. Many tears filled the eyes of the women who came to the get-together meeting. Also the eyes of Fela who sat silent and restrained and shook her head all the time. To this day she avoids any event connected with the Shoah. She did not go to the Eichmann trial and did not join the plaintiffs for Mengele’s head (or bones). Her children never heard one word about the Holocaust. “Only now when I hear these stories, I know what kind of mother I have”.
Fela, “I turned over a page, just as I never spoke nor told anything to anyone, so I never went to Yad Vashem. I was asked to go to schools to talk, I couldn’t. I never allowed this to influence the home. I have never told my husband. I had a very happy life with him. We were together for forty years and I never allowed this to interfere. The interference came at night. When everyone went to sleep, I had sleepless nights, which I have until today.”
Because of this point of view, she postponed this event for more than twenty years. “I was still not ready to re-open this period of my life. I was very busy. My husband was sick and I did not want to go back to these things.” She abstained from all meetings with survivors, various literature works about the Shoah, articles, everything was rejected by her. “For me this is not the whole truth”, she explained “no one can tell all the truth only odd parts. I also do not know how to tell all and I have no words to explain. Lately the expressions fail me, even in Polish my mother tongue, it is difficult for me to express myself, but I am trying to tell you that all these meetings and books and articles just minimize the event. For who can talk about six million? The dead will tell. How one was suffocated in the crematorium? How another was beaten to death, what pain he endured. I cannot tell and no one else can.”
Fela Maiboim has worked for the past forty-four years as a nurse in Hadassah hospital in Jerusalem. After she retired she returned to work for a symbolic wage in the pain department of the hospitals. She was born in Mława, a shtetl in Poland to middle-class parents who were tradesmen. The atmosphere in the town was very Zionistic and also in the Jewish Gymnasium which catered for pupils from the surrounding villages. Her vocation was already known to Fela; she wanted to be a nurse. When she finished her studies she went to study in the Cesta hospital in Warsaw which was known as the biggest and best in Poland.
Her older sister Ester had already left Poland for Palestine together with a group of friends. She studied here in the Nursing School of Hadassah on Mount Scopus, while Fela was completing her course in the 24th class in the Cesta school, the last class before the war. Fela managed to get her diploma when the war broke out and immediately started to work. One of her patients was Janusz Korchak. “He had an abscess on his back” she recalled, “and his pulse was very rapid. He lost a lot of blood but always told jokes and had an extraordinary sense of humor.” When he recovered and left the hospital he presented her with a book “By myself, by yourself, with you G-d” and dedicated it to her with the words, “With affection to Fela Caitak, who sweetened my life during my stay in hospital, in remembrance, Korchak.”
After that the first wounded came. Polish soldiers evacuated from the front with Germany and who brought the first news of the war. They told Fela that her home town Mława, her hometown, was destroyed, her home burned down, but that her parents were alive and stayed with her uncles. Fela decided to return home; however the passage from Warsaw to Mława was now considered crossing a border. When she got to Modlin and was about to cross the River Bug towards Mława, she was arrested by the Gestapo and held for two days in prison. Finally she was released but did not find Mława. “I didn’t find anything” she remembers, “I had no home, most of the town was torched, I think Mława was destroyed already in the first night of the war. I discovered my parents at my uncles. My sister was already in Palestine.”
In a short time the residents of the township cooperated and were carrying out the orders of the Germans. They burned the synagogue, destroyed the Jewish school and forced the Jewish citizens to wear a yellow patch. Then they established the Mława Ghetto and Fela together with her parents and the other Jews were concentrated there. Infectious diseases, such as typhoid spread in the ghetto and Fela was enlisted for work in the framework of the make-shift hospital in the ghetto. Thanks to this work she had a bearable place to live. She lived in the hospital while her parents were given a miserable room in the ghetto. Her descriptions of this period were laconic, almost dry, with the intention not to belittle with words what really happened. Behind them are hidden the brutal reality of daily acts of abuse, murder and maltreatment that the Germans carried out on the residents of the ghetto.
Fela was a beautiful young girl. She could have used these attributes to get out of there, but it did not come up for discussion. “First of all, I had an excellent work” she said “I could help sick people, apart from that, I couldn’t leave my parents. They were young, in their forties. I was able to help them little. And apart from anything else I also got sick with typhoid. I was infected by one of the patients and I became very ill. My father and mother sat beside me all the time and finally I overcame it.”
So she remained in the town until the phase of the deportations started. She was as sure, as all the others, that they were transported to a labor camp. She left with the last deportation in a hard wintry December, together with her parents and another thousand Jews. It was only on the journey that rumors began to reach them from the Poles who shouted and told them the goal of the journey. Fela managed in time to provide herself with a sufficient supply of morphine. “I gave some to my father and mother” she recalled “I told them that if they saw it was impossible to carry on, then to finish life with it.” For his part, her father told her and pressed her to escape. “I’m finished” he told her “I have no chance, but you – escape, save yourself.” Fela firmly refused. “Your fate is my fate” she said and went into the gates of freezing Auschwitz with them. They were immediately separated by the uncompromising “selection”. She just managed to accompany her mother to the car, which took her to her death and she parted from her father who lived there a few months until he was put to death also.
Fela was earmarked to work in the dental clinic that was due to be built in the camp. There were other six women who remained from the same transport. When they heard that nurses and doctors were being sort for the camp, they immediately declared that they were nurses. Thus they were also saved and together with Fela were brought to Birkenau. The first night she taught them all the basic rules of care, how to give injections and give first aid so that if anyone came to inspect they would know something. Until the dental clinic was built, Fela worked in the hospital in Birkenau camp, which looked after the sick who were brought from the whole area. Afterwards the dental clinic was opened for Polish prisoners and others. Fela was the assistant to refugee doctors from various places. The clinic was hell in itself. The instrument rooms were on one side, the clinics on the other and in the middle were the offices. In the X-ray institute the men were sterilized. There was a Czech X-ray technician or something like that and he did that. “Every day we saw men leaving there and vomit, every day. It was awful.”
But the clinic had one advantage. It was under the control of SS doctors who came from time to time to the camp and supplied medication. There developed a give and take relationship between the doctors and the staff of the clinic. “The doctors were Germans who worked with us and they were completely corrupt.” Fela said. “It was possible to ‘buy’ them. We organized a stock of gifts, nice clothes, money. They accepted this secretly, but in this way they looked after us. They knew more or less when “selections” were due and saw to it that we were not taken. Until Mengele arrived. Once he caught Fela with a nightdress she was taking as a bribe. He threw her out of the clinic and transferred her to C Lager, the children’s camp in Birkenau. She was placed in block 8 (there were 32 blocks there) and all she has to say of that period is summed up in the sentence “The girls were very little and I did what I could”.
“I was the "block altste" the oldest person. I knew they were all going to die, in the crematorium. There were more than a thousand girls there and I knew this was the end for all of us. So I did what I could to save as many as I could. First of all I looked after the sick, after that I hid them. Near me was a sort of storeroom with guards with whom I had contacts. So I managed to hide the very little and the very sick. I also knew that there were transports that did not go to the crematoria, so I endeavored to transfer others to these transports.
Were you not afraid?
"I didn’t know what a fear was; maybe because I had nothing to lose. I remember that once when I was in the clinic they came to take patients to the crematorium. Mengele did that and he took someone from my hometown. I saw her being led naked and I said “If you are taking her, then take me also”. To this day I don’t know how or why they listened to me. I do not know exactly what I said, but somehow she remained alive and she survived and lives in Israel. Her name is Roya, and I got a letter from her parents thanking me for saving her."
Have you never been interested in knowing the fate of the others?
"After that I never knew anyone else apart from Lea Shnap. She met me one night after I finished a night shift in the hospital. She came to visit her son who was studying here in a Yeshiva and went through my street. Suddenly she shouted “Fela” and so I remained in touch with her; just loose contact. Only she began to remind me of people, before her I had never met anyone and no one knew about me."
In Fela’s estimation about thirty women remained from the camp and they camp to the meeting. And maybe, a similar number abroad. She herself remained working in the camp till the end of the war and then in 1945 all those who survived set out on the death march to Germany. Fela: “Then I walked and walked, the Russians were already approaching. All the camp was taken to Germany, only the sick remained behind. We walked and walked for days and nights by feet. Afterwards in trains. Mania, a friend from the camp, was with me all the time. The number on her arm is one figure higher than mine. We marched for days and nights hungry and cold. I had no more strength, but Mania pushed me all the time. That’s how we continued north until we came to some camp where we were freed by the Americans”.
Somehow with the help of freed French soldiers, she set out with her friend for France. They were delayed in Belgium and were arrested by the Belgian army who suspected that they were German. Finally they were released and Fela was given work in the St. Pierre hospital in Brussels. A few months later she sent a letter to her sister Ester and on advice they decided she should come to Eretz Israel. She left with the help of the Hebrew Brigade via Paris for Marseilles and boarded an English ship, which arrived in Haifa illegally. Fela was transferred to Atlit camp until her sister arranged a certificate for her. She was released after three days and went to Jerusalem. Her description of their meeting sounds so sparing to a degree. “She welcomed me as a sister could.” The pair went to live in one room in Kerem Avraham and immediately afterwards she began working in Hadassah hospital. Two years later her sister Ester married Shaul Maiboim and very shortly after, Fela married his twin brother, Abraham Maiboim, an agronomist by profession. They established a home, had two sons and a daughter and grandchildren from the three. From that time and until today, Fela has worked as a nurse. Nowadays she works in the pain clinic in Hadassah where patients are brought after no one is able to help them. She has rich experience with this.
More than a month ago, Fela’s husband died after years of suffering from a serious illness. The strong, restrained woman took this very hard. Something caused her to contact Lea Shnap, one of those she saved in Auschwitz. Shnap, today a journalist for the Hungarian newspaper wrote about her in the newspaper “Ujkelet” as follows:
"As decade after decade passes facial features that we remember change until they are unrecognizable, so it was a wonder to me how twenty years ago, in a street in Jerusalem, I have recognized Fela instantly although I had not seen her for twenty-four years. I knew Fela during the worst four months of my life. She was the only creature on earth who was able to awaken hope and strengthen thousands of children at the worst possible moments of despair. This young Jewess of 24, from Poland, was the “altste” of block number 8 in Auschwitz. The rare half-hours that I could spend with her, in her cultured modest home, were very precious to me. She was there with her husband Abraham, a learned and refined agronomist, and those visits left me with the memory that will never fade, of those sad gray eyes that looked at me as they had once when she stood, white as chalk, beside Mengele and she tortured her soul thinking how she could save from death those sent to the left…
And so, one day she phoned me and said only two words – “Abraham is dead”. I am standing in the Sanhedria Funeral House looking at Fela from a distance. She is being led by her two sons Uzi and Zeev and her daughter Michal, a little woman, slender back, wearing black. She walks up the steps slowly, gently, disciplined. The picture changes in my mind. I see the blond girl dressed in striped prisoners’ clothes, following Mengele’s hand waving, the sweat pouring from her brow. Afterwards, at the end of the roll-call she opens her arms to us “my beloved children, don’t despair, you must remain alive.” And here she is standing opposite me and with that familiar gesture stretches out her arms to me. At that moment I felt that her beloved camp girls were still kept in her heart. Something also moved my lips because I had come in the name of children’s block number 8 in Auschwitz to say that forever we would stand by her side with hearts full of thankfulness."
Edited and published here by courtesy of Ada Holtzman www.zchor.org
© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2004.