Personal Reflections - In Camps
Judith Rubinstein Remembers Some More | Judith Jaegermann
ELISABETH DE JONG
I was born in Amsterdam, Holland. There were four children in our family, three sisters and one brother. Both my parents were deaf. We were a very closely knit family. As I recall life was actually very good for us when I was growing up. We were assimilated Jews, lived a normal life and many, many of our family and my personal friends were non-Jews. We had a very good relationship with every one in our community.
I got married in 1936. Holland, a small country borders on Germany, and since by this time Hitler and the Nazis were in power in Germany, many Jews started to flee from there to Holland. They were telling us about what is happening to the Jews there and how afraid they were to stay in Germany. Holland was a neutral country during the First World War and we all believed that this time too, if anything happens between Germany and other countries, Holland will stay neutral.
In the meantime many, unforeseen things happened historically. The Anschluss of Austria in 1938, and then Hitler started WWII by attacking Poland in September 1939. In 1940, the Nazi troops also overran the tiny Netherlands and we were occupied. The entire Dutch government fled to England. In Belgium the King stayed, but in Holland there was nobody to govern so the Nazis took over the running of the country with the help of the Dutch collaborators.
Soon we, the Jews had to wear the yellow star, could not go to school, were not allowed to swim in public pools, were not allowed to have bicycles, radios. Curfew for us was 6:00 P.M. After that we could not go shopping or be on the streets. Many anti-Jewish laws came into effect. All these orders came quite quickly after we were occupied.
As I mentioned, by this time I was married. My husband was a very good, quite a well known artist. We moved away from Amsterdam to a smaller town, on the coastline, and we made many friends there. There were only two or three Jewish families living there, so most of our best friends were Gentiles. When all these restrictions were enacted, they came to visit us often, brought food and other necessities and told us "just let us know what you need, you can count on us."
Then all the Jews from all over Holland had to move to Amsterdam. We had to leave our nice home on the seaside. We were allowed to pack two suitcases each. All other possessions left behind. Almost the whole town came to see us off at the train station. Our closest friends told us not to be shy and ask them for help should we need it. I, on the other hand told my friends to take our lovely piano and any other items they wanted into their own home before the trucks of the German Nazis came, as they inevitably did, and took everything, to ship to Germany. We had no idea what happened after we departed . All I know is that two days after we settled down in Amsterdam, the Dutch police came to ask us where are the items we took out of our house and since these were good policemen, they warned us that the Nazis might come to punish us for the missing items. We, of course, said that maybe the local people did it after we left. We took with us nothing except the two suitcases. The police said that it would be best if we went into hiding so the Nazis won't find us.
By this time, it was 1941 and the situation for us got from bad to worse. There were frequent razzias of whole city blocks. People were arrested at random or driven from their homes and transported to the camps. Of course, we knew all about this. We told the police that we didn't know anyone who would hide us. They told us they'll take us to a family who will surely help. So at night the police came for us and took us to this family. They hid us in their attic. It was suppose to be for four weeks only. Then they told us that they knew another family who had a much bigger home and they took us there. In the meantime the police came for our parents too and took them where we were hiding since, being deaf, they could not hide on their own. This family was just fabulous, took my parents in also. So the four of us were hiding in their attic for almost two years. We could never, ever go outside or come down from the attic during the day. We had to be extremely careful. Our kind hosts were risking their lives. At night, however, we would come down to the living room, play chess or cards with our hosts.
As time went on the situation worsened even for the Dutch people. There wasn't enough food to go around in a country that normally was so rich in agricultural products. The Nazis shipped whatever they could to Germany and didn't care about the Dutch. So the authorities started to issue food stamps to ration food. This meant trouble for all of us. Two of our hosts were suppose to feed four extra adults on two people's food ration stamps. It was an impossible task.
At this time, however, a very active underground resistance movement developed. They produced all sorts of false identity cards, passports for those who needed them and they also started to print food stamps. Our hosts got hold of some extra stamps in order to be able to feed us. We think that some of the neighbours must have become suspicious about the amount of food they bought, supposedly for two people only, and must have reported it. So one night the Gestapo came with some Dutch collaborators and arrested all four of us and took us to the police station. There, lo and behold(!) we met up with my brother and sister-in-law Lilian, who were also in hiding, which we didn't even know, and they too were arrested the same night. This was in September 1943.
They took all of us to a central place where there were already at least 2,000 Jews assembled. It was an incredible sight. All these people in one small area. At night they threw some straw on the floor, covered it with blankets and that is how we all slept. There was, more or less, enough food for all of us at this point because the Jewish leadership was allowed to function for a while.
The next day, those of us who were arrested because of hiding, were grouped together and the letter "S" placed on our outer garment which, as we were told, meant SPECIAl. PUNISHMENT. Of course we had no idea what kind of punishment. It seemed though that this group was among the first to be deported. It took only a matter of days from the time we were arrested to the day of the deportation.
We were herded into cattle cars, very tightly. Hardly any facilities for our natural needs, so in no time at all the whole cattle car stank to high heaven. I was in a complete daze, so I don't really know weather the trip took three or four days. I recall trying to stand on my tiny suitcase so I'll be able to look out through one of those tiny windows at the top. I saw the sign Cracow pass by, I remember seeing trees along the way. We were really not afraid of hard work, if that is what they had in store for us, we thought. As long as the family stayed together, we hoped. Our parents needed us for they were deaf.
But then, as fate and Nazi planning, would have it, we arrived in Auschwitz-Birkenau in Nazi occupied Poland.
Right away, my father, my brother and my husband had to go with the men and I could see them for a while, in the distance. I had to stay, of course with the women, and I wanted to be close to my mother, and sister-in-law. Then suddenly some huge trucks showed up, a selection took place and my mother with all the "older" women, the women with children and babies were sent to the left, put on those trucks and I never saw my mother again. My mother was 49 years old. I was terribly worried about her, pushed my way close to the truck and pleaded with one of the SS guards in German to take my mother off the truck because while she is otherwise healthy, she cannot manage alone for she is deaf. Or could I go with her (?)I asked, but he pushed me rudely away saying, NO and something to the effect that "not to worry she'll be taken care of." Well, we know now that I would not be here today if I went with her. But then, while we suspected that bad things might happen we could not even imagine the worst.
My sister-in-law and I and all the other young women were taken to a building, had to strip stark naked leaving all our meager possessions behind; they shaved off our hair and all other bodily hairs; allowed us a brief shower and handed out striped prisoner's dress to wear.
They looked into our mouths and I happened to have one gold crown on one of my tooth which they extracted right there and then. Imagine that! They wanted that tiny piece of gold!
Then we were taken to be tattooed. I was bleeding from my mouth (and from my heart) and was crying. The tattooing man had pity on me and said "don't worry about your tooth. To console you I will tattoo your arm with the smallest numbers possible." And so he did.
After this most of the women were marched off to Birkenau, but we, the special group with the "S" sign stayed in Auschwitz and were taken to, as we learned none too soon, to the feared and terrible BLOCK 10.
From this block we could see the other women, all bald, and for a moment I thought they were all men. But then I thought I recognized my mother among them and said so. We could smell a stench, like rubber burning, and ashes flying all over the place. We could see the chimneys spewing out flames and smoke. Then someone said, pointing at the smoke, " Look there is your mother. Gassed and burned." I looked at her like she was crazy. Even at that moment I could not believe what she just said. "But don't worry" she continued, "you'll go that way too."
In a short while a number of SS men came to see us with some papers. They explained that "IN BLOCK 10 WE DO EXPERIMENTS ON WOMEN". You will have to sign this paper that you understand this and will be submitting to this out of your own free will. But you have a choice. If you do not want to sign up you will be taken down to the trucks and off to the gas chambers to be gassed. SOME CHOICE!! Many of the women refused to sign and decided to die. Why suffer and have all that pain first and then to be gassed anyway? It is better to die now they decided. But, by then, Lilian, my sister-in-law and I signed up.
Later on we looked around in Block 10 and saw all these women with all sorts of burns, wounds, and holes on their bodies or limbs missing. Many were experimented on with X rays. They were all prisoners, of course and while we could talk to them, but I didn't want to. I was so shocked and horrified that I didn't even want to get close to them. Seeing them I started to get really scared. I was so very much afraid even to think about what they might do to me that one cannot imagine. So I told Lilian "I don't want to go through with this. Let's be brave and die right now." Lilian agreed and in the morning when the SS men came we went to tell then that we changed our minds and so did many other women. I think they started to think that no one will want to stay so they told us that we cannot change our minds any more. We were shaking with fear and crying.
The experiments actually started 2 or 3 days later but they never let us know what it was all about. I think the experiment was on sterilization of women. We had to go downstairs into a special room, you had to stretch out on a table, they strapped you down and they started first with 24 injections in many parts of our body. We were terribly sore after this. Another day they injected into the womb and ovaries some substance, we didn't know what, that burned like hell and our pains were beyond endurance. Of course all this was done always without anaesthetic. Oh, were we ever miserable! After the war, my husband wanted to find out what was the substance they injected us with, for I had so many health related troubles and problems. Through the German Ambassador, in a roundabout way, we did find out that it was formaldehyde the Nazi doctors injected into us. What else they tried to find out other than measure our endurance or methods for sterilization, I really don't know. Certainly they knew well how to torture women. Those very long injection needles left open sores on our bodies. They also took biopsies from the womb, I suppose to check the results of the injected substance. Our resistance was so low that our wounds and sores never healed. And I repeat, anaesthetic was never used.
There was a woman doctor in block 10 called Dr. Slavka,( I am not sure how her name is spelled), also a prisoner from Poland or from Russia, who was forced to work with the Nazis. She tried to help us as much as possible. At night she would come to the room where we slept, she would gently wash and dress our wounds and try to console us. Another time I recall she had to inject blood into our veins but not our own blood type. So this time it was my turn and during the injection I started to get dizzy so, deliberately, she let the needle fall out. The Nazis got angry but she insisted that the needle accidentally fell out. She was very, very good to me and perhaps to others too. I know without her kind help I would not have survived. Our misery was indescribable.
Then one day the trucks came to take us to die in the gas chambers. There were about 30 of us on that truck. We cried, we didn't want to go to the gas chambers now, having endured all these tortures. But there was nothing we could about it. Then an SS man came with a list from Dr. Klauber the Butcher, one of the doctors in block 10, he pulled, among others, me and Lilian off the truck saying that the experiments on us are not yet finished. So we stayed in block 10 and underwent more sufferings, till about the first week in January 1945 when the Nazis evacuated Auschwitz and tried to burn down block 10 before the Soviet troops arrived.
We were forced to go on a death march or from time to time we were transported in open cattle cars without any food or water supply. It was bitter cold and I had a coat but didn't have shoes and some of my toes froze. This lasted about 7-8 days during which many were shot dead or died of starvation and of exposure. All this time Lilian and I were together, supporting each other every way and honestly without each other we would have both died. By the time we arrived to Ravensbruck Lilian weighed only 63 lb. She was a barely living skeleton. I was in a slightly better condition.
There was absolutely no room for us in Ravensbruck so we had to sleep outdoors on a thin layer of straw. Then they took some us, who were a bit stronger, to work at an airport. By the time we came back Lilian and all the other "skeletons" were taken to be gassed. I ran to the so called hospital to look for Lilian. There I ran into Dr. Slavka who was so kind to us in Auschwitz. She told me that Lilian is still here but she won't make it. She let me look after her. First I tried to get rid of the lice on her dirty body that left sores on her. Then I fed her with the little we had and brought her out of the hospital. The condition in Ravensbruck, at that point, was unbelievabley horrible and hopeless. I don't exactly know how but I saved Lilian.
Finally, in April 1945 the Soviet army liberated us in Ravensbruck. The war was still on so they couldn't look after us properly. We, ourselves had to look for food which I did too. Then one day some Dutch men came into our camp looking for other Dutch people. We indicated who we are and they offered to take us to the house where they, having ascaped from a work camp earlier, set up their "household" and have a stove and lots of food, but were afraid to take the still very fragile Lilian. Since I wouldn't leave her alone, we somehow found a wheelbarrow, put Lilian in it and that is how she was transported to the house. After a few days there these men urged me to cross the Elba river, putting Lilian and me in a small boat, rowing us over to the other side to the Americans who, we assumed, would surely be able to save Lilian's life. And that is what happened.
I could speak very little English then but when I saw the first American soldiers I started to cry and yell: help, help, please help. In no time at all about 15 of them gathered around us and looking at Lilian they could not believe their eyes. I showed them our tattoos and said only: Auschwitz. They too were afraid to pick her up. Eventually a couple of doctors came, they also brought a stretcher for Lilian and we went to the hospital. There they looked after us. In the beginning we received only rice water to stop our diarrhoea, and other liquids for about 3 weeks. Then, slowly, they started to give us very soft solid foods. Many docotors came to look at us and wanted to know what happened to us.
I wanted very much to get back to Holland as soon as possible but waited till Lilian was well enough to travel. Eventually we were transported to the south of Holland and were housed in a Monastery. It was like a dream to have Auschwitz and its horrors behind us and to be free again. There was a committee who started to look after us, who came back from Auschwitz, and by ambulance they took us to Amsterdam
We found life was harsh in Amsterdam. There was a food shortage. The Nazis shipped everything they could to Germany. We could not get our apartment back because by now other people lived in it. So the authorities sent us to stay in a Salvation Army building.
I also found out that my oldest sister with her young child was deported and never came back. My other sister obtained false identity papers and lived out the war as an aryan. Her husband survived in hiding and her few days old baby was also was given, by her doctor, to someone to be hidden. After the war she and her child were, miraculously, reunited. The child was by then 3 years old.
Luckily my brother, Lilian's husband, also survived and so did my husband who went through Buchenwald. Being an artist helped his survival. In comparison with other families we were considered fortunate. However, I didn't realize it right away that my husband was very ill at the time. I myself, emotionally and mentally was "out of it". While my husband knew, Lilian and I hardly talked about what happened to us in Block 10. We wanted to forget it all.
But I had frequent nightmares about it. I also felt terribly guilty that I could not save my mother. Suddenly I was so depressed that I didn't want to live. I was going through a nervous breakdown and had to be hospitalized. Finally I recovered and rejoined my husband and normal life. Of course, due to the Nazi experiments on my ovaries, I could not bear children. We adopted a child and three months after the adoption my husband died. I was heartbroken again. It seems that he really never recovered from his ordeals in camp, but I was too preoccupied with my breakdown to notice it or help him.
Now I was alone with my baby and had to go to work. I was a dress designer in haut-couture. It was a tough life because during the day I had to leave my baby with others but I had no other choice.
Then one day my brother and Lilian decided to emigrate to Canada to join their closest friends who actually saved him during the war. Then in 1954, I and my son joined them here in Canada. I needed and started work here too right away in my own profession as a dress designer.
I also married again. As fate would have it, both Lilian and my brother died within a couple of years of each other then after a lengthy illness, my husband died too. I was simply devastated. My son and I were alone again. 22 years ago I married my third husband Irving and we have a happy and content life together. It was actually Irving who was a long time family friend before we married and who, little by little, influenced me to start talking about my experiences in Auschwitz and made me see how important it was.
So few of us survived who were experimented on that I now realize it is my duty to tell my and the story of all those women I witnessed dying a most miserable, inhuman death in BLOCK 10. They all asked us: if you survive, please, please, tell the world what happened here and don't forget us.
© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2001.
© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2001.