of Shosh Bechar (Edith Potok),
Translated from the original Hebrew by Nachum Abraham, Thornhill, Ontario, Canada (a March of the Living participant in 2004).
Balassagyarmat, a midsize city in Hungary, on the border of Czechoslovakia. I, Edith Potok, was born there in 1927, where 10,000 Jews lived. My father was a merchant, who purchased fruit and vegetables from farmers and sold them to the stores in the city. My mother was an ambitious woman with greater expectations then becoming just a housewife. She studied in Budapest and became a certified midwife (nurse). We weren't particularly rich and were considered a middle class family, making a respectable living. Our house was just across from the synagogue. We weren't religious but we kept kosher, the Shabbat and the high holidays. My father was multilingual but in the house we spoke Hungarian. I studied in a Jewish school and the spoken language there too, was Hungarian. German was our second language and as it should be, in a Jewish school we studied Judaism, the bible etc. My mother worked as a midwife for the poor and also for the gypsies in the department of the health and social ministries of the government and the Municipality.
I was fourteen years old when WWII started. The Hungarian police arrested my father accusing him of being a communist. He disappeared forever. My mother was fired from her work. Due to the difficulties we faced at the time, we moved to the city of Miskolc. In the beginning Jews were enlisted for public work. A group of girls, me included, was brought every morning to the forest to pick up branches and place them in piles. At night they brought us back home.
During this time a decree was announced that all Jews in our area must be gathered together at a specific place in the city. They allowed us to take one small parcel. We also took some food with us. We were together; my mother, my younger sister, my four year old sister and myself. All the Jews were transferred to a giant shed in the area that used to be a former brick factory. The overcrowding was unbearable. In this shed there were no elementary sanitary arrangements or enough living space. Littering the outside of the shack were Hungarian and German police and soldiers.
One morning in April 1944, they announced, to us Jews, that we're being transported to a labor camp. We were brought to the train station. With screaming and beating they forced us into the cattle cars. The one and only window, in each cattle car had barbed wire on it. The car was filled completely with people without any room at all. At each stop they would bring in a small container, a little bit of water. The conditions were excruciatingly inhumane. The train sped on for many days till we got to a large gate, on it was written: "Arbeit Macht Frei". We had arrived to Auschwitz.
I was a young and naive girl, or, maybe because of being extremely tired, emotionally exhausted from the abrupt change, I was in a state of shock. I did not understand what was going on. I did not know then that we arrived at a death camp.
The car doors opened. Around the quay German soldiers and German policewomen were standing. They were pushing, hitting and shouting. "Schneller"! "Schneller"! The trains were emptied out. We were placed in rows. My mother, who was in her early forties, was holding hands with my four-year-old sister. In all the turmoil we were separated. My Mother and my little sister disappeared from my life forever.
My younger sister and I stayed very close to each other. Our row was marched to the nearest camp, called Birkenau. There was a massive lineup of women concentrated in a field. One after the other people were pushed into a wooden barrack. Inside, German soldiers were sitting. We entered and were ordered to strip off all our clothing. Very quickly we were standing there naked. All of a sudden some men came running into the room with scissors in their hands. Quickly and in a crude manner they sheared and shaved the hair from our heads and from the other parts of our bodies. A huge number of women were pushed into the showers. After the shower an order was yelled out: "open your legs!" We were sprayed with D.D.T.
I, as a young girl, stood there naked, sprayed and shaved from all the hair on my body. I stopped being what I was. I was changed into an oppressed and degraded creature. In the end of the disinfection procedure I received a huge nightgown made from flannel. Barefooted, we were moved to cell-block number 3, which was a very large block, especially assigned to women.
I cried a lot. I heard that the Germans are very cruel. I did not know that people, who just a little while ago, were normal people, could be turned into animals, and have a sadistic desire to oppress and degrade a young girl like me. I did not know then, that there are even higher and more severe degrees of cruelties. I wept. My sister and I slept clinging to each other at nights. The German supervisors walked around with whips in their hands. From time to time they brought in a pale of water. In a desperate crazy run to drink just a touch of water, there was huge commotion within the block, which caused the supervisor to come inside with her whip. They whipped the women's backs. In the afternoons they used to bring a barrel filled with a green mixture that tasted like medicine. In the mixture there was some chemical that stops the female menstruation cycle. That was our lunch.
In the fenced courtyard of our barrack, elderly women walked around, and around, their behavior and their screams indicated insanity. These were the women whose children were taken away from them. From our barrack we saw the never-ending fire from the chimney of the crematoriums. We breathed the sweetish stench of burning flesh.
Every morning there was a roll-call. We stood three in rows. After the counting we received liquid, that they called, coffee. Before sundown we got a slice of bread. The neighbour camp to ours was the gypsy camp. In our block there were only female Jews. Many of the women got sick. The symptoms were high fever, boil and blisters on their tongues. The sick were taken away, never to return. Those who were responsible for our destiny everyday in every hour, were the "Kapos", who were Polish and also Jewish women. The major force behind their aggressive behavior towards us was their fear of the German supervisors above them. We did not work.
Months past and one day a large group of us girls, were taken to the showers. We had to get outside naked. Outside, stood a handsome officer and he selected a group of girls, my sister and me, included. Today I know that, he was Dr. Joseph Mengele. I received a coat and wooden shoes. We traveled for three or four days in the train, until we got to Aldendorf, a forced labor camp in the forest. We left Auschwitz in Poland and now we arrived in Germany. It was the blind fate which condemned you to life or death. In this camp, there were medium size blocks to living. We had bunk beds in two floors, and a stove, blankets, and outside there was a water trough. Paradise! The Wermacht soldiers guarded the camp.
Seven kilometers from the camp there was an artillery factory. Every morning we went to work there. I was preparing the mixture to fill the hand grenades, bombs and torpedoes. We worked together with political prisoners. This was hard physical labor that was highly supervised and guarded. We went to work in all weather conditions. We got a glass of milk and reasonable amount of food. In this place there were showers too.
We were highly watched and there were punishments as well if need be: shaving our hair and twenty-four hours in isolation. We worked until it was dark. Although we had better living conditions our constant dream was to eat bread without any limit. My sister who was short and skinny would sometimes get chocolate pieces from the Germans. I recall one extraordinary event, under those circumstances, that happened once. One of the women died. The Germans brought her body to a cemetery in the closest town. A few girls from the camp were allowed to join in on the burial ceremony.
After a while, I was transferred to an easier work. I stood at a table and I filled grenades. We did not know anything about what was happening outside the camp and the factory. One day they told us we are moving. At 04:00 am in the morning we started to walk. The German guards rushed us: "Schnel!, Schnel!" and every night we slept in a different barn. We only received bread and margarine. From time to time we heard shots from cannons being fired. The Germans did not leave us alone even for a minute: "Fast! Fast!" they kept saying. "The Russians are coming!"
The march was horrible. The number of women decreased from barn to barn. Many fell by the wayside and a few kept hiding in the barns and did not continue to walk.
One day I could not walk anymore. We decided, my sister and I, and two other girls, to hide in a barn and not to continue. We were incredibly frightened. We knew if they were going to find us, our lives would be over just upon the threshold of liberation. We hid deep in stacks of hay. In the morning we heard the Germans looking for the escapees. They stabbed and prodded with pitchforks at the stacks of hay and one stab barely missed my leg. One German woman used the flashlight in one hand and a gun in the other. They searched and re-searched but did not find us. We lay in the hay for three days and all our whatever strength we had left, was gone. We heard the sounds of the chains of moving tanks but we did not know who they were.
One of us in the haystack went out of of the barn (to check things out and) she came back crying: "tanks with stars! (are here)" We realized that the Americans are already in the neighborhood. We left the barn in total exhaustion. The Americans took us to a hotel in the nearby town, giving us new clothes and food. Those who could not resist the temptation of real food ate too much too quickly and got severe diarrhea. We found out that the convoy of prisoners we left behind, walked another forty kilometers until their German guards ran away.
I was liberated in April 1945, and we all stayed under the protection of the American soldiers until the month of August. One day we heard on the radio in a searching for relatives program the name of my brother and that he is looking for his two sisters. He called out our names. I broke into tears.
We were liberated but we did not find a safe place that felt like home. Problems and difficulties still faced us. We were five girls in the hotel room. One day my sister and three other girls went to a party with some American soldiers in a nearby city. In the early morning, on the way back they had a car accident. Everyone was injured. My sister lay in the hospital for two months and I sat beside her the whole time.
The American hospitality ended and we were on our way "home". Many of the refugees were constantly moving on. In every train station thousands would wait just to be able to leave. When a train arrived, the people ran, pushed, screamed without mercy, only to find a seat. For the most part my sister and I traveled in a transport train. Once we even sat on top of a stack of coal and beneath every bridge we needed to hold on tightly to the black coal so the bridge would not cut off our heads. We traveled this way for one month, when we finally reached Vienna. Here, we were brought into a large refugee camp for people from Hungary. Our goal was to go back to Hungary. We were told that Russian soldiers were on the border and that young women must be careful. However, we crossed the border in peace.
In the station, I was told, that my youth (childhood) friend was waiting everyday in the train station in Miskolc. Someone who got out of the camp in Vienna told him that I was alive. We arrived in Budapest, showered and disinfected our clothes. We received good, tasty food. Once again we became human beings. I traveled with my sister to Miskolc. My friend was actually there, waiting for me at the station. My sister went back to Budapest and stayed with the "Micha" organization. My friend and I started our training, in preparation when it was our time to go to Eretz Israel as illegal immigrants.
However, I became pregnant. In that state they would not allow me to immigrate to Israel. I went to Budapest and I declared that on a border crossing the Russians raped me. This was enough of a reason for the doctors to perform an abortion.
In a difficult and dangerous journey, we arrived to Yugoslavia. Packed like sardines, we drifted for six days in a boat called "Hagana". When we were close to Haifa we were moved into four different detention boats. We were in jail in the heart of the sea for four weeks but our boat was not taken to Cyprus. We were brought directly to Atlit. After six weeks in Atlit we were finally set free.
Testimony of Edith Potok a member in Kibbutz Evron (in 1990 was Shosh Bechar ). She is from Balassagyarmat, Hungary, and she tells about her life in Auschwitz. Published in a book "You Tell it to Your Sons", Kibbutz Evron and "Moreshet", Tel Aviv 1990.
Minor editing: Ada Holtzman, Israel. http://www.zchor.org
© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2004.
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