‘I still often ask myself why I was chosen to survive. Twenty-three souls of my family perished.’
Extract from Time’s Witnesses: Women’s Voices from the Holocaust
Edited by Jakob Lothe
Published by Fledgling Press
Note from the Editor
Time’s Witnesses: Women’s Voices from the Holocaust presents the histories of ten Jewish women who survived the Nazi concentration and extermination camps during World War Two. The women were born in Europe between 1925 and 1935. After the war four of them settled in Norway and became Norwegian citizens. Today, the six other women live on four different continents.
This book is inspired by Time’s Witnesses: Narratives from Auschwitz and Sachsenhausen (2006), which I co-edited with Anette H. Storeide, and which presents the stories of eight Norwegian camp survivors. By focusing solely on these two camps, we were only able to find male survivors to interview. At the same time the necessity of communicating women’s narratives became obvious. Working to present Norwegian women’s voices from the Holocaust, it is a significant problem that none of the Jewish women and children who were deported from Norway to the Nazi concentration camps returned. This is the reason why the ten Jewish women who present their accounts in this book were born in other European countries.
Working on this book has been challenging. As these challenges concern both the way the book is structured and also are closely connected to the content of the narratives, I write more about this in the introduction. Yet I would also like to stress here that although the topic of the book is dispiriting, it has been a privilege to once again meet and listen to time witnesses who have put their confidence in me by telling me their histories. They also put that confidence in the readers of this book. Time and again I am struck by the strength and courage that these ten women demonstrate by thinking back on experiences they may rather want to put behind them in order to carry on with their lives. The irrepressible will to live which helped them survive is evident in the narratives. At the same time all ten women recognise that their survival depended on chance.
Ella Blumenthal Testimony
Ella Blumenthal was 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 liberation of the camp on 15 April 1945. She 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 I had married, I raised and educated my fourchildren. But I wasn’t able to talk about my suffering and fight for survival, because the open wounds were still bleeding.
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 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 wasimposed. 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…
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…
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. During our arrival there was an orchestra playing, made up of prisoners. In front of them were all the 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 symbol for a Jew. Then all our hair was shaved 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 barracks where we slept ten 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 under my head for Roma was eaten by them.
We stood at roll calls in the rain and in blazing sun, in the snow and freezing cold. We were then counted and counted over and over until the SS woman came and received the report: so many sick, so many dead, and so many ready for work. I worked on 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, and therefore I had to carry on…
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 ordered all patients to be sent to the gas chamber. Roma couldn’t walk yet, but she crawled out and survived…
I still often ask myself why I was 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.
Time’s Witnesses: Women’s Voices from the Holocaust is out now published by Fledgling Press priced £11.99.