Five survivors of Auschwitz, one of whom is returning for the first time since her incarceration, have told their stories to the Guardian to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi extermination camp, which is being commemorated on Monday.
Aged in their late-80s to mid-90s, they are among the last of just a few hundred remaining survivors, and told their stories from their homes in Melbourne, Montreal, Frankfurt, Berlin, and Esslingen, Switzerland.
Catalina Adam: ‘I’m anxious about the trip, but I feel a responsibility beyond myself’
Catalina Adam, 88, from Piscolt, Romania, was deported to Auschwitz in May 1944. She was being held in Ober-Hohenelbe forced labour camp when it was liberated from the Nazis in May 1945. She lives in Berlin. It is the first time she will return to Auschwitz since her imprisonment.
I’m from a small village in Romania, where about four or five of the families were Jewish, a mix of Romanians and Hungarians. My parents had a mill, and we grew wheat and maize which we turned into flour, as well as sunflowers, which we turned into oil with a press, which was very popular in the area. There was four years of schooling offered for the girls, and 12 for the boys. I told my father when I was 13 that I wanted to study and rather than giving a dowry to my husband’s family, as was the practice, I wanted to invest it in education. My father was happy about it. In the meantime, I trained as a florist. I had dreamed of becoming a pianist or a doctor, but Auschwitz got in the way of all of that.
At home we spoke both Romanian and Hungarian. We weren’t orthodox Jews, but we did celebrate the festival days and enjoyed them, and went to the synagogue.
Catalina Adam with son George and husband.
I watch all the documentaries on television about the Nazi era. Last night, there was one about Auschwitz. They talked about how most people had no idea of what was going to happen to them. That might seem strange today, but back then it was quite normal. We didn’t have television, or even radio or a newspaper. Our main source of news was the village crier, who, maybe twice a week, would walk up and down the street with a piece of wood and a hammer, which he knocked on, calling people to attention. One day he declared: “The people should not go to bed tonight. They should not put on their pyjamas and nightgowns, they should keep their day clothes on and pack a suitcase, because in a few hours a horse and cart will come and pick them up and take them to the next town.” I was 19 when the Hungarians took us away. First to the synagogue. There the women and girls were inspected by the local midwife who was on site to check we were not hiding any precious things, such as jewellery, inside us. She kept apologising, saying she had to do it and she felt ashamed. I desperately wanted to tell her, “I know it’s not your fault that you’re having to do this.”
Before the Hungarians handed us over to the SS, we were told we had to hand over our jewellery. They told us if you don’t hand it over, we will shoot you. That was the first time we had an idea of what their intentions were. We told them we didn’t have anything else, but someone noticed the earrings I was wearing and screamed at me: “Why do you need those! Do you think you’ll need them where you’re going!” They shouted “out, out!” and ripped them out of my pierced ears. Since then I’ve never been able to bring myself to wear earrings.
Portraits of Catalina Adam as a young woman.
Before we had even arrived at Auschwitz we were advised to make a pre-selection – the older people should take the young ones – though we didn’t know what for. The 45-year-olds were considered old, so my mother, Maria, who was 43, was sent to the left with my 12-year-old sister, Aliz. My grandmother too. The only ones remaining were me and my two other sisters, Agi or Agnes, and Edith, the eldest. My father had been sent to work. He was 51. There was no chance for any conversation with my mother. No farewell, even if we had thought we might be seeing each other for the last time. It was all too fast for any of that.
They shaved all our hair, sent us for a two- or three-minute shower before spraying us with disinfectant. They threw clothes at us not taking any account of whether they would fit or not. When we emerged outside and looked at each other, we couldn’t laugh or cry. We were expressionless and didn’t recognise each other any more.
Catalina Adam’s father, and right, her mother, Maria Sicherman.
Today I remain haunted by the idea of my mother and baby sister going into the gas chambers, each of them asking the other what’s going on, what’s happening, as they choked on the gas. I can’t get it out of my head.
We were given dehydrated vegetables in water to eat. We had to share a bowl of it between five of us. The first would slurp from it and hand it on, and when it got to the end it would be sent back to the beginning. It was so awful I couldn’t eat it, even though the men threw messages over to us, saying be sure to eat the food. Eventually I was given some medicine by a doctor which gave me a raging appetite, otherwise I would have perished very quickly.
My father might have survived, but I found out later from an acquaintance in a village close to ours that a commando had come to his barracks and asked “who wants another, better work? If so, come with us.” He fell for their trick, and was murdered. They told us he had always been so tired. After work he’d cry and constantly looked at pictures of his family he had hidden in the bottom of his shoes.
In September, about 400 of us were sent from Auschwitz to the Schaub Lorenz factory close to Prague to work as slave labourers where we made tubes for radios and other electrical equipment. It was there that we were liberated.
Catalina Adam with her sisters.
We arrived back in Piskolt in June 1945, and rang on many bells. Our flat was empty. The door was open and we were able to inhabit it, which was better than for lots of people who were told “we’ve taken over your property now”. We found our possessions scattered in homes across the village, and managed to get some of them back.
I’m quite anxious about the trip, I must admit, but when I spoke to my older sister, Agi, who just died last week in Israel, about my plans, she said: “I think it’s good you’re going there, you’ve spent such a lot of your life talking about it. You can light a candle for Mama and little Aliz and everyone else.” So I feel a responsibility beyond myself.
George Adam, 64, will accompany his mother to Auschwitz, for the first time:
I knew from an early age that my mother had been in Auschwitz. It seems to me that every incident in her life had a connection of some sort to it – buying a kitchen, a carpet, deciding what to eat, she would always relate it to her experience in Auschwitz. Now I will return with her for the first time since she was imprisoned there. I’m concerned about the practical side of it apart from anything, like getting her from the airport to the hotel, as she hasn’t travelled anywhere for 10 years. But I think it’s really important, both for her and for me, and for her grandchildren, who have also grown up with the story and recognise it as part of their own story and who will go back to Auschwitz one day on their grandmother’s behalf.
Edith Gluck, 92, an ethnic Hungarian from Borsa, Transylvania (Romania), and her family were deported to Auschwitz in June 1944. She was transferred to Mährisch Weisswasser labour camp in Czechoslovakia in November 1944, where she remained until it was liberated. She now lives in Melbourne, Australia, and will return to Auschwitz for the first time this week.
I realised, looking back, that there was a lot of hatred towards us way before our deportation.
I remember one Easter, some young guys coming from the church and how one of them came over to my sister who was sitting on our front step, and slapped her in the face saying: “our priest just told us, you killed Jesus.” We accepted the animosity as a part of normal life but had no idea what was in store for us.
My older sister was engaged, her fiancee had given her a beautiful necklace with an angel on it. My mother, who very much liked her future son-in-law, hid it at the back of our house, saying we should look where she was putting it in case we didn’t all come back. My other sisters didn’t want to look, insisting “of course we’ll be back”. For some reason I noticed where she hid it.
As we left our house we noticed how people were lurking, waiting for us to leave so they could loot our homes.
First they kept us in the synagogue, then in a ghetto in the next village. There, my 12-year-old brother Moishe had something like a premonition that they would take us to a terrible place. He was screaming at my mum one night, saying he didn’t want to go to wherever they were going to take us.
Before long they came and told us we were going somewhere else. We should take one suitcase each, filled with our most precious possessions, so we took jewellery and photos, our best clothes. When we arrived in Auschwitz, on cattle cars, they said “leave everything, we’ll bring it to you”. I remember thinking “how will they know what belongs to whom?”
My mother and brothers were led off to one area, me and my sisters, Rachel and Ibi, to another. As she left us, my mother turned around and shouted: “But you didn’t have any breakfast!”
They made us undress, they shaved off our hair. My mother had given my older sister, Rachel, her earrings, containing one big diamond and two smaller ones. She had forgotten to take them off. The woman who shaved her hair tore the earrings from the holes in her ears, while my sister screamed: “They’re my mother’s!” She said to her: “Be happy we’ve left your head on.”
We were taken to our barracks, and they brought us some food, in a kind of broken dish. A gruel, which we all had to sip at in turn. It was like for the animals. I couldn’t swallow it. My older sister gave me a kick: “You have to have it’.” Afterwards we learned to accept what we got.
Food became an obsession, which we talked about all the time, especially about what my mother used to cook. She was a great baker. I said all I wanted to do if I survived was to see a loaf of her bread on the table.
We were strong, solid-built country girls, and passed selection to become slave labourers. Josef Mengele, the main camp doctor, had slapped my sister on the back and said: “She’s well built.” They took blood from all three of us, to use for blood transfusions for wounded German soldiers.
After three to four months in Auschwitz, I and my sisters were taken to work at a big munitions factory at a place called Mährisch Weisswasser in Czechoslovakia. I had small hands, so I was given the task of constructing underground radios. We worked a 12-hour shift.
When we were liberated, we spent time on a nearby farm, where they fed us up like geese, before we made our way back to Borsa. We shouldn’t have gone home. But for some reason we thought maybe my mother will be there. Lots of people knew what had happened, but we simply didn’t want to believe it.
Auschwitz survivor Edith Gluck, circa 1942, with her sister Rachel before she was imprisoned in Auschwitz.
We found the necklace. I went right there to where my mother had hidden it, behind two bricks. It was like a memory of my mother, knowing the last time it had been touched had been in her hands. I kissed it. The house was empty. They had taken everything including all our old handmade embroidery tablecloths and crochet work. The timber was removed from the windows, papers were strewn everywhere.
I moved to various places, including Czechoslovakia, Ireland and Israel, where I met my husband, who was also from Hungary. But he persuaded me we should make our home in Australia where there was no warring.
Edith Gluck, in 1947 in Dublin after she escaped Auschwitz, and right, in 1956 in Israel.
I lost my mother, younger sister and two little brothers in Auschwitz, and when I return there I see it as a chance to finally say goodbye to them. After all, I have no cemetery where I can go to see them. I’m going to light some candles and listen to the prayer for the dead.
There are lots of nights these days when I can’t sleep and I see my family, when we arrived and they separated us. I just have to close my eyes, and I see in front of me my mother turning round and saying: “But you didn’t have breakfast.”
Her daughter, Deena Shachter, 63, (above with Edith) will accompany her:
I think it was a deliberate decision for my Mum and Dad to move as far away from Europe as possible, to separate themselves. When I think about it, they probably suffered from PTSD.
My mother never seemed to be weighed down by it like some people I know, although food was an obsession – making sure I always had a lot. I was a skinny child and my mother couldn’t stand that.
I don’t know how she’ll react when we’re actually there. We’ve sometimes watched movies about it, and she’s said: “That’s exactly like the bunk I was in. We were at the bottom.” But when she’s there for real, I hope she’ll be able to go through with it.
For my part, I want to be able to stand outside the gates and say: ‘F-you, Hitler, I’m still here, it didn’t work!’”
Ernest Ehrmann, 91, from Karlovsky Chlumec in Czechoslovakia, was deported in 1944 to Auschwitz, where he spent three days before being moved to Warsaw, where he was given the job of cleaning out the ghetto after the uprising. He spent time in numerous camps, and was liberated from a labour camp in Germany in 1945.
I’ve been back to Auschwitz many times. Every time – and this will be my 14th – it’s like a terrible video that replays in my mind. The arrival there with my parents, and how we were separated, and obviously I had no idea the fact that they had both been sent to the left meant that they had been sent to their deaths in the gas chambers half an hour after our arrival, which I didn’t find out until after I was liberated. I didn’t stay there long – only three days – but it is the last place I saw my parents, so to go back there is to go back to the last place I saw them alive.
We’d had a very pleasant family life, in Karlovsky Chlumec. The pleasantness evaporated as soon as the “Tsuris” (Yiddish for troubles) came and we were incarcerated. My father was a wholesaler of alcohol, selling it to the taverns in the town and the surrounding villages. My mother was in charge of our kosher restaurants. It was a central meeting place in the town, and life was busy and interesting. The “Tsuris” started in school, because the kids would refer to us Jewish kids as “dirty Jews’. When I asked them why they hated us so much, they’d always tell us that we had killed their saviour, Jesus Christ.
One day, a police officer who was friendly with my father informed us that we were in danger and were going to be rounded up. It was really sudden. The Saturday night, during the Shabbat. Jews were gathered in the synagogue courtyard and taken to the railway station to be transported to a larger ghetto. We were picked up on the Sunday morning. We were in huge shock. My parents had packed our suitcases the night before. The ghetto filled up with Jews from all the surrounding villages. We slept on the floor as there were not enough beds.
Looking back, my parents must have known more than I did, because they had set up my older brother, Anschel, with fake, Christian papers. He was a redhead and didn’t look like a Jew, and he’d told my Dad he’d be able to hide himself in Budapest pretty well. He would have made it until the end of the war, had he not been injured and taken to a Gestapo clinic where they saw he was circumcised. He was lined up with others and shot before being thrown into the Danube.
I spent only three days in Auschwitz, and I hadn’t realised it then but leaving it was my greatest fortune. We were liberated by the US Army. Some negro guys, as I called them, were the first I saw, who we soon realised were Americans.
Ernrst, right, and his surviving siblings and brother-in-law after the war.
There was a Jewish major in charge of that convoy and he looked at us and was terrified to see the state we were in. We couldn’t speak English, but he was from Brooklyn and spoke Yiddish. When we told him we had been incarcerated by Hitler, he phoned Gen Eisenhower, and asked him what he should do with these Jewish inmates, they’re in a bad way. Eisenhower told him: “I designate you to take care of them.”
Eventually I and my brother ended up back in our home town. We didn’t stay there long, as the memories were much too raw, and my parents were gone. We ended up in Paris, and eventually got visas for Canada, hoping to go as far away as possible. I never regretted it. Canada was very good and gracious to me, God too.
Ehrmann will be joined on his journey to Auschwitz with his daughter, Audrey Ehrmann, 60, who lives in New York:
When we were smaller, my father always told us that during his two and a half days in Auschwitz, he’d gotten more beatings than he did his whole year in multiple concentration camps.
As his child, I’d beg to differ that he only had nightmares for the first few years. Many nights as an adult, when I came home to visit, I would hear him, struggling in his dreams, murmuring.
This will be my third time going back to Auschwitz. I feel I have the burden of getting both of my parents’ stories straight so I can retell them. I don’t find it a burden going there, rather I feel like it’s a part of who I am, and part of me learning to tell their story. I gain more understanding each time, but it doesn’t get any less upsetting.
Eva Szepesi: ‘We recognise our responsibility to ensure this chapter in history is not forgotten’
Eva Szepesi, from Budapest, Hungary, was captured in Slovakia in September 1944 and deported from a nursing home to Sered concentration camp and from there to Auschwitz. She was liberated in 1945. Now 87, she lives in Frankfurt am Main, Germany.
Life was happy and normal, but one incident sticks in my head that was like a turning point. My Dad had sent me out to buy cigarettes, it must have been around 1940, and someone in the courtyard of our flat in Peterszsébet, a suburb of Budapest, was washing a piece of raw meat under the tap. They called me over, and said: “What are you staring at, Jew girl? Soon the blood will flow out of your dad just like it is from this meat. Come here and let us spray you with it.” I was really shocked. I went back to my parents and my father took me in his arms. He said: “I know that hurts, but believe me, they don’t know what they’re talking about. Someone has deliberately stoked them up but they’re not to blame.” After the Germans invaded in 1944, we had to wear the yellow star, and I didn’t go to school any more.
A cousin of my mother’s, from Slovakia, who I called Aunt Piri, came to stay with us, having fled Nazi-occupied Slovakia. Aunt Piri persuaded my mother that it was safe for her to return to Slovakia and that she should take me with her.
I was under the impression I was going on holiday, and my mother got some forged papers and I had to learn a new name.
My mother said she and my brother Tamas, who was four years younger, would soon join us. I was 11 and a half. I couldn’t understand why my mother was so upset when we said goodbye, if she was going to join us soon. When she said goodbye to me on the railway platform she squeezed me so hard I could hardly breathe.
A man smuggled us over the border. He carried my suitcase on his shoulder. I was carrying my doll, Erica, in my hand, vowing I would never let anyone else hold her.
In Slovakia, I was passed on to maybe three families, who hid me. Then one night we were picked up and taken to an old people’s home in Slovakia, where all the Jews from round about were gathered. I left Erica behind in my bed in the panic. I was still wearing the blue-knitted jacket lined with fur which my mother had made me with a pattern on it.
We were taken by train to Auschwitz. A woman who had lost her daughter took my hand. When we arrived, I remember the masses of people, the SS soldiers with high boots and big barking dogs. Everyone had to get undressed, but I didn’t move because I didn’t want to take off my jacket. The female guard screamed at me so I took it off, and folded it up carefully next to me. She came and flung it away with her foot. I welled up, but I managed to hold back the tears, realising I had nothing to say in the matter.
I had to put on a striped dress and wooden clogs, no socks, nothing else. They cut off my beautiful plaits and threw them into a pile with the rest of the hair, and then shaved me bald. I was given a tattoo, No 26877, on my left arm. It was 3 November, and as I discovered later we were the first transport in which people were not automatically sent to the gas chambers. Maybe the system was already starting to break down. In any case, I was told not to cry “because a tattoo means you’ll live”. I remember a female guard coming up to me and bending down: “You are 16, and under no circumstances do you let it be known that you are younger than that,” and then she was gone. She was really strict, but she probably saved my life. Later, I realised 16 was the age at which they considered you capable of being able to work. My job was to haul heavy stones and to clean munitions. During the daily so-called Zählappeln – the roll-calls – I recall how my feet and hands froze. I suffer from that as a result to this day.
I spent nearly three months there in total. On 27 January, I was liberated, though I don’t know how I survived that long. When the death marches began when they took the prisoners who could still walk, out of the camp, they thought I was more or less dead, and abandoned me among the dead and dying, lying on my bunk. I was barely conscious and had a fever. I had nothing to drink or eat. I can remember the crying. I remember someone – I’ve no idea who it was – coming and feeding me with cold snow. It felt so good. I also remember a Russian soldier bending over me, in a fur hat with a red star on it, and smiling at me.
My name was sent to the Jewish community in Budapest, and my uncle found my name and said I should come home. I was fully expecting to see my mother and brother, and wondered why my mother wasn’t there at the station to pick me up. I flung my arms around my uncle’s neck, and said: “Where’s my mother?” He said: “Let’s just wait, she’ll come.” He was so persuasive, I told myself I just had to wait. I didn’t realise then that in May, June and July there had been transports to Auschwitz from my home and the last one was in July. I only found that out years later. I always expected she might come back. I tried to persuade myself that she might have escaped the transports.
I went back to our house in Peterszsébet with my uncle. We rang a neighbour’s bell and she opened the door and said: “Erica, i never thought that any of you would return!” I discovered things that belonged to us in her flat, although she didn’t actually invite us in. She said, before I had even asked: “I bought it all from your mother. I paid her for it.” My uncle said: ‘‘That’s a lie.” She rang my uncle the following day and said she had found photographs she wanted me to have. They were wrapped in newspaper. It was the most precious thing I could have had. I have them on my dresser to this day, I look at them, and even talk to my mother. She, my brother and father are there every time I enter the room.
I got married and my husband was sent as a tradesman on a mission to Frankfurt in the 1950s. He knew I had been in Auschwitz, and probably wouldn’t want to go to Germany. But then the uprising of 1956 happened, and we hadn’t intended to stay, but ended up doing so. At first I hated it. I couldn’t speak the language and every time I went outside and saw a man in uniform with a dog I was petrified and crossed the road. We didn’t tell anyone my daughter was Jewish until she was seven, because we thought it might endanger her life.
It wasn’t until 2016 that I discovered for sure that my mother and brother had died in Auschwitz, when my granddaughter discovered their names there in black and white. I sat on a bench as she broke the news to me. I didn’t want to believe her at first. It was terrible. But my daughter said maybe it’s for the best, now you can say goodbye to her and light a candle. I was finally able to start mourning her and my brother. I will be lighting a candle again when I go back there this time. I have no grave to go to, and that is the closest thing to one.
Anita, her daughter, will return with her mother to Auschwitz:
We first went back to Auschwitz as a family in 2016. We’d planned to spend two days there, but we realised we had a lot of unfinished business there, so we ended up spending a third day there. My son said the kaddish, and we walked about and talked, and finally felt like visiting grandma at the cemetery. My mother saw in black and white for the first time that her mother and brother had died there, and we finally found peace in ourselves.
My son feels a bond with his great uncle, carrying a photo of Tamas, my mother’s brother, in his wallet with him. He has since learned to understand, as we all have, why his grandmother always wants to stuff him with food.
We recognise our responsibility to ensure this chapter in history is not forgotten, particularly in the light of the rise in antisemitic attacks. After the anti-immigrant Alternative für Deutschland got into the German parliament in 2017, my mother says that every single person she manages to get through to with her story makes it worthwhile telling it. But when we’ve been even mildly critical of the AfD, we’ve been told “Your Netanyahu is not much better,” as if we don’t belong in Germany, but our home because we’re Jewish, can only be Israel.
It was shocking when we went back last summer to my mother’s school in Peterszsébet, and tried to find the records of my mother having been a pupil there. But the books covering the years when the Jewish children were deported had been removed, as if they’d tried to wipe out the fact they had ever existed at all.
Gábor Hirsch, from Békéscsaba in Hungary, was deported to Auschwitz in June 1944.
We were deported at a fairly late stage in the war, when I was 14 and a half. We were forced to leave our home, and were concentrated in a tight living space in May 1944, before being moved to a ghetto the following month, in a storage area that had been used to dry tobacco, where we slept on straw, around 4,000 people packed in together. The hygiene was practically non-existent and there was this crude bar you had to sit on to go to the toilet, balancing carefully so as not to fall into the latrine. It was difficult for everyone but particularly for the elderly, several of whom fell into it.
A doctor poisoned himself, his wife and their small child because they had probably received certain information about what was facing us.
Gábor Hirsch as a young boy.
On 26 June, 80 to 95 of us were taken in a cattle car, with one bucket containing water, another for toilet needs. Two days later we arrived in Auschwitz-Birkenau. We were each allowed one piece of luggage, and for some reason I took my school satchel. On our arrival, some prisoners asked us to throw things over the fence, telling us we wouldn’t get them back anyway. We didn’t do so, because in our naivety we thought we would get them back as we’d been told.
When we got out men and women were separated, and then faced selection. I was in a group of men sent to the so-called sauna area. where we were had to undress, all our body hair was removed, and we showered before being covered in disinfectant. We were able to take our shoes, a handkerchief and spectacles. We were given long underpants, a pair of striped trousers, and a jacket and were then sent to our barracks.
I had the chance to see my mother twice while we were working. Once when we were sent to put up some glass tiles, ahead of the visit of some high-ranking German officers. The women came up to the fence and that was when I saw her. A short conversation took place, I told her I was doing all right, no more than that. I would briefly see her one more time.
I remained in Auschwitz until the liberation, and stayed longer as I was unfit to go anywhere. I weighed just 27 kilograms. It took two months to feel anything like myself again.
Probably it was the end of March by the time I arrived in a displaced persons camp in Katowice. I spent some time there, before we were brought to Hungary, arriving on 7 September. At the end of October, the start of November, my father came back. He was able to reopen his shop, so very quickly there was a sense of pseudo-normality again. Before I knew it, I was back to studying with my old schoolmates, almost as if nothing had happened. We were, I suppose, more or less forced to go back to how things ‘were’. Everyone had endured a certain degree of suffering, so no one was much interested in what I might have been through. But I regret to this day that I never really talked to my father about a lot of things, including the loss of my mother. He married a second time. I knew that my stepmother had been in the first transport of Hungarian Jews, but I didn’t talk to her about it.
Gabor is among this group of child survivors at Auschwitz on the day of the camp’s liberation by the Red Army, 27 January 1945. He is hidden behind the boy with the white head bandage.
I was happy to be able to escape to Budapest and start studying as a technical engineer. I continued to harbour the hope for years that my mother might yet come home.
When I go to talk to children in schools, I want them to understand that exclusion is wrong, whatever form it takes, whether homophobia or antisemitism, and that it has consequences. I sometimes feel a bit like Don Quixote, fighting against windmills, as if it’s all in vain, but I still retain hope that it makes a difference to talk about it.
It wasn’t for decades that I discovered what had happened to my mother. I had heard from a cousin who was in the same camp that on 25 September there had been a selection after which I believed, for decades, she must have died. But years later, in 1993, I submitted an information application with the International Tracing Service in Bad Arolsen and five years after that, in 1998, a letter arrived in which they said they regretted to inform me that my mother had been registered in the Stutthof concentration camp on 8 September, and had died on 18 December 1944, cause of death unknown. It was a real shock to me.