Centre for Dialogue and Prayer in Oświęcim

Halina Birenbaum - Life as Hope - Part II

Halina Birenbaum – Life as hope – Part II

The story of my Holocaust years

Part II

The SS-men counted us again; the prisoner orderlies gave us bread rations that we devoured immediately. Then, they hurried us into a train. Cattle cars again, but this time each with doors open in which two Wehrmacht soldiers settled themselves comfortably.

The soldiers ordered us to sit in rows, each between the straddled legs of another, so that every centimetre of space could be used. Threatening to shoot us dead on the spot, they forbade us to change this position at all. At last, we could sit, but who could then predict that it would last unaltered for two long days?

The July heat, thirst, hunger and feelings of pins poking all over your body stiff from immobility! A newly experienced pain – sitting. At one point, a woman in the row next to mine, who was embracing a teenaged daughter with her legs, rose a little bit and began to beg soldier’s permission to straighten up for a moment.

Calmly, the middle-aged soldier got up, took the rifle off his shoulder and aimed. We all died within ourselves. I just thought he was only intimidating her when the bullet hit the woman's temple. Rapidly, she became more and more pale and then fell down on her daughter's shoulders.

The soldier hanged the rifle back on his shoulder, visibly satisfied sat down and barked an order to throw out the corpse, and said that the little girl had to be quiet (as she was sobbing silently). "She will die too, after all she's Jewish!" Finally, the train rolled into a station. Auschwitz. In a column, brutally pushed and beaten, we marched from the station to Birkenau. A gate appeared with a large inscription: "Arbeit macht frei" – F K L (Frauenkonzentrationsager).

* * *

Rows of brick barracks and fences of barbed wires charged with electricity, turrets with machine guns sticking out of the watchtowers – just like in Majdanek. In the barrack windows shapes dissimilar either to men or women. Neither old people nor children. Their heads shaven, their faces indifferent. Their clothing unusual and colourless, the shoes on their feet wooden and muddy. The endless evil present everywhere around.

– "I will never come out from here", I thought, becoming more and more broken down.

But there was no time to contemplate. We had to act fast according to the rules of this new hell: not to loose Hela in this increasingly wild and stunned crowd of women, to grasp which of the Aufseherins (female SS guards) was less brutal, to decide what kind of occupation to declare that might be regarded useful in the camp and thus would give us a chance to survive – and last but not least where to find a gulp of water!

By the time the evening fell, we looked alike all other prisoners who were tormented here. Our heads were shaved, our left forearms tattooed with numbers. We were given similarly strange, flimsy clothes, with a large cross, painted on the back with a red oil paint, as well as heavy wooden shoes, which were almost impossible to be moved in the mud. We had already been standing for several hours on a roll call in front of a block, in a stinky marsh, having been beaten and abused verbally.

Soon after we arrived in Birkenau, on Sundays, Hela and I were taken to work at putting rail tracks to Birkenau. We called it "our Auschwitz day off". In our early days art Birkenau, at nights the Germans drove people from there to the crematoria in Auschwitz in covered trucks and gassed them on the way in the so called "Little White House". While on night shifts at the Birkenau sewing shop that was located close to the ramp, Hela and I saw such trucks, usually preceded by a "komandker" with a red cross, like an ambulance! We heard people's loud wailings and prayers "Sh'ma Israel".

The hunger, the minute once a day rations of watery turnip soup and bread, the ceaseless beating, verbal abuse, filth, lice, and sickness of all kinds for which they usually take you to the gas chamber. The impossibility to wash, to change your clothes – wet, rotten, and soiled with human excrements.

The hostility among the women on the bunks, in the latrines, and in the vicinity of the soup kettles. The workload beyond human endurance. And above all, the ever present stink of burning human flesh. I had to breathe it days and nights for almost two years. Many times I came across people being led to the gas chambers while on my way to my "good" job in the "Kanada" commando, amid the abundance of food and clothing left behind by the people who had just been murdered.

On the rail ramp there always were thousands of people just brought here from the whole Europe to the gas chambers that worked round o’clock. It was quite impossible to get through: masses of human beings being rushed to gas – and we – moving in the opposite direction, to "Kanada" to sort their belongings just taken from them to be sent to Germany.

One time, our commando was stopped near a couple carrying a small child in their arms. And they simply asked us how far it was to the Jewish colony, because their baby needed to be fed... We fell silent. They had only a few dozen metres walk to the terminal colony of their lives – in the sky, as the chimney smoke...

In "Kanada", in the main camp in Auschwitz, I usually stood on the mountains of clothing mixed with letters, photos, and food packages – and no more was I able to speak! Words had lost any of their sense. It seemed to me that they had herded here and stripped naked the entire mankind – and no more there was a world! And after we will have sorted this entire luggage, they will throw us too into the flames. "Kanada", or "Keine da", nobody here!

I was always telling the Germans that I was 17 years old, as my Mother had taught me in the Warsaw Ghetto. In Auschwitz, the Germans set up a special block for children. They fed them there with white bread, milk, and butter, and did not send them to work. Many young women, who, with their hair sheared close to skin and in improbable clothes, looked like children, applied to be admitted to that block. The good conditions in this children's paradise had enticed them. They jeered at me since I did not want to go there in order not to part from Hela. "You could be helping her from there," they reproached me... After a few weeks the Germans loaded everybody from the children's block up on the trucks and drove them straight to gas.

By then Hela had become a living skeleton. Her cheeks sunk, eyes became big and famished, her legs and arms looked as thin as match sticks… I tried to avoid looking in her eyes when she was imploring me to ask the orderly for another portion of soup for her.

I could not force myself into stretching my hand out, or taking the risk of getting beaten and abused for such a begging request. It was easier to me to give her my soup. I explained to her – and to myself – that if we ever get out of here we will have enough to eat, but if not, an additional bowl of soup will not satisfy our everlasting hunger anyway. Hela, however, did not have enough strength even to listen to such my "sophistries".

And all this was suddenly becoming unimportant at the sound of a whistle and the paralysing shouts: "all Jewesses out for the assembly", or "the Jewesses not to disperse after the general roll call!"

At such moments we immediately forgot the hunger that was twisting our guts. The cold, the kneeling for hours in the mud, rain or snow – often barefoot, because our shoes had been stolen, or the Germans had ordered us to take them off as a punishment for our imaginary offences – all which did not matter.

And what did matter exclusively was awaiting the verdict – a movement of the hand of one of our German masters: to the left – to death, or to the right – to life, and with the latter – more suffering in the camp.

It was just like that on a bright autumn day. I walked behind Hela to the square in front of the baths. They made us stand in rows, undressed, naked. The sick, the skinny, the weak, or simply those whom they did not like for any reason, were ordered to move to the left.

I still looked not too bad but I was trembling with fear about Hela; she had no chance. While we were getting nearer to the sorting SS-men, I moved closer and closer to her, trying to hide her behind my body. I could hardly breathe because of the emotional tension. And then Mengele raised the hand and he pointed Hela to the left!

With all my strength I clasped her strongly, close to myself. "They are only humans – it was drilling through my mind – not some supernaturals, they could say "yes", and Hela would stay alive! This, indeed, is within the human power!"

The kapos struggled with me wanting to pull Hela away. "Who is she for you?" – a cold question thundered from Unterscharführer Taube.

"She is my mother, my sister, my sister-in-law, I cannot live without her," I spoke eagerly, as to a human being… The master of life and death simply passed his judgment that I go along with her. The block overseer obediently scribbled my and Hela's numbers on the list of those to gas.

But by no means I let them to pull me away from the place that I wedged into and I did not release Hela from my arms. I shall not die now, in this brightness of the daylight, I told myself – and I shall not return without her. I felt in me the entire force of my life.

The deputy camp commandant, Hoessler, who was standing opposite to us in a group of high-ranking officers watching the selection like a theatre performance, called me closer with a wag of his finger.

– "Shut up!" – he interrupted my begging, "and if not, you'll go there." – pointing at the flame from the crematorium chimney. "But if you're quiet, I will free you and your Schweigerin (sister-in-law).

The officers burst devilishly in laugh, mocking my distrustful: "Jaaa?!" Hoessler ordered the block overseer to cross our numbers from the list of the prisoners condemned to die.

A mighty slap in my face knocked me down to the ground, when, in an impulse of gratitude, I threw myself to hug Hoessler. I was reborn anew together with Hela.

But she was so just for a while. After the selection she said to me showing her legs and arms: "nothing but bare bones, I’m no longer alive, I only breathe with your breath..."

I tried to convince her that the war would soon be over and that she would recuperate and would again be like she used to be before.

But Hela did know it better than me that it was not possible to turn around the destiny.

On her last legs, Hela was hardly able to trail me to the roll calls and to our workplace at a sewing workshop in the camp. As much as I could, I tried to unburden her during her numerous illnesses by making her life somewhat easier. I smuggled to the latrine small pots into which she had relieved herself, having been unable to reach the door of our barrack and to push herself through the mob of women, all sick with dysentery. There, at the barrack door, from among hundreds of these sick women, the orderlies were letting out bunches of 10–15 of them to walk under guard to the quite remote latrines that always were overcrowded. To relief oneself into a meal pot was severely punished, sometimes by death.

I kept ignoring all the threats of punishments and was thinking only how to empty the pot very quickly since Hela needed it incessantly. Fortunately, the guards never caught me when I carried these pots.

The fever, the scurvy, and the unstoppable, bloodied diarrhoea were devouring Hela irreversibly. The women from the neighbouring bunks urged me to abandon her, telling me she had contagious tuberculosis and thus she would infect me. They never comprehended what Hela meant to me, in her health or sickness!

And one morning Hela was no more able to slip down off the bunk – the spurring meaning of the roll call whistle did no longer reach her senses. The barrack orderlies carried her out on a stretcher and put her in the mud next to me.

For the first time, I stood alone on the roll call. Hela stared at me intensely as if she was saying goodbye to me and begging me for remembrance or perhaps forgiveness that she had to part from me. Her gaze in that very moment has remained in me for all my life thereafter!

In a group of sick female prisoners they led Hela to the Revier, i.e. the camp hospital. The block overseer promised me to take me there along with her when next time she would walk the sick prisoners to the Revier, so that I might see Hela. After this selection this woman started, for a while, to be a little bit better to the prisoners. From that day on I deprived myself my bread rations in order to save them and bring to Hela, in the hope the bread would strengthen her and thus she would return to me.

And there I went. Hela was lying in an upper bunk, looking like a ghost. Her face brightened however when she noticed me. She did not take her eyes off me, as if she wanted to absorb into herself all my being. She whispered: "Halinka, you have come to me! You've come!" She did not even glimpse at the bread I brought her. Bread she needed no more.

Almost immediately, with blows they threw me out of the Revier. A few days later I dared to ask the block overseer how Hela was in the hospital. She barked back that Hela was not there anymore.

But I had to know if they had sent her to gas – or if she had died in her bunk? It was of such an immense importance to me.

Suddenly, for a moment, the overseer stopped hitting and cursing the prisoners. With a human voice she told me that Hela had died in her bunk. This meant normal death... She was 20 years old.

* * *

Nobody needed me anymore, not even myself. I felt as if I was shackled into armour of indifference.

Loneliness, alienation, and hostility were all around me. There was even not enough air to breathe. I had to push and fight for everything. Trains ceaselessly bringing loads of people to their death at Birkenau and unloading them at the ramp in front of my block, flames and smoke from the crematory chimney, stink of burning human flesh; mud everywhere, diseases, festering wounds all over my body that never healed, scabies, lice, typhoid, and above all, selections – became my daily realm.

I was going through all that and somehow did not turn into a living skeleton. The death continued avoiding me even though it always was so close to me. Surprisingly, my health improved without any medication. Negating all the laws of Nature, I did not even catch a cold after having stood naked and barefoot in rain or in freezing temperature. I kept succeeding in hiding my sickness and my prohibitively young age, for which alone I would have been sent to gas.

No longer did I know who I was or to whom I belonged. All those women with whom the Germans had brought me here, all those from the transports from the Warsaw Ghetto and Majdanek have had long since disappeared in the skies with the smoke from the crematorium. My female neighbours with whom I shared the bunk were being replaced one by one; as they kept arriving in different transports from different countries, but they all kept falling like flies.

Twice I lived through Christmas at Birkenau. While on one side of the camp colourful candles were lit on a large, festively decorated Christmas tree, and the camp band played as we marched to and from work – on the camp's other side a pillar of flames from the chimney of the crematorium, where human bodies were continuously being burned, rose and reached up to the skies! The female prisoners were given a cream of wheat with milk instead of a soup made of wood-like turnip or kohlrabi – everything quite festively as it apparently suited our rulers who knew the traditions well and eagerly kept the old order within the new one, Hitler's.

In the time of "typhoid" selections, the colour of prisoner’s tongue was the matter of life and death. A further life or immediate death of a prisoner was judged upon the colour of her tongue. Mine had not betrayed me – it changed into white only in the evening, after the selection. High fever for two weeks, work without food, and severe beatings I was subjected to by the Nachtwache (night orderly) did not overcome me either. On the next selection my tongue already displayed the proper, red colour – meaning life... Yet, the sorting SS-man ordered me to make a turn around in oder to check if I could keep balance. When I did so successfully with an exaggerated speed, he asked me how old I was. Upon my desparate shout: "siebzehn" (seventeen), he quipped ironically: "your mug is like a forty's". Being forty was too old in Auschwitz while thirteen too young – both equally forbidden to continue to live.

The typhoid epidemic soon decimated the camp even without selections. Women fell unconscious on the roll calls, at work, in the sick bay; camp's blocks grew emptier and emptier by large numbers.

During the latest selection the Germans made only some marks on the prisoner list, but sent nobody to the gas chambers. Quickly, we forgot about it, faced with other nightmares of the concentration camp. Two weeks later, after a morning roll call, they hurried us back into the block. We were glad not to have to go to work so that we could warm up a little on the bunks… By now, after the typhoid epidemic, there were only three of us left. Fruma and I cuddled together under the blanket and she began telling me about her home, her late mother, and her mother's delicious dishes.

Suddenly chaos erupted inside the block. They started calling numbers. Sank in happy memories, we did not pay much attention to it. A furiously repeated number broke in between us like a thunderbolt: Fruma's!!!

She interrupted in the middle of a phrase and jumped off the bunk. The warmth of her body was left under the blanket and her voice still sounded in my ears...

All the women picked to die, had to undress and strip naked at the door of the block. Wrapped in rough, dark blankets, they were driven to gas. Fruma had just survived typhoid in the hard Aussenkomando – "outside commando", but her tongue failed to get approval from the German "specialists". Fruma was only 16 years old!

Sabina, the girl whose mother was shot dead on the train on the way to Auschwitz, was gassed earlier. Before that, she dragged on to roll calls and to her work, her eyes glowing with fever. She carried with her a small sack – a bojtl – with small portions of bread she saved, at all times begging with her fever-chapped lips for a gulp of water. Water!!

In the mornings when I got up, usually I was wet with the sweat of my feverish bunkmates. Initially, there were sixteen of us lying in one bunk, but fast it was getting more and more empty as the result of the typhoid epidemic and the savages of the unceasing selections.

A block orderly, Stasia, who was Polish, once let me run away from a selection during which the female prisoners had to parade outside, naked and barefoot in heavy frost, in front of an SS "tribunal". When Hela was still alive, Stasia sometimes poured into my mug a little bit more soup she was distributing among the prisoners, without my having begged for it.

On the Yom Kippur Day Stasia assigned only non-Jewish prisoners to do the block chores. (I did not know how she had learned it was Jom Kippur since we no longer knew any dates and no longer distinguished the calendar as human time had no meaning to us anymore.) In the evening, after we returned from work, she lit a candle on the upper bunk opposite to the door, and asked us not to disperse to the bunks but stay around and pray silently, every one in her own way, that we survive till the liberation. I was a never-to-be-forgotten and unspeakable experience.

Thanks to diminutive Polunia I was spared heavy punishments in the Weberei commando. She used to help me to fulfil my work quota of rope braiding from rags and also to secure enough material for my ropes. The female prisoners used to snatch it out of each other's hands. Also thanks to Polunia and an orderly whom she befriended, I managed to get assigned to work at Kanada, where finally, for several weeks, I was spared starvation. However, at that place I had to look closely at the procedure of German robbery and mass murder of Jews.

Alwira, a kapo from the Kartofelkomando (Potato commando) assigned me to a lighter work at kraut pickling in a heated room with enough kraut and turnip to eat. I would have not survived in carrying the heavy crates full of potatoes to the ditches, in the dug, muddy ground. Later on, Alwira saved my life during the death march when I was about to fall down. The guards would have shot me on the spot. She dragged me behind her, fragile herself and scarcely being able to catch a breath. Alwira's father was a German, and her mother was Jewish.

After I lost Hela, Miriam Prajs and her daughter, who was one year my senior, took me in their care. They both acted as servants to the block overseer, a Slovak Jewess. Thanks to that they were getting more soup and had more room on their bunk. They also had access to shoes that were distributed in small quantities. They did not have to stay long on the roll calls or to show up at the selections.

I first met Mrs. Prajs and her daughter Rozka when I came to their block to swap with Ukrainian women my bread ration for a tar-ointment to heal my scabies. They brought the ointment from their work. I also wanted to see my cousin, Halina, who was this block's inmate too. But it turned out that earlier, in a selection, she had been taken away to gas, although she still looked well. I learned that her block overseer pushed Halina out of the prisoners' row: "And this one, Herr Unterscharfuhrer?" – she asked the German officer. He obliged.

In the autumn of 1944 transports to gas chambers were terminated. There were almost no more Jews left in Europe. Their ashes were left scattered here; their belongings and their luggage sorted out meticulously and shipped to Germany. And, among others, I also worked at this sorting and shipping, took part in it.

The Soviet Army was approaching Auschwitz from the East. The Germans demolished the gas chambers and the crematoria in order to wipe the traces of their crime. They sent many transports of prisoners to other death camps, mostly deep in Germany.

The end to the kingdom of Auschwitz desired for so long was beginning to befall. If the Germans do not kill us all a day or two before they leave the camp (according to their usual manners), we should be free soon!

I was already fifteen years old. For the smuggled potatoes and sauerkraut Mrs. Prajs arranged for me warm clothes, leather shoes, and an additional portion of bread every day.

It was January 1, 1945 – the New Year's Day – and they did not hurry us to work! It was sunny and snowy… I decided to come close to the barbed wires, which was allowed, in order to share with Celina, a school friend of my brother Marek, the good news about the improvement in my condition. Rozka went along with me despite her mother's warning, to which we both paid no attention, since we knew that a lot of female inmates used to exchange communications at that spot.

Celina, as a nurse, also was in favour with her block overseer, and she was helping me somewhat. Initially, the three of them, Celina, Mrs. Prajs and Rozka, shared the same bunk. Later on, Celina was transferred to another section of the camp, which bordered ours.

I started to shout: "Celina!" Suddenly, a shot banged loudly and simultaneously a feeling of heat and a terrible pain in my palm struck me. The sentry from the tower shot me!

I started to frantically run away following Rozka. The pain was bursting my palm out. More than anything else I wanted to tear off my hand from my body… Darkness flooded my eyes; I fell and got up again and again. It roared through my head: "now he's killed me? Now? A small step away from the liberation, after more than five years of suffering and death all around me? I shall not let my life run away from me! I shall not die!" I clenched my other fist and my teeth.

I managed to drag on behind Rozka up to the sickbay. The bullet had pierced my upper arm, passed near the heart and stuck between the spine and the lung. My left hand became immobile. No longer there were gas chambers, but there was an SS doctor who used to dispatch gravely ill people in their bunks. I kept watching the door with terror... "Now, he will come and finish me off", I thought.

It turned out, however, that he got interested in my case. He ordered to bring me to the middle of the barrack, under a lamp, examined my wounds and ordered to take me immediately to the hospital in the men’s camp, so that the bullet be removed and the severed nerve connected… In my thoughts, I could not follow the chain of events, nor could I believe what was happening to me.

In the small hospital barrack, on three-story bunks several women were laid after their surgeries. They were not Jewish, since Jewish women were never treated here, they could only serve as guinea pigs for German "medical" experiments.

A young medic named Abram, a Polish Jew, received me. He clearly showed interest in my distress and was very kind to me. It encouraged me a lot for I was frightened to death.

He asked me about the details of my misfortune, where I was from and how long had I been in the camp? Such questions were quite characteristic of people who sought at all times their lost relatives, hoping those still stayed alive and perhaps someone had seen them somewhere...

I had no idea as to what they were going to do to me. I feared everybody and everything. Nevertheless, the comforting presence of this Polish Jew had a calming effect on me. I lost a lot of blood and had a high fever. For now, two surgeries awaited me: to remove the bullet from my back and to stitch my radialis nerve. Here? In Auschwitz?! Shudders crept through my body at this very thought!

Two inmate doctors poked my hand up to the shoulder – I felt nothing, nor could I bend my palm, or move my fingers. "I will be crippled from my fifteenth year of age on! It would have been better had the sentry killed me", I was sometimes saying to Abram. But he objected to it. He taught me by heart his address in Krosniewice and assured me that the war was nearing its end and that we would stay together.

They successfully removed the bullet from my back with no anaesthesia at all, but the nerve could not be repaired since my entire hand was covered with blisters full of pus. It turned, however, to have been my luck since in the first days after the liberation, when I started getting normal nourishment, my hand regained movements by itself! But that was yet to come. For now, for the next four months, until the liberation, I had to conceal my crippled hand from the eyes of the SS in Ravensbruck, the foreman, and the Hitler Jugend thugs at the aircraft factory at Neustadt-Glewe.

In that factory, I tightened screws in aircraft parts with my healthy hand while holding them with the disabled one. I hid my immobile hand inside a big sleeve of a man's coat that Abram found for me before the evacuation from Auschwitz.

* * *

On January 18, 1945, in the evening, the Germans marched us out in a large column from the women's camp B2B in Birkenau. We saw bonfires in the snow – in which they were burning documents, but not people's bodies anymore! A woman inquired loudly about a Halina with a shot through hand – she had a small package for me that was thrown over the barbed wire. It was from Abram – his bread ration, the one that was given to the prisoners before the transport. His last farewell! Soon after the liberation, Abram fell sick and died. He could digest no food after years of starvation.

At some point of this march of no hope I saw Celina again. We were dragged along for days and nights until we reached the railway station in Loeslau (now Wodziszowice). They cramped us incredibly tight into open cattle railcars with no roof. The freezing cold and the wind slashed our skins and bodies like with knives. Half alive, we finally arrived in Ravensbrück.

After having kept us stand outside in the cold for hours, the Germans locked us in a punishments block that held German female criminals.

For two weeks, we crowded on the floor of a small confinement and were given but a small portion of soup or bread and even that not daily. The German female prisoners tormented us. Time to time, I managed to sneak outside and wash somewhat myself in the melting snow under the gutter.

After approximately two weeks the Germans counted us and marched us under escort to a train again. This time it was a passenger train, and even a heated one! But the lice came alive too in its warmth and molested us even more than before.

I sat at a window and contemplated the passing German countryside, towns, and villages. "So – I thought – it was here they came to us from to kill every one of us, to burn or take everything away from us! Are their mothers, wives, children living in these beautiful houses? Do they know anything about all the horror inflicted upon us? If I survive – I thought too – I would like to come here to tell them about all they've done..." And, indeed, in 1989 I did come to Berlin, as a free human being, with my book "Hope is the last to die" 2) and with my movie "Because of that war".

But for now it was the beginning of February 1945 and months on the floor of a barrack in Neustadt-Glewe still would await me ahead. For the first ten days they gave us no food at all, and afterwards they distributed small portions of soup and one loaf of bread for ten women, all mad of hunger. We measured the bread portions with a string. Inside, the bread was green because of mould...

On the death march I ate and drank snow. At one instant, when I almost fell to the ground while exhausted bending to grasp a handful of snow. I heard only a German guard bark at me: "was ist mir du?" (what's going on with you?) and I found myself being held up by Alwira! By instantly so doing she certainly saved my life. The Germans used to kill everyone who stuck out from the marching column. The entire road was strewn with prisoners' corpses.

On May 3, 1945, the Germans dressed in civilian clothes loaded themselves on a truck, shot a salvo into the crowd of female prisoners pressing the food storage – and off they left. The camp gate was wide open!

I was not able to enjoy freedom while still being on the German soil and with my soul still imprisoned in the eternal Yesterday. I have not yet been reborn to rejoice, I rather was a burned out elderly woman.

* * *

After a few weeks of wandering, at the end of May 1945, Celina and I reached Warsaw in Poland. On my way to the Jewish Committee office, on the street I bumped into my brother, Marek!

It turned out that Marek had jumped from the window of a train moving to Majdanek. He was shot at and wounded from the railcar top by SS-men. He managed to drag himself to a country hut where someone dressed the wound in his back and let him stay overnight. Mr. Stanislaw Strojwas helped him to survive in a hideout in Warsaw. In January 1945 Marek was free again in the liberated Warsaw.

After approximately a year, a youth group to which I belonged, all Holocaust survivors and orphans as I was, started our journey to the Palestine by an illegal route. We sneaked through the borders of several countries: for one and a half years we stayed in Germany in an UNRRA refugee camp, and then for a few weeks in Southern France.

In November 1947, we sailed in a small fishing boat that literally became a sailing boat when its engine broke almost immediately after we set off. We were hidden under the deck to avoid detection by the British, who then ruled the Palestine, and who, upon catching us, would have forcefully returned us to a camp in Cyprus.

On December 3, 1947, after two weeks of peril and all kinds of misery on sea, we reached the Tel Aviv harbour. Ours was the first ship to arrive in the UN-recognized State of Israel.

Halina Birenbaum

* * *


I would like to thank Ms. June Friedman and Ms. Ada Holtzman for their assistance in my initial translating this text into English from its original version in Polish. Special thanks are due to Dr. Andrew Kobos for his editing the final English text.


1.      The trap on Mila Street in Warsaw. In September 1942 on Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year's Day), already after they had deported the majority of the Warsaw Jews to Treblinka death camp, the Germans announced that they completed the deportations, and that all Jews who remained in the Ghetto should at once gather on Mila Street and on several adjacent streets, such as Niska, Ostrowska and Krochmalna. There, a selection would be done. Those Jews who had work certificates would be allowed to stay in the Ghetto and no more deportations would be made. (Earlier, many Jews were laid-off from their work anyway.)

Huge crowds of Jews filled these narrow, impoverished streets. Once they all came there, strong and cruelly-acting German patrols encircled and closed these streets thus creating a trap with no exits. The Germans made selections and unleashed a hunt for the Jews still in hiding. The elderly and the children with their parents were pulled from the crowd, formed into columns and dragged along to Umschlagplatz from where they were deported to Treblinka. Approximately 100,000 Jews were rounded up in these selections and sent to their deaths. No human words can describe the tragedy of those days of Mila Street Trap.

After two weeks, the German military outposts were dismantled. The Ghetto was reduced but to several streets and converted into one big labour camp full of workshops and placowka's.

In May 1943, after the Uprising, the Warsaw Ghetto was completely and finally liquidated.

2.      My book in Polish entitled Nadzieja umiera ostatnia ("Hope is the last to die") and its two editions in English contain a more complete account of my years during the Holocaust:

o       Halina Birenbaum, Nadzieja umiera ostatnia. Panstwowe Muzeum Auschwitz-Birkenau, Oswiecim, 2001. 276 pp. ISBN 83-85047-99-9

o       Halina Birenbaum, Hope is the last to die. Publishing House of the State Museum in Oswiecim, 1994. ISBN 83-85047-11-5

o       Halina Birenbaum, Hope is the last to die. A coming of Age under Nazi Terror. A classic of Holocaust expanded with a new postscript. M.E. Sharpe Armonk, New York, London, 1996


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