Chapter 1: Origins CHAPTER 1 ORIGINS
I sat in a large, mirror-black limousine. Alongside me was SS-Hauptsturmführer Josef Kramer, commandant of the Nazis’ Auschwitz II–Birkenau concentration camp, wearing the imposing gray-green uniform of the SS, including a cap with the menacing Totenkopf (skull and crossbones) symbol on the band.
It was May 1944.
Kramer had only recently arrived at Birkenau, but his reputation had marched ahead of him—he was known as one of the most notorious commanders in the SS. He was a huge man, over six feet tall and with peculiarly enormous hands. Rumors were that he had killed more than one prisoner with those hands. Over the coming two months he would oversee the arrival of close to 430,000 Hungarian Jews, all transported in grossly overcrowded railway wagons. He would oversee the gassing to death, immediately after they arrived, of over three-quarters of these people in the camp’s killing factories. During this period the population of Auschwitz would reach its peak, as would its rate of extermination. Of the close to one million victims of the Auschwitz camp during World War II, nearly half would die in this short period, under Kramer’s command.
I was a prisoner. Somehow, I had already survived more than two years as an inmate of the Auschwitz–Birkenau death camp. I had endured disease and starvation, cruel punishments and abuse. I had narrowly escaped being sent to the gas chambers at least three times. On my left forearm I was branded with the tattoo “2318,” and this—dreiundzwanzig achtzehn in German—was my name to most of the SS guards. However, to Kramer and some of the other senior SS, I was one of very few prisoners who they called by name.
Kramer’s car traveled a short distance to what would become known as C Lager—Camp C, officially sector B-IIc—a newly completed prison within the Birkenau complex. The car stopped at the camp’s main gate and we got out. Stretching away in front of me, ringed by high, electrified fencing, lay two parallel rows of identical barrack-like timber buildings. Identical “camps” sat on either side of this one. The repetition seemed endless, and sinister.
Kramer stared down at me. “Here you will be Lagerälteste,” he said.
Lagerälteste. Camp elder. Camp “supervisor.” The pinnacle of the bizarre hierarchy of so-called prisoner functionaries. I had been chosen, without any say in the matter, to take charge of 30,000 newly arrived fellow female prisoners. It would be my job to coordinate food distribution and hygiene across this collection of thirty barracks. Each barrack could have been used to stable around forty horses comfortably, but now a thousand women would be crammed into each one. It would ultimately be my responsibility to ensure that all of these women emerged before dawn each morning, and again in the late afternoon, to stand in tidy ranks of five, sometimes for hours at a time, for regular Zählappell, roll calls. Any mishap, any misbehavior, any failure of a prisoner to show for the roll call, and Lagerführerin (SS camp leader) Irma Grese or one of her guards would blame me. On a whim, a disgruntled or drunk SS officer could send me to the gas chambers. Any failure of hygiene, any outbreak of disease, on my watch and I, along with all 30,000 inmates of Camp C, could be sent “up the chimney.”
I took in the scene, squinting dispassionately through the persistent haze of acrid smoke originating from tall brick chimneys barely visible in the middle distance. Dispassionately? That was the emotion I allowed myself to show Kramer. Deep inside, I held back a storm of feelings, an amplified version of the same things I had felt every day for the last two years. Fear, the same as every prisoner lived with, all day, every day. Dread, for the lives, thousands of them, that I knew would be lost no matter what I did. And determination, to continue the mission I believed I had, to save as many lives as I could regardless.
One of my earliest memories is of confronting a man in uniform. It is one of those memories I’m not sure is my own, as I was only three years old. Perhaps I only remember the story. I do remember the bright red dress that, with a three-year-old’s stubbornness, I refused to give up for any other clothes, all the time ignoring a commotion going on in the house next door. This would have been fine, except that mixing Judaism with the color red was dangerous at that time.
It was 1919, two years after revolutionary Bolshevik Communists in Russia rose to power under their red flag. The newly established democracy of Czechoslovakia, born out of the postwar collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was one of the Allied countries committed to overthrowing the Bolsheviks. As anticommunist sentiment grew, the hunt was on across much of Europe for those suspected of being Communist sympathizers. A brewing conspiracy theory blaming Jews for starting the Russian Revolution made many Jewish people guilty of this “crime.”
In our hometown of Michalovce, at the eastern end of Czechoslovakia, rumors circulated that Jews would be executed as Communists. A delegation of Jews from Michalovce approached our neighbor, prominent citizen Mr. Elefant, pleading for safety. Mr. Elefant agreed to hide them, but when word of his resistance reached high-ranking Czech officials, he was ordered to surrender these Jews. After he refused, the officials burst into Mr. Elefant’s house, rounded up all who were hiding there, ordered them outside, and stood them up against a wall to be shot.
In our house I maintained my own resistance, and eventually, probably distracted by the noise next door, my mother gave in and let me put on my favorite dress. Moments later one of the Czech officials burst into our house, looking for more Jewish Communists, and the first color he would have seen was the bright red of my outfit. He was followed closely by Mr. Elefant, who continued his pleas to save the Jews.
My eyes locked onto the shiny buttons and paraphernalia of the official’s uniform. Feeling none of the fear in the room, I reached out with both arms and he obliged by picking me up. I chattered away while playing with his buttons and patting his serious face.
Mr. Elefant and my mother watched in amazement. After some moments, the official patted my hand, put me down, said goodbye to Mr. Elefant, then rounded up his colleagues and left.
“I’m so sorry, Mr. Elefant,” cried my mother. “I didn’t want her to wear the red dress but she had to have it.”
“It is okay,” said Mr. Elefant. “That child distracted the officer and saved the lives of these poor, terrified people.”
I had arrived as the second child and only daughter of Ignac and Berta Hellinger about three years earlier, on August 19, 1916.
My earliest memories of my mother are of a happy young woman who was always singing from the operas she had attended in Budapest as a child. We had a big garden that was always full of fruit and vegetables, and in summer she would wake up early to harvest potatoes, corn, tomatoes… whatever was in season. I would climb the fruit trees for the best fruit, sometimes finding breakfast in one tree, lunch in another, and dinner in yet another. Mother was always cooking or baking her own bread and challah, a plaited bread made for Shabbat (the Sabbath). Thanks to the garden we always had plenty of food, and my mother was quick to share with any of our neighbors. If someone was in need, she would drop everything to help.
One day when I was still quite young, I was visiting the home of one of my friends when I noticed that the stove in their kitchen was cold and there was no cooking going on. I told Mother about this when I got home, and she stopped her Shabbat preparations.
“Tomorrow is Shabbat and they won’t have anything to eat,” my mother said. “Let’s take them food to cook.”
As we set off, she explained, “Mrs. Finfitter is a very nice woman, but she will be too proud to accept food. I’ll go in and talk to her while you put the food in her kitchen.”
I felt a quiet pride as I placed a bag of chicken pieces, chicken fat, and some sugar on the Finfitters’ kitchen bench.
Another time a playmate told me her family was eating bread without butter and had no milk. Her father suffered from tuberculosis and only one of her older sisters worked. I ran home to my mother and told her this story and she sent me back with sugar, butter, milk, and pieces of goose for a good soup.
In his midtwenties, my father, one of ten in his family, changed his career from accountancy to teaching. He successfully applied for the position of Jewish history teacher in the town after the previous teacher had passed away. He then traveled widely to visit sacred sites and study Jewish history before returning home to Michalovce to take up his new position. Having established himself, he proposed to Berta Burger, then seventeen, soon afterward. He originally did his teaching in the only Jewish school in Michalovce, but over the years, as the town grew and new sectarian state schools opened, he taught in them as well. He started teaching German, too, because he knew the language well and it became a fashionable language to know. (He taught me German, too, though neither of us could ever have guessed how that would be useful to me later on.) And then he started teaching adults who couldn’t read or write, his kindness and generosity helping to overcome the embarrassment they felt about their illiteracy. All this took up a lot of time, and he would often come home to eat in the evening and then go back to work.
Ignac was well regarded and well connected around Michalovce. He knew the mayor, Mr. Alexa, personally and, although a religious Jew himself, he was often in contact with the leaders of the Greek Orthodox and Catholic churches in the town. All these prominent citizens agreed with the principle of freedom of religion, and that Jews and Christians should be able to live alongside each other in peace.
I had four brothers: Max was older than me and the others, Ernest, Eugene, and Arthur, younger. Except for Arthur, I didn’t have a lot to do with them most days, as they would leave home early each morning to go to cheder and learn Jewish history and religion before they went to school. My closest friend was Marta, an orphan about my age who lived with us. Marta had lost her father in the Great War, and then her mother and grandmother both died of broken hearts. This left her elderly grandfather to care for her, but the task was too much for him, so my parents took her in. Marta and I grew up like sisters.
Apart from the seven of us and Marta, our home often accommodated school boarders who were unable to travel home on Friday before Shabbat. There was also a dressmaker from another village who lived with us during the week because it was not acceptable for a single girl to live alone in a strange town. This lady made many beautiful dresses for me and my mother. And then there were the extra guests at the table on Friday nights for Shabbat or for celebrations of Jewish holy days, whether friends or visitors from school or a family in need. Luckily we had plenty of space in our house, which my father built and then extended room by room over the years as the need arose. On Saturdays, we would visit the many members of the extended Hellinger family across Michalovce to wish them “Shabbat Shalom.”
We lived in a very nice neighborhood with many children, both Jewish and non-Jewish, and plenty of extended family nearby. The father of the non-Jewish girl who lived next door made a gate in the fence so that his daughter and Marta and I could run in and out of each other’s gardens. With a group of other girls we always had some activity going on. We would make up plays, sing and dance, or play games. Sometimes the boys would join in too.
I enjoyed school and did quite well. In the afternoon I found myself tutoring some of my classmates, one of whom was the son of the mayor. He wasn’t a very dedicated student, but we did become good friends and I got him to concentrate a little better. One year the two of us prepared a speech as part of celebrations to mark the birthday of the well-liked Czech president, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk. The occasion was witnessed by the whole town, and the mayor was very proud to see his son in this position.
It was a very full life, with the freedom that comes from growing up in a safe and abundant environment.
My father was proud of his Jewish heritage. Instead of traditional bedtime stories, he would tell me stories from Jewish history. This sowed in me the seeds of a passion for Zionism that was further encouraged when I was in my early teens and a Polish Hebrew teacher came to our school.
At that point I did not know any Hebrew and came home one day to tell my father, “There was a very nice man and he taught us to say ‘lo sham.’?”
My father laughed, saying, “I think you mean shalom.”
“Yes, yes,” I said. “Shalom.”
This teacher started some after-school activities like theater and singing, and eventually introduced us to a mo’adon, a sort of Zionist youth club. I enjoyed this very much and soon became very involved. Not long afterward my enthusiasm was recognized and I was put into the role of menahélet, meaning leader or organizer, for the small children. Now it was me telling these young children stories from Jewish history and sharing the idea that we Jews would one day have our own homeland. I eventually became menahélet for the older children, and then for the whole mo’adon.
I soon learned that when an organization finds someone who is enthusiastic and capable, they are very willing to make full use of that person’s skills and abilities. I became involved in the Zionist youth movement Hashomer Hatzair, which we referred to as the Jewish Scouts, and was busy helping them to support the Keren Hayesod and Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael organizations, which both raised funds to help Jews establish themselves in what later became Israel.
I became good at organizing people, and had no shortage of chutzpah when it came to asking people much older than me for assistance. While still a teenager, I traveled to the town of Trencín, nearly 250 miles away on the western side of Slovakia, to establish a branch of Hashomer Hatzair. There I met with three sympathetic local councillors. They weren’t Jewish, so I just told them I was setting up a new scout movement for the community. I suggested a fundraising event at which a flagpole would be erected with markings showing different levels of donation. People would be given a gold nail and a tag with their name on it and, at the opening event, each person would signal their donation by hammering their nail at the relevant mark on the pole. The councillors were impressed with the idea and offered generous donations of their own. This was important, because then I could go to members of the local Jewish community and point out the donations these gentiles had made. Of course, they had to donate more than the non-Jews, so I got some even bigger contributions. I recruited a local sewing teacher to donate fabric to make a flag and she had her students embroider our emblem on it, and I also convinced the local metalsmith to create the nails. We held a big, successful flag-raising ceremony and the new scouting branch was born.
I also organized many Purim and Hanukkah parties and balls as fundraisers. At one ball, when I was perhaps sixteen or seventeen, a gentleman approached me and asked me to dance. I told him that I did not dance. This was partly true—Hashomer Hatzair didn’t believe in dancing unless it was the horah, a Jewish version of the traditional eastern European hora dance in which everyone joins together in a large circle. This man went to the leader of the organization that we were raising money for and said he would make a donation if I would dance with him. I still refused, saying I wouldn’t dance with anybody. The price went higher and higher, until eventually the leader said, “Look, he is donating so much if you dance with him. What will happen to you if you have just one dance?” And so I danced. It was an expensive dance for him!
When I was about seventeen I also went to hakhshara, or “preparation,” which was a training program for young Zionists. The aim was that we should learn the sort of manual skills that we would need in Palestine, especially in kibbutzim. I went to Bratislav, Slovakia’s biggest city, a and worked in a parquetry factory. It was owned by a Jewish fellow called Wolf, but for some reason I was the only Jewish worker there. I was bullied a bit in this place, initially because I wore nice clothes instead of working clothes like everyone else, but the bullying continued even after I began to wear working clothes. I found that by keeping to myself and working very hard—I always seemed to be running—I managed to get through it.
Just as many teenage girls do with their fathers, my father and I had many debates over these years. Ours were mostly about Zionism. In these times the traditional religious Yiddishe Gemeinde, or Yiddish congregation, saw the Zionist movement as pursuing a form of sectarian nationalism that had little to do with the Jewish faith. Nationalism across Europe had already caused the Great War and was brewing again. Although my father supported the Zionist cause, he felt it was also something to be wary of, perhaps not to be pursued with such fervor. I had obviously developed a different view: “It is very important that we should work and organize and travel to Palestine and start there. When we get our new state, somebody needs to be there.” Our debates were intense and sometimes perhaps a little loud, but thankfully we were smart enough to respect each other’s views in the end.
But Zionism wasn’t enough for me to put my energy into. While on summer break when I was sixteen or seventeen, Marta and I decided that Michalovce needed a kindergarten to entertain the younger children during the long holidays. Of course, we didn’t have any money or a place to set up our little business, so we approached a prominent local elderly woman known as Gleich Mamma. Gleich Mamma was the sort of person who made everyone’s business her own, like an adopted aunt for children all over the town. She also had the connections to get things done. She told us she knew of someone who was getting married in three months, but in the meantime the new house they had bought was empty. It would be especially perfect because the garden had not yet been made, so we could easily create a sandbox.
The man who owned the house was a furniture maker, so Gleich Mamma asked him to make some small tables and chairs for us. And then, with her help, we approached local stores and managed to gather up donations of toys and books and rugs. We furnished the largest room as our kindergarten and were soon ready to go. We went around the town and told interested parents that we would collect their children in the morning and bring them home each night. To our delight, on our first morning about forty children were waiting outside their homes calling out, “Malka, Jaffa” (our Hebrew names). Like pied pipers, we gathered our charges and marched them off to our new kindergarten. We continued to do this for the whole summer break, the parents paying a fee, whatever they could afford, that was enough to cover paying some rent, the cost of the sand, and so on.
Through all of this, especially the Hashomer Hatzair activities, I relied a lot on my mother. In the early years, when I was still quite young, she would drop me off and pick me up when I had meetings to attend. “I don’t think the government has so many meetings,” she used to say. “You are so always so busy.” Once, when we were attending kever avot, an annual occasion when the wider family met at the grave site of our ancestors for prayers, I overheard my mother complaining to her sister. She told her I was “so busy with this and that, Keren Hayesod and Keren Kayemeth and everything. Whatever there is, she must be in it.”
My aunt replied, “She can’t help it. This is her mission in life. Didn’t the Belzer rabbi say that she has a mission? So be patient. She is a clever girl, an outstanding girl doing many good things. So accept that. She can’t help it. This is her fate.”
I didn’t know what my aunt was talking about, but I was glad that she supported me. And the truth was that even if they weren’t always willing supporters, my parents always went along with what I wanted to do.
During one of my organizing trips with Hashomer Hatzair to Kapušany, about an hour from Michalovce, I was billeted with the town’s local doctor, Dr. Tomashov, and his wife. He was quite a senior doctor with a big personality, and well known for treating goiter, which was quite common at the time. I remember he had a typewriter that I used to type up lists and programs, and even the script for a play that a group of young children would perform.
A year later Dr. Tomashov wrote to me asking if I would like to work with him and learn something about medicine, with the idea of eventually becoming his assistant so his wife could retire. For a long time I had liked the idea of being a doctor, and by then I was nineteen and looking for a career, so I accepted his offer and moved back to stay with him again. He sent me to spend time at the hospital so I would learn some of the basics, and I did his typing and learned how to do things like bandaging wounds. It was a busy time. Dr. Tomashov’s wife went away for some time and, as we had no time to cook, we usually ate at a nearby restaurant.
One day I received a letter from a friend of mine back home. She said she had been hearing rumors from Gleich Mamma that the doctor had fallen in love with me, and that he wanted to divorce his wife and marry me. I was shocked by this. It seemed ridiculous, if only because he was so much older than me. In fact, it seemed so outrageous that I decided the best way to deal with the rumor was to just ask.
Over dinner at the restaurant that night, I told him about the letter and the gossip it contained. On hearing this, he dropped his cutlery and stared at me.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “but I could never do that.”
Soon after, when his wife returned and could work as his assistant again, I left Dr. Tomashov and returned home.
After this experience I had second thoughts about studying medicine. I thought about how long it would take to study, and also how costly it would be to set up a practice. Perhaps I should stick to kindergarten teaching, which I already knew I enjoyed and could do. Perhaps I could find a husband who was a doctor… but a little closer to my own age!
I enrolled to formally study kindergarten teaching in the town of Trebišov, fifteen miles from Michalovce. At the age of twenty, with no other work, and having left behind my youth work for Zionism, I devoted myself entirely to my study. I traveled to Slovakia’s biggest city, Bratislava, to do my exams, and successfully finished the four-year course in just two years.
I returned home with the intention to set up a permanent kindergarten in Michalovce—the town’s first.
Soon after returning I came across Mr. Alexa, who was still our town’s mayor, in the street one day and he asked where I had been in the last few years. I told him my plans and his eyes widened with enthusiasm.
“Magda, come with me,” he said, smiling. “I have a house in Turecká Street that has some offices in the front, but the rest is empty.”
He took me to a neat house with a foyer and three adjoining rooms. It even had a small amount of furniture that would allow me to get started until I could afford some more.
“It’s perfect. What’s the rent?”
“Would I ask rent from you?” he said. Lighting a cigarette, he continued, “You know, many years ago there was a kindergarten in Michalovce, and I think I might know where the furniture is. I’ll organize to have it sent to your new kindergarten.”
I was speechless, but the mayor was insistent. “You deserve it,” he said.
I was able to open the doors soon after, and within days my kindergarten was registered with the schools inspectorate and fully booked with children from both Jewish and non-Jewish families. I was soon in a routine, taking the short walk to work each morning, greeting Mr. Kahot, the local shoemaker, along the way—a family man who had made me many pairs of beautiful boots—spending time with Marta and other friends on my weekends. As the calendar rolled into 1940, I felt that my life was set on course. I was proud to have taken charge of my own affairs and to have my own business.
In early 1942, a train conductor told someone, who told others, who told still others, that he had heard that young unmarried Jewish women were to be taken away to work in German factories. A shiver of panic and disbelief spread through our local Jewish community. The conductor, it was said, had sent his girlfriend away to the countryside to hide. I started to hear stories about other girls being sent away, one to Ireland, one to England, a few to Hungary.
Life had started to change for much of the Jewish population of Czechoslovakia toward the end of 1938, though I had hardly noticed. I lived in a very small world dominated by the day-to-day running of my kindergarten. In any case, it was some time before things would change for the 4,000 Jews of Michalovce, in part because our region was in the far east of the country.
After its creation at the end of World War I, Czechoslovakia had become one of the few fully functioning democracies in central or eastern Europe. It stayed that way until Hitler started to forcefully expand his regime, rapidly taking control of the Czech half of the country in 1939. The Slovakia that remained soon became a puppet state of Nazi Germany with the help of the fascist and nationalistic Slovak People’s Party and their SS-trained militia, the Hlinka Guard. A policy of “Aryanization” was soon enacted, followed by the so-called Jewish Code. Most Jewish doctors and lawyers were forced to cease practicing. Eventually, 436 Jewish businesses were confiscated in Michalovce, along with dozens of properties. All were gifted to loyal members of the Slovak People’s Party and the Hlinka Guard. Jews were displaced from their jobs, especially those working as public servants, and Jewish children were expelled from public schools. As in Germany, most Jews were ordered to wear a yellow Star of David.
My kindergarten was somehow allowed to continue operating, perhaps because it was authorized by the schools inspectorate, or because it was open to non-Jewish families; I never knew precisely why. I wasn’t even required to wear the yellow star. The most obvious change was that fathers, not mothers, started to bring and pick up their children each day. Deprived of their livelihoods, perhaps this was their only way of maintaining a sense of purpose. We only asked for fees from those who could still afford to pay. Otherwise, life went on. In the evenings, if I had the energy, I would go to the cinema with friends—both Jewish and non-Jewish. If I gave the rumors any thought, I assumed that if something did happen, my position as a kindergarten teacher would provide me with an exemption.
There had been some change at home; only my youngest brother, Arthur, and I remained with my parents. My eldest brother, Max, had moved to Palestine in 1933, and Ernest and Eugene went away to join the Slovak partisans in their underground attempts to combat fascist rule.
In early 1942 I was busy with Marta and her husband, organizing a big puppet show to celebrate the Jewish festival Purim. We hoped that the show might lift everyone’s spirits. There were scripts to write and rehearsals to run. I so clearly remember the laughter and cheers of the young children as they enjoyed the puppet show in early March. It filled our hearts with joy.
As my mother used to say, “It is better that we do not know what lies around the corner.”