All over the world, Auschwitz has become a symbol of terror, genocide, and the Holocaust. Extermination was conducted there on an industrial scale. Over 1.1 million men, women and children lost their lives there killed through gassing, starvation, shooting, and burning. KL Auschwitz became the largest of the death camps followed by Treblinka, Dachau, Majdanek, Sobibor, Mauthausen-Gusen and many others. The lead editors of “The Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos, 1933–1945” of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Geoffrey Megargee and Martin Dean, cataloged some 42,500 Nazi ghettos and camps throughout Europe, spanning German-controlled areas from France to Russia and Germany itself, operating from 1933 to 1945. They estimate that 15 million to 20 million people died or were imprisoned in the sites. But “konzentrationslager” was also a place where children were born.
72 years ago on January 27th the Soviet troops entered the Auschwitz sub-camps and liberated the prisoners. It was the day when ones were born and others died. In war-torn Europe controlled by the Nazi propaganda that news couldn`t have spread and the inmates of rest of the camps had no idea the worst death camps had just been liberated.
No birth records in the Nazi extermination camp
At death camps like Auschwitz children did not fare well, they were generally killed upon arrival. Children born in the camps were generally murdered on the spot, especially if the child was Jewish. No historian can state how many infants were born in the worst extermination camp overall since the Nazis did not bother to record their existence before murdering them. The only remaining camp registry for all of Auschwitz II-Birkenau is a notation from January 10th, 1945 that mentions a total of 247 pregnant women and midwives, and 156 living children ages 0 to 3 on that day. Yet on January 27th — just 17 days later — when the Soviets liberated the camp, there were only 60 children there. We must remember that as Soviet troops were approaching, SS units began the final evacuation of prisoners from the Auschwitz camps complex, marching them on foot toward the interior of the German Reich. These forced evacuations come to be called “death marches”. There were many people marching: men, women and children.
In fact, thousands of babies were born in Auschwitz, the vast majority of whom the Nazis killed virtually upon their emergence from the womb.
A taste of hell, after which death was a welcome friend
Some of the inmates in Camp C, Auschwitz’s barrack for Hungarian Jewish women and girls, were able to bring their pregnancies to term, but the newborns were almost invariably taken from them right after and killed – “mercifully” strangled to death by inmate doctors forced to work for the Nazis. However most pregnancies never got that far. The usual clandestine practice was to abort foetuses before they could be born. That was a life-saving measure for the mother, who was an easy target for liquidation if her pregnancy became too obvious.
One of the Jewish physicians who routinely performed this “service” at Auschwitz, a Hungarian gynecologist named Gisella Perl, described that and worse in her 1948 memoir “I Was a Doctor in Auschwitz” . Walking by one of the crematoriums one day, she witnessed what happened to one group of women who, promised better treatment, had revealed to their Nazi overlords that they were pregnant. “They were surrounded by a group of SS men and women, who amused themselves by giving these helpless creatures a taste of hell, after which death was a welcome friend” Perl recalled in her book.
Things in the fire were moving
Alexander Ehrmann, the Holocaust survivor was not born in the concentration camp. He came from Kralovsky Chlumec, Czechoslovakia. In 1944 his family was deported to a ghetto and then to Auschwitz where his parents, a sister and her son were killed.
He was mentioned in the book “Exiled God and Exiled People. Memoria Passionis and the Perception of God During and After Apartheid and Shoah” by Andrea Fröchtling. Having arrived at Birkenau at night Alexander Ehrmann was aghast at what he saw and heard – especially the piles of burning bracken and rubble he saw and smelled through the barbed wire.
He said that from the pyres-pits came the sounds of children. “I heard a baby crying. The baby was crying somewhere in the distance and I couldn’t stop and look. We moved, and it smelled, a horrible stench. I knew that things in the fire were moving; there were babies in the fire.”
So called camp doctors, especially the notorious Josef Mengele, would torture Jewish children, Gypsy children and many others. “Patients” were put into pressure chambers, tested with drugs, castrated, frozen to death, and exposed to various other traumas.
“The Angel of Death”
Dr. Josef Mengele was born on March 16th, 1911, the eldest of three sons of Karl and Walburga Mengele. Josef was refined, intelligent and popular in his town. He studied philosophy at Munich and medicine at Frankfurt University. In 1935 his dissertation dealt with racial differences in the structure of the lower jaw.
During WWII Josef Mengele became the chief provider for the gas chambers and the crematoriums. “He had a look that said ‘I am the power'” as one survivor mentioned in the book “Transcript of Dr. Josef Mengele” by Abigail Barcus. When it was reported that one block was infected with lice, Mengele “solved” the problem by gassing all the 750 women assigned to it. And at the time, he was only 32 years old.
Mengele did a number of medical experiments of unspeakable horror at Auschwitz, using twins. These twins as young as five years of age were usually murdered after the experiment was over and their bodies dissected.
He was known as “The Angel of Death”. He fed his legend by dramatizing murderous policies, such as those described in the book “The Nazi Doctors” by Robert Jay Lifton. He used to draw a line on the wall of the children’s block between 150 and 156 centimeters (about 5 feet or 5 feet 2 inches) from the floor, then sending those whose heads could not reach the line to the gas chamber.
Death to the left, life to the right
Four hundred thousand people: babies, small children, young girls, mothers, fathers, and grandparents are said to have been waved to the lefthand side just with a flick of the cane clasped in a gloved hand. When one of the mothers did not want to be separated from her thirteen-year-old daughter, and bit and scratched the face of the SS man who tried to force her to her assigned line, Josef Mengele drew his gun and shot both the woman and the girl. According to what Robert Jay Lifton wrote in his book, as a blanket punishment, he then sent to the gas all people from the transport who had previously been selected for work, with the comment: “Away with this shit!”.
Three Young Mothers
and Their Extraordinary Story of Courage, Defiance, and Hope
In the book “Born Survivors”, author Wendy Holden tells the story of three women who gave birth in a Nazi concentration camp during WWII. The three babies managed to survive, and they finally met one another 65 years later. Those young mothers were Priska Lowenbeinova, Anka Nathanova and Rachel Friedman.
“Are you pregnant, pretty woman?”
Dr Mengele inspected each new prisoner and – more specifically – asked if they were expecting a child, which could become a subject for his sickening human experiments.
‘Sind Sie schwanger, fesche Frau?’ (Are you pregnant, pretty woman?) Josef Mengele asked twenty-eight-year-old Slovak teacher as she stood naked and shivering with embarrassment on an open parade ground within hours of arriving at Auschwitz II Birkenau. It was October, 1944. Priska Lowenbeinova didn’t hesitate. Shaking her head quickly, she replied ‘Nein’ in German, even though she was two months pregnant. She had no idea if telling the truth might save her or condemn them both.
The question directed at her was accompanied by a smile as her SS inquisitor stood, legs apart, looking her up and down with forensic fascination. Priska, at just under five feet tall, looked younger than her years. She was flanked by approximately five hundred other naked women, few of whom knew each other. All Jewish, they were as stupefied as she was after being transported to the concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Poland from homes or ghettos across Europe, packed sixty at a time into sealed freight wagons of trains up to fifty-five cars long.
“That’s the first time I heard the word euthanasia“
Another character in Wendy Holden story was Anka Bergman who was first sent to Terezin, also known as Theresienstadt, a transit camp for the Auschwitz death camp. Anka and her husband Bernd were to remain there for the next three years. Although the sexes were segregated, Anka managed to meet secretly with her husband and eventually she became pregnant. She soon discovered, to be Jewish and become pregnant under Nazi rule was a serious offence. There were five couples in the same position and they had to sign a paper that the babies, when they were born, would be taken away.
“That’s the first time I heard the word ‘euthanasia’. But we did sign it.” Anka Bergman would say on BBC`s documentary “The Baby Born in a Concentration Camp” many years later.
She never told her three sisters she was pregnant
The third young woman who arrived in Auschwitz was Rachel Friedman who had been transported there from the Jewish ghetto in the Polish industrial city of Łódź. Amid the almost unimaginable chaos that confronted them when they each arrived at Auschwitz, it is no surprise that the three mothers never met – or knew that others were also pregnant. Rachel never even told her three sisters she was pregnant even though they spent the rest of the war with her. Suffering from sudden and dangerous weight loss in such a murderous regime, they shrank inside the baggy clothing they had been thrown by prisoner-guards so kept their pregnancies hidden until full term.
Big black letters spelling out MAUTHAUSEN
Anka Bergman gave birth to a baby boy who was not taken away, but he died in the camp from pneumonia when he was only two months old. In October 1944, Anka became pregnant again but before she was able to tell her husband, he was sent to Auschwitz. Astonishingly, Anka volunteered to follow him and was transported there the following day. However, she never saw Bernd again. She later found out that he was shot dead in the camp on January 18th, 1945.
It was at Auschwitz that Anka came to understand the true horror of the Nazis’ actions. “We saw the chimneys spouting the smoke and fire and the smell. And it looked like hell,” she said on BBC`s documentary “The Baby Born in a Concentration Camp”. She herself was lucky to survive more than a few hours there.
“Had my mother arrived in the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp holding my brother in her arms, she would have been sent straight to the gas chambers,” her daughter Eva Clarke said. “But because she arrived in Auschwitz not holding a baby, and although she was pregnant again – this time with me – nobody knew, so she lived to see another day.”
As Eva puts it, she owes her life to her brother: “His death meant my life, which is a very strange thing to say.”
Anka was selected for hard labour working in an armaments factory. Food was scarce and for the next six months she slowly starved.
Then, in April 1945, in the dying days of the war, she was caught up in the Nazi attempt to get rid of all living witnesses to the Holocaust. She endured a torturous three-week train journey.
“It was open to the skies and it was filthy, with no food and hardly any water,” she said.
On April 29th,1945, Anka arrived at Mauthausen death camp. The sight of that name at the station was a deep shock to her, as she had heard of the camp’s awful reputation early on in the war.
“She says the shock was so great that she thinks it provoked the onset of her labour and she started to give birth to me on that coal truck,” Eva recalled.
There were two reasons why they survived, and the first was that, on April 28th, 1945, the Nazis had dismantled the gas chamber in Mauthausen.
“Well, my birthday is the 29th so presumably – had my mother arrived on the 26th or 27th – I wouldn’t be sitting here today”.
And the second reason they survived was because, a few days after her birth, the American army liberated the camp. Anka reckoned she wouldn’t have lasted much longer.
“You`ll get us all killed”
A Czech prisoner spotted Priska Lowenbeinova tiny swollen belly and became hysterical. “You’ll get us all killed!” she screamed as the camp guards came running. Priska froze, her heart pounding. “Is it true?” a female SS guard asked Priska, who weighed just five stone. Priska, expecting to be shot on the spot, was forced to admit she was.
With the Allies closing in, the guards were not sure what they should do. Days passed before a guard quietly asked her: “What do you need?”. By that stage Priska’s feet, swollen and oozing pus from the cold and the rough clogs, had become her worst torment. To her amazement, a bowl of hot water was brought for her to soak them in. She knew the sudden change of heart among the guards was almost certainly self-serving, but she welcomed it.
On the morning of April 12th, Priska went into labour and was helped on to a wooden plank laid across a table in the factory, watched by SS guards betting on whether the baby would be a boy or a girl. “They said that if it was a girl the war would be over, and if it was a boy then it would go on for even longer” she recalled in the book “Born Survivors” by Wendy Holden
At 3.50pm, according to a guard’s watch, Priska gave birth. “It’s a girl!” the Germans cried happily. “The war will soon be over!” The tiny, malnourished child came into the world with her little blood-smeared hands screwed up into fists held around her ears. Priska was overjoyed, but also broken-hearted that her husband Tibor wasn’t there. The couple, who had chosen the names for their unborn child in a cramped railway cattle wagon on route to Auschwitz, had been separated the moment they arrived.
Priska was also petrified. Her baby had been relatively safe inside her belly. Now she was a vulnerable Jewish child in a world run by Nazis.
“Another Jew for the Fuhrer!”
Rachel Friedman was advised to lie and say her son Mark was born on Hitler’s birthday – April 20th – and it saved him. A day earlier and five days after they had left Freiberg, in the middle of a night air raid, Rachel’s waters broke. Sprawled on the faeces-covered floor and sandwiched between the dead, she gripped the arm of her sister Bala as the contractions took hold. A guard called for help and someone found Dr Edita.
The boy was small. “Another Jew for the Fuhrer!” one of the guards shouted. Too weak to be happy, Rachel felt numb. She had secretly decided to name him Max (later to be known as Mark). “I was thinking, ‘So I have a child, or I don’t have a child.’ We didn’t know what was going to happen”.
No children here!
Priska was forced to march up the hill, her group beaten by the guards. When Hana stirred and moaned, a female kapo (the name given to trusted inmates who supervised prisoners) spotted the tiny bundle at Priska’s breast and shrieked, ‘Ein Baby!’
Another rushed forward to grab Hana, crying “Keine Kinder hier!” (No children here!). Priska fought them both off, spitting and clawing at their faces as a deadly tug-of-war began.
Hana’s life hung in the balance until an unlikely person intervened. An older female kapo placed one hand on Priska’s shoulder and said quietly: ‘I haven’t seen a baby in six years. I should like to spend some time with her.’
Priska realised that this was a chance to save her child. She hesitated, then handed her over. “Follow me”, the woman said, in a Polish accent. In a surreal sequence of events, Priska was ordered to wait outside the guards’ barracks while the stranger took Hana inside, undressed her and stood over her smiling and cooing. After almost an hour, the guard wrapped Hana in her grimy smock and bonnet and carried her back outside. “Here”, she said brusquely before ordering that they be taken to a vermin-ridden barracks.
The camp authorities seemed determined to continue their campaign of genocide
There was no such joy for Rachel Friedman and baby Mark. They were loaded on to a similar cart and taken up the hill to the camp, which was in chaos. The population had doubled, food had virtually run out, disease was out of control and the German guards were eager to leave no trace of their crimes. Choking smoke filled the air as documents were thrown into incinerators, along with the corpses of 43 prisoners executed the previous day.
Even with the odds stacked hopelessly against them, the camp authorities seemed determined to continue their campaign of genocide. Rachel and her group were herded 50 at a time down a flight of steps to the showers. With baby Mark hidden under her grimy dress, she remembered enough from Auschwitz to know what having a shower could mean. Pushed into a large tiled chamber with sinister-looking pipes, she believed that they were meant to die. “They took us some place to gas us”, she said afterwards, “but the prisoners had dismantled the equipment so they couldn’t do it”. In fact, the camp had run out of the deadly Zyklon B cyanide crystals.
Priska Lowenbeinova, Anka Nathanova and Rachel Friedman, three young and extremely brave mothers were saved by the fact that the Nazi regime was collapsing.
The survivor of Auschwitz who has no memory of ever having been there
Another Auschwitz survivor comes from my country, Poland. Barbara Puc’s parents, Stefania and Stanislaw Perończyk, were sent to Auschwitz in November 1943 when her mother was three months pregnant. Her soon-to-be father worked in a locomotive factory that had been sabotaged. Though innocent of this act, he was one of the main suspects. German police raided the young couple’s flat in search of stolen machinery parts to find only a small stockpile of baby clothing, meant for the expectant couple’s newborn when she was finally born. Nevertheless, the couple was sentenced to jail in Auschwitz.
At first they got to Block No. 11, “The Block of Death”, the same where Father Kolbe, Polish Conventual Franciscan friar died a martyr’s death. This building served as a detention centre for Gestapo prisoners, those sentenced to death by starvation and “crime suspects.” Six months later, twenty-one-year-old Stefania Perończyk was sentenced to prison in Birkenau, and her husband was sent to Mauthausen. The walk to Birkenau from Auschwitz was the last time they ever saw each other.
The young mother-to-be was put in barracks that had been recently cleared after the extermination of Roma families. And Barbara Puc was born shortly after.
Not all newborns were destined to die. Josef Mengele, “the Angel of Death” and the camp’s psychopathic doctor, chose some children who were “Aryan” looking — blue-eyed and blond-haired for “Germanization”. When Mengele saw little Basia (diminutive of Barbara), he wanted to take her away for adoption by a German family. But at that very moment there was a power outage in the camp, causing chaos. Luckily for Basia Josef Mengele got distracted and forgot about her.
If not that malfunction Barbara Puc would have not been able to tell her own story of birth and survival as she heard it from her own mother. She is also Auschwitz survivor who has no memory of ever having been there.
On the freezing day of November 1944
Another Auschwitz baby who is still living today is also Polish lady Stefania Wernick. She was born a couple of months after Barbara Puc was born.
Stefania`s parents lived in Czubrowice, a small village near Kraków. In May 1944, Anna Wernick, then two months pregnant, went to bring food to her mother in Osiek, another village a couple of miles away. Osiek was at the time in what the Nazis had decreed a part of Germany proper while Czubrowice remained outside its borders.
There were a dozen or so women trying to enter the Reich that day to smuggle food. But after they crossed the Reich border, German soldiers rounded the group up, detained them and eventually sent them to Auschwitz.
On their arrival, the inmates were taken to the shower room, where their heads were shaved and they were given black-and-white uniforms and wooden shoes.
Most likely since she was pregnant, Anna was sent to a different barrack than the rest of the women. She eventually went into labour on the freezing day of November 1944 and gave birth to Stefania. The new mother was so exhausted and drained that for the next two weeks she couldn’t even move. The friendly older Russian woman cared for her child, bringing the baby girl to her mother for breastfeeding once a day. This way Stefcia (diminutive of Stefania) could live.
The change in the camp’s policy of routinely exterminating newborns
Stefania and Barbara were very lucky they were born towards the end of the war. It was only since 1943 that the SS, the infamous Nazi force that ran the camp, ceased to instantly and automatically kill both children and their mothers right after delivery in all cases. This was probably due to the shortages that were by then plaguing Germany’s wartime labor force. Many women whose pregnancies were noticed by camp doctors were subjected to abortion, which in some cases was carried out even in the eighth or ninth month of the pregnancy. Babies who were born were thrown into the trash, drowned in a bucket of water or, most commonly, killed with an injection of phenol to the heart. As Alexander Ehrmann, the witness remembered, they were also burnt in the fire.
The change in the camp’s policy of routinely exterminating newborns started around the time Stanisława Leszczyńska began her work as a midwife in the camp hospital. This heroic Polish nurse is believed to have helped deliver more than 3,000 children in Auschwitz, each time risking her own life. Leszczyńska helped both Jewish and non-Jewish mothers. Although she did not kill a single newborn, the overwhelming majority of them were killed within a few hours after being born. Barbara Puc, whom Leszczyńska helped deliver, was one of the few who were not.
Jewish mothers had no hope for their children. Before Leszczyńska began her work at the hospital, Jewish newborns were thrown into the trash right after delivery. The Polish midwife refused to carry out this horrifying practice. After a baby was born she would wrap it in paper bandages and lay it next to the mother. As Jewish women were forbidden to breastfeed, the children would die within a few hours. Very few survived.
Curiously, in later prison testimonies, Auschwitz inmates mentioned quite often that children of Soviet mothers — Russian, Belarusian and Ukrainian — were the strongest ones and had the highest rate of survival.
“Auschwitz” listed as her place of birth
The place was Auschwitz-Birkenau. The parents of Angela Polgar (Orosz-Richt) who were Hungarian Jews, arrived there on a Nazi transport on May 25th, 1944. Her mother, Vera Bein was 25 years old at the time and almost two months pregnant.
On the inglorious railway platform where “selections” were made, Vera was not chosen to the gas chambers as she might have been. Instead, she was assigned to a variety of gruelling work details before becoming a guinea pig for sterilization experiments by a camp doctor. She was selected for experimentation by Mengele’s team when she was seven months pregnant. They injected a burning substance into her cervix. “Right behind in her uterus was the foetus, me,” said Orosz-Richt, nee Polgar in one of the interviews. “These injections were terrible, painful. Injection one, the foetus moved to the left side … the next day, another injection, and the foetus moved in the other direction.” But then, somehow, the doctors forgot about her mother. Her pregnancy did not show because she was very tiny. “If not for this we would both have been killed before I had taken my first breath,” she said.
A sympathetic Hungarian doctor offered to perform an abortion on Vera, insisting it could save her life but she declined. On December 21st, Vera Bein felt labour pains. She climbed to the top bunk in her barrack, and there, aided by two other inmates, gave birth clandestinely to a baby girl.
“I was born three days before the SS celebrated Christmas, so probably on December 21st, 1944. I was so malnourished, I was unable to cry which helped ensure no one discovered me” Angela Orosz-Richt said.
Five weeks after her birth, Auschwitz was liberated.
Born in Auschwitz on the day of the liberation
György Faludi was born on January 27th, 1945, the day the Soviet army entered Auschwitz and liberated remaining prisoners there, most of whom were ill and dying. In fact, his mother and Angela Polgar’s helped each other through their deliveries, and stayed friends while making their way back to Hungary with their infants.
A sad, cruel end to a remarkable life
Vera Bein’s body was ridden with cancer of the spine and lung. While she laid dying in a Toronto hospital, paralyzed, she had visions of Auschwitz. “She would say ‘Mengele is at the door'” Angela Polgar said in “Born in Auschwitz” by Jeff Heinrich. “It was horrible. There was not enough morphine to take the nightmare away even from her dying minutes.”
She died at age 73 on January 28th, 1992 – a day after the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. “She did not want to die on Jan. 27th”, Angela Orosz-Richt said. “She pulled the suffering through to the next day to die.”
During World Jewish Congress Angela declared: “I was born in Auschwitz, weighing one kilogram. I survived for a reason. I have a mission: to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves. To carry the torch and tell my mother’s story and the story of the Holocaust of European Jewry”.
A paradox of history
Soldiers of the 60th Army of the First Ukrainian Front opened the gates of Auschwitz Concentration Camp on January 27th, 1945. The prisoners greeted them as authentic liberators. It was a paradox of history that soldiers formally representing Stalinist totalitarianism brought freedom to the prisoners of Nazi totalitarianism.
The Red Army obtained detailed information about Auschwitz just after the liberation of Kraków, and was therefore unable to reach the gates of Auschwitz before January 27th, 1945.
About 7 thousand prisoners awaited liberation in the Main Camp, Birkenau, and Monowitz. Before and soon after January 27th, Soviet soldiers liberated about 500 prisoners in the Auschwitz sub-camps in Stara Kuźnia, Blachownia Śląska, Świętochłowice, Wesoła, Libiąż, Jawiszowice, and Jaworzno.
In the Main Camp and Birkenau, Soviet soldiers discovered the corpses of about 600 prisoners who had been shot by the withdrawing SS or who had succumbed to exhaustion.
“War is the most horrible thing, and it cannot happen again. If we forget what happened, we are doomed.”
source: “This Baby Was Born in Auschwitz — and Survived” by Sergiusz Scheller
Forget You Not
By Agata Szostkowska
Photos: Michał Stanisławski
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