Tales from Auschwitz: survivor stories
A doctor escorts a group of Auschwitz survivors from the camp in January 1945. Photograph: Heritage Images/Getty Images
Irene Fogel Weiss, born in 1930 in Bótrágy, Czechoslovakia, now Batrad, Ukraine. She lives in Virginia, US. She will be returning to Auschwitz for the third time, as part of the US presidential delegation, along with her daughter, Lesley Weiss
We lived in Bótrágy, a very small, mostly poor town in Czechoslovakia with a population of approximately 1,000 mainly farming families, including about 10 Jewish families. The town was a typical low-income community with a tailor, a shoemaker, a grocery store, where people struggled to get by, but where everyone knew each other and there was easy communication between the neighbours, though that didn’t mean we were equal.
When I was eight years old Czechoslovakia broke apart and we became part of Hungary. That was when our problems started, because the Hungarians were allied with the Nazis. It was a difficult time for Jewish families, as suddenly the law no longer protected us and overnight we lost our civil rights. My father’s lumber business was confiscated and given to a non-Jew, and we received no compensation. Jewish children were thrown out of Hungarian schools, so right away we had no choice but to concentrate on hunkering down and trying not to bring attention to ourselves. We couldn’t ride the trains and we had to wear the yellow star. It was a free for all. With no law to protect us, it was common for Jews to get beaten up or thrown off the train.
It’s an incredibly scary feeling when you’re exposed to anyone’s raw feelings and enmity. These young Nazis habitually roamed around and did tremendous damage to many individuals. But at least we were still in our community and were not evicted from our home, so that was some comfort.
We didn’t have radio or much access to newspapers, so all the children were reliant on listening to their parents for information. But I remember many things about the course of the war, who was winning and losing, and the repression of Jews elsewhere.
Hungary didn’t give up its Jewish population until it was invaded by Nazi Germany in 1944. The very first task the German government gave the Hungarians was to round up Jewish families and deport them to Auschwitz. There was a huge rush to take half a million Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz and it was completed in just six weeks, in 147 cattle cars. So in the spring of 1944 my family – my parents and their six children, the oldest of whom was 17 and I was 13 – found ourselves in the Munkács ghetto and from there being taken on cattle carts to Auschwitz in Nazi-occupied Poland.
Auschwitz: a short history of the largest mass murder site in human history
Imagine it like this: three generations of your family have lived in the same house in the same town. They’ve struggled to raise a family, put kids through school, to feed them all. You have your friends and family. All of a sudden you are told to leave it all and walk out with a single suitcase.
I remember the night of the packing very well. Things went in the suitcase, things were taken out of the suitcase. In the end my mother filled it with food she had cooked and warm clothing and bedding. Then it was full. Plus we took a watch, some earrings, a wedding ring with us to exchange for food if necessary. The next day my father was forced to hand over his remaining money to a delegation that included the mayor and the school principal as they rounded us up at the town hall.
We had been absolutely unaware of such a place as Auschwitz. It was a stunning reversal of the life we had had up until then. And I cannot emphasise enough how utterly scary it is to be at the mercy of your fellow human beings. As a child I could not understand what we had done to deserve going there.
We initially had no idea what had happened to the rest of the family and had no access to a phone. But on buildings everywhere lists were put up stating who was still alive. Everyone you met you asked, every meeting of refugees was dominated by trying to find out where your relatives were.
Eventually I discovered that of around 100 people from my town who were deported, only about 10 survived, only two of whom were children – my sister and me. But there was not one parent and child who lived. All of them were killed.
Serena now lives in New Jersey with her family, including three children and grandchildren. We’ve both managed to hang on in there, but she can’t come to Auschwitz because her elderly husband is sick. For years when we talked about our experience she’d say to me: “You probably don’t remember, you were too young,” as I was four years younger, but some things I remembered even more sharply than her and my aunt.
I’m often asked how I have coped. I never went to a psychologist and I never will. Quite simply, I kept it at a distance. I saw and understood, and yet I didn’t. I’ve never cried over the columns of children and mothers I saw. When I was in Auschwitz I thought: ‘This is not actually on earth.’ It was a system of masters and slaves, gods and subhumans and I thought to myself: ‘No one knows about it. It’s the forest, surrounded by multiple layers of fence, it’s not actually real.’ I never let it penetrate that my parents were killed and I even thought: ‘After this we’re going home and everyone will be there again.’ Those who never managed to keep it distant killed themselves.
Child inmates of Auschwitz concentration camp after liberation in January 1945. Photograph: The Weiner Library/Rex
I threw myself into family life. I married young, I had three children, (I now also have four grandchildren) and then I went to college and became a teacher. You fall into a routine and do the best you can. But I’ve never lost the feeling of how unreliable human beings are and neither am I fooled by superficial civilisation. But I realise that loss of faith in people is more devastating than loss of faith in God.
I won’t be going back to Auschwitz again after this visit. So it’s my last chance to make sure this tragedy is not forgotten. I found out only about a week before I was due to leave that I will be one of two survivors who will be part of the US presidential delegation, headed by the secretary of the treasury, Jack Lew, and I feel very honoured, but it has much to do with the fact that many others who could go are ill and unable to travel.