Halina Birenbaum:

Among Women on the Edge of Death

Published in "Pro Memoria" No. 5-6 (January 1997) of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum.

A woman prisoner in Auschwitz after liberation

I was terribly frightened by all kinds of rumors during the blockades and roundups on the Umschlagplatz of people being thrown into railway cars which brought thousands of Jews from the Warsaw ghetto every day, supposedly to work, in the "East," into the unknown. I was already thirteen then. We roamed stinking cellars and sunbaked attics, almost without food and water, not washing, not changing our clothes, and not daring to let out the slightest whisper so as not to betray ourselves to the Germans who were hunting for us, or to avoid the hot wrath of our neighbors in their hiding places, vigilant, tense and nervous, listening for whether the cursed steps of the pursuers were approaching. We were like animals being hunted to exhaustion. People were talking about the horror of the camps where they deported those who were caught, about work beyond human strength. About killings with steam and gas in Treblinka, and about some hell, terror-filled and impossible for me to conceive - Auschwitz.

For almost a year we managed to avoid the hunters. But after the uprising in the ghetto they reached our bunker: The Umschlag, the cattle wagons - everything proceeded according to the "classical" program of roundups, deportation, selection, torment and killing.

My first stop was the women's death camp in Majdanek. Thousands of women jammed together, of different appearances, from different cities and countries. For the first time I look, shocked, stunned, at the naked bodies of women, at my own naked body among the others. I feel no shame, I feel nothing. Mother is gone already, her guiding hand and look. They took her at the threshold of the camp bathhouse, they didn't let her in, they tore her away, they killed her!

Mother Pola Perl Kijewska Grynsztejn from Zelechow, Poland, murdered in Majdanek 1943

 I learned the norms of hell, day after day I fall deeper and deeper into its crevices. Crowding, hunger, cold, new diseases always appearing, unimaginable suffering. And life in the midst of death - the ordinary sky, the earth, stars, instincts, human or superhuman desires, already so different from the ones of the world we knew, in which we lived, even in the worst conditions, in the ghetto. The almost sacramental importance of the roll calls, spoons of nettle soup full of sand, a piece of a plank on the floor of the barrack, where you can somehow squeeze your body. The diarrhea, the impossibility of reaching the wheelbarrow that serves as a latrine, outdoors, right next to the electrified barbed wire, across from the men's camp and the guard towers, from which the postens shot at naked buttocks just for fun. The impossibility of washing up, changing clothes filthy with diarrhea. And the neatly dressed, insolent kapos, SS-women and privileged prisoner functionaries. Usually young, pretty, healthy and content with their power over thousands of imprisoned women. They beat, insult and curse. After all those ghetto rumors from before the "resettlement," a reality which surpassed all imaginings!

Completely bewildered, I couldn't grasp it. "What am I doing here, who I am, who I once was, long ago, that is, yesterday, before I got here".

For the first time in my life I see women in uniforms, women with pistols on their belts. Women beat, kill? I did not look at them as Germans whose aim was to torture and destroy, but as women, whom I had learned to think of as softer, more delicate. After all, a woman means mother; someone good, and in the ghetto or during the death journeys to the camps, she is the escape, in which she embraces you with her love and gives you hope, at least for a moment from the rule of evil. A man means strength, power, and he is an aggressor or a defender. From the beginning of the war and occupation I had seen only men in the green or black uniforms, armed, ruthless and brutal. But women? Young, pretty girls? SS-women in green skirts or trousers, wearing wide leather belts, tight shirts and long, wide, dark cloaks. Female prisoner functionaries in civilian clothes, nice clean clothes, sparking envy but at the same time a kind of relief that such clothes still existed. And we prisoners in absurd rags too large or too small.

Riding crops in those soft, female or even girlish hands. They beat, they kick with high boots - mistresses of life and death! I gazed at them in horror, astounded, I could not get it into my head that they could really be like that. Until Auschwitz, when the Oberaufseherin lashed into me with her crop and hissed "links sollst du gehen!" (left you go, left!). Then I connected the pain, the blow and the figure of the good-looking, well-dressed woman in uniform. Before that there were those black-as-ink buttocks of the prisoners beaten at Majdanek, and my prayer was to be beaten with a crop, and not with a board from the bunk, because with blows from the springy riding crop there is a little less pain than from the stiff wood. During my two years and until my very last day in the camps I could not reconcile the women's faces and the brutality.

I had come to the camp with notions of good, evil, morality or the lack of it, based on the books I had read (in the ghetto, before the time of the blockades, or even in the hiding places), based on what I read from my mother's eyes, what she whispered to her friends, what my father and older brothers expected of me. I'd had some vague imaginings about matters between a man and a woman, as I was not informed like the youth of today are. I imagined love to be something pure, beautiful. In the camps there was darkness, death and fear, and our bodies were full of festering sores, emaciated, disgusting! The face, the body, were not something that aroused a man, but something that could or could not bring the luck of passing through a selection and a chance to prolong the torment of the camp.

And yet, more than once on the way to work in the kommando outside the camp, when we passed by similar men's kommandos, some of the kapos, who always had enough bread, threw a little package with such a treasure to a female prisoner while the SS-men oraufseherinnen who led us were not looking. This made us feel life and joy. Then I dreamt that one day someone might also like the way I looked and that I might be favored with the luck of such a distinction from a man, or that I might unexpectedly meet my brother who would throw me such a parcel. As I learned later, while I lay in the infirmary after being shot in the men's lager, my brother had already been taken to the gas at that time. I also understood that those little parcels sometimes had their price and were not always pure, human, accidental luck. When that sank in, I stopped dreaming of this brand of success with the men. I told myself that I would never accept any food from a man and that my hunger would never have anything to do with someone's liking me. And I did not take anything, whenever such a situation in Auschwitz occurred.

That decision became a source of my strength. Before me I saw my mother's eyes, which said more than words. In general the men in the camps were more emaciated than the women. It was harder for them to bear the camp hardships. We talked about that among ourselves when we were less harassed at work or in the bunks. The women turned out to more resilient in these hellish conditions. Perhaps because women have pain when they give birth?

The kapos, block seniors, schreibers and all sorts of prisoner functionaries in Auschwitz (that is, in the women's camp in Birkenau) wore black flounced aprons and loose wool coats tied only in front. That was the last word in fashioamong self-respecting camp big-shots. The aprons were skillfully sewn by Jewish women, mostly from Greece, but also by other female prisoners. For this they had favors from the block seniors; they got larger portions of bread and soup, and wprotected from twhen possible.

For the first few months I was in Auschwitz with my brother's wife Hela. She could tailor and sew beautifully, but she was unable to get through to the "heights" of the block senior who was in control, to present her own talents and win consideration. In this starving, weary mass of people it took talent and also luck. Hela was not herself anymore. She was expiring by the day. She was only twenty.

Hela Grynsztejn ne'e Herszberg from Bydgoszcz, perished in Auschwitz


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