This article was first published in the newspaper "Kol Hair Jerusalem" on 2.12.1988. It was re-printed in a "News Bulletin 1994-2003" edited by Yosef Herman and Moshe Peles (Poltusker) and published by the Mława Landsmanschaft in Israel, November 2003.
Her Sixty Girls
Translated from Hebrew to English by Mrs. Steinberg Frida and Mrs. Tzur Tova
Delayed by some twenty years and almost
reluctantly, Fela Maiboim earned historical recognition of her deeds in
Block 8, Camp 18,
Today she is called Fela Maiboim,
once her name was Fela Caitak, but the sixty women who were once girls
in Block 8, C-Lager in
Not one of them knew her story or her whereabouts after the war until two weeks ago when Fela Maiboim was invited to Yad-Vashem and was awarded there an honor reserved for Righteous Among the Nations.
According to rules of the institution this honor is awarded only to Gentiles who saved Jews, but in this case they made an exception to the rule.
About thirty survivors, who reported to the invitation in the newspapers, came to the ceremony. But even beforehand, from the moment the notice was published, her telephone did not cease ringing.
All the callers informed her, purely and simply, “You saved me” “Because of you, I am alive”, “Good that I have found you”. They left their phone numbers but Fela did not make contact. She preferred to forget, and when she was willing to remember, she did so with a strange laconic restraint.
The tribute ceremony took place after a
delay of more than twenty years; then, during the Six Day War, Fela
first met one of her survivors, Lea Shnap. They met in the street purely
by chance and Shnap who is a journalist for Hungarian newspaper in
strong arms lifted me up, Fela, the block altste – the overseer
of the block… When the nightly roll call
ended we returned half-frozen to the block.
Fela carried me and brought me to her small bed-room at the end
of the barrack. She laid me on her bed,
prepared me hot tea and began to clear the pus from my ear. She did this very delicately, stroked my hair
and told me her sad history. She was a
“veteran” here in
Every day she looked after me with great devotion. She was like a mother to me and to the thousand girls in the barrack. Before we went to sleep on the crowded, over-pressed bunks until it was impossible to breath, Fela would come to us, kiss the foreheads of the remaining girls whose number was depleted daily. She gave us strength and the will to live.
Since then twenty-four years have
passed. 1967 the Six Day War has broken
out… I am among the first to come up to
Today Lea Shnap is an ultra-Orthodox
woman whose son learns in a Yeshiva. Fela
lives a completely secular life. When Shnap
and her husband came to visit, Fela said to him “I can offer you tea in
a glass, I don’t keep kosher.” “In your home,” Mr. Shnap replied, “Even
pig is kosher”... Even today, like 44
years ago, there is something noble, sad and strong about her presence that
makes one think in clichés. If
anyone appears like an angel, it is she.
All the women who came to the meeting used this description. One of them, Rachel Kramer dedicated a
poem to her “In heroism and courage she bequeathed our lives”. She was in Block 8 with two sisters and
Fela protected them from every guard.
“Three sisters who came to
Fela, “I turned over a page, just as I never spoke nor told anything to anyone, so I never went to Yad Vashem. I was asked to go to schools to talk, I couldn’t. I never allowed this to influence the home. I have never told my husband. I had a very happy life with him. We were together for forty years and I never allowed this to interfere. The interference came at night. When everyone went to sleep, I had sleepless nights, which I have until today.”
Because of this point of view, she postponed this event for more than twenty years. “I was still not ready to re-open this period of my life. I was very busy. My husband was sick and I did not want to go back to these things.” She abstained from all meetings with survivors, various literature works about the Shoah, articles, everything was rejected by her. “For me this is not the whole truth”, she explained “no one can tell all the truth only odd parts. I also do not know how to tell all and I have no words to explain. Lately the expressions fail me, even in Polish my mother tongue, it is difficult for me to express myself, but I am trying to tell you that all these meetings and books and articles just minimize the event. For who can talk about six million? The dead will tell. How one was suffocated in the crematorium? How another was beaten to death, what pain he endured. I cannot tell and no one else can.”
Fela Maiboim has worked for the past
forty-four years as a nurse in Hadassah hospital in
Her older sister Ester had already
After that the first wounded came. Polish soldiers evacuated from the front with
In a short time the residents of the township cooperated and were carrying out the orders of the Germans. They burned the synagogue, destroyed the Jewish school and forced the Jewish citizens to wear a yellow patch. Then they established the Mława Ghetto and Fela together with her parents and the other Jews were concentrated there. Infectious diseases, such as typhoid spread in the ghetto and Fela was enlisted for work in the framework of the make-shift hospital in the ghetto. Thanks to this work she had a bearable place to live. She lived in the hospital while her parents were given a miserable room in the ghetto. Her descriptions of this period were laconic, almost dry, with the intention not to belittle with words what really happened. Behind them are hidden the brutal reality of daily acts of abuse, murder and maltreatment that the Germans carried out on the residents of the ghetto.
Fela was a beautiful young girl. She could have used these attributes to get out of there, but it did not come up for discussion. “First of all, I had an excellent work” she said “I could help sick people, apart from that, I couldn’t leave my parents. They were young, in their forties. I was able to help them little. And apart from anything else I also got sick with typhoid. I was infected by one of the patients and I became very ill. My father and mother sat beside me all the time and finally I overcame it.”
So she remained in the town until the phase
of the deportations started. She was as
sure, as all the others, that they were transported to a labor camp. She left with the last deportation in a hard
wintry December, together with her parents and another thousand Jews. It was only on the journey that rumors began
to reach them from the Poles who shouted and told them the goal of the
journey. Fela managed in time to
provide herself with a sufficient supply of morphine. “I gave some to my father and mother” she
recalled “I told them that if they saw it was impossible to carry on, then to
finish life with it.” For his part, her
father told her and pressed her to escape.
“I’m finished” he told her “I have no chance, but you – escape, save
yourself.” Fela firmly refused.
“Your fate is my fate” she said and went into the gates of freezing
Fela was earmarked to work in the dental clinic that was due to be built in the camp. There were other six women who remained from the same transport. When they heard that nurses and doctors were being sort for the camp, they immediately declared that they were nurses. Thus they were also saved and together with Fela were brought to Birkenau. The first night she taught them all the basic rules of care, how to give injections and give first aid so that if anyone came to inspect they would know something. Until the dental clinic was built, Fela worked in the hospital in Birkenau camp, which looked after the sick who were brought from the whole area. Afterwards the dental clinic was opened for Polish prisoners and others. Fela was the assistant to refugee doctors from various places. The clinic was hell in itself. The instrument rooms were on one side, the clinics on the other and in the middle were the offices. In the X-ray institute the men were sterilized. There was a Czech X-ray technician or something like that and he did that. “Every day we saw men leaving there and vomit, every day. It was awful.”
But the clinic had one advantage. It was under the control of SS doctors who came from time to time to the camp and supplied medication. There developed a give and take relationship between the doctors and the staff of the clinic. “The doctors were Germans who worked with us and they were completely corrupt.” Fela said. “It was possible to ‘buy’ them. We organized a stock of gifts, nice clothes, money. They accepted this secretly, but in this way they looked after us. They knew more or less when “selections” were due and saw to it that we were not taken. Until Mengele arrived. Once he caught Fela with a nightdress she was taking as a bribe. He threw her out of the clinic and transferred her to C Lager, the children’s camp in Birkenau. She was placed in block 8 (there were 32 blocks there) and all she has to say of that period is summed up in the sentence “The girls were very little and I did what I could”.
“I was the "block altste" the oldest person. I knew they were all going to die, in the crematorium. There were more than a thousand girls there and I knew this was the end for all of us. So I did what I could to save as many as I could. First of all I looked after the sick, after that I hid them. Near me was a sort of storeroom with guards with whom I had contacts. So I managed to hide the very little and the very sick. I also knew that there were transports that did not go to the crematoria, so I endeavored to transfer others to these transports.
Were you not afraid?
"I didn’t know
what a fear was; maybe because I had nothing to lose. I remember that once when I was in the clinic
they came to take patients to the crematorium.
Mengele did that and he took someone from my hometown. I saw her being led naked and I said “If you
are taking her, then take me also”. To
this day I don’t know how or why they listened to me. I do not know exactly what I said, but
somehow she remained alive and she survived and lives in
Have you never been interested in knowing the fate of the others?
"After that I never knew anyone else apart from Lea Shnap. She met me one night after I finished a night shift in the hospital. She came to visit her son who was studying here in a Yeshiva and went through my street. Suddenly she shouted “Fela” and so I remained in touch with her; just loose contact. Only she began to remind me of people, before her I had never met anyone and no one knew about me."
In Fela’s estimation about thirty
women remained from the camp and they camp to the meeting. And maybe, a similar number abroad. She herself remained working in the camp till
the end of the war and then in 1945 all those who survived set out on the death
Somehow with the help of freed French
soldiers, she set out with her friend for
More than a month ago, Fela’s
husband died after years of suffering from a serious illness. The strong, restrained woman took this very
hard. Something caused her to contact Lea
Shnap, one of those she saved in
"As decade after decade passes facial
features that we remember change until they are unrecognizable, so it was a
wonder to me how twenty years ago, in a street in Jerusalem, I have recognized Fela instantly
although I had not seen her for twenty-four years. I knew Fela during the worst four
months of my life. She was the only
creature on earth who was able to awaken hope and strengthen thousands of
children at the worst possible moments of despair. This young Jewess of 24, from
And so, one day she phoned me and said only
two words – “Abraham is dead”. I
am standing in the Sanhedria Funeral House looking at Fela from a
distance. She is being led by her two
sons Uzi and Zeev and her daughter Michal, a little woman,
slender back, wearing black. She walks
up the steps slowly, gently, disciplined.
The picture changes in my mind. I
see the blond girl dressed in striped prisoners’ clothes, following Mengele’s
hand waving, the sweat pouring from her brow.
Afterwards, at the end of the roll-call she opens her arms to us “my
beloved children, don’t despair, you must remain alive.” And here she is standing opposite me and with
that familiar gesture stretches out her arms to me. At that moment I felt that her beloved camp girls
were still kept in her heart. Something
also moved my lips because I had come in the name of children’s block number 8