Tuesday, April 6, 2010
(Above: The entrance gate at Auschwitz. The words translate as "Work shall make you free.")
Susan Greenwald remembers March 19, 1944 like it was yesterday.
It was the day after her 19th birthday. But more important, it was the day the Germans marched into Hungary, where she and her family lived.
Two days later, Jews like Susan and her family were ordered to wear yellow armbands with the Star of David.
Two weeks after that, every Jew was rounded up and sent to a ghetto, with ten families crammed into apartments where only one had lived before.
In August they were deported to Auschwitz. They were marched to the train station past their former neighbors, who were laughing, clapping and yelling anti-Semitic slogans.
They were herded into cattle cars - 70 to 80 people per car - with no food or water and only a metal bucket for a toilet.
When they arrived at Auschwitz several days later, they were greeted by SS troops with machine guns and snarling police dogs. In the confusion, Susan and her mother lost sight of her little brother, Laszlo
They were divided into two groups - the young and strong in one group and the old people, pregnant women and children in the other.
Susan and her mother were in the first group. They were stripped naked and their heads shaved. Then they were herded into a huge room with showerheads dangling from the ceiling.
To their relief, what came out of the showerheads was only warm water.
"Only later did we find out that the other group had been taken to a similar building," she says. "But when they entered, the doors closed; and out of the shower heads came zyklon gas."
That night, they saw something strange through the window: a huge perpetual flame that burned day and night, emitting an awful smell. It was the crematorium.
The SS guards were brutal sadists, and the worst were the females.
"They had young, beautiful, angelic faces, but the cruelty of these women was much worse than the male guards," she says. "From time to time, Dr. Mengele also came around, looking for human guinea pigs for his terrible experiments."
They were being starved and worked to death. If anyone fainted, she was shot. Their only respite was Sunday afternoons.
"We would gather at someone's bed, sitting on the floor, and talk about home," she says, weeping at the memory. "It gave us strength."
Their nightmare finally ended when they were liberated by the British Army. Susan and her mother made their way back to their hometown, and waiting for them at the railway station was her stepfather, who had been liberated from another camp.
"They ran toward each other and they hugged like they would never let each other go again, crying and not saying a word."
The next day, and every day for months afterward, Susan went back to the railway station, hoping to see her little brother, Laszlo, coming home. But he never did.
"We found out later that he died in Buchenwald nine days after the war was over. He was only 18."
Susan Greenwald will be the guest of honor this Sunday, when Berkeley observes its 7th annual Holocaust Remembrance Day. This year, the event has been moved to the new Freight & Salvage at 2020 Addison Street, near the downtown Berkeley BART station.
The ceremony starts at 11:30 a.m. I'll be there, and I hope you will, too.