‘HOW I SURVIVED AUSCHWITZ’ AS A YOUNG GIRL, YVONNE LOST HER ENTIRE FAMILY – BUT SHE NEVER LOST HOPE
We’re all familiar with Anne Frank’s tragic tale. Synonymous with the atrocities of the Holocaust since her murder in the concentration camp of Bergen-belsen in 1945, Anne’s voice survived in the form of a diary published two years after her death. But while Anne met her untimely end at the hands of the Nazis, Australian Yvonne Engelmann lived to tell her story.
Interred in a concentration camp at the same age as Anne, she lost her family in the genocide. “I was only 14 when war broke out,” the Czechoslovakian-born 91-year-old tells New Idea. “I wasn’t allowed to go to school, I had to wear the yellow Star of David, and couldn’t mix with any non-jewish people. That hurt me terribly.”
Forcibly removed with her family to a cramped Jewish ghetto were she “slept in packed rooms on straw” things went from bad to worse when – close to her 15th birthday at the end of 1943 – they and hundreds of others were forced into large cattle wagons at the local railway station.
“We were packed in like a tin of sardines,” she recalls. “There was no ventilation. Worst of all was the stench – there was one tin bucket for a toilet amongst 100-plus people, and no privacy. We were treated much worse than animals.”
After travelling overnight in the dark, airless wagons, the convoy stopped and as morning light entered, she received her first taste of death. Many of the occupants – particularly the young and elderly – had died overnight as a result of the horrific conditions. The bodies were removed, dumped, and the wagons continued. It was a daily ritual that would last the duration of the journey.
On the third night during their transport, Yvonne’s father spoke the words to her, which would prove to be the key to her future survival.
“The last thing that my father told me was in the wagon. He said: ‘I don’t know where we are going, but I am sure we are not going for a holiday. I want you to promise me that you will survive.’ I found that a very strange question, because at 15, I was truly a child… But I said to him, ‘Of course I’ll survive.’ I kept my promise.”
Two days later, the train ground to a halt and the doors to the wooden cattle car were flung open. Blinded by sunlight after days trapped in the dark, stinking container, a young Yvonne had no idea where we she was. Confronted by snarling dogs and grim-faced guards, weak and exhausted and huddled between her parents, Yvonne was pushed out onto the freezing snow-covered ground. She had arrived at Auschwitz.
After the new arrivals were assembled into rows, the “selecting” began when a uniformed officer with “cold eyes” stepped forward. That was when Yvonne encountered Doctor Josef Mengele.
Responsible for the deaths of countless men, women and children, history would later nickname this doctor “the angel of death”. He sent women with babies, the old and the very young, immediately to the gas chambers and selected others for bizarre experiments, all with the flick of a finger.
“Death to the left, life to the right,” says a clearly emotional Yvonne of his casual selection process. “He pulled my hand away from my mother’s and motioned her, my father and my grandmother to the left with his finger. That was the last time I ever saw them.”
Hair shaved and forcibly stripped naked, the very next morning she was marched out and put to work. Quickly her days became a routine of roll call at 5am and then working.
“Always hungry and thirsty, we were told constantly what to do by guards,” she says. “Disobey and you were shot on the spot, collapse during the work and you were also shot immediately. We were zombies.
“What struck me most at the time was the total lack of compassion. Male or female guards, it didn’t matter. There was no human reaction to our suffering. You lived from one hour to the next in anxiety and fear. It’s amazing how strong the will to survive can be. I just hoped and prayed that when it was all over I would meet with my parents again.”
Her main task in the camp was to sort through the garments of newly arrived prisoners in search of hidden valuables. Positioned between the gas chambers and the crematorium, as the 15-year-old worked, the smell of human flesh filled her nostrils.
“In Auschwitz the crematorium burned 24 hours each day,” she says, grimly. “I remember seeing piles of gold teeth and wagons full of human hair. They utilised as much as they could from our bodies.”
Almost six months in this
living hell, Yvonne and the other inmates were forced to leave as part of what is now referred to as the “death marches.” Walking for hundreds of kilometres over weeks, the already ill and malnourished prisoners dropped like flies.
Eventually arriving into Germany, she began four to five months of backbreaking work in a large munitions factory, until one day when the guards failed to appear and Yvonne and her follow prisoners realised they had been liberated.
It was May 1945 and the war was over. In total, 11 million people were killed during the Holocaust, including 1.1 million children, and six million of those victims were Jewish.
After spending weeks in hospital, Yvonne journeyed back to her native Czechoslovakia in the hope that one or both of her parents might have survived, but then the reality hit her: at the age of 16 she was completely and utterly alone.
Recuperating in hospital, less than one year later she made the decision to emigrate to Australia and begin life anew. “I wanted to get as far away from Europe as possible,” she says.
A year later she met and married a fellow concentration camp survivor, John. Together, they built a family: first three children, then nine grandkids, and 11 great-grandkids. “After losing my family to the Nazis, I’ve made another one,” she says. “This is my biggest achievement.”