SUR­VIVOR

‘HOW I SUR­VIVED AUSCHWITZ’ AS A YOUNG GIRL, YVONNE LOST HER EN­TIRE FAM­ILY – BUT SHE NEVER LOST HOPE

New Idea - - Official Magazine / Home and Away - By Paul Ewart

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.”

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