Elli and her family arrived in a place in Poland called Auschwitz on May 31, 1944. They emerged from the crowded cattle cars into the chaos of screaming officers and barking dogs. They were told to leave behind the few belongings they had taken with them. Then the women were forced to separate from the men.
Elli, her mother, and her aunt Serena went in one line, and Elli’s brother was forced into another. When he tried to say goodbye, the officers kicked him. Other officers were swinging whips through the air and hitting people, chasing them, and making them run towards the selection , where they met the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele .
TESTIMONY: “ARE YOU JEWISH?”
“Aunt Serena, I’ll never see you again.”
Next, the women had to undress and prepare to be shaved of all their hair. Those who hesitated would be shot, so everyone complied. Then they were given prisoners’ rags to wear, and all emerged from the process looking identical in their grey shapeless uniforms. Even though Elli worried that she wouldn’t be able to find her mother because all of the women looked alike, Elli still recognized her mother’s beautiful features, and cherished her presence more than ever. Now, her mother was all she had.
The women were brought to the barracks . Each day, Elli and her mother were forced to stand in the blazing sun for roll call. On their tenth day in Auschwitz , the section where Elli and her mother were standing was suddenly ordered to march. The women were marched out past the barracks , past the barbed-wire fences, past the gates of the camp, and onto the cattle cars once again. After some time, the train rolled to a stop in the Polish city of Krakow, where the women were forced onto open army trucks. Driving onward, they soon entered under wide metal gates with a sign declaring their final destination as the labor camp , Plaszow.
Elli and her mother were in hard-labor at Plaszow through the summer. During grueling work days they were forced to flatten out the top of a hill in preparation for construction. The only rest from their work was a brief break in the day for a small portion of soup. Amon Goeth was in charge of the camp, and he was a vicious taskmaster. Elli witnessed the cold-blooded murder of fellow inmates in broad daylight, and was constantly terrified that she too would be killed. To find relief from their fears, Elli and others secretly recited Psalms together at night.
After seven and a half weeks in Plaszow, Elli and her mother were put on another train together. Elli tried not to think about anything but staying close to her mother on yet another one of their terrifying journeys to an unknown destination. Three days later, the trains had returned to Auschwitz . At this point, Elli’s mother no longer had the will to go on. She refused to leave the train, preferring to stay with those now unable to even walk. From this moment on, Elli took on the responsibility to care for her mother. She forced her mother to get off the train and report for work, cared for her when she was severely injured and sent to the infirmary, and despite her own exhaustion, even found the strength to smuggle her mother out of the infirmary when a selection of the weak prisoners was said to be imminent.
Ironically, just as Elli managed to sneak her mother out of the infirmary, the women prisoners were immediately called out for another selection , either to be transported out of Auschwitz , or to be sent to the gas chambers .
Elli and her mother managed to get onto the transport that took the women from Auschwitz to the German city of Augsburg, where they began to work in a factory producing parts for the German air force. At the factory, Elli was assigned to join a select work group of “superior intelligence” because of her “Aryan looks.” Elli’s mother was assigned to a different work group, but they were both allowed to stay in the same sleeping quarters. As they worked in the factory each day, the women regretted contributing to the war effort of their enemies, but were too afraid to disobey their orders, because even innocent mistakes would be punished as acts of sabotage .
The conditions in Augsburg, however horrible, were far from the terrors of Auschwitz and Plaszow. Elli and her mother, for example, found that they were able to save their potato rations to use as candle holders for the Sabbath lights, using oil smuggled from the factory and threads from their blanket as wicks. The opportunities for religious observance also included fasting of Yom Kippur , secretly lighting candles for the eight day holiday of Chanukah , and not eating bread during the festival of Passover . From September through April 1944, the women continued to be subject to terror, but managed to find hope through such small and secret acts of resistance . Meanwhile, they also began to hear the Allies bombing the area, and had hope that the war might soon end.
With the Allies approaching, the women were suddenly transferred away from the fighting, passing through bombed-out cities and arriving at a subcamp of the Dachau concentration camp , called Muehldorf. Miraculously, Elli and her mother discovered a group of people from their hometown in this camp, and learned that Elli’s brother Armin was among them. They also learned that there had been an outbreak of typhus among the inmates. When they saw Armin again for the first time, he was a mere skeleton. Desperate to help him, Elli and her mother secretly passed their daily portion of bread over the fence to Armin in the men’s side of the camp. Terrified by his hollow response, they prayed that both their presence and their food would soon give him much needed strength. They passed him bread every evening for three weeks, and then all the prisoners were suddenly forced once again onto trains.