‘When you hear from a witness, you become a witness’
– Elie Wiesel
This is the third time I have had the priviledge of hearing Mala tell her story. Yesterday, Mala joined the Holocaust Educational Trust (HET) to live stream her testimony, to give not just us Ambassadors, but our friends, families and anyone who was interested, the opportunity to hear from a Holocaust survivor – an opportunity that is inevitably decreasing. For those of you who were not able to watch Mala speak, I have written her story below.
Mala originally came from Poland. Before the war she lived with parents and siblings – an older brother and a younger sister. She described her life as ‘uneventful’ but happy. She didn’t have all the things children have today but they were a happy family. Mala had lots of cousins and friends, she went to school, she did the usual things children do. But this was short lived.
Mala was 8 years old when the war broke out. Her life was immediately turned upside down, as her town was the first to have a ghetto. Already, Jews were being forced out of their homes. Their lives changed to extent that they were deprived of the most basic human rights. There were 15,000 Jews in Mala’s town before the war, but inside the Ghetto there were 28,000. Why was this? The area between Mala’s town and the German boarder was immediately annexed to Germany. This meant that the Jews were forced out, and into the ghetto. This meant that the Ghetto was massively overcrowded, with 10 people to a room (around 3 families). The Ghetto had poor sanitary conditions, meaning epidemics were rife. People died, people were being deported.
Anyone over the age of 12 had to wear white armband with blue Star of David; they were shot if they did not. School for Jewish children stopped, and there was very little food. At this time, deportations were small, but constant. After about 2.5 years, rumours started to circulate that everyone was going to be deported, except those with work permits; the Ghetto was to be liquidated. People panicked – how could they save themselves? There ways of doing so.
Mala’s parents were introduced to people in another town; they were of German origin. The man agreed to take both Mala and her cousin on train, with false papers. The journey was traumatic for Mala; their papers were constantly being checked. There was a reward for handing in Jews – some people turned this into quite a lucrative business. If anyone looked at them for more than a few seconds, she immediately thought that they had suspicions and were about to be handed over. Mala and her cousin found themselves in house with a middle-aged couple (the parents in-law of the man who had travelled with them). They were tolerated, not ill-treated. But they were scared, homesick, vulnerable. They feared betrayal and being arrested. They were frightened all the time.
If there were a knock on the door sometimes it was ok to mix with the guests of the house, but sometimes Mala and her cousin had to hide in a cupboard or were forced outside. They were introduced to guests as ‘relatives visiting from Warsaw’. But Mala had never visited Warsaw, and she panicked when people asked, “well where in Warsaw did you live?”. She made up an address and hoped for the best. No one questioned her further, they were just being sociable. But she was in fear all the time of what was going to happen the next minute.
Mala’s cousin was very homesick and asked to be taken back to their town. She said her parents had friends who were hiding their valuables, they would take her too. Eventually, Mala was also taken back. When she arrived, her father and uncle were waiting. When only Mala returned, her Uncle went white with shock and asked where his daughter was. The Man said he had already brought her back to the friend’s she had spoken of. Mala’s Uncle exclaimed that she was not there, and asked the man, “what have you done with my child?”
To this day, nobody knows what happened to Mala’s cousin. It is very, very tragic.
By now, the Ghetto had been reduced to just 2.5 streets. It had been crowded before, but now, there were 2,400 in just these streets, all of whom had jobs. This was their reason for still being there, for still being alive. The rest had been deported. Mala’s immediate family was very lucky, they were still intact. Most families disappeared altogether, or only had one/two members left. They were lucky, but not for long.
The Germans knew that people were slowly returning: those who had not been deported, those who were hiding; and so they started searching. Her Father and brother had a work permit, and whilst they were at work, on the 12th December, 1942, guards stormed into the room where Mala’s mother, sister and others were hiding and took them. Mala was left in bed as she wasn’t very well. The policeman said that was ok, she could say. They were taken to the synagogue, where they were adding more people every day until there were 520 people. Most were women and children; some were elderly men. On the 20th December, they were marched out at dawn in groups of 50. They were taken to a forest where they were killed in the most horrific way. These killings were taking place all over Europe, in forests. They died horrible deaths. Mala wouldn’t go into detail as she couldn’t even bear to spell out what happened.
There were still 3 members of Mala’s family left, but people were still being rounded up. There was so much going on. Mala’s Aunt on her father’s side was taken away screaming “who will look after my child?” As Mala was the only female member left, the responsibility fell to her.
Anne was 5. By now the Ghetto was completely liquidated. Every nook and cranny was searched. Mala and Anne stood outside the ghetto gates in a line, ready to be deported. They were loaded onto the transport, towards the back. It was very scary. Soldiers were milling around with rifles. They would shoot people or just knock them over the head with their rifle, as did with the woman in front carrying a child. Mala looked sideways and saw the German officer who was in charge. Somehow she knew he was a Lieutenant. She went right up to him and said, “I have been separated from father and brother who are still inside ghetto, could I go back to them?” The Lieutenant was flabbergasted, but Mala distinctly remembered that he had a kind face. The Lieutenant called over one of the policemen told him to take Mala back inside the ghetto. Mala said, “Just a minute – I have to get my cousin.” The Lieutenant simply said that Anne did not have permission, only Mala did.
Mala was now faced with a tough decision: did she abandon her cousin, and go back to father, or lose her chance and stay with Anne? The Holocaust was full of such dilemmas. Mala carried on arguing with the Lieutenant. Eventually he gave in and said “Ok, quickly.” This was such an amazing bit of luck. Mala said, “I know what happened to those children that were in that transport. They were taken away from their mothers. The mothers were told they were going to be deported to a labour camp and wouldn’t be able to look after their children. These children have a memorial in same place.” This would have been their fate, had the officer not let her go back.
The Ghetto had been liquidated. Mala was allocated to same factory as her father and brother, though men and women were always housed separately; they were a long way away from one another, but they did see one another. At the age of 12, Mala started work as slave labourer. Anne was so attached to her; she was terrified of losing Mala. As she worked shifts, there was always someone back in the barracks to keep an eye on Anne for her.
Everyone suffered different hardships. Mala had been there 18 months when it was decided they were to be deported. Everyone was marched to the railway station, men separately from women. They had no idea where going. The men were deported to Buchenwald; Mala and the remaining women were sent to Ravensbrück.
Upon arrival, Mala had everything taken away from her. Mala had to line up and give details – as you now the Germans were meticulous at record keeping. Mala had to undress, and had her clothing taken away. Her head was shaved before having a cold, communal shower. She was given a striped jacket and skirt. When the women looked at one another, they could not recognise each other. This was a terrible shock to system. They all looked exactly the same. Mala said this was difficult to explain what that does to one soul, being stripped of one’s identity in addition to everything else. It was the final blow. “It makes you give up hope, and without hope there is no survival. People were just giving up.” Mala didn’t work at Ravensbrück. The thing that stood out for her was the roll call. It was February, it was freezing cold, and it could go on for quite a long time – sometimes 2 hours. Officers would sometimes pause to go off for coffee. A few people collapsed and died in this time.
It took 4.5 days to get to Ravensbrück in cattle trucks, where Mala was given no food or water. She was only there for short time, 2.5 months, before it was decided they were to be deported again. The journey to Bergen Belsen was much shorter. When they got off the train, they were greeted in the usual way. The dogs were outside barking, the doors cranked when they were opened.
There was no room for them, really, it was so overcrowded. So many other people were being sent west to Germany. Mala had to spend night in big tent, in the middle of February, in freezing cold. “What I remember, that I’ll never forget, is the sight as you entered. The first thing that hit you was the smoke and the smell. There were people there that were skeletons, shuffling along like zombies. They would shuffle along and collapse and die. There were lots of dead bodies around, piles of dead bodies. Twisted decaying, naked corpses. It was like something out of hell. It was horrific.” The overcrowding was such that barracks that should have held 80-100, held as many as 1000. I know this from the records.
Mala had heard from someone about a children’s block. When she enquired, they told her they were overcrowded, and at any rate she was too old at 14, but they would take her cousin Anne. But of course, there was no way that Anne was going to stay without Mala. Eventually, the women running the children’s block relented and let her in too. Mala doesn’t think they would have survived on the main camp, especially as children. They were very lucky to get in there, though it was not much better. There was very little food. But suddenly, they were being looked after, they were being cared for, and this made such a difference. The women there were very kind.
Mala caught typhus, which was very rife in the camp. One day, she saw people running, not very fast of course, but nonetheless running towards something. How did they have the strength to run? She was completely devoid of any energy and couldn’t move. It was 15th May, 1945, when the camp was liberated by the British Army. “That’s when the war finished for me,” Mala said.
Mala was still ill and was transferred to a hospital. After about three months, she was sent to Sweden along with her cousin and other children. The Swedes were wonderful to them. Mala found out that brother had survived; he was the only other survivor of her family. He was in England, which is why Mala came to England 1947.
Questions & Answers
Q) Can you remember the first time you delivered your testimony, and what emotions you had telling it for the first time?
A) I didn’t talk about it after liberation, no one did. Though we did talk about it among ourselves. People didn’t ask – it was too difficult to ask, never mind too difficult to tell. I can see now looking back, the reason why we didn’t talk about it – people were recovering from the war everywhere, it was the World War. People were getting lives together again. It wasn’t our first priority. People felt like they couldn’t ask, and we weren’t going to talk about it if people didn’t ask. There’s a time for everything: a time to speak, a time to stay quiet. That was not a time to speak, right after the war. The time came a little bit late perhaps – survivors weren’t going to live forever. Now, we are at the height at the moment, but there are not many of us left. Those of us who are still here are very keen to share.
Q) what message do you want people to remember about you & your experiences
A) It’s not about me, it’s about the people who didn’t make it. It’s about what happened to us, and why it happened to us. That is our reason for speaking.