An Unusual Case of the Runs

Published: 2006-12-12

I recently had an opportunity to speak person to person with an Auschwitz survivor... allow me to relate the circumstances: I was sitting with my son at a table in a patio which is surrounded by various shops and restaurants in Los Angeles. There are also two escalators ascending and descending to and from the second floor, which sports a Target and cosmetics store. Anyway, we were casually sitting there enjoying a cool coca cola on a very warm July afternoon, when I suddenly happen to look up and see an elderly, white haired lady descending the escalator in the company of a younger man, who I correctly assumed was her son. I immediately noticed that the lady had a number tattooed on her forearm.

What a coincidence that this lady and her son decided to sit down at the table directly adjacent to me. When her son arose and headed for a Starbucks, I thought to myself, "Well, this is now or never, because such opportunities rarely present themselves." I turned and struck up a conversation with the lady, and was very courteous, sympathetic and considerate of her feelings. As she lit up a cigarette, I said to her, "I couldn't help but notice the tattoo on your arm. Were you in a concentration camp?" She turned and looked in my direction and nodded. I then asked, "May I ask which camp you were in?" She immediately replied: "Auschwitz." Just one word. Auschwitz. I then said, "How did you manage to survive?" And she looked at me and said, "God saved me."

I asked her if she left with the German staff when they evacuated the camp in February 1945, but she didn't respond.

I continued to ask questions as gently as I could, and inquired as to which country she had been originally deported from, and she answered, "Czechoslovakia." Her answers thus far were consistently terse, but friendly. I then prodded a bit more and asked whether she had been deported from Theresienstadt, but she declined to reply, so I sought to redirect the questioning by asking if she had ever encountered any of the infamous female overseers in the camp. She looked at me quizzically, as if she did not know what or whom I was talking about, so I asked, "Where were you housed in Auschwitz? Were you in the Familienlager or were you in Birkenau? " This question again met with no response, so I then asked, "Did you ever have occasion to run into Irma Grese while you were in the camp?" The name appeared to mean nothing to her, so I asked if she remembered Maria Mandel, who was one of the head female overseers in the camp. Again, no sign of recognition and not a word in response. So then I said, "Die Aufseherinnen."

At that word, she raised an eyebrow and glanced over at me. The unusual expression on her face seemed to acknowledge recognition of the word, so I asked again if she had any memory of either of them, as both were very notorious in the press and both had been tried, convicted and executed after the war. When I mentioned that Ms. Grese had been judged at the Belsen Trial, the lady simply nodded and smiled.

I was about to give up on any further questions when her son suddenly walked up with two beverages in his hands. When he sat down, the lady politely introduced me to her son. Her English was refined and excellent although with a distinctive Jewish accent. I mentioned to the son that she and I had been talking about her experiences during the war, and he glanced up at me and then at his mother. I then casually and sincerely remarked, "It is truly a miracle that your mother managed to survive." Naturally, he agreed, and then I asked how she happened to be saved and he shot back, "She was liberated by the Americans."

I let that statement register for a moment and looked to the mother, and she did not dispute it. Thereafter I said, "But I was under the impression that the Americans did not liberate Auschwitz. Wasn't it the Soviets who liberated the camp?" The son looked up at me, rather astonished, as did the mother, and then she nodded her head in agreement with me that she was liberated by the Russians. However, the question prompted an immediate case of the 'runs,' for within the span of three seconds the son suddenly blurted out, "Mother, it's time to get going now."

And that is exactly what they did. In fact, they left so fast I didn't even get a chance to mutter a good-bye or 'next year in Jerusalem.'

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Author(s): Joseph P. Bellinger
Title: An Unusual Case of the Runs
Published: 2006-12-12
First posted on CODOH: Dec. 10, 2006, 6 p.m.
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