Thursday, 30 July 2015

Born Survivor


(Reader's discretion advised).
During my time in UK, three names inspired me deeply, Priska, Rachel and Anka. They were young women in their twenties who survived the Nazi death machine called Auschwitz. But that's not all. They were also pregnant when they were interned into the death camp (in mid-1944) and delivered their babies in the most inconceivable of places in April 1945. Their stories just had to be told and it was deftly narrated in the book "Born Survivor" by author Wendy Holden.
I was in London when I bought the book and I read it from cover to cover. When I finished the book, my first thought was that life's indeed a journey and for some people, the journey is to hell and back.
In Auschwitz, the three young pregnant women were completely dehumanized in assembly-line fashion. First they were stripped to their bare flesh for disinfection. Enduring the nudity in front of complete strangers, the women were made to shorn off all body hair. Most cried in disbelief as their beautiful locks and luxuriant curls came off. The locks and curls were used by the guards to make clothes, netting and watertight padding for the German war machines.
Next came the humiliating orifices checks. They were led into a small room and each were subjected to finger examination. The Jews hid everything from the guards for fear of losing them. They arranged with their dentists to hide diamonds in their teeth and even inserted jewels into their vaginas. But the checks were so demeaning that nothing was kept from sight. Everything was unraveled.
After that, the naked women had to cover themselves from the mismatched heap of clothes and shoes cast to one side. It was in fact a matter of life and death which clothes the prisoners were given because it would be theirs for the duration of their imprisonment (or enslavement). If the clothes were insufficient to cover their body or the shoes were too worn out, then the biting cold and killer wind would conspire to hasten their death.
For the three pregnant women, the greatest fear was the growing life in their womb. They knew they had to keep it from the guards. No death camp would tolerate another Jewish baby born into the world when their gas and incinerating chambers were already stretched to breaking point trying to exterminate them. The inspection of the women was carried out by the extremely cruel Dr Josef Mengele. He did the inspection with a cavalier squeeze of their breasts for secreted milk. That was one foolproof way of testing for pregnancy.
If any of them were found pregnant, the guards would conduct forced abortions. These abortions were carried out in the most ill equipped and unhygienic environment and the mothers and fetuses would often perish together. Those who dared to conceal their birth and were subsequently found out would be forced to hand over their babies to Mengele to be experimented on. Delivered to a special block called "The Zoo", Mengele would conduct unspeakable operation on twins, babies, dwarves and adults, most times without anesthetic.
Here is an account in the book of how a woman was treated when Mengele discovered her pregnancy. He said to her, "First you will deliver your baby, and then we'll see." After the baby was born, the "Angel of Death" sadistically told her that "he wanted to see how long a baby could survive without food." Mengele then ordered that "the mother's breast be tightly bandaged to stop her feeding her child. For eight days, feverish and with breasts swollen with milk, she and her baby lay helplessly together as Mengele visited daily. Only when the little girl was half-dead did her mother inject her with morphine given to her by a prisoner-doctor. Her child's death saved her life and she was sent to the other labor camp, eventually to survive."
Then came hunger and thirst. Thirst was the no. 1 killer. Even if they could beat dehydration, the women prisoners were perpetually hungry. There was hardly anything to eat in the camp. Not even a blade of grass. Many starved to death. At best, they lived on liquids that looked like "dishwater" made "from marsh water and burned wheat", which the Germans called coffee. There was also soup made from rotten vegetables and a "small square of black sawdust bread."
The condition of their barracks was dreadfully uninhabitable. Due to starvation, they often suffered from stomach spasms and diarrhea. Dysentery was widespread with inflammation of the intestines, abdominal pain and bleeding. However, they were not allowed to relieve themselves as and when they wanted to. So, most of them had to do it in one discreet corner. You can imagine the awful stench coming from the barracks.
Even when the prisoners were allowed to visit the toilet, not everyone had access to the limited "communal concrete holes". Those who could not wait would have to relieve themselves in public. This was where the Nazi guards often played a humiliating sport on them by "poking women in the backside as they defecated." One of the pregnant mothers complained, "Just for fun, not even letting you do your business in peace...a group of them said we will make fun of the Jews when they do whatever they do...it was so degrading." The women prisoners were treated like "circus animals" or pariah dogs, enduring unrelenting inhumane treatments. Forced into a meaningless and unbearable existence, many women either went mad or committed suicide.
Despite this, Priska, Rachel and Anka pressed on for their unborn child. They learned the ropes to survive in Auschwitz by blending in and remaining invisible, compliant and hopeful.
Sometime towards the end of 1944, they were assigned to a munitions factory in Freiberg, a town in Saxony. The train ride took two nights and three days and the only consolation as compared to Auschwitz was that they were made to work 14-hour shift instead of waiting to die.
The food was still unspeakable and the condition deplorable. They were given "bitter black water in the morning with a piece of bread, then some suspicious smelling soup made of beets, root vegetables or pumpkin." One of the pregnant women found a "moldy cabbage half-buried in wet mud" and she risked her life picking it up to eat. However, the cabbage stank and was so decomposed that it went straight through her fingers.
The work was not only mindless, but the long walk to the factory under the mercilessly cold wind of below zero degrees was especially torturous. One prisoner recounted, "It was a long walk through the town where they kept spitting at us and calling us God knows what. And we had to walk all that without coats...or stocking or something...it was awful."
The irony was that as they walked to the factory, they saw children making snowmen and could smell the aromatic dinner prepared by families. The community was completely oblivious to their hellish plight. One prisoner said, "It broke your heart to see families sitting around happily in the warmth of their homes, eating and laughing and leading normal lives...no one showed us any kindness. Not a soul. We were just ghosts."
However, the women kept the spirit up by inventing "imaginary feasts" and reciting new recipes amongst themselves. Each took turns to invite the rest to an elaborate meal and talked through the preparation of it. Another distraction was to share with each other what they would like to eat when the war ends. However, it was a "self-defeating torture" when the nostalgia only deepens the agony for the longing for their loved ones and their comfortable lives before the war. One prisoner said, "All of a sudden, we'd say, "Stop! We won't speak about it. Then half an hour later, we'd start again."
Priska gave birth in Freiberg. Her baby was born on 12 April 1945. She was laid on a wooden plank in the factory floor and she delivered her baby "without drugs or any remotely sterile equipment." In her agony, some of the spectators placed bets on the sex of the baby. If it was a girl, the war would be over and a boy meant that it would go on even longer. As the baby emerged, one of the guards cried out, "It's a devil!" Priska gave birth to a baby girl and she named her Hana. She was the most beautiful face Priska had set her eyes on.
As the Allied forces advanced into Germany, the factory in Freiberg was abandoned and all prisoners were quickly transported into the heart of Germany. Priska, with her newborn, Rachel and Anka were put on a train to Mauthausen. It was on the train ride that Rachel gave birth on 20 April 1945 (Hitler's birthday). Amidst the air raids and bombing, Rachel's water broke and she went into labor. She recalled, "Can you imagine lying in an open coal train giving birth with women all around?" Baby Mark weighed less than three pounds when he was born and one of the guards shouted, "Another Jew for the Fuhrer!"
Of all the births, Anka's was to be the most depressing - as if a comparison was ever a comfort. She went into labor when the train arrived at Mauthausen. A ghost of a figure, Anka endured the physical torment when she and others who survived were throw onto an open cart used to transport coals. It was beyond filthy. As she was carted off, she had to control her scream so as not to attract attention. In complete apathy, one guard pulling the cart said to her, "You can keep screaming". Anka never knew whether he was being compassionate or sarcastic. Eva was born on 29 April 1945 and Anka exclaimed, "I was the happiest person in the world."
About one week later on 7 May 1945, Germany under Hitler unconditionally surrendered. Before that, the Fuhrer cowardly took his own life by biting down a vial of cyanide and shooting himself in the right temple. Heinrich Himmler - the architect of the Final Solution and the gas chamber - was arrested but he went the way of his master by biting on a cyanide pill. And the evil Dr Mengele was arrested, mistakenly released, changed his name and remained on the run for all his life. His wife divorced him and his children denounced him. He died unrepentant by drowning in Brazil in 1979.
All mothers and their child survived the brutality. They lived to a ripe old age. Priska died peacefully in her sleep on 12 October 2006 in her eighties. Rachel died on 19 February 2003 also in her eighties. And Anka died at 95 on 17 July 2013 with Eva by her side.
After reading the book, and learning about the incredible struggles for their life and the life of their unborn in the worst of circumstances, I thought about my own life and family. I quietly counted my blessing.
But more importantly, I salute the triumph of the human spirit. Indeed, even in a world where evil reigned with impunity, three mothers (and countless others) never gave up. Completely stripped of their humanity and abandoned to die, they fought back and overcame all odds. And "if the human spirit is an open window through which pours the sunlight of the human spirit and human dignity," then I will always draw my strength and inspiration from the Light that never fails to shine through into the shadows of my own circumstances. Cheerz.

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