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Fragments of Isabella
A Memoir of Auschwitz
By Isabella Leitner
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1978 Isabella Leitner and Irving A. Leitner
All rights reserved.
NEW YORK, MAY 1945
Yesterday, what happened yesterday? Did you go to the movies? Did you have a date? What did he say? That he loves you? Did you see the new Garbo film? She was wearing a stunning cape. Her hair, I thought, was completely different and very becoming. Have you seen it? No? I haven't. Yesterday ... yesterday, May 29, 1944, we were deported....
Are the American girls really going to the movies? Do they have dates? Men tell them they love them, true or not. Their hair is long and blonde, high in the front and low in the back, like this and like that, and they are beautiful and ugly. Their clothes are light in the summer and they wear fur in the winter — they mustn't catch cold. They wear stockings, ride in automobiles, wear wristwatches and necklaces, and they are colorful and perfumed. They are healthy. They are living. Incredible!
Was it only a year ago? Or a century? ... Our heads are shaved. We look like neither boys nor girls. We haven't menstruated for a long time. We have diarrhea. No, not diarrhea — typhus. Summer and winter we have but one type of clothing. Its name is "rag." Not an inch of it without a hole. Our shoulders are exposed. The rain is pouring on our skeletal bodies. The lice are having an orgy in our armpits, their favorite spots. Their bloodsucking, the irritation, their busy scurrying, give the illusion of warmth. We're hot at least under our armpits, while our bodies are shivering.
MAY 28, 1944–MORNING
It is Sunday, May 28th, my birthday, and I am celebrating, packing for the big journey, mumbling to myself with bitter laughter — tomorrow is deportation. The laughter is too bitter, the body too tired, the soul trying to still the infinite rage. My skull seems to be ripping apart, trying to organize, to comprehend what cannot be comprehended. Deportation? What is it like?
A youthful SS man, with the authority, might, and terror of the whole German army in his voice, has just informed us that we are to rise at 4 A.M. sharp for the journey. Anyone not up at 4 A.M. will get a Kugel (bullet).
A bullet simply for not getting up? What is happening here? The ghetto suddenly seems beautiful. I want to celebrate my birthday for all the days to come in this heaven. God, please let us stay here. Show us you are merciful. If my senses are accurate, this is the last paradise we will ever know. Please let us stay in this heavenly hell forever. Amen. We want nothing — nothing, just to stay in the ghetto. We are not crowded, we are not hungry, we are not miserable, we are happy. Dear ghetto, we love you; don't let us leave. We were wrong to complain, we never meant it.
We're tightly packed in the ghetto, but that must be a fine way to live in comparison to deportation. Did God take leave of his senses? Something terrible is coming. Or is it only me? Am I mad? There are seven of us in nine feet of space. Let them put fourteen together, twenty-eight. We will sleep on top of each other. We will get up at 3 A.M. — not 4 — stand in line for ten hours. Anything. Anything. Just let our family stay together. Together we will endure death. Even life.
MAY 28, 1944–AFTERNOON
We are no longer being guarded only by the Hungarian gendarmes. That duty has been taken over by the SS, for tomorrow we are to be transported. From now on, the SS are to be the visible bosses.
Before this day, Admiral Horthy's gendarmes were the front men. Now they are what they always had been — the lackeys. Ever since childhood, I remembered them with terror in my heart. They were brutal, vicious — and anti-Semitic. Ordinary policemen, by comparison, are gentle and kind. But now, for the first time, the SS are to take charge.
My mother looks at me, her birthday baby. My mother's face, her eyes, cannot be described. From here on she keeps smiling. Her smile is full of pain. She knows that for her there is nothing beyond this. And she keeps smiling at me, and I can't stand it. I am silently pleading with her: "Stop smiling." I gaze at her tenderly and smile back.
I would love to tell her that she should trust me, that I will live, endure. And she trusts me, but she doesn't trust the Germans. She keeps smiling, and it is driving me mad, because deep inside I know she knows. I keep hearing her oft-made comment: "Hitler will lose the war, but he'll win against the Jews."
And now an SS man is here, spick-and-span, with a dog, a silver pistol, and a whip. And he is all of sixteen years old. On his list appears the name of every Jew in the ghetto. The streets are bulging with Jews, because Kisvárda, a little town, has to accommodate all the Jews of the neighboring villages. The SS do not have to pluck out every Jew from every hamlet. That work has already been done by the gendarmes. The Jews are now here. All the SS have to do is to send them on their way to the ovens.
The Jews are lined up in the streets. And now the sixteen-year-old SS begins to read the names. Those called form a group opposite us. "Teresa Katz," he calls — my mother. She steps forward. My brother, my sisters, and I watch her closely. (My father is in America trying to obtain immigration papers for his wife and children, trying to save them before Hitler devours them.) My mother heads toward the group.
Now the SS man moves toward my mother. He raises his whip and, for no reason at all, lashes out at her.
Philip, my eighteen-year-old brother, the only man left in the family, starts to leap forward to tear the sixteen-year-old SS apart. And we, the sisters — don't we want to do the same?
But suddenly reality stares at us with all its madness. My mother's blood will flow right here in front of our eyes. Philip will be butchered. We are unarmed, untrained. We are children. Our weapon might be a shoelace or a belt. Besides, we don't know how to kill. The SS whistle will bring forth all the other SS and gendarmes, and they will not be merciful enough to kill the entire ghetto — only enough to create a pool of blood. All of this flashes before us with crystal clarity. Our mother's blood must not be shed right here, right now, in front of our very eyes. Our brother must not be butchered.
And so my sister Chicha and I, standing next to Philip, step on his feet and hold his arms as hard as we can. And Philip's eyes flash in disbelief. We are all anguished. But we are all still alive.
My father left Hungary for America. He left in trepidation, leaving his wife and six children behind. He left so he might save his family. He spent all his energies, all his love, banging on the doors of the authorities: "Give me immigration papers for my precious seven, so they can come here and live. Don't let them be murdered."
And they gave him the papers, finally.
But the clock ticked faster than the hands of bureaucracy moved. We received the necessary documents with instructions to be at the American consulate in Budapest on a certain Monday morning. My mother, Chicha, and I arrived in Budapest on Sunday. We were good and early, for on Monday morning we had an appointment with life!
We were at a friend's house, chatting happily about the appointment, listening to music on the radio. There was a sudden interruption. The music stopped.
There was no appointment at the American consulate on Monday morning. It was December 8, 1941. Hungary had declared war against the United States.
The desperate father is again banging on the doors of the authorities: "Give me papers for Israel, so that my precious seven might live."
And they gave him the papers, finally.
And we received them ... four weeks after Hitler had occupied Hungary. They could be framed ... or used for toilet paper. I don't remember what we did with them.
Many years later, as you lay dying, Father, were you still tormented? Did you still think you had not done everything possible?
You tried, Father. You tried.
MAIN STREET, HUNGARY
Kisvárda was a small town in Hungary with a population of only 20,000. Yet it stands out in my memory as a very sophisticated "city" with visiting opera and theater companies, masquerade balls for the rich, cafés in which to while away the time trying to sound clever and worldly, auto racing, and horse racing. Barons, princes, and rich landowners, with their high-class manners and designer clothes, pranced around town in their fancy carriages. These aristocrats put their stamp on the town.
Main Street in Kisvárda (St. Laszlo Utca), I remember, smelled of French perfumes when I used to accompany my mother to the marketplace. The aroma would fill my nostrils as I'd watch my mother feel the force-fed geese to see if they were fat enough to nourish her six growing children — her bright, handsome, sensitive kids who would one day go out into the world well prepared by a mother whose intelligence and enlightenment were legendary and whose social conscience earned her my title "the poor man's Mrs. Roosevelt."
An avid reader, my mother marched her six kids off to the library every Friday to borrow the maximum number of books allowed to us, which she herself would devour before they had to be returned. And when my mother would buy fish for the Sabbath or holidays, she was incapable of throwing away the newspapers the fish were wrapped in before reading the smelly sheets first.
And I remember Teca, the gypsy, who used to come around to cast her sad eyes at my mother every day. Her source of sadness was always the same: "My children are hungry, Ma'am." And "Ma'am" would invariably fill Teca's potato sack with whatever she could spare. And anyone happening by at mealtime would automatically be invited to dine with us. "There will be enough. I'll put a little more water in the soup."
But mostly I remember the conversations my mother used to have with the many adults who came to visit us from other parts of Europe — business people, friends, relatives. The six kids stood around drinking in those very big words, those very big subjects — politics, art, books, and always man's inhumanity to man. Sometimes I was resentful. Must she care about everyone in this world? Look at me! Praise me! I want to be the most important! Why do you care so much about so many things?
But now, so many years later, I say: Thank you, Mother, for being what you were, for trying to develop me in every way.
Kisvàrda was just a little town. It's where I began, where I yearned to be away from. I didn't think I could take a large enough breath there. Yet the memories of my teens are crowded not only with teen pains but also with precious hours spent with dear friends in a house so alive with interests, thoughts, activities, conversations, dancing, playing, and falling in and out of love that my house — the whole town — seemed to be bursting apart.
But there were other things, too — bad things. I cannot count the times I was called a "dirty Jew" while strolling down Main Street, Hungary. Sneaky whispers: "Dirty Jew." No, "Smelly Jew" — that's what I heard even more often. Anti-Semitism, ever since I can remember, was the crude reality. It was always present in the fabric of life. It was probably so everywhere, we thought, but surely so in Hungary — most certainly in Kisvárda.
They really hate us, I would think. It certainly felt that way. You couldn't hide from it. You couldn't run from it. It was everywhere. It was thinly veiled, when it was veiled at all. It was just under the skin. It was hard to live with. But we did. We knew no other way.
Each "Heil Hitler!" speech on the radio made things worse. And such speeches were on the radio constantly. Not many people understood German in my part of Hungary, but the radio was blasting away Hitler's speeches, and the frenzy of the incessant "Heil Hitlers!" made the Hungarian gentiles feel a camaraderie, a oneness, with the mad orator. It also made us Jews cringe in the very depths of our souls. It made us fear the people with whom we had shared this town for generations.
What could we do?
Give us a patch of earth that is free of anti-Semitism!
We were afraid. Our neighbors, we knew, would be Hitler's willing accomplices when the bell would toll. And the bell tolled.
On Monday morning, May 29, 1944, the ghetto was evacuated. Jews, thousands upon thousands of Jews — every shape and form, every age, with every ailment, those whose Aryan blood was not Aryan enough, those who had changed their religion, oh, so long ago — dragged themselves down the main street toward the railroad station for what the Germans called "deportation." Upon their backs, bundles and backpacks — the compulsory "50 kilos of your best clothing and food" (which the Germans could later confiscate in one simple operation).
And the Hungarian townspeople, the gentiles — they were there too. They stood lining the streets, many of them smiling, some hiding their smiles. Not a tear. Not a good-bye. They were the good people, the happy people. They were the Aryans.
"We are rid of them, those smelly Jews," their faces read. "The town is ours!"
Main Street, Hungary.
A NEW MODE OF TRAVEL
We drag ourselves to the railroad station. The sun is mercilessly hot. People are fainting, babies screaming. We, the young and healthy teen-agers, are totally spent. What must the old, the sick, feel? Totally stripped of our dignity, leaving the town we were born in, grew up in — what happens after this long wait? Where are we off to?
I am ready to go. Away from my cradle of love. Away from where every pebble and every face are familiar. Those familiar faces now reflect gladness. I must be away before I learn to hate them. I shall not return.
You, my former neighbors, I cannot live with you again. You could have thrown a morsel of sadness our way while we were dragging ourselves down Main Street. But you didn't. Why?
Please take me away from here. I don't know these people. I don't ever want to know them. I can't detect the difference between them and the SS, so I'll go with the SS.
Soon we are packed into the cattle cars ... cars with barred windows, with planks of wood on the bars, so that no air can enter or escape ... 75 to a car ... no toilets ... no doctors ... no medication.
I am menstruating. There is no way for me to change my napkin ... no room to sit ... no room to stand ... no air to breathe. This is no way to die. It offends even death. Yet people are dying all around me.
We squeeze my mother into a sitting position on the backpack. Her face has an otherworldly look. She knows she will not live. But she wants us to live, desperately. All these years I've carried with me her face of resignation and hope and love:
"Stay alive, my darlings — all six of you. Out there, when it's all over, a world is waiting for you to give it all I gave you. Despite what you see here — and you are all young and impressionable — believe me, there is humanity out there, there is dignity. I will not share it with you, but it's there. And when this is over, you must add to it, because sometimes it is a little short, a little skimpy. With your lives, you can create other lives and nourish them. You can nourish your children's souls and minds, and teach them that man is capable of infinite glory. You must believe me. I cannot leave you with what you see here. I must leave you with what I see. My body is nearly dead, but my vision is throbbing with life — even here. I want you to live for the very life that is yours. And wherever I'll be, in some mysterious way, my love will overcome my death and will keep you alive. I love you."
And that frail woman of love lived until Wednesday.
We have arrived. We have arrived where? Where are we?
Young men in striped prison suits are rushing about, emptying the cattle cars. "Out! Out! Everybody out! Fast! Fast!"
The Germans were always in such a hurry. Death__ was__ always__ urgent__ with__ them — Jewish death. The earth had to be cleansed of Jews. We already knew that. We just didn't know that sharing the planet for another minute was more than this super-race could live with. The air for them was befouled by Jewish breath, and they must have fresh air.
Excerpted from Fragments of Isabella by Isabella Leitner. Copyright © 1978 Isabella Leitner and Irving A. Leitner. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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