By Liron Dorfman
ORT Kiryat Motzkin, Israel
With the help of Anthony Berris
according to the book
The River That Vanished
I could barely know my home. It was very different now. It was hard to breath in it. All our belongings were packed for the purpose of not taking up space. Thanks to the lovely spring days, we took out all the furniture and put it in the yard. This way, there was enough room in our two room apartment for sixteen more people who were driven away from their homes. We were fortunate because we were still in our home, but who knew till when?
Oh, I have not introduced myself yet. My name is Rachel Bernheim-Friedmann. I was twenty-two years old then, living in Mukachevo, Czechoslovakia. My city was a very beautiful one. Father had died earlier and my brother, who was older than I, already left home in order to study medicine in a university in Praha. After finishing his studies, he went to live in Israel, then called "Palestine" under British rule. The year was 1944, and our building was already part of the Ghetto. This tiny box called "home" was overloaded these days with elderly people, kids, and their parents. Sometimes it seemed that a heavy storm would take the box up and carry it away on a giant wave that would wash down all the house and its residents. Only then would there finally be a bit of quiet in this house. It was a strange life we had at that time. Nothing was the way it used to be. We lived in emptiness, not working or studying.
One day, I went out to the yard with my two sisters and mother. We followed mother, stepping downstairs on the way to the basement. The wooden stairs were unstable and risky. I was standing on the last floor. Mom opened the heavy wooden door, and we followed her to the dark side of the basement, to a place far from the pile of chopped wood for heating and from the big bags of potatoes. We watch as our mother used a metal spoon to dig a deep dent in the ground. When she finished digging, we watched her take out a tiny jar from a hidden pocket in her dress. Then, she took off the earrings I loved so much, twin earrings with clover leaves made from green stones in a golden frame.
Mother put the earrings in the jar; then put some banknotes in it, sealed it with the jar's cover, and put it in the hole she had made. She covered it so no one would notice the digging. Then, she looked in the eyes of each one of us and silently said as for herself, "It's for you, my dear daughters. At least you will have something to start with." And then, one day, we had to leave, in April '44 as the horrible time started for us too. . . .
Suitcases from Auschwitz
Organized in groups of five women in each line, we were taken to the morning shower. There, in Auschwitz, that was the way it was. We were standing, each group after the other, in a long row. The shower "room" was a big hut, as big as the sleeping hut, which was built to accommodate a thousand women in three-leveled bunks. Along all this shower hut, there was a pipe, and at both of its sides there were water faucets. When the order was shouted, we were getting closer to the water handles.
I'm standing, the faucet in front of me, the spring of life. I'm waiting, praying. The unbelievable thing happens: first drops of water, thick and rusty, are dripping. One drop after the other. I'm moistening my hands, putting some drops near my eyes that are slightly closed because of this pleasure, touching my forehead and my sunken cheeks which are so dry.
Looking at the square piece of soap that is near me, I want so much to be clean. But how would I use it? How would I touch it with my hand? Only yesterday I heard that this "soap" the Germans give us is made of human fat. Nonsense, I thought; it can't be; you don't have to believe to every rumor you hear.
This bunch of soap is too big for my shrunken hands. Turning over the soap and turning it over again, I'm rubbing it again and again in all directions, but nothing happens, not even one drop of froth. Well, without froth, never mind, I'm consoling myself and opening the faucet. I'm well soaped now, standing on front of it, but nothing. The order to go back to the hut hadn't been given yet. There's still hope.
Standing in front of the faucet, God does not see me and doesn't hear what's happening here. The soap is glued to my very thin skin, searing in places of wounds. And the faucet is still sealed. After a long hard time, my body still soaped, I'm scratching all over myself, sighing for a moment and going back with everybody, to lie on the bunk, hoping that the next time I would be more lucky, maybe.
Together with the turbid liquid, something between greenish and gray, they also gave us, in the morning, the daily piece of bread: a cube, whose sides were about ten centimeters each and about six centimeters high (1 centimeter = about 0.4 inches). On the first morning, I was not able to think much. Who can think, can be concerned about the future when the stomach is croaking, demanding food in its own voice?
"One more crumb of bread," I said to myself and put it in my mouth. Only one more. Each time a smaller piece and then, no more bread. Finished. I had to wait twenty-four hours till the next time we got food. The next day I was experienced. I crumbled a few crumbs from the piece of bread, put it in my mouth, chewing it slowly till I finally slipped the small piece into my throat. The rest of the food, the only food I got, I put in the only safe place I had, on the bunk, under my head. But then order was given and together with everybody, I ran to the "roll call" place. Hours I stood while weakness and trembling overcame me. When I almost fainted, I suddenly recalled and opened my eyes; soon, after this census ended, I would be able to enjoy eating what was left from the piece of bread. I comforted myself with my wisdom, my self-control that helped me to be strong and not swallow all I got.
The roll call came to its end. I went up to my bunk, but the rug that my treasure was in was pushed aside. The bread wasn't there. This hard moment made me recall my home and my parents. I remembered that in my childhood, when I was at the first or the second grade, I once came home from school crying. On the way to school, I had lost my lunch bag with the sandwich my mother made and with some money I got from my parents to buy something for desert -- "a treat" as they called it.
"Enough, enough; you don't have to cry, my dear Rachelinka," my mom said. "I've already told you once, that in everything in the world you can find good sides and also bad sides. You lost it; never mind. Tomorrow you will again have a sandwich in your bag for school, but try for a moment, my dear, to imagine the great happiness of the child, who was walking in the street, hungry, and then surprisingly found a treasure."
Silently, I slipped away from the hut. I waited till a light beam passed and then, a huge projector illuminated the camp as in daylight. Bowed, I was going further, step by step, and then I stood at the entrance of the giant "factory" for food. There, they made, for thousands of prisoners, the daily soup and the green water that was given to us each day and night for drinking, as "tea". One hand I put on my beating hurt and with the second hand, I was holding a piece of cloth I had torn up from my sheet. I was going slowly, slowly; a few more steps, and I would be inside the kitchen. I checked the place. There were no stairs to this giant kitchen, only an incline, not a steep one, and the green casks were moving on it. These were the food containers that were used for dividing the food to rations for us.
I went inside the kitchen and stopped in front of a vat of soup that was about my height. I bent the vat in order to see what "treasure" I could find in it. With tears of joy in my eyes, I saw the precious treasure, and soon would have it. I looked around to be sure that there was no one in the area who was watching me. No one. In one hand I held the piece of cloth, and with the other hand, I raised the pearls from this vat, the potatoes; yes, each one of them is like a precious pearl for me. Each one of them a promise for one more day of life for my anemic sister.
Suddenly, I heard the familiar, threatening sound of the knocking of heel to heel of boots and then, the voice of German soldiers saluting with their "Sieg, Heil", always while raising a hand. The "Graise" came. I immediately understood. This evil woman, the chief officer of the camp, probably decided to surprise the guards, to check up on them. I quickly found myself a hiding place behind the big vat, praying that she wouldn't notice me. Then I saw her. This devil women came into the kitchen riding her bike, in her uniform. I stopped breathing asking myself, would this giant vat protect me this time?
And then, I had to leave Auschwitz without my sisters -- they were left in the camp, not knowing if we would meet again.
"The river Oder is frozen and not very far away. You need only to cross it, and you're free; the Russians hold the other side." My hallucination was suddenly cut short. Once again I had sought refuge in my home and had run down the stairs for the last time, spurred on by shouts, and been swept with the crowd to the assembly place; I had been unable to look back to say goodbye.
It was the eighth day of the march, the march remembered in history as the "Death March" toward Berlin. The things about the frozen river told us by the Germans brought me back to the group of women, to the five of us who marched side by side. The guard to whom I was listening marched alongside us. He was an elderly man who, with his guard dogs, was in charge of our section of a hundred marching women and girls.
The outermost of the five marching directly in front of me was a young girl. She was tall, fair, blue eyed, and had short curls that shone from beneath her handkerchief, tied attractively around her head, as though nothing could mar her beauty. The guard marched at her side most of the day. I heard him telling her, that when he looked at her, he could see his daughter because she resembled her so much. He was trying to persuade her to escape. He promised her, that if he had to, he would shoot into the air and let her get away. Because of the heavy wind, I could barely hear the girl, who said that she would die of fright the moment she found herself alone. The German did not give up, and the more he was trying to persuade her, the more I began to believe him. What did she have to lose, he asked her again and again. She was getting weaker every day, and after all, where was she going to? Yet, she said again, that she was afraid to go alone. He told her he would be glad to join her in her escape, but he couldn't do it, he said hesitantly, knowing well that the first Russian who would meet them and see him in his uniform, would put a bullet in him. Although he didn't know it, while trying to convince the girl, the German was also convincing me to do it.
Encouraged by the knowledge that only a frozen river lay between me and freedom, I forgot that I had been starving for eight days and existing only thanks to the snow that I licked. I told the things I heard from the German to the two young women in my row with whom I had become friendly. Together, we began planning our escape. The short winter days left fewer hours of daylight for marching and more of darkness. That would aid us in our escape. The German was right; what did we have to lose? The first thing we did was changing our names between us. I would be "Lili," Yaffa would be "Olga," and Hanna became "Anna." We used our new names all the time in order to get used to reacting to them immediately.
Although a number of languages were spoken where I was born, German was not used much. Olga, the eldest of the three of us, had passed her matriculation in German, so we agreed that she would do the talking if we ran into any Germans. We did not know where we were or in which direction the river lay. What would we do if we met a German civilian or soldiers? We built words into sentences and came up with what seemed like a genuine story: we were Hungarian fascists loyal to the Fuhrer, who had fled out of fear of the advancing Russians; we had been wandering and stayed in many different places till our money had run out; even our clothes had been stolen, which might explain our appearance. We relied on Olga to add a few extra touches to the story.
Each day, at morning, after having spent the night in a barn, a stable,or some other abandoned building, we could see who was missing. Women who had hidden in the straw were bayoneted where they laid, and those who were too exhausted to continue, were shot. So, we started marching, almost like nothing happened.
The next evening, as we entered a farmyard, I memorized the position of the low inner barbed-wire fence and the place of the outer one, and I estimated the distance from the barn to the road. As usual, a moment after the guard's hands drew the bolt that locked the barn doors, all the women started shouting, pushing, and elbowing for a good place, as far as possible from the door because the lower part of it was broken and was giving free access to the wind and snow.
Near the entrance to the barn, we found an old tool box. The three of us opened it and found a hammer and a ball of cord. We used the cord to tie our wooden clogs more firmly to our feet. As the youngest of the three, I told my two friends that I was prepared to be the first to leave the barn. Now there was no way back. Olga stood up, took the hammer we found, and began banging the bolt that held the door closed. The women behind us began shouting. When I would leave the barn, it would certainly alert the guards and their dogs to the place, they said. Some of them begged me to take a pity on them, but the three of us took no notice. Suddenly, with a rusty creak, the door opened to the night. The women fell silent. My breathing stopped.
I stood there, imagining the guards running towards us with their guns; they were coming closer, and from all sides dogs with huge fangs sprang at me, ready to tear me to pieces. I shuddered with fear. I stood in the entrance, hearing the report of a gun that had not yet been fired.
Then, I put one wooden clog outside the barn and the frozen snow crunched beneath it. One more step, and I was outside. My feet moved forward, and my body hugged the wall of the barn. What were the guards waiting for? Why didn't the dogs come and put an end to it? Silence. Before I detached myself from the wall, I saw that my friends were coming.
Silently we crossed the yard and passed through the inner fence, and then, covered with scratches from the barbed-wire on the outer fence, we fell into the snow. When we stood up, I looked into the eyes of my companions, unable to speak. We did it; I told myself. Although we would still have a long way, and we had to find a place where we could hide. For the first time in a very long time, we were free.
We did not find the river, but we entered to a forest and then ran into a village of Germans who were ready to help us after hearing our phoney story. Yes, the story we made up was convincing. Then, the residents of the village had to leave their houses because of the coming Russians. They even apologized for not being able to take us with them in their escape because they did not have enough place in their wagons. We were left in this village alone for a while, but then, the Russians came and helped us.
The war ended. I lost my memory for a few months, and when it came back to me, I went, accompanied by friends, back to our house in our city, Mukachevo. In the basement, looking at the crumbled ground, I did not find my mother's "treasure," but I saw her shining face, with her curled blond hair, and she was standing in front of me, as if ordering me to continue, to go on.
After some time, one of Rachel's sisters arrived home too. They found out that their other sister had died the day of the liberation of Auschwitz. She was sick and it was too late for her. Rachel's mother died the day they had arrived at the camp. After the war, both of Rachel's sisters went to Israel, but Rachel decided to stay in Europe and go to Israel with a group of orphanage children.
Rachel Berhheim and
Her Husband Ze'ev
In Israel, the sisters met their brother, and each one of them decided to live in different kibbutz (aa communal farm or settlement, unique to Israel). Rachel married Ze'ev Bernheim, who was a Jewish soldier in the British Army during WW II. Their wedding was the first to be held in their kibbutz, Kibbutz Yakum where they still live.
They have two daughters and grandchildren. Their son Danny was an officer in the Israeli army and died in the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
Today, after having retired from their work on the kibbutz, Rachel writes books, and Ze'ev is a sculptor. Some of his statues are dedicated to the Holocaust.
Western Wall, Jerusalem
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