Birkenau Tracks

On that day in July 1993 with the cloudy sky threatening rain, my mother and I stood on the track that runs through Birkenau. Men had been imprisoned on the other side of the barbed wire fences where fields now grew lush and wild. She began to describe that day in August 1943 when Nazi soldiers ordered her family into the street and forced them to the trains, but she stopped, grasping for language and light. Her face was a singular combination of defiance laced with sorrow, an explosive mingling of emotions pulsing just under the surface.

The track extended just far enough past the terminal to allow for the trains full of people to be herded onto the Judenrampe, a raised wooden platform directly at the edge of the track. It was here that the final selection was made, determining who was to live and who would die. When the train carrying my mother arrived, she remembered that “we were told to jump to the ground by a Gestapo man with a dog. One finger pointed this way, one finger pointed that way. ” She was placed in the line of people slated for the gas chamber, but when the soldiers turned away for an instant a friend grabbed her and moved her into the line of those scheduled for work. 

Made to strip, her head and body were shaved and a number—56362—was tattooed on her arm. When my mother complained that the dress given to her was too tight, a female guard hit her hard across her face. Sent to the hospital zone as a prisoner nurse, she found a place that was “the center of hell. Every day we smelled human flesh.” Her pregnant sister, Masha, arrived to have her baby. After the birth, it was thrown from the window.

On International Holocaust Remembrance Day, I want to honor my parents who survived death marches that left Auschwitz on January 18, 1945 and headed into Germany. Almost three more months would pass before they were truly liberated. Their miraculous reunification in early 1946 was short-lived though when on September 30, 1946 my mother boarded a ship for America. Nearly three years would pass before my father could do the same.