From Auschwitz to Aberfoyle: Edith Hofman’s remarkable journey: Part 1

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Edith Hofmann was a survivor of the Holocaust, born in Prague in 1927 as Edith Birkin.

In 1941, along with her parents, she was deported to the Łódź Ghetto, where within a year both her parents had died.

At 15 she was left to fend for herself.

The Łódź Ghetto was the second-largest ghetto to Warsaw, and was established for Jews and Gypsies in German-occupied Poland.

Situated in the town of Łódź in Poland and originally intended as a temporary gathering point for Jews, the ghetto was transformed into a major industrial centre, providing much needed supplies for Nazi Germany and especially for the German Army.

Because of its remarkable productivity, the ghetto managed to survive until August 1944, when the remaining population, including Edith, was transported to Auschwitz and Chełmno extermination camp in cattle trucks.

It was the last ghetto in Poland to be liquidated due to the advancing Russian army. Edith was only 17, and one of the lucky ones.

For the majority, it was their final journey. A small group of them were selected for work. With her hair shaved off and deprived of all her possessions, she travelled to Kristianstadt, a labour camp in Silesia, to work in an underground munitions factory.

In January 1945, aged 18 and with the Russians approaching again, she was sent off on a death march across snow-covered Germany to Bavaria.

There cattle trucks were waiting. After spending a week in crowded conditions without food or water she and her companions arrived in Bergen Belsen on March 15, 1945. A month later they were liberated.

Edith has written two books about her experiences, Unshed Tears, a novel and The Last Goodbye, a book of poems and pictures.

In 1946, after the liberation and destruction of the death camps, she came to Londonderry to study. In April that year, the Derry Standard published in three parts Edith Hofmann’s story.

She was then an eighteen year old pupil at the Londonderry High School, and resided at 7 Aberfoyle Crescent.

Interviewed on the first anniversary of the liberation of Belsen, Edith simply said: “On the 15th April 1945, the concentration camp Belsen-Belsen was liberated by British troops.

“I am one of the lucky ones who lived to see that moment and maybe it would interest your readers to know how this great event happened, seen from the prisoners’ point of view. I would like in this way to show my gratitude and that of all those others liberated from Belsen to the British nation.”

Edith had been living since February, 1946, with Madame Chastellain, who was formerly French governess at Ballyarnett, the home of Sir Dudley and Lady McCorkell. Her sister who also came to Londonderry, escaped from Prague in 1939.

What follows is Part One of Edith Hofmann’s story:

“15th April, 1945. This is a day that will never be forgotten by thousands and thousands of men and women from all parts of Europe. In that day the barbed wire of the Belsen Concentration Camp opened and tortured inhabitants were set free. The last few weeks in the Belsen Camp were the worst of all.

“The Germans were worse than ever before and thousands of the prisoners who up to then had the firm will to live through the horrors lost hope and their one wish was to die. Brutal S.S. men and S.S. women with a fiendish expression on their faces were striding restlessly over the camp with whips in their hands, and woe to the unfortunate being that came in their way.

“Every day transports from all parts of Germany arrived with prisoners whose camps had to be evacuated because the British were coming near. In rags and dirty they came to our camp, a look of utter hopelessness on their faces and quite indifferent as to what may be their fate.

“The number of people in each hut was trebled. In a bare stone floor we sat, one huddled against the other, with not even room to stretch our legs. Thousands of lice gnawed mercilessly on our exhausted bodies.

“In vain the sick in high fever called for water. There was none, either for drinking or for washing. Thousands of people got typhoid and other diseases, and there was nobody to attend to them. They were separated from the rest and left there by the Germans without food or drink to die. And so hundreds of dead were carried out daily to a nearby field and left there as there was no more fuel left to burn them.

“Our nourishment consisted of a small cup of soup once a day. For weeks we haven’t seen bread. At reveille we had to stand before our huts for hours with practically no clothes on – sometimes from 4 a.m. - 10 a.m., very often even longer than that. Life became intolerable, but in spite of misery we felt an atmosphere of tension amongst the Germans and we all knew that something was happening. The sirens were going almost constantly, and we always experienced a feeling of joy and thrill when we heard British planes overhead.

“A ray of hope was given us when we saw one night British planes dropping flares over the camp. We knew then that we had been seen by our friends. They gave us a new incentive to live and to fight through our utter exhaustion, as we haven’t had any food at all the last four days. We were weak, but our spirit and hope helped us through. Then one day the Germans gave us each a bit of bread. We couldn’t understand that special treat, but later we knew. They had mixed poison into the bread and in that way tried to get rid of as many of us as possible. Thousands died. One day we heard a distant thunder. It was repeated several times and then it came nearer and nearer until our huts shook. We looked at each other, we grasped hands and couldn’t believe that liberation was so near. There was a peculiar atmosphere in the camp. An atmosphere of hope and fear. Hope that we would soon set free and fear that the Germans might kill us all in the last minute in order to prevent the happiness of freedom. We sat silently and listened to the shooting and approaching sound of battle which came nearer all the time. It sounded like magic music to us.

“It was a misty, cold morning. We stood as usual on parade before our huts. Silent rows of half-dead human beings. Only an occasional sigh broke the silence. One hour went after the other. Complete silence which wasn’t broken as usual by German S.S. overseers shouting and abusing us. We stood and waited. Suddenly we heard a deafening noise. Our hearts stood still for a moment; we didn’t dare to breathe. Along the path men and women came running, shouting madly. After a while we could hear what they were shouting: ‘The Germans ran away, the Germans ran away; we are free.’ We fell into each other’s arms. Our exhausted minds couldn’t grasp the full meaning of these words. We couldn’t believe that we were free. Exhausted, we sat down. We waited for further happenings. Those who still had some strength left tried to get to the store-rooms to get some food; the rest just sat and waited. Nothing happened for four days. We had no food, no water. People were still dying in thousands.

“The sound of shooting started again, and one day we could hear it in the wood bordering our camp. In the afternoon of that same day the first British tank came into the gate of the Belsen Concentration Camp. Many tanks followed. ‘The British have come’ was the cry which echoed throughout the camp. ‘At last liberation has come’ cried some, whereas others with their last strength dragged themselves outside their huts to welcome with tears of joy their liberators. Strong, smiling young men, but at the moment horrified at what they saw within the Belsen camp, they inspired in us a new wish to live. We felt like embracing and kissing them, but had no strength left to do so. For many hours the cry, ‘We are free, the British have come’ rang out through the camp. Very kind were these brave men that fought for our freedom. From morning to night they carried stretchers with the sick to a nearby hospital, where clean beds and clothes were prepared for them.

“They saw to it that we didn’t suffer hunger a moment longer; they carried food into our huts three times a day. They brought water in big tanks, gave us clothes and then they moved us from our miserable huts into nearby German military barracks, where we were given all we needed. Also the British nurses worked from morning to night without rest, fighting to save the lives of those seriously ill...”