Holocaust survivor, Edith Hofmann, was an eighteen year old pupil at the Londonderry High School in 1946.
The previous year, she had been liberated from the German concentration camp, Belsen.
What follows is Part 2 of her remarkable and harrowing story, which was serialised in the Derry Standard in April 1946...
In the year 1941 when I was a girl of thirteen I was deported with my parents to a ghetto at Lodz in Poland. It was in November and the cold then was quite unusually severe. It was 23 degrees below zero. This frost not only caused thousands and thousands of people to die in their unsuitable dwellings – which were not like human dwellings at all, but dirty, revolting cells, consisting of a bed and small table, cells full of bugs and lice and the water running down the walls, but also caused the transport of the minimum of food that was allotted to us to be delayed by the snowstorms. When our small ration of potatoes did come it was quite frozen. Everybody had to work hard. I was sitting from morning to late at night at a sawing machine, where children from ten years onwards had to work, and most of them died from T.B.
“In 1942 the Gestapo came with big lorries and deported all the rich people. They didn’t even let them take leave of their families. A few days after that the Gestapo came again and dragged all the children up to ten years of age away from their parents. For days afterwards one could hear the cries and laments of the half-demented mothers, who in their pain and horror were inconsolable. The only thing they possessed, the greatest treasure of every mother – her child – was taken away from them and they knew they would never see their children again. They had nothing left to live for. We later learned that those children were taken to a concentration camp in Poland and tortured and finally gassed. People were dying of hunger, cold, sorrow and mental torment. Once more the Gestapo came and took away all the old and weary people and in Lodz there remained only those who were strong enough to do the hardest work. When our ration of potatoes came we had to stand in the intense cold from early in the morning till sometimes late at night in a queue to get our small share.
I had to watch my parents slowly dying of starvation and couldn’t do anything about it. I sold all my clothes to buy a bit of bread to save my parents’ lives, but it was all in vain. And so I found myself all alone towards the end of 1942.
I got jaundice and typhoid, but most people there were dying of T.B., which sometimes did not last longer than three weeks. I came back from hospital to a room on the ground floor, with broken windows, and with the snow coming in. I was living in the room where everything reminded me of my parents. I had hardly any clothes. My greatest wish was to die and so find forgetfulness and peace. Later on a friend of my father’s took care of me. In the summer of 1944 we learned through our secret transmitter that the Russians were approaching and after a few days we heard the sounds of battle. We all came alive again with the hope of liberation. But this hope was quickly shattered.
The Germans put us into cattle trucks and took us away before salvation came. We did not know where we were going. When we reached our destination we were welcomed by Germans who were more like beasts than human beings, who whipped us, kicked us and let loose wild dogs upon us. We were in Auschwitz. They separated us into old and young, man and woman, and sent each group to different places. The old people and the children went into gas chambers. When I heard that I could not believe it was true, but it was only too true.
We were living in wooden huts, 1,000 people in one hut, and as there was no room to sit down, let alone to sleep, I went outside one night and saw the red flames going up to the sky from a place where they burned the gassed and other dead people.
I saw a group of people being told that they were going to have a bath. They undressed in a big hall, given soap and a towel into their hands and went into a room with a whole lot of showers. They turned on the showers, but instead of water gas was turned on. The horror and torture of this kind of death is indescribable, as it is a very slow death. Most of the people went insane, in the slow process of it, and in the fight to get the last breath of air. I was told that by somebody whose job it was to clear away the dead, and who was later gassed himself.
One day in August a group of us were picked out to go to work in Germany. We did not know if we were really going to work or if we were going to the gas chambers, but we were to weak to care. They shaved off all our hair and for three days we had to walk in the most intense heat without a drop of water. A whole lot of people died on the way and those who complained were kicked and beaten to death by the S.S. guard.
Those who survived were put into cattle trucks for an unknown destination. When we arrived we found ourselves in Upper Silesia, in Kristianstadt. Our camp was in the midst of a deep forest. Some of us had to work in the fields, others in munitions factories, all of which were hidden in the forests. Of food there was practically none. In February, 1945, another spark of hope lit up our miserable lives – we again heard the sound of guns. The Russians were nearing. We knew that we were surrounded by Russians and that the Germans could not take us away by train, so we had to walk accompanied by S.S. guards who beat and kicked us if we made the slightest complaint. We had to walk through the cold and snow with only our frocks on and a pair of wooden slippers on our feet. Our arms, legs and feet were frozen and the snow was sticking to the wooden soles and made walking impossible. Some of us took our shoes off and walked on barefeet. Those who were unable to go any further were shot. Sometimes we slept in barns, sometimes in the fields and sometimes we had to walk throughout the whole night. I escaped once, but was caught and put into prison. They threatened to shoot me, but in the end they took me to the transport again.
We walked about five hundred miles to Bavaria. They locked us into cattle trucks and we had no light or air. For the first three days we got a bit of bread each day, but owing to the rails being bombed we were on the way eight days instead of three, and for five days we did not get the least bit to eat. We were lying waiting for death. Nobody who has not come through that can imagine what it feels like to get no food for five days. I still do not know how I survived it. We were tantalised by the smell of the soup that the German guard had and with our last strength we were crying for some, but the answer we got was that if we did not keep quiet we would be shot.
After that the sixty of us in the truck were lying there just waiting to die. On the eighth day the door of our truck opened and until this day I do not know how I walked the seven miles to the most horrible of all concentration camps – Bergen-Belsen. Most of the others in the train were dead. It is very hard for me to write about the horrors of Bergen-Belsen. The worst was the hunger. We got each day one quarter of a pint of hot water with bits of turnips floating in it. One thousand of us slept in a small hut on a stone floor without clothes or covering. There was no water and the lice were in our hair and all over our bodies. Most people suffered from dysentery. We were kicked and beaten and whipped all the time. Once I had to kneel from morning to night on a wet stone floor with my hands above my head, holding two heavy bricks. But this was only the smallest punishment. There were various terrible tortures imposed by the Germans. Some people had to carry out the dead and some did not get a bite to eat for three days and some were put into cellars where they lay in darkness and without food until they died. If somebody in the camp complained of hunger saying they could not carry on any longer without food, the answer was that we were there for the purpose to die. The hunger was so desperate that some turned to cannibalism.
You have read how the German doctors liked to experiment on the prisoners. They injected all sorts of diseases into their blood and they made lampshades, book covers and various other things out of our human skin. This is true.
After some time there was no more coal left to burn the dead. Thousands of dead were carried out daily into a field which was soon heaped with corpses. The stench which came from these is indescribable. People got so desperate that they took the clothes of the dead to keep themselves warm. Sometimes we had to stand to attention from four o’clock in the morning till ten o’clock, and after that we lay frozen to the bone, motionless and exhausted, on the stone floor wondering who would be death’s next victim.
At last we had new hope. During a British air raid the whole camp was lit up by flares. We were very happy as we knew that the British had seen us. Some time after that we again heard the approaching sound of battle. Shall we hold through those few more days or will the Germans destroy us all? We were surrounded on all sides. The Germans ran away. There was great confusion. The doors in the barbed wire opened and we all rushed out and took hold of what the Germans left behind. People fought amongst each other for every little bit of food they found. The chaos was terrific. The third day the British came. We would have liked to run and welcome them, but some of us were too weak to move. It was the 15th April, 1945.
We stayed three more months in a nearby German military barracks which were turned into hospitals. Almost everybody got typhus and about fifty percent of the liberated prisoners died of that disease. I got typhus too. We were attended by German nurses and doctors, who stole the food that the British provided for us, and the result was that we suffered again from hunger.